Exactly 100 years ago, Territorial Force soldiers of Gloucestershire Volunteer Artillery – men such as railway clerks, cigarette makers and dockers from every corner of Bristol – were preparing for the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history.
It was to be the “big push”, a massive Anglo-French infantry assault which would break through the German lines and take a decisive step towards ending the Great War. At the very least, it would divert enemy resources from the carnage and deadlock at Verdun.
There was no shortage of optimism before the start of the battle on 1 July 1916. But the intense week-long bombardment by the GVA and other artillery units up and down the line failed to break down sophisticated German defences before the infantry went over the top.
In the hours that followed, nearly 20,000 British soldiers lost their lives – and nearly 40,000 more were wounded. It led to a five-month war of attrition across 15 miles of the Western Front, with more than one million men on both sides eventually either dead or injured.
What was it like for the GVA in the days leading up to zero hour, 7.30am?
We have a very clear idea thanks to two brothers from Clifton who recorded their experiences in the trenches – Lieutenant Edward Gedye, one of the first Territorials to volunteer for active service in February, 1914, and Lieutenant (later Major) Stanley Gedye, who joined two years to the day after his brother.
Edward’s contribution comprises letters sent to his mother from the GVA base in the Thiepval area. These begin on 24 July and continue until 8 August, which was 15 days before the 23-year-old was killed attempting to extinguish a bomb store fire.
Stanley, who survived the war, wrote a diary. It’s one of the historic documents retained at the Artillery Grounds, Whiteladies Road, where the present-day GVA, 266 Battery, 104 Regiment, still parade.
The GVA went to war in 1914 as 1st (South Midland) Brigade Royal Field Artillery (Territorial Force), but a reorganisation of all artillery in May 1916 meant they were re-designated 240th Brigade RFA and comprised four batteries. From 24 June their 18-pounder field guns hammered the German defences with the aim of cutting the wire and creating a clear pathway for the allied troops.
Edward’s letters vividly capture the sharply contrasting moods of optimism and despair as the days go by.
24 June: The first day of bombardment and, within a week, I hope we shall have pushed the German line back considerably. I am not such a blind optimist as to think we are going ‘right through’ and finish the war, but . . . we ought to make a big dent in the Bosche line and possibly even break it temporarily.
25 June: I had rather a disturbed night chiefly owing to the guns just behind us that loosed off on an average every half hour. About midnight, Stanley rang up to say that they had had two casualties – one killed and one wounded. I was, of course, very sorry to hear this but, at the moment, my chief feeling was one of annoyance at having been disturbed just as I got to sleep.
26 June (A gas attack is launched from British lines): From 20 or 30 different points in our trenches, a thick white cloud oozed out, changing to brown when the gas was turned on. Well, the devils over the way started it, but I think they will wish they hadn’t before we finish with them.
27 June: Here’s rotten luck! I was smitten last night with a sudden and violent attack of the flu . . . at about 8am the Bosche started to shell us with a heavy gun, one round every four or five minutes, and after one had fallen about 50 yards away, I thought I should be better off below ground.
30 June (Telegram received from the Division expressing confidence that South Midland can be relied upon “to bear heavy losses from artillery rifle and machine gun fire and to stick it out and to win through in the end”): Very nice, but I think the last few lines might have been put differently.
1 July: The last 10 minutes bombardment, during which smoke was discharged, must have been absolutely hellish, a continuous succession of big shells beat down on the German trenches . . . covering almost every inch of ground.
(Minutes later): Wounded men in parties of two, three or more straggling back across the plain. I am afraid a lot of men must have been knocked out before they reached the German wire and trenches for the Bosche barrage was very severe.
(Evening): I was right about the German barrage. I counted 200 bodies laying in No Man’s Land. The swine were sniping at any who might not have been killed; the position of the bodies is a wonderful tribute to the gallantry of the attacking force.
In his diary, Stanley Gedye welcomed the start of the 24 June bombardment: Although it was a noisy and exhausting affair, we all revelled in the feeling that, for the first time, we were really giving more than we got.”
He writes of the moments immediately before zero hour, reporting that “the Bosche line looked very much battered.” However, the prospect of moving forward during the day after the initial attack was sufficient “to banish thoughts of sleep.”
At first, there were “positive messages” about the attack’s progress. The truth dawned early that evening when “the tragic facts began to get known and that it was an ‘as-you-were’ night as regards the ground held and that our night lines were once again in the No Man’s Land of the many months of trench warfare.”
It is a remarkable fact that Bristol recruited 6,000 gunners during the First World War. Of those, 253 died in service.
The history of The Gloucestershire Volunteer Artillery is recorded in an authoritative book ‘The Bristol Gunners’, written by former 266 Battery officer Tim Anderson.
266 Battery is actively recruiting men and women to train as operators of the Desert Hawk, a hand-launched, unmanned surveillance aircraft that provides video imagery, day and night, to ground troops. Some of the Bristol Reservists also take up an option to train as commandos. To learn more about 266 Battery, call 0117 973 4895.