‘It was red blistering hell’

British soldiers negotiating a shell-cratered, Winter landscape along the River Somme'Photo credit should read: PA/PA Wire
British soldiers negotiating a shell-cratered, Winter landscape along the River Somme'Photo credit should read: PA/PA Wire

Today, as part of our commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, Dorothy Ramser continues her story of one man’s experience of that most brutal of battles.

He was Lance Corporal Charles Howey, of the Scottish Tyneside battalion, who along with tens of thousands of his comrades went “over the top” to face withering German machine gun fire on July 1, losing his life on the very first day of the battle.

By the end of that fateful day, more than 20,000 British troops had been killed, 188 of them from South Tyneside.

“The wounded and dead could only be recovered under cover of darkness,” reveals local historian, Dorothy. “And this had to be stopped at dawn.

“Some exceedingly brave stretcher bearers ignored this order and many were given gallantry awards for going back time and time again to rescue their comrades.

“Some men lay wounded for several days and others died alone in No Man’s Land before help got to them.

“It was exhausting work for the stretcher bearers; the whole of the area in front of the Tyneside Scottish front was covered with hundreds of dead or wounded.”

Captain WM Herries said: “A message was received from the general during the day, saying that he was greatly pleased with us, and would have us relieved that night.

“Unfortunately that could not be done, and we had a weary night in the open waiting for a counter attack which did not come.”

In three days, 2,200 men who had been recovered, were buried.

“The Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish sustained more casualties than any other brigade in the battle.

“On July 5, it was found that out of approximately 4,000 soldiers of the Tyneside Scottish, only 700 remained: a human tragedy for the working-class families of Tyneside who not only lost their precious loved ones in such a brutal way, and who, in most cases, they also lost their only means of support as the Welfare State did not exist – and many families went on to suffer severe difficulty.”

A local newspaper reported that the Tyneside Scottish as having done wonders on July 1. The reporter wrote that the men took four lines of trenches without “turning a hair, although they’d been met with a tremendous hail of whizz-bangs and bullets”.

He reported that two days before the attack, an enemy shell had wounded some of their comrades in the trench, and it made them so angry that they wanted to go over the top to take their revenge.

“During that initial attack their colonel was the first to go over the parapet and was hit the moment he did so.

John D.Irving, correspondent for the Daily Express, said during the assault on La Boisselle, the Tyneside Scottish ascended the ridge with fixed bayonets.

He said the Germans had to be driven back with hand grenades, which they countered by pouring shrapnel shells on the Tynesiders.

“They chucked everything at us, except half –crowns,” said one soldier. “And us chaps who were wounded, had to lie for a long time in the open, because the stretcher bearers could not get near us.”

In the Shields Gazette, dated July 8, a wounded soldier described the battle.

“It was real red, blistering, hell hot, and no mistake but grand for all that. The Scotties were in the thick of it from the start. It was no use worrying. Before we were far on the way, we came under fire from cunningly hidden machine guns.

“We had no time to be afraid. Once you set out to attack an enemy trench, the swing of the thing gets you, and you are carried on in spite of yourself. Any man who wants to analyse his feelings would be dead before he got comfortable.

“Once the machine guns were blasting, we didn’t let the grass grow under our feet. The order was given to charge full tilt, and we did. One of our lads did a plucky thing. He was a bit of a sprinter so he dashed up to one of the machine guns and put it out of action on his own. The Huns fought desperately and we had a tough job clearing them out. They simply drenched us with machine gun fire and many desperate charges had to be made to dislodge them.

“Our lads were keen on getting in with the bayonet. They threw themselves at them. Their last stand behind the barricade was the worst of all. Three times they forced us back.”

Tomorrow, Dorothy concludes her account.