Tutbury Men at Gommecourt Wood – July 1st 1916


July 1st 1916 was the bloodiest day in military history for Tutbury, as it was for much of Britain. The local Regiment, the 1st/6th North Staffs, played a lead part in a diversionary attack by the 46th North Midland Division on the far left wing of the British forces on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The objective was the heavily fortified German salient in the woods in front of Gommecourt village. In the decades after the War, Gommecourt Wood lived on in Tutbury memory – the writer’s grandfather served in the 1st/6th North Staffs, and the grim-sounding name was passed down through the family with sombre and bitter overtones.

The 46th Division’s role was largely regarded as a sacrificial one – to attract away as many German reserves as possible from the main Somme offensive to the south-east. Tellingly, the plan made no provision for any success in the fighting, and there were no reserves available to exploit any gains. No attempt was made to hide or disguise the preparations for the attack; indeed British commanders went out of their way to make the build-up of troops, supplies and ammunition as obvious as possible, hopefully to make the Germans believe that the major offensive would be against Gommecourt. The operations on July 1 were the responsibility of Lieutenant-General Snow’s VII Corps, in turn part of Allenby’s Third Army.

The plan was for the 46th to fight through the German trenches dug in along the woodland edge and circle left round to the rear of Gommecourt village to meet up with the 56th London Division who were to attack in parallel on their right. The 56th took all their initial objectives.

But the attack of the 46th Division failed totally, in scenes of chaos and carnage. Ranks had already been reduced by disease and exhaustion in the rain-sodden weeks of trench-building before the attack. Many of the new troop replacements were untried in battle. The preparatory artillery bombardment had little impact on the deeply dug-in German positions and extensive wire. Aerial and spotter observations failed to detect this. Covering smoke barrages were ineffective. And thus, enemy machine guns were able to decimate the first waves of British troops as they advanced across no-man’s land. Follow-up attacks were barely able to engage the enemy as trench systems became impassable due to flooding and the piles of dead bodies. Appalling casualty figures testify to the courage and sacrifice of the men, both junior officers and other ranks.

Despite this, the Divisional Commander, Major General Edward Wortley and, by implication, his troops were accused by the British High Command of a “lack of offensive spirit” – a euphemism for cowardice – particularly with reference to the inability to press forward with the planned second and third wave of attacks. This unwarranted slur stayed with the Division until later in the War, when it was countered by their successful feats of arms elsewhere on the Western Front. Recent research underlines the hopelessness of their task at Gommecourt, and portrays Wortley as a convenient scapegoat for blame in the buck-passing between more senior officers, with General Snow as the chief culprit for the calumny upon Wortley and his men. But in a sense the main objective of the attack had been fulfilled. “Unpleasant as it may seem, the role of the [56th] Division was to induce the enemy to shoot at them with as many guns as could be gathered together.

Six Tutbury men of the 46th Division, remembered on the village War Memorial, died in front of Gommecourt Wood that day:

Private Frederick Bannister, aged 31 – 8th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment.
L. Corporal George Bennett, aged 22 – 1/6th Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment.
Private Charles Bond, aged 21 – 1/6th Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment.
Private Thomas Coates, aged 20 – 1/5th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters.
Private Tom Merrey, aged 17 – 1/6th Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment.
Lieutenant William Trafford Newton, aged 21 – B Company, 1/6th Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment.

At least three other men with close Tutbury connections, though not on the memorial, were also killed: Private John Edward Dyche, his brother Private Richard William Dyche and Private John Henry Owen, all of the 1/6th Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment.

The bodies of six of the men were never found and their names are recorded on the Thiepval Memorial. John Dyche, John Owen and Lieutenant Newton are buried in Gommecourt Wood New Cemetery, overlooking the battlefield. Gommecourt today is still isolated, undeveloped and rural, the cemetery a beautiful and awful place. From the cemetery wall the landscape of the battle is clear. The wide and open fields slope gently down several hundred yards to a shallow valley before rising to the killing grounds in front of the woodland edge.

The “Tutbury Book of Remembrance” Volume 1 was a major project in the years leading up to the centenary of World War 1, authored by Jane and Rick Nuth. Its main aim was to identify all the casualties of the War who are recorded on the various memorials in and around Tutbury, to research their life histories and, where possible, to contact present-day family survivors. Much additional information on the War is provided in the Book, including references to Gommecourt. A copy is held by the Museum and details can be accessed on-line at www.tutbury-book-of-remembrance.org.uk.