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The History of the

12th (Eastern) Division

and the Battle of the Somme in the Great War 1914 - 1918 **

Frederick Baston (GS/11693) was in the 8th Btn Royal Fusillers, in the 36th Brigade of the 12th Division. He was killed in action on the 7th July 1916.
 

Chapter VI
The Battle of the Somme

The troops got out of the Hohenzollern line just in time to avoid an unpleasant day. Divisional Headquarters were not due to leave until early on the 27th of April, but the three infantry brigades were already well on their way to the rest area, when at 5 a.m. on that morning the Germans opened an intense bombardment on the 1st Corps front. The 15th Division, which had relieved us, had a very severe handling and the 16th (Irish) Division on the right an experience it is not likely to forget. The rear areas likewise came in for the bombardment. Artillery positions were searched with lachrymose shell, and a gas attack followed. Wind and temperature conditions were in favour of the enemy, and the gas clouds reached Divisional Headquarters at Sailly la Bourse, the use of P.H. helmets being necessitated as far back as Bethune. The enemy succeeded in penetrating- our line on the right and for some time it appeared as if the 12th Division would be recalled, but a gallant counter-attack restored the position, and by 10 a.m. the Divisional Headquarters was able to move back to near Lillers and opened at Philomel.

A few days were occupied in overhauling kits drafting-in reinforcements, after which the first week in May was spent in battalion training. Afternoons and evening were free for recreation and battalion, brigade, and divisional sports were arranged ; football leagues inaugurated, boxing tournaments started and concerts, thoroughly well organised and most efficiently staged, helped to keep alive the interest of the men and provide them with healthy amusement. who in the Division will ever forget the divisional boxing tournament at Lapugny, where the first prize was "ten days' leave," There never was a tournament like it before or since every win was a "knock-out," and the memory of it remains as one of the most vigorous, if not the most scientific contest of any tournament. During this time the divisional band improved to such an extent as to be competent to play in the Market Square of Lillers.
On the 8th of May instruction became more strenuous, and the 35th and 37th Infantry Brigades moved still further back to the First Army training area; the 36th Brigade remaining as a reserve to the front line. On the 10th inst. the Divisional Artillery moved to this area also, and then commenced that intimate work between artillery and infantry which led to such efficient Co-operation in later days. The poor "maids of all work," the Royal Engineers, and the 5th Northamptonshire Regiment (Pioneers) returned to duty under the 1st Corps on the reserve lines. On the 22nd the Brigade moved back, having been relieved by the 95th. Training in open warfare proceeded steadily, though on the 27th May, information from a German prisoner leading to the belief that an attack on the Loos was imminent, the whole Division moved nearer the front. However, no attack developed, and the Division continued its instruction in the neighbourhood of its billets. But the best of good things come to an end, and the most ideal of rests seem short when orders arrive to return to the line. It was the longest period of rest and the most pleasant the Division ever experienced. The French civilians did their best to make every one comfortable, and it is fitting to record the kindness and tolerance shown to the troops, who must have seriously incommoded the French households. The rest and recreation and continuous training had all tended to make the Division as fit a fighting force as it was at any time in its history.

On the 12th of June one field company, Royal Engineers, moved south to the IIIrd Corps near Albert, for already the Somme battlefield was casting its shadow before. Two more were to follow, and the General Officer Commanding the Divisional Artillery and some Staff officers of the Division were ordered in that direction too. Our future destination, hitherto kept secret, was therefore revealed, and between the 16th and 18th the Division detrained at Longeau, two miles east of Amiens, marching to the Flesselles area, at which latter place the headquarters were located. The Division now belonged to the IIIrd Corps (Pulteney) of the Fourth Army (Rawlinson). The other divisions of the Corps were the 8th (Hudson), 19th (Bridges), 34th (Ingouville-Williams), and final training for the expected role of the Division took place, viz., the capture of Martinpuich, a village some three miles behind the German front line. A suitable portion of the country to represent our objective was selected; the German trench system, obtained from air photographs, was marked on the ground, and the troops were practised over it. On the 23rd June the Division carried out this exercise, which was, unfortunately, never to mature.

Kits were now reduced to a minimum, and on the 27th inst. the Division commenced moving up to the front to take part in one of the biggest battles of the British Army, known to future history as the Battle of the Somme. The attack was to be made by the Fourth Army (XIIIth, XVth, IIIrd, Xth and VIIIth corps on a twenty-five-mile front, extending Maricourt in the south to Gommecourt in the north. The Sixth French Army was attacking on our right. In the opening the 34th and 8th Divisions of the IIIrd Corps were to attack La Boisselle and Ovillers, and the 19th and 12th Divisions were to pass through and push forward. The supply of artillery ammunition had been still further increased, permitting of a long bombardment which was to commence on the 25th June, and planned to continue until the 29th inst., but the inclement weather causing a postponement of the attack for forty-eight hours, the bombardment continued until 7.30 a.m. on the 1st of July.

It was hoped that this heavy bombardment would pulverise the German defences and demoralise his troops, but the enemy had established a marvellous defensive system with deep dugouts, 30 feet below ground, and good communications. There was ample sleeping accommodation, and the supply of electric light made under-ground existence possible, so that loss in personnel was reduced to a minimum. And though the villages of La Boisselle and Ovillers, as villages above ground, had disappeared, the debris was honeycombed with machine gun emplacements, as also were the banks of the Mash Valley.

On the 30th June Divisional Headquarters moved to Baizieux, and the infantry, marching after dark, reached Henencourt and Millencourt by 10 a.m. on 1st July. Meanwhile the attack had commenced. The 34th Division had gained some success south of la Boisselle, but the 8th Division had suffered very heavy casualties mostly from heavy machine guns, end was back in its original position. Late in the afternoon of that day orders were opened at Henencourt at 11.50 p.m. Fortunately, a certain amount of reconnaissance of the trenches had been carried out, and the relief was completed during the night of 1st – 2nd July.



On the 2nd orders were received for the attack to be continued, the 19th Division was to push on in La Boisselle, the 12th to capture Ovillers, and the Xth corps, the left to gain the Leipzig salient.

The attack, preceded by an intense bombardment of one hour, and under cover of smoke on our left, was to be delivered at 3.15 a.m. on the 3rd. At 3 a.m. a message was received at Divisional Headquarters to say that the Xth Corps attack was postponed. It was obviously impossible at this stage to make any alterations in the dispositions. This delay of the Xth Corps attack was most unfortunate, as it freed the German machine guns on that flank to pay attention to the 12th Division.

The Division attacked on a two-brigade front, the 35th on the right with the 5th Royal Berkshire and 7th Suffolk Regiments in the front line, the 9th Essex in support, and the 7th Norfolk in reserve; the 37th Brigade on the left with the 6th Queen's and 6th Royal West Kent Regiments in front, the 6th Buffs in support, and the 7th East Surrey in reserve. The 36th Infantry Brigade held the extreme left of the front line and was in divisional reserve. At 3 a.m. or soon after, the attacking troops left the trenches, crept across No Man's Land, and at 8.15 a.m., when the artillery fire lifted, rushed the German front line.

The 5th Royal Berkshire (Willan) suffered hardly any casualties whilst crossing, and made good direction, being materially assisted thereto by the Sunken Road leading straight to Ovillers. Going wag good until near the German front line where the large shell holes, made by our bombardment, caused some congestion. The wire had been almost completely destroyed and formed no obstacle to the advance.

The leading "waves" passed over the first line the and through the second to the third, them nearly to the ruins of the western houses of village. Here they became involved in a heavy bombing and with the failure of further supplies to reach them, the bombers were overwhelmed and practically the whole of the two leading companies became casualties. A report said that during this confused state of fighting an officer gave the order to retire, and the rumour spread that it was a German in British uniform, but whoever he was he received short shrift, and did not live long enough to issue further orders. The 7th Suffolk (Major Henty) met with very little resistance in the front line, and, after overcoming a determined opposition in the second, passed to the third. This was strongly held, and the majority of the casualties in the battalion occurred here owing, in a great measure, to the fact that the 6th Queen's on its left had not got so far forward, thus permitting the enemy to attack on that flank.

The 9th Essex (Lewes) had considerable difficulty in getting up into our front line, heavily shelled as it was by the German artillery, and the Royal Berkshire and Suffolk Regiments had disappeared in the darkness before the Essex companies began to cross “No Man’s Land”, by this time swept by machine gun fire from both flanks. Considerable casualties were sustained, and the waves of the attack becoming series of small parties not strong enough to material assistance to forward formations. The 35th Brigade attack broke down, and the remnants of the battalions were driven out of the German lines. A party of two officers and about 100 men, however, dug itself in on the Sunken Road, some sixty yards from the German position, and on until dark, when it was withdrawn.
“C” Company of the 9th Essex left our trenches from a portion facing south-east. This caused a loss of direction, and the company, taking with it the rear platoon of " B " Company, crossed the Mash Valley and struck the German line north-west of La Boisselle. Having carried the front and support lines without difficulty, they proceeded through the village of La Boiselle and came in touch with the 19th Division, attacking from the opposite direction. Some 200 Germans surrendered to this company, which was under the command of Lieutenant E. H. Kennifick, who, mith Second Lieutenant Karn and Company Sergt.-Major J, ColIins, distinguished themselves in the fighting. This loss of direction of "C" Company, mainly due to the orientation of the departure trench, the darkness, and the fact of not having had sufficient time to get acquainted with the surroundings, though leading to a success on another front, was a misfortune for its own brigade, which was compelled to give ground owing to lack of support.

The 6th Queen's (Warden), on the right of the 37th Brigade attack, only gained the front line in one place. Elsewhere the battalion was held up by uncut wire and machine gun fire from Mash Valley.
The “A” and "C" Companies, Royal West Kent (Owen) gaining the first line, consolidating, when the Germans fired a red rocket, bringing heavy artillery fire on this line. Nevertheless, “B” and “D” companies, pushing through, captured the second the line, when the enemy again fired a red rocket, this time bursting into two flares, and attracting artillery fire on to that line.

Shortly after our original bombardment had lifted, the enemy opened with intense machine gun fire from the Leipzig salient (apparently the same position from which the 8th Division attack had been brought to, standstill on the 1st inst.), sweeping down all supporting waves not already across “No Man's Land”, and thereby making it impossible to reach the leading battalions, as carrying parties with bombs and material for consolidation were shot. There was also very heavy shelling on our trenches.

“A” and "C" Companies of the 6th Buffs (Cope) in support of the Royal West Kent, suffered heavily in crossing to the German trenches, and none of them reached the advanced West Kent position. This position wag strongly counter-attacked and only a few survivors came back to the first line. The casualties were very heavy, and the want of grenades, which could not be got forward, forced the remnants now in the first line to give way and fall back on our own trenches about 5.30 a.m. The Royal West Kent Battalion lost in this action 19 officers and 575 other ranks.
The capture of the position had failed, and the failure was undoubtedly affected by the flanking machine gun fire, which was unmolested and raked the excessive distance between the opposing front lines over which supports had to cross. Also by the attack being carried in the dark by troops who were hurried into the fight without being well acquainted with the terrain, leading to loss of cohesion; the artillery bombard- destroying the wire and trenches, yet failing to reach the deep dugouts, which remained unharmed; by the recent storms making shell holes and trenches in places almost impassable.

The casualties in the two Brigades, 35th and 36th amounted to 97 officers and 2277 other ranks.

On the 4th July the 19th Division made further progress in la Boisselle, thus affording the 35th Brigade machine gunners some effective shooting at the retiring Germans. On the left, a direct hit, on this day, on one of our trench mortar ammunition stores caused and which formed a crater 80 feet by 15 feet. Fortunately there were no serious casualties. Meanwhile the units were mostly employed in clearing the trenches and getting back the dead and wounded. The 7th East surrey brought in 250 in two days, many of them belonging to the 8th Division. Search parties were out all night, and it is impossible to speak too highly of the work done by the Royal Army Medical Corps and the bearers.

The 69th Field Company, Royal Engineers, under Second Lieutenant Kelan, the 5th Northamptonshire (Captain Cathcart), and a party of the 8th Royal Fusiliers dug a new trench from our right to join up with the 19th Division in La Boisselle. The 12th Divisional Artillery now came into action relieving that of the 8th, and it was only natural that the troops were glad to have their own artillery covering them again.

The following order of the day was received from the IIIrd Corps : " As the 12th Division is leaving the IIIrd Corps, the Corps Commander wishes to thank all ranks and to express his appreciation of the gallantry and dash shown in the attack on Ovillers. He is also grateful for the very efficient support, which the Division rendered to their comrades of the 19th Division, who were fighting in La Boisselle. The Commander-in-Chief desires Sir William Pulteney to convey his congratulations to General Scott and the brigadiers of the 12th Division, and all ranks should be informed of his satisfaction."

On the 5th July the Division was transferred to the Xth Corps (Morland) of the Fifth Reserve Army and the front was extended to include the 74th Brigade of the 34th Division was attached to the 12th and held this extension. The 36th Brigade moved back to Albert, the line being held by the 7th Suffolk, 9th Essex, 7th East Surrey, and 6th Buffs. On the 6th inst. orders were received to again attack Ovillers, and the task was allotted to the 36th Brigade. Notwithstanding the terrible casualties incurred by the 8th Division on the 1st, and by our own brigades on the 3rd July, the troops of the 36th Brigade anxious to have a chance, and in the diary of one of the 9th Royal Fusiliers the following extract shows the keenness of the men, the brigade having been relieved the previous day: " Hear our brigade is to have a chance to take Ovillers. Hurrah. . . So we join the remainder of our own brigade and do without twelve hours of our rest to do so. We are all proud to know the G.O.C. has given us this task. Boys are determined not to fail, and no grumbling is heard when our rest is cut down to twelve hours." This gives an example of what the men of the service battalions were made of.

The attack was to take place by daylight on the morning of the 7th July. Zero hour was fixed at 8 a.m. for the 74th Brigade on the right, and 8.30 a.m. for the 36th Brigade on the left. The difference in time being to allow the 74th Brigade to get forward and capture the machine gun positions in Mash Valley, from which the fire had been so destructive on the 1st and 3rd instants, before the 36th brigade left the trenches. On this occasion the left of the 36th Brigade was kept on the south side of the spur to avoid as much as possible the machine gun fire from the Leipzig salient. Grenade dumps were formed well forward, one of 15,000 being made where the Sunken Road left our trenches. A buried cable was laid two-thirds of the way across “No Man's Land”. The 36th Brigade took over the trenches the afternoon of the 6th inst.

At 4.45 am on 7th the French artillery fired gas shell for two hours, the bombardment by the 12th, 25th, and 36th divisional artilleries, the heavy artillery and trench mortars commencing at 6.45 a.m. The 74th Brigade attacking as ordered made some progress, but failed to reach the machine guns in Mash Valley. On the commencement of this attack the Germans bombarded the trenches held by the 36th Brigade, and heavy casualties were suffered before the assault started, the 9th Royal Fusiliers having 225. At 8.30 a.m. the 36th Brigade assaulted, the 8th Royal Fusiliers (Annesley) on right, 7th Royal Sussex (Osborn) in centre, and 9th Royal Fusiliers (Overton) on left, the l1th Middlesex being in reserve. Immediately "D" Company, forming the first line of the 8th Royal Fusiliers, left our trenches, it came under heavy machine gun fire from Mash Valley, and was momentarily overwhelmed, but the advance of the second and third lines carried it on. With the third line was Lieut.-Colonel A. C. Annesley, who, seeing the confusion arising from the heavy casualties, took personal command, and waving his stick in the air shouted the familiar words of a field day, and led the men on. He was wounded in the hand and leg, but continued leading to the enemy's front line, where he was hit in the thigh. Shortly afterwards he fell, being hit for the fourth time, shot through the heart. His gallant conduct infected his battalion, and the fourth line coming up, the second and third objectives were carried. During the bombardment of the trenches previous to assault, and whilst crossing to the German trenches Private F Warren played his mouth organ to cheer on his comrades.

The 7th Royal Sussex succeeded in gaining three objectives, and the 9th Royal Fusiliers who had suffered heavily from the enemy's artillery fire, gained the first and objectives. Communications were again a difficulty. Lieutenant Redford, though wounded, succeeded in taking the wireless apparatus to the German front trenches, but on arrival he found the accumulators so damaged to be useless. Pigeons, or the men carrying them, had all been shot, and the telephone cables were broken. Smoke and dust prevented visual signalling. Messengers attempting to cross No Man's hand were shot down. In consequence no reports of the situation were received by the Brigade Head quarters until the afternoon, and all attempts during the morning to send over supplies of grenades or reinforcements failed on account of the enemy's artillery barrage. But, fortunately, the men had been instructed in the use of the German rifle and the German grenades, and were able to handle material captured in the enemy's trenches.

The 37th Brigade had assisted the attack by making the left and by machine gun fire.

About 12 noon Lieut.-Colonel Osborn took command troops and deciding, in view of his numbers that he could not hold all the gains, withdrew the men of the 8th Royal Fusiliers and 7th Royal Sussex who had reached the third objective, and consolidated positions in the first and second objectives.

At 2.30 p.m. eight volunteers of “A” Company, 11th Middlesex Regiment, (Lance-Corporals Kearny and Dale, Privates Tutt, Caterer, Dunsly, Nossworthy, Jackson and Hale), tried to cross to the captured trenches with bombs, but the six men were wounded. At 8 pm Captain Lewis, Lieutenant Moore, and sixty other ranks of the “A” Company, Middlesex, with platoon of the 7th Royal Sussex under Sergeant Leach each carrying twenty grenades, attempted the crossing. Captain Lees was killed, but Lieutenant Moore and about forty men succeeded in getting over with one Lewis gun. Two hours later, fifty men of “B” Company under Captain Crombie, reached the left flank of the position with grenades and a Lewis gun, suffering little loss.

The 74th Brigade had made no headway, so at 11.30 a.m. the 7th Suffolk Regiment (35th Brigade) were sent up as reinforcements to La Boisselle. The 75th Brigade (25th Division) being placed at the disposal of the 12th Division at 12.50 p.m., two battalions were moved to the Tara Usnra line and two battalions to Albert.

At 5 p.m. the 7th East Surrey and 9th Essex Regiments of the 35th Brigade reinforced the 36th Brigade.

At 8 p.m. the 2nd Manchester Regiment (14th Infantry Brigade, 32nd Division) wag placed at the disposal of the Division and was moved to the reserve trenches of the 36th Brigade.

About 6 p.m. definite information of the position in Ovillers began to arrive, and immediately it was dark East Surrey and Essex Battalions were sent forward and the holding of the captured positions was assured. Bombing attacks and hand-to-hand fighting had gone on all al1 day, but no organised counter-attack on a big scale had been made by the enemy, probably because losses which were no doubt heavy, the rapidity of the infantry advance, following closely on the artillery list, causing many to be caught in the dugouts, which were systematically bombed.

As direct communication between the 74th and 36th Brigades had not been established, the 75th Brigade was ordered to take the intervening German trench.

During the night the 74th Brigade made some progress on the and gained touch with the 19th Division; at 3.45 a.m. on 8th inst. the inner flanks of Division; the 74th and 36th Brigades having been marked by lights, the 8th South Lancashire Regiment, of the 75th Brigade, captured the intervening trench, which was only lightly held, and passed on to the second line, thus bridging the gap; the 9th Royal Fusiliers also gained some 90 yards of trench by bombing on the left.

The 36th Brigade front was now held by the 7th East Surrey, with portions of the 8th Royal Fusiliers and 11th Middlesex, under Lieut.-Colonel Baldwin, on the right, and the 9th Essex, with remnants of the 9th Royal Fusiliers, 7th Royal Sussex, and 11th Middlesex, under Lieut.-Colonel Osborn, on the left. On the 8th further progress through the village was made by the 7th East Surrey and Essex Battalions, and touch was gained all along the front. The captured position had brought us to the summit of the spur on which Ovillers stood and provided a good starting point for a further advance.

The 12th Division troops were relieved by those of the Division during the early hours of the night, and on the 9th inst. the Headquarters of the Division moved to Contay, the 35th Brigade to Varennes, 36th to Senlis, and the 37th to Warloy, the artillery remaining action.

Thus came an end one of the severest fights the 12th Division was called upon to take part in.

One of the main difficulties the troops had had to contend with in the attack was the mud, which was very deep and sticky, in many places men being unable move without assistance. A factor, undoubtedly aiding the 36th Brigade in their success, was that each man carried twenty grenades. On capturing the enemy's trenches a large quantity of tinned meat, cheese, butter, etc, was found, also mineral waters and packets of “Iron Crosses" done up in pink tissue paper.

The casualties of the three battalions making the attack on the 7th were heavy. Out of 66 officers 60 became casualties. In other ranks, out of a total of 2100, 340 were hit by shell before leaving our trenches, 1,260 were hit by machine gun fire in No Man’s Land, and of the 500 who reached the village, 150 became casualties during the subsequent fighting.

The total casualties of the Division from 1st to 8th July inclusive were officers 189, other ranks 4,576.

** Extracted from the original book:-

THE HISTORY OF THE 12th (EASTERN) DIVISION IN THE GREAT WAR 1914 – 1918.
Edited by MAJOR-GENERAL SIR ARTHUR B. SCOTT, K.C.B., D.S.0.
Compiled by P. MIDDLETON BRUMWELL,
Published THE NAVAL & MILITARY PRESS.

 
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