100 years ago today, a week long artillery bombardment of German positions between the French villages of Gommecourt and Montauban (a front of about 18 miles) came to an end.
Nearly two million British artillery shells had been fired at the German lines to crush morale and make it easier to advance towards the enemy positions. The bombardment was also planned to have the effect of destroying barbed wire entanglements in front of the German positions.
At 7.30 in the morning, masses of British soldiers, including many Irishmen, were led by their officers “over the top”, carrying their rifles with fixed bayonets. They were ordered to walk towards the Germans, whose numbers were assumed to have been decimated by the week-long attack.
To their horror, the attacking British troops realised that the Germans were ready and waiting, and the barbed wire was intact. They walked into a hail of machine gun and rifle fire. By the end of the day 19,000 British soldiers lay dead, with 38,000 reported wounded or missing
One of the dead is recorded as being from South Dublin County – Thomas Cleary of Cooldrinagh in Lucan.
27 years old and the son of a farm labourer, he had enlisted in the 1st Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in 1908, and saw service in India. He was sent with his battalion to Gallipoli where he managed to survive the disastrous landings at Cape Helles and the subsequent fighting. He was then sent to France where the Inniskillings were part of the 29th Division at Beaumont Hamel.
Men from the 29th Division advance along the horizon towards the German lines near Beaumont Hamel, 1st July 1916 Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum
Their objective was the taking of Y Ravine – an old quarry that was being used as a German stronghold. The Division’s approach was abruptly halted by German barbed wire, which had resisted the week-long artillery barrage and was intact. 568 men of the 29th division, including Thomas Cleary, lost their lives in the attack.
Trench map showing Y Ravine in green, British lines in blue and the German trench network in red.
Pte. Cleary is buried in Y Ravine Cemetery, Beaumont Hamel.
Y Ravine Cemetery. It lies within Newfoundland Park, an area containing many preserved trenches including Y Ravine. Photo: David Power
The Battle of the Somme lasted four months in total, only grinding to a halt on the 18th of November 1916 due to bad weather – rain, snow and the constant pounding of artillery had made the area a sea of mud. By its end, the Somme had cost the lives of one million men.
Remnants of British trenches. Newfoundland Park. Photo: David Power
Y Ravine Trench today. After the failed attempt to capture this stronghold on the 1st of July, it was finally captured four months later on the 13th of November 1916. Photo: David Power