The din of the bombardment was perhaps the most fearsome man-made noise yet known on earth. In London, at night, the distant thunder of the guns could be heard. Close at hand, in Thiepval Wood and Hamel, it seemed as though all thought must be drowned out in the hypnotic sound of shellfire. The big shells could be seen bursting and sending huge columns of earth into the air. THe men could actually see the shells flying through the air : hot bits of steel, red pokers. The observation Corps who looked down from Mesnil, swore that, surely, nothing could live in the German trenches
men’s ears would begin to bleed under the constant pressure of nearby
explosions. To make matters worse, the weather began to deteriorate again
‘We moved up to the Thiepval Wood and into the slit trenches and for the next four of five days it rained. We were always wet, the food cold, our feet swelled up, our fingers stiffened. Our guns thundered away day and night.........we watched the gunners - every time they fired a shot the wheels of the gun moved, splashing mud all over them. They were in a worse state than we were. You could see where the rain had washed bits and pieces of mud off their faces and hands and they were all streaked like zebras’.
About to fire an 8-inch howitzer. Note the Camouflage Netting screen over the gun and its emplacement.
25 June was the second day of the bombardment, and against the background
of the infernal din, church services were held.
On the same day Lt Colonel Pelly of the East Belfast Volunteers, gave his final operational orders to his officers. He could not yet tell them when zero hour would be, but it was clear that half an hour before zero, the Brigade would be starting from Aveluy Wood, moving towards the front trenches in Thiepval Wood, the West Belfast Battalion leading the way with the South Belfast men just behind. When the Brigade moved out over no-mans-land towards its distant goal, the East Belfast Battalion would follow 100 yards behind the other two. The two rear platoons of each company would be carrying iron ‘screw’ stakes and barbed wire to consolidate their gains against counter attack. All in all the men were going to be hugely loaded down, as the instructions about equipment and ammunition indicated :
• Packs and great coats will not be carried but haversacks will be worn at the back
• A waterproof sheet and cardigan inside will be rolled on the back of the belt. The roll to be the length of the bottom of the pack
• Everyman of the 2nd and 3rd platoons will carry a pick or a shovel
• In the haversack will be carried shaving and washing kit, 1 pair socks, iron rations and rations for Z’ day
• Every man will carry two bombs, one in each side pocket
• Every man will carry two sandbags tucked into his belt
• Wire cutters will be carried by the leading platoon of each company
• Each man with a wire cutter will have tape tied round his left shoulder strap
• 170 rounds S.A.A. per man will be carried
• 5 flags for indicating the position of the most advanced infantry will be carried by each company
The operational instructions ended with a grim reminder : ‘All ranks are to be warned that if taken prisoner they are only bound to give their name and rank and should refuse to answer any questions.
If the average Infantry man was to be weighed down, the scout or runner was not. The ‘runner’ had to carry back news of the fighting back to his own lines. A distinguishing red band was sewn on each of his great coat sleeves and he received his scout shorts; he would be trimmed down for speed and agility.
Monday 26 June arrived. It was the third day of the bombardment. A raid was planned in
which the Down Volunteers would play the lead role, and gas would be used
for the first time by the 36th. A heavy German barrage landed just as
the gas was being liberated from the cylinders in Thiepval Wood and a
number of Ulstermen were casualties.
The purpose of the Down Volunteers raid was to take prisoners, and they managed to capture one officer and twelve other ranks. On the return journey to their own trenches, the Down men got caught by heavy machine-gun fire and had to shelter in the Sunken Road. There was little protection there and six Ulstermen died and nine were wounded. The raid gave some men the first opportunity to use a bayonet - not a pleasant experience :
‘When you shoot a man you never see his face and it is as east as shooting a fox. A few days before we went into the big battle, we raided the German lines. It was the first time I had to kill a man at close range and I did it with a fixed bayonet. It was not very light and he was a shadow, but as I twisted the bayonet clear he squealed like a stuck pig. It was not until I was on my way back that I started to shake and I shook like a leaf on a tree for the rest of the night’.
On Wednesday 28 June the decision was taken to put back
the assault by a day or two - until the weather improved. Careful plans
would have to be adjusted. Certainly two days of extra shelling of the
Germans could only boost the chances of destroying them. The Battalions
who had been holding the line , had to be relieved by fresh men. As the
Down Volunteers moved up through Martinsart to replace the South Antrim
men, they encountered disaster. No. 11 Platoon and the HQ staff were marching
out of Martinsart when a shell fell right in midst the party. Fourteen
men were killed on the spot and almost all the others in the group were
wounded, including Major Robert Perceval Maxwell, second in command of
On Thursday 29 June - originally to have been the day of the battle - battalions moved back and waited and waited as the Germans kept up their counter bombardment on Thiepval Wood, which meant that now the trenches were in a terrible state and casualties were increasing. In the evening most of the men occupied themselves by writing letters home. Many were in serious mood. One soldier wrote to the secretary of his Orange Lodge near Portadown. He was a teacher before joining up and his letter was long and written with a steel-nibbed pen and ink :
‘Dear Br. Secretary,
There is no doubt that when you receive this note I shall be dead. THere are all the signs that something bigger than has ever taken place before in this war is about to be launched.
The more I brood on what may have happen, the surer I am I shall not survive it. All of us say, ‘it’ll be the other fellow who’ll be killed’. I feel that i am one of those other fellows. I am not afraid to die but for every death there are a number of lives which will never be the same again, they suffer more than the one who passes on. We have had good times in the 12th Rifles - good times and bad, but it is the good times we remember...’
fine day dawned on Friday 30 June after what had been a very heavy nights
bombardment. The First hours proved to be very dry and the weather seemed
to be distinctly improved. It was decided by Haig, in HQ, that the British
armies would attack at 7.30 on the morning of 1
July. By mid morning all the Battalions had been briefed and
the Divisional HQ staff had moved to their report centre on the Englebelmer
- Martinsart road. A final meeting took place in the humid atmosphere
of a shuttered and closely guarded room. The one element of unease which
came from this meeting was that was the bombardment really working? Men
were taken from the line to be questioned on what they could see of the
German line. Not that it mattered much : the timetable was now quite irrevocable.
At 5pm Chaplains held services for the men. Attendance was not compulsory but all of the men were there. Catholics in the 36th got a chance to attend Mass too.
One of the Church Services held behind the Somme Front
The journey of the Infantry Battalions to their assembly trenches was undertaken under a sky which the first stars were beginning to twinkle. The men marched by cross-country tracks marked with green and red lanterns. The YCVs packed and sent off their rucksacks, and left Forceville at 9.30pm. They marched in platoons past the village of Englebelmer where German shells were dropping, then there was a halt just short of Martinsart, where mounted officers left their horses and proceeded on foot. The Battalion marched on through Martinsart and into the sticky mud of Aveluy Wood. Guns crashed and shells whistled overhead. They struck the railway line and proceeded NOrth in single file led by A company and Captain Slacke. As the troops crossed the South causeway over the Ancre, German machine-gun fire sprayed across the marshes and there was one causality. Then the men entered ‘Elgin Avenue’ and their assembly trenches, received their entrenching tools and settled down for the rest of the night. But to settle down was not easy. There was little space in the trenches and one man recorded his thoughts in those final hours :
‘The only thing I can compare it with is like waiting for someone to die. You know its coming and you wish to God it was over and done with. You smoked fag after fag, took sips of water, oiled the rifle, did everything over and over again. Even above the shelling you could hear small noises like a man sucking air in between his teeth and this got on your nerves more than the shelling. Now and again a star-shell lit up the night like day. The men, all of them, looked an odd colour and tired and drawn, like people done out’.
Men keeping themselves occupied to keep their mind of the awful reality that lay ahead
Amidst all this, men searched for lucky signs. Some of the men seemed cheered about the date of the attack because they felt July was the ‘Irishmans month’. What they meant was that in July, Ulster Protestants celebrated the victory of William of Orange (King Billy) at the Battle of the Boyne, a victory seen as the cornerstone of Protestant heritage in Ireland. The battle was generally celebrated on 12 July but on the Julian calender, in use upto 1752, it had been on the first day of the month. It was a good omen. Now on the first day of July, over 200 years later, Ulster Orangemen and Protestants, Carson’s army would have a chance to fight another battle beside another river and write another chapter in Irish history. From the Boyne to the Ancre, the thread of history seemed to run clearly. The Volunteers who had brought the guns ashore at Larne, had stayed firm and true to ‘No Home Rule’, whose famous watchword was ‘No Surrender’, with the motto ‘For God and Ulster’, would surely give a great account of themselves when zero hour ticked round at last.