In the early hours of 31 July 1916, after two failed attacks on the Village of Guillemont, the depleted Liverpool Pals Battalions left the Front Line – but the Liverpool story continued. The 55th Division, which replaced them, included the six Territorial Battalions of the King’s Liverpool Regiment. Known as the ‘Liverpool Terriers’, they had all been in action since 1915 and were already experienced in battle.
The third attack on the village was planned for 4.20am on 8 August. There would be another heavy bombardment, this one lasting 17 hours, and then the attack would begin. The Terriers were attacking from the centre and right of the British line. As in the previous Somme battles, the French were on their right flank. Further north, another Kings battalion, the 1st Battalion, was also taking part and would focus on objectives in the northern part of the village.
In the days leading up to the battle, the British Front Line consistently came under fire and the 8th (Liverpool Irish) and 9th battalions particularly, suffered numerous losses. For three days prior to the attack, the 5th Battalion occupied the trenches previously held by the Pals. One of their tasks was to recover the dead left out in no-mans-land, after the previous battle. The dead men were wearing the distinctive Pals insignia – the unfortunate 5th Battalion must have known that the men they were dragging in and burying were fellow Merseyside men.
On the night of 7 August all of the troops moved to their assembly points and were in position by midnight. The Terriers were mostly assembled south of the Trones-Guillemont road, with the exception of the 8th (Irish) battalion who lined up in the trenches just north of the road, in front of Trones Wood.
At 4.20am mist and fog swathed the battlefield. The whistles blew and the men moved forward toward the enemy lines. They were confronted with a hail of fire from German rifles and machine guns. The 5th Battalion (with the 6th and 7th in support) made it only a couple of hundred metres before they were pinned down and forced to ‘dig in’.
The 8th Battalion made better headway and were able to advance into the village. However, the North Lancashire’s, advancing on their right, had come under such heavy fire that they were forced to retreat. The 8th Battalion was out flanked and vulnerable. The Germans attacked with machine guns from all sides, while also laying down a line of fire over no-mans-land – effectively halting any hope of support coming to their aid. At this point communication had broken down, and we can only guess at what happened, based on the stories of some of the men who made it back. When they found themselves surrounded, the Irish put up a good fight, but they faced an overwhelming German force armed with machine guns, grenades, and gas shells.
The 1st Battalion had also made it into the village. Due to the fog and smoke, they reached the objective line a little farther south than planned. Around an hour after the attack began, the Battalion reported that they had breached the German front line but there was some confusion over their exact location. It is known that they continued forward and took their objectives of the station, and High Holborn trench, but then communication with the 1st also broke down. An injured officer managed to make his way back to the British line. He reported that the Germans had somehow regained their Front Line trenches, and were now between the British Front Line and the beleaguered 1st Battalion.
British commanding officers realised that they had underestimated the fortifications in the village. The Germans were clearly making use of a warren of underground basements and tunnels to shelter from the British Artillery and were able to move around freely once the bombardment had stopped.
As night fell, fighting could still be heard in the village and the commanders knew that they must try and retrieve any men still holding out.
At 8.30 pm fresh operation orders were issued, that the attack would continue and the new ‘zero hour’ was to be at 4.20am on 9 August – the orders stated as follows:
- The attack on Guillemont and its defences will be continued tomorrow by the 2nd and 55th Divisions.
- The 55th Division will capture Guillemont ‘at all costs.’
Check our next Somme blog tomorrow, to find out what happened next.
If your relative was a First World War soldier and you want advice on how to find out more about his service, come along to our free research day A day to remember on 3 September at the Museum of Liverpool.
The exhibition First World War: Charity and Liverpool’s Home Front continues at the Museum of Liverpool until early 2017.
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