The Battle of the Somme as reported in Norfolk newspapers of 1916

Newspapers 100 years ago looked rather different from what you see at the newsagent now, and the reports that they printed were nowhere near as up to date as today’s rolling news feeds. But it’s fascinating to see how the papers reported on major events in the Great War, so I’ve been reading ‘The Norfolk Chronicle and Cromer and North Norfolk Post’ of July 1916, which is available on microfilm at the Norfolk Heritage Centre.

The newspapers from 1916 are now incredibly fragile and viewable on microfilm.

The newspapers from 1916 are now incredibly fragile and viewable on microfilm.

This was a weekly paper, published on Fridays, which meant that there was time for news of ‘The Great Push’ to reach the editor’s office and be included in the edition of Friday 7th July.

fake news paper 1

Further updates from the Press Bureau and ‘from Headquarters’ dated throughout the week are also reproduced in these columns, but it’s only in the editorial that any opinion or judgment is put forward:-

fake newspaper 2

In contrast to the official war reports, the Chronicle of 21st July, carries two columns headlined ‘The Great Battle – Thrilling experiences of Norfolk men – told by themselves’. Here are a few extracts:-

Pte Fred L Campling of the Norfolk Regiment, a well-known Norwich man, who writes…Precisely at 7.20, countless guns broke out into the promised final ten minutes’ intense bombardment and a pandemonium of noise arose which absolutely beggars description.

The assault was immediately precipitated by the explosion of a series of mines which our sappers had laid close up to the German front line, and the shower of debris had hardly fallen when the order came for the first wave to advance. I must now leave the general scheme and confine myself to my own individual progress and observations. With a thrill of excitement I received the order, shouted down the trench, “Over 16,” and every man leaped to the parapet at the exact moment our artillery “barrage” lifted from the Bosche front line to his first support line. The opposing artillery fire, consisting wholly of shrapnel, which had sent the two men on my immediate left hobbling to the first-aid post, now practically ceased. Quickly crossing our own front line trench, we reached the Bosche firing trench, and there a scene met my gaze which will remain stamped indelibly upon my memory for the rest of my mortal existence. Cowering in the trench, clad in the pale grey uniforms we had longed for twelve months to see, unarmed and minus equipment, with fear written on their faces were a few of these valiant warriors of the Kaiser, whose prowess we were out to dispute. Here let me digress to say that the absence of arms and equipment suggests that the exact moment selected for our attack had taken the Huns by surprise. This view was subsequently confirmed by prisoners who said that they had expected us earlier in the day, and had since stood down. Many Germans rushed forward, hands high in the air, cringing for mercy. It was obvious that they were past any pretence at fighting, so ignoring them, I leapt the trench – it was occupied only by dead and wounded – and gained the second line. At this stage we began to feel the effect of a deadly machine gun fire and sniping from the fourth line, and our gallant captain was amongst the first to fall, as also was my platoon officer. Not a single German did I see attempt to offer the least resistance at close quarters. I mentally relegated the whole mob to the category of a lot of miserable cowards.

Bullets were now flying fast and furious; how I escaped them I cannot explain. Without wavering for an instant the lines advanced steadily, preceded by our artillery fire, which was the marvel of us all. Glancing round I found myself amongst the regiment on our left. Seeking to correct this I bore off to the right, crossed the German third line, which like the others was practically demolished, and was delighted to see my section commander Lance Corporal R C Goulder, accompanied by Private John Hotblack (Holveston Hall) his left bomber. I came up on their right and almost immediately Goulder made a sign for us to get down; not a moment too soon for we had now topped a rise in the ground, and were in direct line of fire of a machine gun traversing from the right. Glancing over my left shoulder, I was greeted by a wave of recognition by the company officers’ cook, who had apparently lost his platoon. Almost in the act of conforming to our line he was shot. With consummate bravery, and crouching to his task, Corpl. Goulder applied the field dressing but the poor fellow soon died. Having completed this merciful act, Goulder glanced to right and left, and gave the word to advance, having observed our left flank making headway. Rising to my feet, I saw Hotblack collapse with a bullet in the foot, and Goulder a few yards ahead shot through the head. Getting down at full length, partly concealed by the vegetation, I got slowly forward, and came upon Sergeant Lewis Colman and a few of his men similarly held up. Peeping out cautiously, we observed that our bombers had gained a footing in the German fourth line trench, and were working their way up to the position of the machine gun, which was causing the discomfiture of our little band. After taking a few shots at the machine gunner we crept in single file to the left, entered the trench, and were delighted to see the survivors of our company. We had now reached our first objective, and awaiting orders to proceed, had time for a hearty handshake and a comparison of notes.

Our respite was short-lived, however, for the worse was yet to come in the shape of a cruel bombardment of our position by a battery of heavy calibre guns firing high explosive shells. Never shall I forget that night. Bursting on all sides with an ear-splitting roar, these missiles caused us several casualties. This state of affairs continued throughout the following day until evening, when we were relieved to return, exhausted, weary, but triumphant to our new support line, there to discuss our adventures and compare the helmets and other souvenirs we had captured.

 

Another Norwich lad, Pte C G Cleveland, also tells a fine story of the great charge of the Norfolk Battalion. Following are extracts from a letter dated July 4th he has written home to his parents:-

The great day has come, the charge has been made. I have been through the battle, and the gallant old 8th has covered itself with glory. No doubt you have read the glorious news by now, and you will be cheered by knowing that the Huns are beaten at last in trench warfare, and that it practically means open work now. It was all a horrible nightmare. War seemed the worst thing made by man, the Huns the most treacherous, but God the most wonderful. I’ve read of, I’ve seen pictures of, and I’ve imagined similar battles, but never did I realise how awful it was, and yet it was a most glorious victory. We won what we were supposed to win, and, what is more, we held on to it.

It was Saturday morning, the 1st of July, at half-past seven. I was in reserve. The shells from our guns were hissing over in a constant stream, when bullets began to crack and we knew the boys of the first line were over. No shouting, no cheering, all bullets and shells as the boys rushed over, scrambling round shell holes, one line catching up the other, until they leapt into what remained of their front lines. It was a mixture of mountains and valleys in miniature, no straight cut trench anywhere. We were supposed to go over at a quarter to eight, but we had equipment on, magazines on, bayonets on, and “one up the spout, and nine in the tin box.” Down in the trench we certainly felt a little windy, but once up, we felt as if we were on a field day. Shells and bullets in the air, great holes, scraps of wire, shells, etc., laying everywhere but we kept on – a little bunch of men, artillery formation. Then we crossed our front line, from one hole to another in case a machine gun opened, until we slipped into the front trench. Two Huns were running about frantically like mad men. We went into the second trench, and we had a rest, while we found out where we were, and we had to keep our eyes “skinned” to the corners and our rifles ready.

German names on boards naming the trenches, where a trench mortar gun used to be. The entrances of deep dug-outs blown in or otherwise filled up. I wonder how many men were buried in them. They had stood to from midnight till about four, expecting us to attack at dawn, and had then entered their dug-outs for a very little necessary sleep. After a rest we went along a communication trench to the third trench. Half-way along we had to stop, so we commenced to make a fire step facing the opposite way, and began to consolidate. We were near two deep dug-outs. Down the first one went a bomb, and then came up one Hun, shaking and trembling, Hands above his head, shouting as best he could, “Mercy, comrade,” with eyes staring. He seemed so utterly scared that the majority could only pity him. His hand was bleeding a good bit, the result of the bomb. Just behind him came another, as mad and shaking as the first. Then another dark one with a handsome beard, staring eyes, a wounded forehead, a red cross on his arm, to which he pointed. There were five of them. An officer told off an escort, and they were off, and the dug-out was set on fire.

Then we went on to the third trench. One of our sergeants was shot through the ankle, another fellow through his side; these were the first cases of bloodshed we had seen, but I will not speak more of it than I can help. In the third trench we had to wait. Huns lay about in the most awful conditions, and we had to steel our nerves and look away, but we tried to see the best side. We were winning, we were in German trenches; so we lit up our cigarettes and were happy.

 

The press was also full of detailed accounts of the injuries suffered by Norfolk men in the Battle.

Among the recent arrivals of wounded at the Norfolk War Hospital are some men of the Norfolk Regiment who took part in the memorable charge. One is Private Strange, a London-born youth, who joined the Norfolks for the reason that he is of Norfolk extraction, both his father and mother having come from the neighbourhood of Diss. “I had been in France,” he says, “ eleven months. On Saturday, July the 1st, at twenty-seven minutes past seven we jumped quickly over the top. It was fortunate for me that I was on the extreme left, and therefore not able to go ahead quite so quick as some of the others, for the foremost party, after going about 200 yards ran right into a mine explosion, there was an awful and almost continuous roar of shells as we ran. I could see my pals being bowled over, but I have not much knowledge of what happened to other people individually. Then at the first line of the enemy trenches came the roar of the explosion. The earth seemed to rise up and rock; and I have a memory of great clods rising high in the air, and of dodging about to escape them as they fell. The first-line trench when we reached it was almost unrecognisable as a trench. To my surprise I found myself almost on top of a dug-out, and lucky I was to have turned and seen it, for there were four Germans coming up the staircase, and they could have shot me if they had been smart. I threw five bombs among them just to cheer them up. Some of their wounded came running out at the other end. It won’t do to show these Germans too much mercy; there have been so many cases in which they have turned on us after we had spared their lives. In the second line trenches we met no opposition whatever. I had got into the third line where we dealt with some Germans, and was just getting out again when I saw a rifle pointed at me from the fourth line. I lay down to get cover, knowing that some of our men were taking the Germans in the rear, when a bit of shrapnel caught me in the thigh. Making my way back to our own lines as well as I could, I saw a wounded German. I asked him to come with me and he came, but only as far as our first line trenches, where I last saw him taking off his coat as if to look at his wound. My impression of the Germans is that they are at heart cowards. They are all right while in their trenches. But once get alongside of them and they put up their hands and scream. In my company most of the men were Norfolk bred. We lost heavily; but I saw no sign of funk among them.”

 

The convoy of wounded men who arrived at the Lakenham Military Hospital on Thursday last week included one man of the Norfolk Regiment, Private J W Knowles by name, who comes from Walsoken and who had been at the front four months. He is badly fractured in the right leg and has a lurid story to tell of how his company fared on Saturday, the 1st of July. He says: “We were in the third wave of the advance. As we approached the third line of the German trenches the machine gun fire was very hot, and our fellows were cut down severely, but we took the trench all right, and in front of me six or seven big fellows came out and gave themselves up. When we were over the trench the machine-gun fire got hotter still, so much so that to advance further was impossible, and we had to lie down a minute. It was then that I got hit, about eight o’clock in the morning. I had to lie where I fell till six o’clock at night. For about a quarter of an hour I must have been insensible; but all the rest of the time I was awake and conscious of a terrific shell fire, so severe that it was impossible for any bearer party to reach me. The Germans before us were, I was told, Bavarians. I certainly had not expected to see such big, fine men. For all their size they did not strike me as particularly brave. They worked their machine guns to the utmost while we were advancing, but as soon as we were on them they were ready enough to surrender.”

Reading these accounts with the benefit of hindsight makes them all the more poignant to me. Having the briefest details of the soldiers whose reports are reproduced here I was able to research them on our Library subscription to FindMyPast (details here) and discovered that:

  • Frederick Campling was promoted to Corporal, but died on 27th September 1916.
  • Private Strange was probably Thomas Frederick Strange, who died on 1st May 1917 and is remembered on the Loos Memorial.
  • Private Knowles was John William Knowles, discharged from service in June 1917 due to the gunshot wound in his right knee; he didn’t survive the war, however, dying at the age of 29 on 6th November 1918.
  • Private Cleveland, we think, suffered a misprint in the newspaper record – Granville George Cleveland was born in Norwich in 1896, and enlisted in September 1914. He survived the war and was discharged on 3rd April 1919 at the age of 23, having reached the rank of Lance Corporal. He married in 1931, and I wish I could report that he lived a long and happy life, but he died at the age of 41 in 1937, at least being spared the dreadful experiences of World War 2.

 

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