Shell failure meant a catastrophic cost to life

Captain Frederick Lewis Vernon from Benton.
Captain Frederick Lewis Vernon from Benton.

I make no apologies for continuing to write about the Battle of the Somme, the centenary of which has been commemorated so movingly throughout the country this month.

The tragic consequences of the battle reverberated across the populations of Great Britain and Ireland and the Dominion nations. Over 19,000 died and 38,000 were wounded on the first day alone, with the North Tyneside area making a significant contribution to that grim total. It had a devastating impact across all communities.

Barton is estimating that the number of duds fired by the British artillery could have been between 60 to 80 per cent, at a catastrophic cost to the ranks of the British Army scrambling ‘over the top’.

A three-part documentary about the Somme is currently being broadcast by the BBC, presented by one of the best and most interesting historians of the First World War period, Peter Barton.

The perceived wisdom handed down through the years has been that 40 per cent of British artillery fired on the first crucial day of battle, July 1, 1916, were duds. The firing of unprecedented numbers of shells continuously in the week before was designed to destroy the tangles of barbed wire in front of the German trenches that housed the defenders in deep 20ft-plus dugouts and to ‘soften up’ their defences. The massed ranks of the British Army would then take the front lines and push the German army back into retreat, hopefully all the way to Berlin. So the artillery barrage was critical to the success of the battle plan.

Peter Barton has been looking at the battle from not only the British perspective, but from those records of the Somme that have survived from the German archives. And what he has uncovered makes very sober reading.

From battalion and soldiers’ diaries, as well as letters to loved ones back home, the pounding of the lines by the artillery is graphically commented on. Indeed, many German soldiers went mad with the incessant drumfire of shells landing among them, keeping them pinned into their dugouts.

But the battalion diaries particularly reveal that in some places only one in ten British shells exploded. Now, allowing for German bravado and inaccuracy in reportage, Barton is estimating that the number of duds fired by the British artillery could have been between 60 to 80 per cent, at a catastrophic cost to the ranks of the British Army scrambling ‘over the top’ and walking towards the German lines, cut down in swathes, many just as they entered no man’s land.

Men such as 49-year-old Private Albert Edward Aggett from Percy Street, Tynemouth, Private Charles Foster Arkle from Earsdon, and Captain Frederick Lewis Vernon from Benton, all soldiers with the Northumberland Fusiliers, all killed on July 1. Of the casualties from this area, the vast majority belonged to the Tyneside Irish and Tyneside Scottish battalions.

The Northumbria World War One project has been researching these and other casualties of the Great War from the area through the help of volunteer researchers, who estimate that nearly 5,000 died from the borough. From this research a free, accessible database has been built and is being added to.

The Somme Exhibition is on display at Wallsend Library, from where it will move to the White Swan Centre in Killingworth on August 11. Over 500 Somme casualties from the borough are listed.

Send me an email to tommy@northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk or click on www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk for more information. If you would like to get involved in the project, or have any information on casualties, call into our office at B9 in the Linskill Centre, Linskill Terrace, North Shields.