AUTUMN 1916 saw a series of small-scale battles which were a feature of all three of the major offensives of the First World War.
Massive frontal assaults at the Somme, Arras and Passchendaele campaigns all reduced in the scale of fighting after the initial objectives failed through bad planning, poor tactics, inadequate artillery concentration or just the sheer difficulty of always being forced to attack an enemy well dug in on higher ground.
The final battle of the Somme campaign – The battle of the Ancre – brought a heavy loss of life for Northumberland Fusiliers of the 50th Division and the many local men enlisted in the RNVR who were posted to the Royal Naval Division.
The 188th and 189th Brigades (part of the 63rd Division) were comprised from battalions of the Royal Naval Division.
Many who filled their ranks were local to Tyneside.
On November 13 they were in the opening actions of the attack intended to seize the heights around Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt.
Meeting heavy resistance and withering machine gun fire they struggled forward.
However, heavy losses meant they became ineffective as individual units and had to be rallied in mixed groups of those remaining uninjured.
A small force of barely 100 from the Howe, Anson and Nelson battalions succeeded in taking their first objective.
On the next day the 2nd Australian Division was joined in the attack with support from men of the 149th Brigade – part of the wholly Territorial 50th Division and mainly formed from units of the Northumberland Fusiliers and Durham Light Infantry.
These men were ‘territorials’ from pre-war days, augmented by volunteers from the early months of the war; and some of the early conscripts then being brought into fighting units after initial training.
The Australians met strong resistance and were supported later in the day by men of the Northumberland Fusiliers, who suffered a similar fate and were unable to press home the attack or reach their objective.
Other units carried on the battle for another few days but by November 20, following an early snowfall and rapid thaw, the Somme area became a quagmire and the official history of the campaign regards that date as the effective end of the overall battle.
From July 1, when the Tyneside battalions suffered so badly, through to the end of operations on the Somme, allied casualties (killed and wounded) were reckoned at omore than 400,000 British (including Dominion and Empire) troops and more than 150,000 French in their relatively successful sector of the front; with an estimated cost to the defending German forces of more than 500,000 casualties.
This cost to the enemy was reckoned to be evidence of the ‘success’ of the battle overall, in its often stated objective of wearing down the enemy by ‘attritional’ warfare.
Whether these losses were a price worth paying by the allies can be judged against the fact that the German forces withdrew secretly, at little cost to themselves, in the winter months to even more well-defended positions they had been constructing in the rear along what came to be known by the British as the Hindenburg Line.
The German offensive at Verdun was halted by the French, and enemy reinforcements, otherwise available, were tied down on the Somme front.
The cynical view has it that the French wished to see the British forces shoulder a greater share of the load and that the campaign in the Somme region was fought without any clear military objectives and against an area under occupation but of little strategic value otherwise, had the hoped for breakthrough even been achieved.
What is certain is that the name of an unremarkable area of northern France would come to be etched on the collective memory of the British mind for a century to come, as the unequalled exemplar of the horrors of the war and the alleged indifference of the high command to the sufferings of the troops; with the cataclysmic loss of life inflicted on small close knit communities across the nation.
TheTynemouth World War One Commemoration project has a number of new activities planned for the coming months for which volunteers are needed.
To find out more about the project and how you can assist, call into the project workroom on weekdays from 10am to 4pm, Room B9, Linskill Centre, Trevor Terrace, North Shields.
THIS week’s casualty list gives details of men of the Royal Naval Division (November 13) and Northumberland Fusiliers (November 14) - killed in action at the Battle of the Ancre in November 1916 (see story).
Royal Naval Division:
Cranston, Matthew, age 23, AB, RNVR, Howe Battalion, KIA, Milburn Place, son of the late John and Ellen.
Crow, Thomas Henry, AB, RNVR, Hood Battalion, KIA, 48 Percy Street, details needed.
Gosling, John Wenn, AB, RNVR, Drake Battalion, KIA, 86 Little Bedford Street, details needed.
Lilburn, James William Edward, age 26, AB, RNVR, Anson Battalion, KIA, 35 Vicarage Street, son of James and Letitia.
Robson, Harold Brooks, AB, RNVR, Howe Battalion, KIA, 23 Charlotte Street.
Wilkinson, John W, AB, RNVR, Hood Battalion, KIA, 24 Northumberland Dock.
Northumberland Fusiliers – 50th Northumbrian Division 149th Brigade:
Barker, Thomas, age 25, Private, 1st/5th Battalion, KIA,
15 Eleanor Street, son of John and Elizabeth Agnes, husband of Clara Barker, of 49 Eleanor Street.
Clark, John, Private, 1st/7th Battalion, KIA, details required. No known grave, remembered on the Thiepval Memorial.
Craig, Samuel Jobling, age 21, Private, 1st/5th Battalion, KIA son of the late John and Margaret. One of the first conscripts.
Lawson, Norman Wilfred, age 21, Lieutenant, ‘B’ Company, 1st/5th Battalion, enlisted September, 1914, wounded three times, KIA, 8 Waterville Terrace, youngest son of William Dawson Lawson. Former pupil of Tynemouth High School.
Melrose, Thomas Nelson, age 22, 2nd Lieutenant, 1st/5th Battalion, KIA, 4 Horsley Terrace, attended Tynemouth High School at same time as Norman Wilfred Lawson.
Scott, William, Lance Corporal, 1st/5th Battalion, KIA, Howard Street, details needed.
Wight, Robert, Private, 1st/5th Battalion, KIA, 23 Waterville Road, details needed.
Young, Frank, Private, 1st/5th Battalion, KIA, 9 Appleby Street, details needed.
KIA – killed in action
DOW – died of wounds
LAS – lost at sea
NF – Northumberland Fusiliers
DLI – Durham Light Infantry
RND – Royal Naval Division
RNR – Royal Naval Reserve
RFA – Royal Field Artillery
n Anyone with information on this week’s list or who wants to find out more about the project, should visit www.tynemouthworldwarone.org, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Tynemouth World War 1 Commemoration Project, c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields, NE30 1AR.