Keith Pye’s Story of Old Loughtonians at the Battle of the Somme

battle of somme

Following the article I wrote two years ago tracing the deaths of some of our past Loughtonians’ in the first world war, as we are celebrating (if that is the right word) the one hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, I was asked to try and put some flesh (excuse the term !!!) on one or two of the scholars who had fallen at this battle. The battle, or more correctly Battles of the Somme ran from 1st July 1914 until November 18th, 1914.

Each year on or about armistice day or the nearest school day to it, was marked during school assembly held in the big school by the headmaster reading out the names on the roll of honour. At that time these names were just that, names, what these represented was not at that time appreciated. Not until many years later did their sacrifice, and what they went through fully mean something to me. Since then I have researched much of the two world wars.

Of the Old Boys’ service records, I was able to trace, many were spread far-and-wide in various theatres of the war, or had sadly died before this particular theatre. However, with the help of John Kilby and Chris Plant I have managed to trace three old boys.

With thanks to John Kilbey for the information on Percy James Skinner; and from Chris Plant I can include William Charles Knight who by a strange quirk of circumstance was a second lieutenant in the same regiment as Percy Skinner, Australian of all things !! As a boy he attended Mr. Gratton’s school in prince’s road¸ and from there he obtained a scholarship to Loughton School. He then entered the civil service for a period before emigrating to Australia.

William Charles Knight

William was killed on the 25th July 1916. He was born in 1894 the son of Harry and Ada Knight of 73 Princes Road Buckhurst Hill, and emigrated to Australia when he was 18 where he was a farmer then a civil servant before signing up in 1914. His military service prior to enlistment was noted as 3 years in the civil service rifles, territorial force. He lived in Melbourne prior to enlistment.

He found himself at Pozieres in July 1916 and although his c.o. states that William was shot and died instantly probably to spare the feelings of his loved ones, as statements from the men who were there when he fell, state that enemy artillery was to blame for his death. He was close to a colleague who states that “I saw him blown up and sure he was killed. He was a fine officer and quite a gentlemanly fellow….”

Percy James Skinner

He was born in Loughton in about 1882 to Mr and Mrs Charles Edwin Skinner. His military record records the fact that he was educated at Loughton School and that must have been in the 1890s. There is a reference that he served in some military unit [Territorial] in Essex, but the Australian record is not specific. In any event at the age of 27 he emigrated to Australia and was employed as a salesman [shop assistant] in Wickepin, Western Australia. He was not married but the record suggests he may have had a close lady friend in Western Australia as it is recorded that she made inquiries about him following his death.

On the 24th June 1915 within two years of starting his new life in Australia, he enlisted as a private in the 28th battalion in the Australian Imperial Force or AIF, to fight for his old country. After initial training at Blackboy Hill Camp W.A. he embarked [as part of the 2nd reinforcement] from Freemantle, Western Australia on board HMAT Demosthenes on the 23rd July and joined the 28th in Gallipoli in October. Following some illness and return to Egypt, where the Australians had their hospitals and main base, he embarked from Alexandria for Marseilles and the western front in March 1916.

July 1916 the 28th saw him on the Somme as part of the 7th brigade 2nd division of the AIF. They were to attack the crest at Pozieres on the 29th July. It was to be the battalion`s first major battle and the generals were anxious to make progress. As Major Brown of the battalion wrote “not an officer or a man had had a daylight view of the objective “, but it was confidently believed the artillery barrage would take care of the German wire defences.

“The men were in position by 11:30 p.m. [but their preparations had been observed] and at 12:30 a.m. the enemy opened up with artillery using heavy explosives, shrapnel and machine gun fire causing a number of casualties. Our artillery laid a heavy barrage on the enemy trenches and as soon as it lifted the men rushed forward in perfect order and were met with heavy fire….the first wave was held up by the enemy`s wire which was intact and very strong. The following waves made unavailing attempts to find an opening or make them in the face of intense machine gun fire. Heavy casualties resulted. A very intense artillery barrage of the enemy prevented any reports of the situation getting through and it was not until 2:54 a.m. that the order for withdrawal could be delivered”

The casualty list recorded 523 killed wounded and missing from the 28th battalion. Percy Skinner`s body was not recovered and he has no known grave. He was aged 29.

His name is recorded on the Australian national memorial at Villiers-Bretonneaux, France and on the Australian war memorial in Canberra, Australia

Francis Humphrey Robillard

Then there was Francis Humphrey John Robillard (second lieutenant) born 1896 to Francis Arthur and Lizzie Robilliard, of Chelmsford road, South Woodford. He joined the Lincolnshire Regiment and in 1916 fought at the battle of Flers-Courcelette. He died on 4th October 1917.

The battle of Flers-Courcelette (15th – 22nd September 1916) was a subsidiary attack of the battle of the Somme. However, what happened at that battle was to have a big impact on world war one and was to change warfare forever. This was the first occasion that tanks were used in battle. An attack on Flers-Courcelette by the 41st division was supported by 49 tanks. The tank had been in France since the summer of 1916 but not used, and if they were not used soon its presence would soon be discovered. The battle of the Somme had been going on for two and a half months. Gains had been negligible, losses horrendous and the infantry could make little progress over muddy ground, laced with barbed wire and covered by artillery and machine guns. The tank it was claimed could defy mud and shell-torn ground, silence machine guns and field artillery and crush down wire….49 tanks were committed and 32 made it to the start line. Of that number, nine broke down, five sank in the mud, ran into tree stumps or were otherwise ditched. Nine fell behind the infantry they were tasked to support, and nine went ahead of the infantry and caused alarm and despondency amongst the enemy.

The purpose of the battle of the Somme had been designed to take the pressure off General Joffre and the French army who had been taking heavy losses at Verdun East of Paris. The high command decided to attack the Germans north of Verdun thus requiring the Germans to remove men from the Verdun battlefield thereby relieving the pressure on the French. The point chosen was a 25 mile stretch of the River Somme.

The Somme battle was fought between July 1st and November 18th. The attacks were planned by Douglas Haig and were preceded by the British firing over 1,700,000 shells for a continuous period of 7 days and nights before the men ‘went over the top’. (this equates to an average of 10,119 shells an hour or 168 a minute). It was reported that this barrage could be heard along Southern England.

The initial barrage was planned to cut the wire using a wire cutting shell and then changed to high explosive and shrapnel shells and increased the intensity intending to destroy the trenches and dugouts where the soldiers were hiding. However, the military had underestimated the sophistication of the German lines and just how strong were the dugouts. Additionally, many of the shells did not explode, the wire was not cut, and the shells were not heavy enough to penetrate the dugouts.

At 7:30 a.m. 17 mines went off heralding the start of the battle. (these were tunnels dug under the German lines and filled with tons of explosives). Actually, the first mine went off ten minutes early and the crater it left, the ‘hawthorn crater, is still visible today.

On the first day alone the British lost 60,000 killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Advances were made, but these were limited and often ultimately repulsed. Our forces secured the first line of the German trenches on the 11th July. On that day German troops were transferred from Verdun to the Somme to contribute to the German defence, doubling the number defending. It was the bloodiest battle of the war, or of any war since. Between 1st July and 18th November a total of over 1,000,000 will have been killed, over half of them German. At the end we only gained 5 miles of territory.

It was after this battle that people started talking about “the lost generation”. Many found it hard to justify the loss of 88,000 men for each mile gained.

Unlike the German attack at Verdun, the British attack was made without the useful, some might say vital, element of surprise. The Germans knew that when the barrage stopped the British would attack.

What any analysis of the first day on the Somme comes down to is the familiar lesson – that Western Front defensive positions could not be stormed and taken by any means currently open to the attacker. The British assault on the first day was a classic example of a nineteenth-century attack, only with aircraft in the scouting and artillery spotting roles in place of cavalry, but expanded and compounded by the devastating power of modern weapons.

The battle of the Somme like most other battles in the first world war were deliberate battles of attrition, as it was recognised that with Germany fighting on two fronts, the French and English as well as the Russians, Germany could not afford the high levels of manpower losses. Provided you killed more of them than you lost you would eventually win. Granted Germany had more men than France, but not more than France and the British empire combined, especially with the eventual entry of America into the fight in 1917.

However, after this battle lessons were learned and modern technology developed new weapons and new tactics were employed to use them with great advantage. For example the rolling barrage, where the troops advanced just 100 yards behind the artillery shells which moved forward at an agreed rate of 50 yards per 10 minutes, trusting on the accuracy of the artillery battalion not letting any shells fall short, and changing shell type for the obstacle being attacked, (barbed wire, trenches or dugouts), with the British troops overrunning the objective before the enemy had a chance to recover from bombardment.

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