First Day of the Somme

La Boiselle



Battle of La Boiselle - VERY detailed and useful  

Oliver Hopkins' letters  - Hopkins was with the 11th Suffolks.   His first letter describes 1 July from a soldier's point of view.


III Corps Commander Lieutenant-General Sir William Pulteney

GOC 34 Division Major-General Ingouville-Williams




The 34th Division, consisting of 3 Brigades: the 101st (including the 15th Royal Scots, the 10th Lincolns and the 11th Suffolks), the 102nd (including the 20th - the 'Tyneside Scottish' -  21st, 22nd and 23rd Northumberland Fusiliers) and the 103rd (including the 24th, 25th, 26th and 27th Northumberland Fusiliers) .




The Germans had set up their trenches as a defensive line before the British, so all along the line they had been able to take the best defensive positions.   La Boiselle was therefore a VERY strong point.   The German trenches were connected by underground passages, with large dugouts strong enough to shelter men and machine guns from the heaviest bombardment.   Pulleys and slides had been installed in the dugout shafts to enable the machine gunners to bring their guns instantly into action.   The village was situated on a ridge of land, with a deep valley on either side - the British called these two valleys Sausage (on the south) and Mash valleys.   In the valleys the front lines were almost half a mile apart.   At the end of the ridge, however, the British line (nicknamed 'the Glory Hole') was pushed right up to the German front line, so that it was only 50 yards away from it.   An attack up the steep spur to the village would have been suicidal; to attack up the long, unprotected valleys exposed the troops to enfilading fire from the ridge above - either way was a death trap.

The plan was to attack up the two valleys; no attack was made from the 'Glory Hole' trench, which was held by the 18th Northumberland Fusiliers.




Disastrously, at 2.45am, a German Listening post picked up the end of a message from General Rawlinson telling the 34th Division to 'hold onto every yard of ground gained'.   It was clear that there was going to be an attack.   When the British shellfire intensified at 6.45am, therefore, the German troops took their positions and waited for the British to attack.

At 7.28am, two huge mines were exploded - Y Sap (40,000 lbs explosive), on the German front line just to the north of La Boiselle, and Lochnagar (60,000 lbs explosive) just to the south.   In addition, three smaller mines were exploded along the German front line in front of the Glory Hole trench.   All these did was warn the Germans that attack was imminent, and to lay down huge amounts of earth which the British attackers found difficult to pass over.

A half-hearted attempt was made to lay down some smoke, but a light wind dispersed it.



Artillery bombardment

The artillery bombardment had been intense, but had failed to dislodge the German machine-sun emplacements in La Boiselle.   In fact, the only effect was that it had forced  the Germans to evacuate their men from Y Sap - so the huge mine there had no effect whatsoever.



Advance (7.30)

103 Brigade: At zero hour 103 Brigade left their trenches and set off up the 800 yards of Mash Valley.   Machine-gun fire from Ovillers and La Boiselle cut them down.   A few parties reached the German front line, but all were killed before they got into the trench.

102 Brigade: At zero hour the Brigade left their trenches, crossed No Man's Land and began to fight their way up the north side of Sausage Valley, just south of La Boiselle.   Machine-gunners in La Boiselle inflicted heavy casualties and a Lewis gun, which had been brought to give them covering fire, jammed.

101 Brigade: In the south of the sector, the 15th Royal Scots made their way up Sausage Valley, followed closely by the 16th Royal Scots.   They suffered heavy casualties from fire from La Boiselle - the first wave suffered 80% casualties, and the 16th Royal Scots suffered 50% casualties.  


The historian of the Suffolks wrote:

Before the leading wave had advanced 100 yards, before the men had time to gain their proper formation, casualties began.   Soon men were being spun round and were dropping everywhere.   In spite of the casualties, the advance continued until the lines of men had been reduced to bands of three and four.   These, joining together without regard for company or battalion, pushed on into the thick of the fight.
By 8 a.m. the battle, as far as the 11th battalion was concerned, was practically decided.   All that remained of their effort was a great mass of prostrate figures, thinning gradually towards the wire.   Throughout the day little rushes were attempted by survivors, many of whom must have been already wounded.   Occasionally a man was seen running singly till he fell.

Lieut-Col C.C.R. Murphy,  History of the Suffolk Regiment 1914 - 1927 (1929).




102 Brigade: Although some parties pushed on beyond the village (some men advanced half a mile behind German lines) these positions could not be held and they pulled back to the former German Front line.   This they held, despite six fierce German counter-attacks - a gain of 200 yards.

101 Brigade: the Royal Scots were joined by the Suffolks and the Lincolns, who had been held up by the Lochnagar mine explosion.   Despite fierce German resistance, they fought their way east with heavy casualties, getting as far as Birch Tree Wood (labelled 'e' on the map) where by nightfall they had dug in and consolidated their position.   One group of the 27th Northumberlands (the 'Tyneside Irish') had reached Contalmaison, the German HQ, 4000 yards behind German lines, but they could not be supported and were wiped out.




The 34th Division lost 6380 casualties, making it the worst-hit Division of all the 16 Divisions used on the day).

The casualties suffered by the 11th Suffolks (691) were the highest in the Division.   All four Northumberland battalions suffered more than 500 casualties, and were so badly mauled that they had to be replaced and were reallocated to the 37th Division:

  Tyneside Scottish casualties  Officers  Men   Tyneside Irish casualties  Officers  Men
  1st TS 26 564   1st TI 18 616
  2nd TS 22 578   2nd TI 18 491
  3rd TS 20 628   3rd TI 19 470
  4th TS 16 668   4th TI 20 519




Rawlinson thought that Pulteney had not prosecuted the attack enthusiastically enough - he wrote of him 'he is not good at keeping his end up'.   As a result, Pulteney was pressurised to press future attacks whatever the human cost.