Bloody Meadows: Investigating Landscapes of Battle

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Western side of the B Road, where it has remained on all subsequent maps. Geophysical surveys, field walking and other forms of archaeological prospection techniques carried out within this field have subsequently failed to locate any evidence to suggest that it ever contained graves. Interestingly, fragments of human remains have now been found to the east of the road suggesting that the location indicated on the earlier maps may have been correct after all.

These findings confirm that the location of features depicted on all maps should be verified before any further conclusions can be drawn. A magnetic survey also revealed nothing. Having found approximately 50 individuals in a mass grave near Towton Hall, it may seem surprising that no skeletons were recorded as being found in the fields associated with the battle. Descriptions of the battlefield by the Antiquary John Leland in the sixteenth century however, state that human bones were removed from the battlefield by a Mr. Detailed archival research has recently uncovered what appears to be a previously unpublished document.

The complicated, rigid artillery plan is breaking down. In some places soldiers who are unable to take their objectives quickly enough get pinned down and repulsed because the bombardment lifts on to the next objective. Pleas to bring it back are lost in the noise. The only thing intact is a figure of Christ on the cross at a road junction. U nteroffizier Gustav Luettgens suddenly finds his company is being shot at from behind. At first his men think it's friendly fire and they jump out of their trench, waving and shouting "higher! One or two wanted to fight on, but there were many in our regiment who were over forty and, unlike the younger men, they had families and were the first to suggest surrendering.

In the end the others were swayed. Many of the British have been ordered — verbally, never in writing — to take no prisoners. And after advancing through those intricate German kill zones, few wish to. M iles to the south of the Ulsters and the Newfoundlanders, near the town of Mountauban, things look very different. It helps that he is within the range of French artillery, heavier than British. The Germans are scattered. Private Jack Cousins describes very different orders than those given to the Newfoundlanders:.

We had to get going. Go together at the same pace! If machine gun fire takes place, drop down flat to the ground! Many die to machine guns and shells. But by 10am the British have captured the battle headquarters of the German th Regiment, far behind the lines. He immediately calls off any further attacks. He is too late to stop the pointless sacrifice of the 1 st Essex, who should have been with the Newfoundlanders the first time but were not ready.

T he Ulsters have now penetrated into the fifth German line, ten minutes ahead of the planned artillery lift. Small mobile groups are charging down trenches unbalancing the Germans with sheer speed and aggression. They know that stopping for a moment could kill them. But the attack is dangerously isolated. They are surrounded on all sides but one. Caley nevertheless tells him to round up any who are left and attack again. But a more senior officer countermands the order before he can gather enough troops.

T he Newfoundlanders advance under heavy machine gun and artillery fire. Major Arthur Raley recalls:. Some of them get to the gaps in the German barbed wire. But an earlier failed attack means the German gunners know exactly where these gaps are. I cursed the generals for their useless slaughter. They seemed to have no idea what was going on. T he Ulstermen have taken the Schwaben Redoubt, but the desperate Germans are holding them there. Overlapping fields of machine gun fire from the surrounding ridges cut them down.

To the south, Friedrich Hinkel tries to hold the line as defeated German soldiers stream back through the trenches towards them. The Ulsters are advancing behind the pennant of the Young Citizen Volunteers — a red hand and shamrock, tied to the barrel of a rifle in the front rank. Hinkel brings up his best marksman, a stuttering young farmer, and orders him to shoot the pennant-bearer. It works, and the advance falters. And sure enough somebody got me in the leg. I made for him — a German — and I got him, shot him in the face.

THen I tried to walk abck and I couldn't. A big fellow called Andy Robb pulled me back I'd have liked to get in among them Germans with my bayonet because they'd mowed us down like pieces of wood Failure to take Thiepval is bleeding them all. The village continues to rake the Ulsters with machine gun fire.

Bloody Meadow – Burials – The Towton Battlefield Archaeology Project

Artillery observers believe, wrongly, that it has been taken, and so British artillery stops firing on it. A t his headquarters in Querrieu, Rawlinson considers the reports he is receiving. The villages of Serre, B. The French on our right are also going strong and have taken the Bois Favier. A rthur Hadow of the Newfoundlanders climbs out of his trench, carrying his thick ash walking stick. He makes the signal and the Newfies rush out, assembling quickly into their pre-arranged formation. Their spirits are high. But their attack route, ordered by a commander who has over-estimated the success of the early attacks, is in full view of the German defences.

They start to walk, and within seconds they are dying. In theory the 1 st Essex should be beside them, but they are held back by congestion in the trenches. So the Germans have no other targets but the Newfoundlanders. They are loaded with equipment and ordered to walk, not run. British forces are moving into Serre, he is told, and have also entered Thiepval. Neither of these things is true. This is not his fault. The information coming back to him is wildly optimistic.

Observers see the artillery lift as planned and assume the objectives are taken. Streams of German prisoners from the ones which are give the impression of victory. German signal flares calling down artillery are mistaken for British signal flares indicating success. Grenades punctuate the melee. All the time they are taking machine gun fire from the flanks, from the villages which have not yet been taken.

The reply from brigade HQ is short: T he Newfoundlanders all made wills the previous night. They knew this would be violent. German shells are exploding all around them as the enemy puts down devastating fire into No Man's Land. They can see for themselves that the rest of the brigade has failed in its attack.

But the communication trenches leading to the front line are all blocked by wounded men from that particular disaster, and the Newfies cannot get through. That means they will have to climb out of their rear trenches and move to the front above ground — an extra yards. I t is one hour into the Somme offensive. Roughly 30, British soldiers are already dead or wounded. I n many places the British have managed to take parts of the German trench system. The machine guns are waiting. Between the forest and the front line they lose around men. In all they lose 25 out of 28 officers and ordinary soldiers out of E dward Liveing lies by the German wire, listening to the chaotic noise.

A familiar sergeant appears from the smoke. Their conversation is typically genteel. Together they start to crawl back to the British line. Their attempt is being mirrored on enormous scale across the field. Men whose attacks have faltered are sheltering in shell holes, occasionally sniping back at the Germans, but mostly trying to get back to their own lines.

I n Thiepval Wood the next wave of Irish troops prepare themselves. Many intone the Lord's Prayer under their breath. Shells are falling into the forest and trees are burningall around them like absurd candles. Nearby the 2nd Salford Pals have been watching the carnage; they know they are next. Now he has to watch them die. In the kill zones his hundred-strong company is reduced to A former shop assistant is sent back to call for reinforcements, but shot down as soon as he breaks cover. Tweed tries to write a second message but the notebook is shot out of his hands.

The Salfords will be pinned down here for the next two hours. N ear the village of La Boiselle the British are advancing up two fortified valleys, "Sausage" and "Mash". Within ten minutes of attacking 80 per cent of the first wave troops are dead or wounded. The first soldiers to reach the parapet disappear in the plume of a German flame thrower. In Sausage the Germans wait until the Brits are very close and then let loose. They are so eager, and the slaughter so complete, that many of them stand up in the open on the lip of their trench to shoot down into the valley.

A t his chateau headquarters, Haig reviews his messages. A s the first wave of Ulstermen force their way further in, Germans they have missed pop up behind them and start shooting. Machine guns strafe them from the villages on either side. O ne attack is working: Some are wearing orange sashes, while many sing traditional songs.

It is, by popular agreement, the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne. And by creeping up as close to the barrage as possible they have beaten the Germans to the parapet. They sweep into the trenches, moving quickly, throwing bombs down every dugout they can find. They need to be quick: A t Gommecourt Edward Liveing has made it to the German wire. His sergeant is nowhere to be seen. Behind him, the fourth line has disintegrated. Men are kneeling and firing up at the German trenches and Liveing tries to order them forward, but cannot be heard.

Giving up, he turns and moves up towards the German trench when he feels a sharp warmth in his hip and drops to the ground. He assumes that a shell has gone off in a sodden crater and scalded him with boiling water. In fact, he has been shot. A t his observation platform Rawlinson can see nothing. A few flashes are visible through the thick mist. There is very little he can do now to affect events. A ll along the front the British are advancing into the kill zones. Those who reach the enemy trench line often find the barbed wire has not been cut. Thousands of soldiers are tangled up in it as they try to get through and hang there, jerking wildly as the Germans riddle them with bullets.

Two Edinburgh Pals battalions take fire from the side and lose several hundred men in a few minutes. The Pals regiments are one of the most poignant features of the Somme. Heavy casualties mean small communities lose hundreds of people at once. The town of Accrington is sons down in the space of 20 minutes. O ne mine at Kasino Point has failed to go off. He now has a terrible choice: He pushes the plunger. A giant fountain, rising from our line of men, about yards from me. Still on the move I stared at this, not realising what it was.

The British take casualties, but the late detonation means Germans who have already re-occupied their trenches now go up in smoke. This is actually one of the more successful attacks.

The Battle of the Somme, as it happened on July 1, 1916

His machine gun makes short work of them. Another crew nearby suffer a jam before a shell hit detonates their ammunition box. The Germans are trained to operate their guns like industrial equipment. Instead of aiming at individual targets they lay down constant fire over a wide area in overlapping kill zones. A t the Hawthorn Ridge redoubt the Germans are in crisis. Though some have beaten the Brits to the parapet, the Brits are now moving into the crater and the surrounding trench system. Unteroffizier Aicheler and his machine gun team have been blown backwards into the bottom of their firing pit by the mine explosion.

By the time they disentangle themselves and get their gun set up the British are inside a German trench just twenty meters away. Aicheler opens fire, but after ten rounds the gun stops. The British follow — and are cut down at point black range. Now Aicheler turns his attention to a second British group. Within seconds he kills six men and the rest immediately surrender. You can still see some segments of what he filmed today: N ear Mametz, Captain Martin of the 9 th Devonshires leads his men from a rear trench. A keen artist, he spent some time before the battle building a plasticine model of his sector, and became increasingly worried that the Germans would site a machine gun at the base of a crucifix just outside the town.

As his men leave the shelter of a small hill they are mown down by a single machine gun exactly where Martin predicted. He dies with them. A t Gommecourt Edward Liveing c limbs out of his trench and waves his rifle to advance. The landscape in front of him is an endless moonscape pitted with shell holes and bodies. It is the passing of German bullets. Ahead of him the second line is disappearing into the smoke, one man after another falling down.

A terrified hare jumps up in front of him and runs into some yellowing grass. T he Brits begin taking heavy casualties.

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This is not what they were expecting. One private of the Bradford Pals is smacked on his helmet by a bullet as he climbs out of the trench and falls back, alive but dazed. In some sections the British have to bunch together as they pass through gaps in their own barbed wire. The Germans target those gaps. Dead bodies start to pile up in the narrow openings, each new soldier more vulnerable as he tries to climb over his comrades.

T he German machine guns sputter into life. Private Slater of the Bradford Pals recalls:. We strolled along as though walking in a park. Then, suddenly, we were in the midst of a storm of machine gun bullets and I saw men beginning to twirl round and fall in all kinds of curious ways as the were hit — quite unlike the way actors do it in films. Those in their trenches take to their ladders. Across fifteen miles of front thousands of men step onto ground on which nobody has stood in daylight for nearly two years.

Attacking the crucial village of Montauban, Captain Nevill of the East Surreys has equipped each of his platoons with a football and offered a reward to whoever can get theirs into the German lines first. One ball is lettered:. T he British guns stop. An uncanny silence falls across the battlefield. The sound of birdsong is quite audible.

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Some of the British now assume the barrage really has worked. Asquith of the Barnsley Pals. There was an ear-splitting roar drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air. The earth column rose, higher and higher to almost 4, feet. There it hung, or seemed to hang, for a moment in the air, like the silhouette of some great cypress tree, then fell away in a widening cone of dust and debris. Again the roar, the upflung machine, the strange gaunt silhouette invading the sky.

The Boisselle redoubt was intact. Now your reception is going to match your turbulent longing to enter! The advance is failing before it has started. T he German trenches near the mine are a mess. Men stumble around with punctured eardrums; others are buried in their dugouts, fighting to dig themselves out before they run out of oxygen.

But many of the defences are intact. Outside there is so much chalk in the air it resembles a snowstorm. In ordering the mine to be blown ten minutes early, the local British commander, Lt Gen Hunter-Weston, has made a fatal mistake. His staff believe the time is necessary for the debris to settle. It also gives the Germans ample space to recover.

N earby Albert McMillan , a young soldier of the Public Schools Battalion, peeps up over the lip of the trench to watch the mine. The sight is impressive but sobering. Then the shock wave hits him and he is thrown down to the floor of the trench, winded. T he Hawthorn Ridge mine goes off. Its force rushes upwards at nine miles per second. Entire German platoons vanish. Geoffrey Malins watches in awe:. It rocked and swayed.

I gripped hold of my tripod to steady myself. Then, for all the world like a gigantic sponge, the earth rose in the air to the height of hundreds of feet. Higher and higher it rose, and with a horrible, grinding roar the earth fell back upon itself, leaving in its place a mountain of smoke. I looked upon all that followed from the purely pictorial point of view, and even felt annoyed if a shell burst outside the range of my camera.

As he turns his handle, men and pieces of planking blown high into the air begin to fall towards the ground. G eoffrey Malins grasps the handle of his camera and begins to turn. His eyes are fixed on the Hawthorn Redoubt. The seconds creep past. Dear god, has it misfired? Sweat beads on his forehead. A ll officers in the Newfoundland regiments are instructed to synchronise their watches. In these times Newfoundland is not yet part of Canada. Its troops have come a long way to fight for the Empire. Many units have been instructed to walk calmly over the top towards the German lines so as to maintain their formation.

But other units are doing things their own way, depending on the methods of the local commander. If I forget you, do not forget me. I had another twenty minutes in which to live in comparative safety. What was the difference between twenty minutes and twenty years? Really and truly what was the difference? I was living in the present, and that was enough. I am afraid that this working of mind will appear unintelligible. I cannot explain it further. G eoff Malins has reached his filming position and set up his camera.

The Hawthorn mine is set to go off ten minutes before the main attack, at Behind him, three soldiers are making bets on who will get there first. An officer mops his brow, nervously clutching his swagger stick in alternating hands. O ver the past seven weeks the British have fired 1. That should be enough. But the problem is quality. Britain's war industry simply is not producing the right shells in the right numbers. One million of them are shrapnel, barely fit even to cut barbed wire without great skill. And the British artillery corps does not have great skill: O f the 21, tonnes of explosives delivered by the British, only have been high explosive shells fit for penetrating deep dugouts.

In short, the British commanders are dangerously wrong about how good their artillery is. As a consequence, many of their soldiers have no idea what is about to happen. A t a fortified German position near Thiepval known as the Schwaben Redoubt, Unteroffizier Friedrich Hinkel is coordinating a dangerous defence — above ground. He cannot allow his men to miss that moment — which means someone always has to be checking above ground. Sentries dash outside into the shellfire every few minutes. Everyone knows where they have to be when the moment comes, and how many steps it will take to get there.

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  • British trenches on the Somme were built in the assumption that they would be temporary. German trenches were much more serious affairs. Their dugouts were often thirty feet below ground; some had door bells, water tanks with taps, wooden stair cases, electric light, steel doors, real kitchens, even wallpaper. Along the German line in dugouts just like these, the Germans are waiting tensely. They have endured seven days of this horrible bombardment — seven days without daylight, fresh water, sometimes without being able to bury their dead. They know that when the bombardment stops there will be an attack.

    And when that happens, they will need to race out of their dugouts and man their posts before the British can reach the trench. In essence, they are about to engage in a race to the parapet. Whoever gets there first will live. You will not need rifles. When you get to Thiepval you will find the Germans all dead. Not even a rat will have survived. You will advance to Mouquet Farm and be there by 11am. The field kitchens will follow you and give you a good meal.

    Preliminary raids during the bombardment suggested that this optimism is misplaced. But junior officers who raised such concerns have not been well received. I n his cockpit 7, feet above the battlefield, Cecil Lewis watches the hurricane bombardment. The whole salient, from Beaumont Hamet down to the marshes of the Somme, covered to a depth of several hundred yards with the coverlet of white wool — smoking shell bursts! It was now a continuous vibration, as if Wotan, in some paroxysm of rage, were using the hollow world as a drm and under his beat the crust of it was shaking.

    Nothing could live under that rain of splintering steel. The earth had been harnessed, the coal and ore mined, the flaming metal run; the workshops had shaped it with care and precision; our womenkind had made fuses, prepared deadly explosives; our engineers had designed machines to fire the product with a maximum of effect; and finally, here, all these vast credits of labour and capital were being blown to smithereens.

    Like many Ulstermen on the Somme McFadzean had initially joined the Ulster Volunteer Force — a theoretically illegal Protestant militia devoted to resisting Irish union with armed force. Ironically, it has previously bought rifles from Germany. Shells drop into the wood all around. Boxes of bombs are opened and emptied. One box falls to the floor of the trench, dislodging two pins. McFadzean throws himself on top of them just before they go off, killing himself but saving everyone else in the trench.

    I n a specially constructed observation platform behind the British Line, Lieutenant General Henry Rawlinson watches the last stage of bombardment. But Rawlinson has continually resisted such ambitions. He has successfully manoeuvred for the cavalry to come under his own command, and shows every intention of keeping it sat where it is. Rawlinson has faith that his artillery and infantry alone can do the job. In fact, he has refused his commanders permission to advance their soldiers to within 40 yards of the bombardment before it ceases. Nothing of the enemy, he says, will exist after the guns fall silent.

    E dward Liveing has passed out rum to his men. Our guns had started. The din was so deafening that one could not hear the crash of German shells exploding in our own lines. This is the last minute "hurricane bombardment". Every kind of artillery, including short-range but deadly trench mortars, is now being fired in unprecedented volume at the German positions. A s the sun rises, Cecil Lewis is already in the air.

    Square miles of country were ripped and blasted to a pockmarked desolation. Trenches had been obliterated, flattened out, and still, as we watched, the gunfire continued, in a crescendo of intensity. Today they have two missions: The information is then sent back to HQ via a primitive morse code radio or simply dropped there in weighted message bags. G eoffrey Malins , the official Army filmmaker, is caught in the chaos with a camera on his back.

    All around him shells are falling, trenches and parapets collapsing. Men barge past with horrible wounds, flesh hanging off their arms. At one point he and his trench guide squeeze into a five-foot-high tunnel. Here, strangely, the shellfire is gone. It is all concentrated on the main line. Malins gets the footage he needs and then checks his watch. HQ have tipped him off about the 30,lb explosive mine which is about to go off under the German-held Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt.

    At 19 points along the front, sappers have painstakingly tunnelled to prepare what will be, collectively, among the largest man-made explosions in history. T he British trench system is in organised chaos as the clock ticks down towards 7: Soldiers moving forward to their assault positions clog the sodden, ramshackle alleyways, squeezing past each other with the absurd loads of ammunition and equipment their commanders have foisted on them.

    Those who have found their place try to cook breakfast, bacon in a heated tin, trench coffee. Officers hand out rum to their men, sometimes handing out too much. Some are rendered incapable of obeying orders and must be pulled out of the line.

    All the while German artillery is raining down, visiting random and sudden death upon the British. I n a stuffy dug-out near the village of Fricourt, the war poet Siegfried Sassoon eats breakfast with his fellow officers, using an empty ammunition box for a table. Today, however, he will be spared action.

    A t a British airfield behind the lines, Lieutenant Cecil Lewis is tending to his plane. At just 18 years old he is a charming if reckless adventurer with many flight hours under his belt.