Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire

The 12th Royal Irish Rifles (Central Antrims)
on 1st July, 1916

By far the largest number of men from the Ballymena area served with the 12th (service) Battalion of The Royal Irish Rifles - also known as the Central Antrim Volunteers.

The 12th Rifles found themselves in the thick of the fighting on the Western Front with their true baptism of fire coming on Saturday, July 1, 1916 .

In the days before the opening of the Battle of the Somme, the 12th Rifles and the 9th Fusiliers manned a line of trench which stretched between two strongpoints - the 'William' and 'Mary' Redans (forts).

These two battalions of 108 Brigade were separated from the remainder of their comrades in the Ulster Division by the marshy valley of the River Ancre - a zone deemed impossible for troops to operate in because of the nature of the ground.

Their objective on 1st July was to clear the German trenches which protected the approaches to Beaucourt Railway Station, a main supply and communications centre of the Kaiser's army in the Thiepval area.

At this point on the front, no-man's land was about 400 yards deep - roughly the length of four football pitches - and, about half way across was a seventy yard wide ravine with twenty feet deep, steeply sloping sides.

At zero hour, the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers (Armagh, Monaghan and Cavan Volunteers) attacked 'in fine style'.

In fact, the first wave got away with few casualties but succeeding waves were advancing onto ground which was now a cross-fire zone for the elite German machine gun teams who had raced to their emplacements the moment the British bombardment had ceased.

Despite their losses, the Fusiliers charged on, by this time ignoring all previous orders to advance at a walking pace, and swept over the German front line. One platoon in the right centre company, under Major T.J. Atkinson, 'carried all before it' and fought their way forward through the trenches to their objective, Beaucourt Station.

Not one of those who reached that objective ever returned. Observers could see their marker flags in position but there were no reserves to exploit their success. Those who could make it back to their jump-off point did so, many, many others were incapable of saving themselves.

On the left of the Fusiliers, 12th Royal Irish Rifles dashed forward in the words of one officer 'to get the job done'. However, the wire around the German fortifications, which thrust out into no-man's land had not been completely destroyed by the massive pre-attack bombardment.

In fact, the men encountered 'great rolls of wire with barbs as long as a man's thumb'. Gaps had been cut but these openings were to prove deadly killing zones exploited to the full by German machine-gunners who sprayed the Ulstermen with maxim bullets as they funnelled down these corridors between the wire.

Beaten back at the first rush, the 12th Rifles were now also without their only 'saving grace' - the British artillery's so-called creeping barrage had advanced far beyond them. Now there was nothing to keep the Germans' heads down.

Some men did get into the German lines - most of those who did were next to the 9th Fusiliers and a few small groups fought with the Armagh men during their harrowing struggle towards Beaucourt Station. Others attempted to clear a breach for their comrades who were hampered by the uncut wire but the fight was unequal and the battalion's war diary makes it plain that the attack was now doomed to failure.

German infantry was now filtering in from the flanks and soon the Ulstermen in both battalions were under fire from both sides and their front. The situation was even worse for those fighting grim little actions in the German trenches - they were also in danger of being totally cut off from their only avenue of escape.

Nevertheless, the remnants of the Rifles twice re-formed under fire and renewed the attack. Led by the remaining officers they advanced but as the bodies began to cover no-man's land, all chances of a successful attack melted way.

Corporal Herbison - praised by his officers for bravery on 1st July - was promoted to Sergeant but was killed
in action in late August 1916.

One Ballymena man whose bravery on the day earned him a mention in the official 'war diary' of the unit and praise from his platoon officers was a non-commissioned officer from Hill Street, Corporal R. Herbison.

Herbison made it through the carnage of 1st July and wsas promoted to the rank of Sergeant. He died a little less than two months later on August 27th and his passing was marked by a heartfelt letter to his sister from a fellow Ballymena man, but from the other end of the social scale, Lieutenant W. B. Stuart.

In his letter, the young lieutenant explained how Corporal Herbison refused to give up the fight on 1st July.

"I have known your brother personally for nearly two years and I feel that I have lost a real friend as well as an excellent sergeant. I have never met anyone whom I trusted more than your brother. He was absolutely fearless and could always be depended upon to do anything.

"Perhaps you have heard that he was recommended for bravery at the battle of the Somme, when, after three attempts had been made, he collected eight men of his platoon and was going to make another attack, when, luckily, he was stopped as the chance was hopeless."

As the last few officers and NCOs re-organised their men for 'one last push' a messenger arrived breathlessly at the Rifles' forward position.

Divisional HQ had been informed that the Germans were back in control of their front line. Substantial numbers of both attacking battalions were dead or wounded, the remainder were trapped. The slaughter could not be allowed to continue.

An unidentified officer read the note from HQ which the runner thrust into his hands.

The soldiers preparing themselves for another dash across the corpse strewn ground must have watched intently as the officer noted the contents.

"Stand where you are," he told them. The order undoubtedly saved many lives and now the Rifles could concentrate on treating their wounded, many of these still lying in open view of the German trenches.

The remainder of the morning would be devoted to providing covering fire for those still trying to escape the German trenches. The attack which had held so much promise had become a damage limitation exercise.

Philip Orr, in his magnificent account of the Ulster Division, 'The Road to the Somme' records how those men who had breached the enemy line came back, retreating one by one, or paying the price as the enemy attack swept over them.

One eyewitness recalled: "There was a wee runt of a man from Ballymena, even when standing on a box he could hardly see over the parapet, but a powerful hard wee man. I saw him lying dead with his bayonet stuck into a big German officer twice his size. The German still held in his hand the pistol he shot Jimmie with"

As the morning grew hotter with the rising sun, a trickle of men arrived back in the British positions. Some, slightly wounded, pulled other more serious cases behind them. Others, like Victoria Cross Winner, Rfn. Robert Quigg of Bushmills, went out into no-man's land again and again to search for casualties.

The attack north of the River Ancre had been a military failure. The bombardment had failed to cut the wire properly and had not destroyed the deep German dug outs. In 1916, officers could not request artillery support to deal with a particular problem. The barrage was totally inflexible and the gunners themselves inexperienced.

Even the ground was against the two battalions. The ravine had been far too difficult to negotiate and its steep sides slowed the advance allowing the Germans to win the race to mount and fire their machine guns.

A portrait of Quigg V.C.

Above all, nothing less than a massacre could have been expected if the Division to the north of the Ulstermen failed to take out the multiple machine gun nests at Beaumont Hamel. When that attack failed, the Rifles and Fusiliers were cut down like corn before a scythe.

Rifleman Ben Millar from Harperstown, Cullybackey, was one of those who had an extremely lucky escape on July 1.

In a letter to his father, Ben masks much of the horror of that day with what can only be termed a 'boys own' account of his battle experience.

Such letters are common. Most soldiers preferred to keep their own families and loved ones 'innocent' of the stark realities of the war.

He wrote:

"At 7.30 on the 1st July morning we were all standing in the trenches, waiting for the word of command. We got it, and in fine style we drove them back over the third and fourth line, but not without heavy losses - but the Hun's losses were heaviest of all.

"We held their fire for an hour or two but we had to retire as we couldn't get reinforcements up in time. It was then we got the cutting up. I got buried up twice; the second time I lost my senses, my nerves got ahead of me. Two chums pulled me out and brought me back to our own line."

With these matter of fact sentences, Ben Millar describes one of the greatest fears of any soldier of the Great War - being buried alive.

It seems that Rfn. Millar was amongst those who made it into the German trench system, bombing and bayoneting their way through the traverses of the fortifications. He states that, for him, the entire action lasted little more than 120 minutes in total. In fact the battalion war diary indicates that the attack was officially ended much earlier than that.

And his next statement pragmatically sums up why the entire attack was such a gross failure.

"We had to retire because we couldn't get reinforcements up in time." says Rfn. Millar.

Quite simply it was impossible to advance over open ground. To do so meant death.

And, as so often in battle, many casualties occurred when men had to leave the cover they had sought to 'fall back'. It could be argued that those who made their way back to the British lines despite wounds and trauma on July 1 were amongst the bravest of the brave.

While in the trenches they were at least sheltered from the hail of machine gun fire and shrapnel which swept the open ground. But going 'above ground' almost guaranteed a wound of some kind.

Millar was one of those who made the desperate bid to escape the counter-attacking Germans. During that dash, German artillery observers called down hundreds of shells in an attempt to cause maximum casualties to what their own accounts describe as the 'English troops'.

"I got buried up twice," says Millar. Can you imagine the sheer horror of being covered in stinking soil? And not just on one occasion. It is little wonder, as he admits, that Rfn. Millar lost his senses. Apart from the concussion of the blast, his reaction was probably a mental fail-safe to stop him from going entirely crazy.

As he states quite frankly: "My nerves got ahead of me."

Bobby Letters, another Cullybackey man, had an equally lucky escape on the morning of July 1.

From a modern stand-point, his account is an amazing insight into the character of the men who fought in the Great War.

We look back now on 'crosses, row on row' and ponder how men could stand up to such punishment be they British, Irish, German, Turk or any of the other nationalities which struggled for supremacy during the conflict.

In an article headlined 'His rifle smashed by a bullet', the Ballymena Observer recorded:

"A thrilling description of the fight was forwarded by Rfn. Bobby Letters, Central Antrims. He is a son of Mr. R. Letters of Cullybackey who is serving with the Royal Field Artillery. Mr. Letters senior is an old soldier who has been through the Boer War.

"He writes:- I was through it all on Saturday when the Division attacked the German trenches at Thiepval on July 1. Where I was, the fighting was severe, but we advanced in their third lines and inflicted losses on them and captured a great many prisoners.

"We suffered some losses and I have to mourn for a few of my comrades who have fallen. Lieut. T. Haughton is amongst those from Cullybackey who have fallen. But they died doing their duty - upholding the honour of the 36th Division. The 1st July will be a day never forgotten in Ulster; it will live in my memory for ever, and the sights that I have seen.

"I lived under a bombardment from the 24th June until the 3rd July when we were relieved. You will be glad to know that I and a chum captured 15 Germans ourselves - two in one of their own dug-outs. I brought them out at the point of the bayonet and ran them across 'no man's land' into our lines.

"When I was going across with them a German machine gun opened fire on us and a bullet from it struck my rifle and smashed it. I have the bullet as a souvenir and also a German cap and pipe and a small book which one of the prisoners gave to me. I will try and send them home soon as a memento of the 1st July."

Bobby Letters was a master of understatement. For home consumption, he has obviously played down the impact the battle had on all ranks of the 12th Royal Irish Rifles.

"I have to mourn for a few of my comrades," he states, as if only a handful of men had died.

Rifleman Bobby Letters received the Military Medal for conspicuous bravery on 1st July.

The final death toll for the 12th Rifles as a result of the first day's battle on the Somme was a truly appalling figure of 153 officers and men. Few in the battalion escaped without one kind of physical wound or another. It is doubtful if any escaped what we now know as post traumatic stress syndrome.

While the vast majority of casualties in the 12th Rifles were drawn from the rank and file, the percentage of officers killed and wounded was extreme.

'Tommy' Haughton - already mentioned by Rfn. Bobby Letters - was just one of many young subalterns who led their men into action that hot July morning.

Lt. Haughton had already sent several letters home to the next of kin of soldiers in his unit who had been killed or wounded in the months leading up to the Somme. Now it was his brother officers who had to tell young Haughton's relatives in Cullybackey of how he met his death..

One such letter was sent by Lt. Robbie Hanson, a Larne man also serving with the 12th Btn.

He wrote to Lt. Haughton's brother, Samuel:

Dear Sammy - I know Dempster Wilson has written to you about Tommy, but I just want to write a line and say how awfully sorry I am for you all. I have lost practically all my best friends, and can, perhaps, realise just a little what his own people are suffering.

Tommy died like a hero leading his men in a grand charge for the German lines. I think he would have liked that death best. His name will never be forgotten by his friends in the battalion.

I went up the night before last with the adjutant to try and find him but we couldn't get out, the shelling was too heavy. The adjutant and I both got hit but not badly.

If I can find out any more or get up there again I'll let you know.

Lt. Robbie Hanson, 12th Royal Irish Rifles

It was not the only letter received by Sam Haughton. Another had come from a Ballymena soldier, Rfn. Jack Anderson of Princes Street who himself was wounded in the attack.

Anderson, who had worked in Kane's Foundry in Harryville before the war, had been 'batman' to Lt. Haughton. On receipt of the letter, Sam Haughton felt moved to publish its contents in the 'Ballymena Observer'.

He told the editor:-

"I quote freely from a letter which has drawn a veil of comfort over the great sorrow of our loss, in the hope that those same words may help many another aching heart throughout this countryside.

My brother's servant, Rfn. Jack Anderson, has written home from a hospital, Lonaghan Lodge near Sheffield and gives a wonderful account of what took place.

He was in my brother's platoon which met such deadly machine gun fire. Rfn. Anderson actually reached the German lines but, as he puts it, so few of his comrades were left that he immediately missed my brother.

Regardless of the ruthless fire he went back into the open and after searching for some time, found his officer. Bending over his master to bandage his wounds, he himself was hit and I now realise intensely with what justice Tommy often said that Anderson was 'one of the best'.

Having done everything he could and realising that all need for human aid was passed, Rfn. Anderson thought of his own hurts.

No medals or words can repay in full such things and we can but hope that the inner knowledge of real self sacrifice brings with it an ample measure of recompense."

Jack Anderson was among many wounded who crawled across no-man's land in an attempt to regain their own lines that day. Many fell exhausted into a shellholes and, in the words of one officer, took out their Bibles and family pictures and died.

Jack was obviously a tough customer, he reached the wire in front of the British trenches and , lying on his back, pulled himself under the barbs. On the brink of safety he must have fainted and was finally being brought into safety by a comrade when utterly exhausted.

There were remarkably few British prisoners taken on the first day on the Somme. Most of those who were captured were cut-off in the German lines without ammunition or water. Many were wounded and expected little mercy from their German opponents.

Scare stories about the 'murderous hun' were still prevalent and trench fighting was a bloody, close quarter affair - in the heat of battle it was a lucky man who escaped a swift bayonet thrust to the guts.

Rfn Alex Greer - treated well by his captors.

Rifleman Alex. Greer of Mill Street, Ballymena, was badly wounded 'about an hour after the start of the offensive.' He was captured and spent the rest of the war as a POW.

It was not until the third week in August that his father, Alex. Greer snr. found out what had happened to his only son who had been reported killed by several of his comrades.

The Ballymena Observer reported: "Rifleman Alex. Greer, writing home to his father from Lazarette Camp Hospital, Minden, Germany, states that he was hit by a rifle bullet on the left forearm just about an hour after they (12th RIR) started the offensive. The bullet is in his arm yet and he fears it will be of little use until removed."

Rifleman Alex. Greer of Mill Street, Ballymena, was badly wounded 'about an hour after the start of the offensive.' He was captured and spent the rest of the war as a POW.

Perhaps surprisingly - and maybe to give a little extra hope to the families of other 'missing men' - the paper also reported: "No-one could have been kinder to him than the men who captured him. They gave him cigars, cigarettes etc. and he has nothing to complain of as regards treatment. The only other Ballymena man he saw was Rfn. William Stevenson who was along with him on the German Red Cross Train."

Billy Stevenson, from Railway Street, was another who had been reported 'missing' in the aftermathof the attack. We can only imagine the relief felt by his wife when she received his Red Cross postcard from the Minden Camp.

Such accounts of the battle can now be read in a historical context. We now know that the attack of the 12th Rifles and the 9th Fusiliers was defined, by their own commanders, in the following terms: "The action on the north side of the Ancre was separate from the other (the main divisional attack) and of lesser importance.

In strictly military terms, this was true at the time. The battle planners wanted to concentrate the greater number of Ulster troops against the 'impregnable' Schwaben Redoubt which dominated the ground on the south bank of the Ancre - it was the major target for the division.

Looking back now, it is possible to argue (and 'what ifs' are the spice of life for military history enthusiasts) that if there had been reserves to support the Fusiliers at Beacourt Station, they could have flanked the Germans who took such a heavy toll of the Central Antrim men in the 12th Rifles.

From there, a whole host of historical possibilities become apparent. But it was not to be. Such a manoeuvre needed to be accomplished fast and with the communication techniques available in 1916 there was simply no way to re-direct the much needed reserves on time.

In any case, even if the Fusiliers and the Rifles had managed to secure their objectives, they would have found themselves flanked in turn by the Germans in the next sector who had slaughtered the proud regulars of the 29th Division - many of them Irishmen - on the slopes at Beaumont Hamel.

It is now apparent from released military diaries and trench maps that soldiers who believed they had been fighting in the 3rd and 4th German lines were in fact barely on the periphery of the fortifications on the south bank of the Ancre.

Those small groups who did penetrate to the German's rear lines were virtually out of ammunition and water. Their supporting arms were inadequate to deal with the German troops who were swiftly rushed into the counter-attack.

For the 12th Royal Irish Rifles , those two hours on the morning of Saturday, July 1, 1916, spelled the end of their identity as the boys of the Ulster Volunteers.

From then on, the battalion of pals would never be the same again. A pre-1916 soldier's marching song sums up the effect which the Somme had on so many units:-

If you want the old battalion
I know where they are,
I know where they are,
I know where they are
If you want the old battalion,
I know where they are
They're hanging on the old barbed wire

We've seen them, we've seen them .. hanging on the old barbed wire.
We've seen them, we've seen them .. hanging on the old barbed wire.

The officers of the 12th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles - many of them were killed and wounded on July 1 1916.

For a dirict link to the author of this artice email Des Blackadder.

Copyright © Des Blackadder, June, 2004.

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