Lochnagar Labyrinth Panels 1-5

2nd Lieut. Cecil Arthur Lewis M.C.

3rd Squadron Royal Flying Corps
1898 – 1997

Cecil Lewis, 3rd Squadron Royal Flying Corps, 1916.

Cecil Lewis was a remarkable man. He was a co-founder of both the BBC and ITV, a renowned broadcaster, writer, mystic and an ‘Oscar’ winner. He was still flying at aged 94. He once wrote ‘You should live gloriously, generously, dangerously. Safety last!’.

On the 1st July 1916, at the age of 18 and flying a Morane Parasol, he was detailed to observe the explosion of both the Lochnagar and nearby Y-Sap mines. He described it in his classic memoire ‘Sagittarius Rising’.

‘The whole earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up into the sky. There was an ear-splitting roar, drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air like a scrap of paper in a gale. The earth column rose higher and higher to almost 4,000 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. A moment later came the second mine. Then the dust cleared and we saw the two white eyes of the Craters.’

In the early 1990s, Cecil Lewis was on BBC’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ and spoke very movingly of his memories of the Somme battlefield. Richard Dunning wrote to him afterwards at his home in Corfu, inviting him to the 80th anniversary Remembrance Ceremony at the Lochnagar Crater. He was very enthusiastic and arranged to come over but unfortunately was unable to attend.

However, he kindly recorded a special message about witnessing Lochnagar explode and his perilous experiences flying over the front, which was played during the Ceremony. He returned home to Corfu and sadly died the next year. A truly exceptional and unforgettable character.

Tunnelling at La Boisselle

Men and Officers of 185th Tunnelling Company. © IWM

Early attempts at mining by the British on the western Front commenced in late 1914 in the soft clay further north in Flanders. Hereabouts, the opposing French and German forces began mining operations in late December 1914. The mining at La Boisselle was in hard chalk and required different techniques.

In the summer of 1915, newly formed British Tunnelling Companies of the Royal Engineers moved to the Somme front and took over approximately 66 shafts from the French including those at La Boisselle.
By this time, the narrow strip of no-man’s-land beside the fortified village, known as ‘The Glory Hole’, had become a morass of craters, each created with the detonation of ever larger underground charges.

The underground war continued with offensive mining designed to destroy one another’s tunnels, dug-outs, and strong-points. Depths of tunnels ranged from around 30 feet (9 metres) to the deepest at 120 feet (36 metres). Around La Boisselle alone, several kilometres of tunnels were dug by both sides. The Germans had also prepared defensive tunnels at a depth of about 80 feet (24 metres), parallel to the front line.

In late 1915, it was agreed a Franco-British offensive on the Somme should be launched in the summer of 1916 using coordinated forces of infantry, artillery, aerial-reconnaissance and strategic mining. Work was started on 11 November 1915 by 185th Tunnelling Company, and was completed by 179th Tunnelling Company who took over in March 1916, in preparation for a massive mine under the German redoubt of Schwaben Höhe.

Men and Officers of 185th Tunnelling Company. © IWM

A Tunneller of the 179th Tunnelling Company

Officers of the 179th Tunnelling Company. © Mrs A. Russell & Simon Jones.

The shaft for the Lochnagar mine was sunk some 400 feet (120 metres) behind the British front line, and 1000 feet (304 metres) from the German front line, in a communication trench called ‘Lochnagar Street’. An inclined shaft was dug at about 45 degrees to a depth of perhaps 115 feet (35 metres).

Two near-horizontal galleries at different depths were driven towards the German strong point called the Schwaben Höhe but only the one at about 50 feet (15 metres) below ground level was finally used. The explosives’ chambers were about 52 feet (16 metres) deep and approximately 100 feet (30 metres) short of the German line. Work was both arduous and perilous with progress at an average of 17 feet per day, tunnels here being 4 feet 6 inches high and 2 feet 6 inches wide. For every foot advanced, approximately 48 sand-bags of chalk had to be removed by working-parties of infantry back to Bécourt Wood. Much of this was to be returned later in order to back-fill the tunnel after the charges had been laid.

As the tunnellers drew closer to their objective, progress slowed as the need for silent working increased. Pickaxes could not be used and work, as Major Henry M Hance, commander of 179th Tunnelling Company describes, “was done in silence. A large number of bayonets were fitted with handles. The operator inserted the point in a crack in the “face”, or alongside a flint, of which there were any number in the chalk, gave it a twist,” and “another man from behind would catch the stone as it fell”. Men worked barefooted and on sand-bags to maintain silence, the chalk spoil being placed in sand-bags for tamping the explosives later.

Albert front – men packing sand-bags in a chamber. © IWM.

The Attack by 34th Division on 1st July 1916

Signalling the beginning of the battle, the two great mines at Y-Sap in Mash Valley and Lochnagar in Sausage Valley were detonated at 0728hrs on 1st July 1916.

The 34th Division were all ‘Pals’ battalions who had answered Kitchener’s call and as yet were untried in battle. They were to make a flanking assault on the German front lines around La Boisselle. The division comprised 15th and 16th Royal Scots (Edinburgh City), 10th Lincolns (Grimsby Chums), 11th Suffolks (Cambridge Pals), eight battalions of Northumberland Fusiliers (Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish).

Tyneside Irish advancing. © IWM

Two minutes after the mines exploded, whistles blew and men climbed from the relative safety of their trenches.

Over 75% of men became casualties, as in many places the attackers had to cross 800 yards (730 metres) or more of open ground to reach the German wire. They were soon decimated in no-man’s-land, survivors seeking refuge in the newly-formed Lochnagar Crater.

Section of Map 8 from the Official History. © O.S.

Battalions of the Tyneside Scottish attacked up through Mash Valley spurred on by their pipers, between Y-Sap crater and La Boisselle to their right. Machine guns proved the downfall of these brave men and few made the 500 yards (460 metres) to the German lines. The Tyneside Scottish attacking the Schwaben Höhe strongpoint alongside Lochnagar Crater had a shorter distance but equally ferocious machine-gun fire again meant few reached their objectives.

The Tyneside Irish had the greatest distance to make their attacks, setting out from the reserve positions nearly a mile (1.6 km) behind the British front line. Men were cut down as they moved slowly from the exposed hills. Some did make it forward, with a small group eventually reaching their objective of Contalmaison, only to be lost later.

The 34th Division took approx. 6,500 casualties, the highest of any that day.

The valiant attempt by Bombing Sgt. Patrick Butler to rescue his C/O, Lieut-Col. Louis Meredith Howard

When the attack commenced on 1st July the 24th Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers had to advance from the reserve trenches behind Tara and Usna Hill and walk well over two thousand yards (1800 metres) across totally exposed ground towards their objectives for the day – the trenches in front of the villages of Contalmaison and Pozières. German machine-guns and artillery decimated them, inflicting over 630 casualties by nightfall.

Bombing Sgt. 348 Patrick Butler, 24th Northumberland Fusiliers, killed 1st July 1916. © Patrick Butler.

They were led by Lieut-Col. Louis Meredith Howard who was seriously wounded and lay caught up on the German wire. Despite the danger, Bombing Sgt. Patrick Butler crawled out and extricated him before carrying him to the relative safety of the Lochnagar Crater. Shortly afterwards, whilst tending to his C/O, Sgt. Butler was sadly killed by a German sniper.

Equally sadly, Lieut-Col. Louis Meredith Howard succumbed to his wounds the following day and for several years now, on behalf of his relatives, a wreath has been placed in his memory during the Lochnagar Remembrance Ceremony.

They are both buried nearby in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Ovillers Military Cemetery.

This was no doubt one of countless acts of selfless gallantry on that fateful day but there was an interesting postscript. In May 2016 there was a poignant meeting where, for the first time, the grandson of Lieut-Col. Louis Meredith Howard met the grandson of Bombing Sgt. Patrick Butler, the man who had sacrificed his own life in trying to save him.

And in July wreaths to them both are laid side by side during the Lochnagar Ceremony.