Lochnagar Labyrinth Panels 6-10

Attack: An account by Pte. Tom Easton, 2nd Battalion Tyneside Scottish

© Clément Masson (Illustration), Cédric Masson (Text).

On July 1st, I was not yet twenty. When the whistles blew for the assault, the bagpipes started and we advanced towards the Crater side by side, we didn’t want to look like cowards. There were enormous losses. Out of a thousand men there remained only one officer and two hundred men.

Later there was one event that remains etched in my memory. During the attack we moved along the German front line where I saw one of my best friends sitting at a German artillery position. He called me over and when I got to him he asked me to sit down. I protested, telling him we had other things to do. He said it wouldn’t take long and asked me if I could hear music. I could hear absolutely nothing.

He described to me what he could see: “The whole sky was opening up. Orchestras were playing, choirs were singing, and all the ancestors were there telling him to come and join them”. He held his arms out. “There’s my old father” he says, “they’re waiting for me”. He fell forward and I saw he had no back. A piece of shrapnel had gone through his chest.

These things shake you. But it was a momentous experience for me, and in spite of the shock, it gave me the courage to do my duty as a soldier.’

Tom Easton standing in the Crater – 1960s.

The Bretons at La Boisselle 19ème Régiment d’Infanterie

Machine-gun position, La Boisselle.

After the Battle of Albert in September 1914 and the halting of the German advance by the valiant Breton troops at La Boisselle, a small piece of the battlefield (now known as ‘The Glory Hole’) gained special significance and became known to the French as ‘L’ilot’ (small island) and to the Germans as ‘Granathof’ (Shell Farm).

Soon this land was pock-marked with craters formed by the ferocious mining emanating from both sides, with the French repeatedly attacking the ground in front of La Boisselle, and Ovillers further up the valley to the north.

A French priest, Father J. Brohan, witnessed these attacks from Bécourt Chateau when serving in the army and many years later recounted his story to a veteran of the 34th Division, Captain F. R. Webb. He compared what he saw then with the carnage suffered by the British on 1st July 1916.

‘Through mid-December 1914 and up to the first Christmas of the war Breton infantrymen attacked the Germans again and again. On the 17th December men of the 19ème Infanterie based in Brest and Landerneau, were decimated as they attacked around Ovillers.’

In 1924, a poignant memorial ‘The Calvary of the Bretons’, was erected to the north of the village by the family of Lieut. Augustin de Boisanger in memory of him and his comrades Capt. Henry Raillard and Adj. André Pitel. It has an inscription around the base to ‘les braves du 19 RIF, 7 dec 1914. Je n’abandonne pas mes bretons’.

Soldiers at the La Boisselle front. © Collection Jacques Pilven

Reflections of Pte. Harry Fellows

Private Harry Fellows, 12th Northumberland Fusiliers, 1915.

Pte. Harry Fellows of the 12th Northumberland Fusiliers heard the Lochnagar mine detonate whilst waiting to attack nearby Fricourt. The events of July 1916 forever haunted him and later in life he began writing poetry. He returned to France for the first time in 1984 and visited Mametz Wood (where his ashes are now buried) and where he had taken part in a burial party following the capture of the Wood.

This is his poem:

‘Reflections on two visits to Mametz Wood – 1916 and 1984.’

Shattered trees and tortured earth
The acrid stench of decay
Of mangled bodies lying around
The battle not far away,
This man made devastation
Does man have no regrets?
Does he pause to ask the question?
Will the birds sing again in Mametz?
This Welsh lad lying near my feet
With blood matted auburn hair,
Was his father proud when he went to the war?
Did his mother shed a tear?
Did he leave a girl behind him?
Awaiting the postman’s knock,
Oh, the sadness when they learn of his death,
Dear God, help them to bear the shock.

That German boy, his bowels astrew
Fought for his Fatherland,
That he fought to the end is obvious
A stick bomb is still in his hand.
Did he hate us as much as we thought?
Was our enmity so just,
On his belt an insignia, ‘GOTT MIT UNS’,
Did not the same God favour us?
As far as the eye can see
Dead bodies cover the earth,
The death of a generation
Condemned to die at birth,
When comes the day of reckoning
Who will carry the can?
For this awful condemnation,
Of man’s inhumanity to man!

What a wondrous pleasant sight
Unfolds before my eyes,
A panoply of magnificent trees
Stretching upwards to the skies,
Did someone help Dame Nature?
The sins of man to forget,
Where once there was war, now peace reigns supreme,
And the birds sing again in Mametz.

Harry returns, CWGC Norfolk Cemetery 1984. © Mick Fellows & George Heron.

Roy Bealing M.M.and his best friend Pte. Alfred Moxham

Roy Bealing remembers, Lochnagar 1st July 1980.

For many years, a lone veteran made his way to the old Somme battlefield where he would stand quietly on the lip of the Lochnagar Crater. That man was Roy Bealing M.M., of the 6th Wiltshires, and had fought here on 2nd July 1916. The events of that day remained with him for the rest of his life. His pilgrimages were a testament to the memory of his lost comrades.

His best friend, Pte. Alfred Moxham, lost his life at Lochnagar. Roy, along with Alfred’s brother, William, witnessed the tragic end.

Roy and William had advanced together and fallen headlong into the Crater. Scrambling up the other side, they could see a German machine-gun had found the range of the lip. Backwards and forwards the gun swept, and up came young Alfred, who upon seeing the chasm before him, froze. His brother and Roy frantically shouted but before he could move out of danger, he was cut down.

Roy and William had the painful duty of burying him in the bottom of the Crater, where for all we know, he may still lie. Later that year a Canadian war correspondent noted in his diary that he had seen there a simple wooden cross with the inscription ‘Moxham’. Shown here is a photograph of the cross which was later used in the Michelin Battlefield Guides.

The story would surely have been lost had it not been for a chance meeting in the late 1970s when Richard Dunning began talking with this solitary figure looking out across the Crater. He subsequently accompanied Roy on several pilgrimages back.

Battlefield grave of Pte. Alfred Moxham, Lochnagar Crater 1917 © IWM.

A German defender’s experience

The German 110th and 111th Baden Infantry Reserve Regiments (RIR) held the line facing the 34th Division. Despite taking heavy casualties, most of the deep dugouts remained intact although they endured unimaginable hardships under the week-long artillery barrage.

German trenches, La Boisselle 1916

Immense good fortune befell the defenders when they intercepted messages about the forthcoming attack. The morning of 1st July came and at 0728hrs the two huge mines either side of La Boisselle were detonated and for several minutes a rain of stones showered down on the whole sector.

According to German reports ‘Half of 7th Company became casualties and 5th Company was only able to muster 15 men. The 2nd Company was completely wiped out.

Within moments, wave after wave of men marching in step, rose out of the British trenches on either side of Bécourt Valley, thick columns followed from Bécourt Wood. Thus rolled the enemy against the confusion of trench and barbed wire entanglements.

The formidable German Maxim machine-gun.

We emerged from our dugouts, prepared our machine-guns and silently awaited the oncoming enemy. When the attackers were within a few metres of the barbed wire, there suddenly raged forth a hurricane of fire on these thick waves. Some defenders confidently stood on the parapets, hurling grenades and firing rifles, whilst smoking pipes. In scarcely a minute no-man’s-land appeared deserted. But the British kept coming forward and for two hours, the defenders’ fire rattled on.

Eventually this part of the battle in Bécourt Valley slackened off and the British, with such high hopes of success that morning, only held the mine crater.’

Taken from ‘The Chequers’ 1938-39, the year book of the 34th Division Officer’s Club.