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First World War Centenary: When the Whistle Blows - part one

27 July 2016

One hundred years ago, the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles ever fought by the British Army, was raging in northern France.

On 27th July 1916, footballers, club staff and fans comprising the Footballers’ Battalion entered the fray and would spend the next three days fighting fiercely in Delville Wood.
In support of the official First World War Centenary and in commemoration of the sacrifice made by the Footballers’ Battalion, over the next three days the EFL will be serialising Andrew Riddoch and John Kemp’s abridged account of the battle as described in When the Whistle Blows.
Find the four-part serialisation on from 27th to 29th July.

Here’s part one…

Part two: Once you've finished part one, click here to read part two of When the Whistle Blows

When the Footballer’s Battalion left Vimy Ridge for the Somme in mid-July 1916, the Battle of the Somme had been raging for three weeks. Within only a few days the battalion would be involved in an attack on Delville Wood, an area of woodland covering some 156 acres, next to the village of Longueval.  ‘The Devil’ s Wood’, as it soon became known, had already seen heavy fighting and was still held by the Germans.

At 6.10 a.m. on 27 July, the British unleashed a massive artillery barrage, provided by 369 guns, on Delville Wood and the northern part of Longueval, which resulted in the area being torn apart by some 125,000 shells. An hour later the 1st King’ s Royal Rifle Corps and 23rd Royal Fusiliers of 99th Brigade launched their attack. As they advanced into the smoking wood, those German soldiers who were still able to resist were shot down or bayoneted by the advancing waves of infantry.

By 9 a.m. the attacking troops had reached their final objective, a line about 150 yards inside the northern perimeter of the wood. As soon as the Germans realised that their troops had been pushed back, heavy shellfire systematically began to sweep Delville Wood and its southern approaches. The fact that Delville Wood formed such an advanced salient in the German lines meant that the shells were coming from three directions.

While the shells exploded around them, the officers and men of 99th Brigade worked hard to consolidate their new positions before the inevitable counterattacks began. The consolidation process was rendered considerably more difficult by the matted tangle of tree roots that lay just beneath the surface, but a makeshift line of defence was gradually established 150 yards inside the wood’s northern, north-eastern and eastern perimeters.

By 9.30 a.m. large numbers of German troops were reported to be massing north and east of the wood. Half an hour later a heavy bombing attack was launched against the 1st King’ s Royal Rifle Corps on the eastern edge of Delville Wood. Further counterattacks developed from the north and north-east. Throughout the morning several bomb fights took place and there was much sniping from shell holes and the thickets of undergrowth. With casualties mounting, the 99th Brigade called for assistance.

Col Henry Fenwick, the commanding officer of the Footballers’ Battalion, received the order to move up to Delville Wood shortly after 11 a.m.. The Footballers’ Battalion passed through Montauban, Bernafay Wood and Trônes Wood. Each man was carrying three grenades and two Very lights. Due to the scarcity of drinking water on the front line, several men were ordered to take up petrol tins of water. By 2.15 p.m. the Footballers’ Battalion had reached the Battalion HQ of the 17th Royal Fusiliers, situated in Longueval Alley. Behind the Footballers’ Battalion came the 2nd South Staffords and two companies of the 22nd Royal Fusiliers bearing tools and boxes of grenades and ammunition.

Progress was painfully slow on account of a heavy German artillery barrage intended to prevent British reinforcements reaching Delville Wood. Prior to the Somme offensive, the German guns had carefully registered the probable routes of an advancing enemy. Shells of all calibres fell on Delville Wood and its southern approaches. One shell landed on 2/Lt William Hendry’ s platoon with tragic consequences, as Pte George Whitworth, of Northampton Town, recalled: ‘We were going up through the wood when a shell came over and buried all my platoon, killing fourteen: but I got out of it and went on with shells dropping all around us.’  By 5.15 p.m., the first two companies of the Footballers’ Battalion had reached the Wood’ s southern perimeter. Fifteen minutes later a British aeroplane on a reconnaissance flight reported that Delville Wood appeared to have been totally destroyed by the British and German bombardments.

From 9.20 p.m. onwards, the Footballers’ Battalion started taking over the positions of 1st King’ s Royal Rifle Corps in Delville Wood. Along with one company of the 1st King’ s Royal Rifle Corps, the Footballers’ Battalion held a line of battered trenches and shell holes facing north-east. On their left, the 2nd South Staffords had relieved the 23rd Royal Fusiliers on the northern and western edges of the Wood. A British officer described the conditions in Delville Wood that evening: ‘the scene … was awful, the wood being ablaze in many places. I read messages and wrote out the relief orders by the light of a blazing tree, which had fallen across the shell-hole then being occupied by Battalion headquarters.’

For more information about the Footballers' Battalion, see When the Whistle Blows.

Amazon: When the Whistle Blows: The Story of the Footballers' Battalion in the Great War (Centennial Edition)

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