July 1st 1916 was the first day of the Somme offensive. Most people will have heard of this bloody episode of the 1st WW but many do not realise that the battle of the Somme lasted for nearly 5 months. However on the 1st July alone there were almost 60,000 casualties making this the most lethal day of the entire war for the British Army.
The 1st WW, and hence the Somme offensive’s objective was to push the German army out of France. Although the war had been running since 1914, and there had been a lot of military action, this was the first large scale battle that the new British armies had engaged in.
Part of the plan for the 1st July 1916 included a diversionary attack by two British divisions to the north of the main Somme battlefield at a small village called Gommecourt. The village was fortified making it one of the strongest parts of the German front lines on the Western Front. The North and South Staffordshire Regiment were right in the thick of it. Approximately 700 men from the South Staffs Regiment, and 700 from the North Staffs Regiment, as part of the 46th (Midland Division), were dug in to the trench system, hoping to draw in German reserves by creating a diversion.
On 1st July when the soldiers started to go over the top casualty numbers soared in the first few hours. The North and Staffs regiment lost over 500 men, including most of the officers. The attack failed to capture Gommecourt. These terrible numbers were due to many factors, not least the fact that up to one in every three British ammunition shells were faulty.
It was this terrible lesson in large scale trench warfare that directly led to a change within the British army, leading some to believe that this is the day that the military started to become a professional and modern fighting force.
The Staffordshire men involved in the Gommecourt attack were territorials – in other words they were bakers, factory workers or bus drivers etc by profession, giving a certain amount of time every month to military training. In the heat of battle when officers were killed, the ordinary soldier had no knowledge of how to direct the fighting, making a bad situation even worse.
However, from the 1st July 1916 onwards each soldier was trained to be able to do the job of a man two ranks above, allowing the unit to cope with inevitable casualties.
On Saturday 2nd and Sunday 3rd July 2011 the Staffordshire Regiment Museum will be re-enacting the battle of Gommecourt, 95 years and one day after the Somme offensive.
Re-enactors from the Birmingham Pals WW1 Re-enactors society will be creating an evocative snap shot of life in the trenches in the hours before the troops went over the top. The Birmingham Pals will be joined by the museum’s Education Team who will all be in totally authentic and often vintage uniform. Authentic weapons will also be used throughout the day and at the skirmish re-enactment at between 3 and 4pm on both Saturday and Sunday when the weapons will be fired.
Visitors will also be able to wander amongst German troops, who will also be in the large and impressive trench system. This gives a rare opportunity to see the Somme from the other perspective. If you have never seen the museum’s 1st WW trench system, this is a not to be missed opportunity to experience a flavour of the excitement and apprehension of the troops before the engagement.
Also in the trench is an impressive re-creation of a tunnel system, created by a specialist tunnelling division manned by ex miners, many of whom would have been from Staffordshire. These tunnelers risked life and limb digging tunnels that ran under no man’s land and the German trenches. It would then be packed with explosives and detonated, destroying the German position and allowing the British troops to take it.
On display will be a field hospital and field kitchen, plus a tented encampment where troops would have waited before joining the fighting in the trenches plus an authentic 1st WW ambulance.
Also running for the entire day our perennially popular ‘kid’s drill’ gives children the opportunity to try our period uniform and weapons, including rifles and bayonets, and drill with our Drill Sergeant.
Burgers and other snacks will be available on the day.
Doors open at 10am and close at 4pm. Entry to the event is £3 per adult, £2 children and OAP’s and £6 for a family ticket of two adults and three children.
Entry also includes free admission to the museum’s fascinating and not to be missed collection.
The Staffordshire Regiment Museum can be found on the A51 between Lichfield and Tamworth, adjacent to Whittington Barracks. It is directly on the 765 Stafford/Lichfield/Tamworth bus route.
For more information please contact the museum on 01543 434394 or e-mail email@example.com