The Somme: How the News Letter reported the unfolding horror from the front line during this week in 1916

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From early reports of a “great Anglo-French offensive” which was “progressing satisfactorily”, to the emerging tales of heroism, sacrifice and the terrible casualty list of the Ulster Division, here is how News Letter readers came to learn that events in France on July 1, 1916 were to have an awful cost on their own community.

The July Anniversary

[Monday, July 3, 1916]

As is well known, it has been decided to abandon the usual Twelfth of July demonstrations this year, owing to considerations connected with the war, but the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne is not being allowed to pass without due recognition, and in many of the Belfast churches yesterday appropriate reference was made to the lessons to be drawn from the struggle.

During the 226 years which have elapsed since the army of King James the Second was finally routed at the Boyne, Ulster has remained staunch in its allegiance to the British Throne and Constitution, and its loyalty has been signally demonstrated during the past two years, when the Empire has been fighting for its very existence. At the services yesterday, the sacrifices demanded by the present war were clearly emphasised, and the preachers also dwelt on the need for the cultivation of a spirit of faith and holiness in the nation as a whole.

Great Anglo-French Offensive;

A Brilliant Opening

[Monday, July 3, 1916]

A great Anglo-French offensive, described as three times greater than Loos, opened on Saturday morning [July 1] on a front of 25 miles north and south of the Somme. Early on Saturday our troops had broken into the German forward system defences on a front of sixteen miles, while a later despatch from Sir Douglas Haig reported the capture on the right of our attack of the German labyrinth of trenches on a front of seven miles to a depth of 1,000 yards.

The town of Fricourt, the villages of Montauban and Mauretz, and other enemy positions have been stormed by our gallant troops, who during the fighting yesterday maintained and in some places extended their gains. South of the Somme the French have also made progress, taking a number of villages. Up to date the British have captured over 3,500 prisoners and the French 6,000, and German casualties are reported to have been very heavy.

Report on the Rebellion

News Letter Editorial

[Tuesday, July 4, 1916]

We publish today the principal portions of the report of the Royal Commission on the Irish Rebellion and the text of the conclusion. The Commission, which was presided over by Lord Hardinge, was appointed to inquire into the causes of the outbreak, and to fix the responsibility of the civil and military Executive. The report severely blames the Government, and especially Mr Birrell, for its failure to enforce the law, and its inaction in the presence of the growing menace of the Sinn Fein movement.

Progress of the Great Battle

[Tuesday, July 4, 1916]

The great Anglo-French offensive continues satisfactorily. Up to the present our troops have taken 4,300 prisoners. The fighting on our front yesterday afternoon fluctuated about La Boiselle and south of Thiepval, the advantage on the whole remaining with us.

South of Thiepval hostile counter-attacks drove some of our troops from the positions they had captured in the morning, but elsewhere many attacks were repulsed with heavy loss to the enemy, and in some places further advances are recorded. The official reports pay tribute to the fine work of our airmen.

The French announce some notable successes. Yesterday the village of Feuilleres was taken and subsequently Buscourt and Assevillers itself. More than 8,000 prisoners have been taken to date.

The Great Offensive;

Splendid British Troops

[Wednesday, July 5, 1916]

The great offensive continues satisfactorily both for the British and French.

Sir Douglas Haig reports that the Germans have been reinforced by many battalions from other parts of the line, and heavy fighting proceeded throughout yesterday.

At some points we have made slight progress , while all the German efforts to retake La Boiselle have failed, and enemy attacks south of Thiepval have also been repulsed. During the fighting at Fricourt on Monday the remainder of a whole Prussian battalion – 20 officers and 600 men – surrendered to our forces.

Thrilling stories of the recent fighting on the British front appear in our columns today. One commanding officer says our men fought superbly.

Cheerful Wounded

[Wednesday, July 5, 1916]

The Press Association says: Many of the wounded soldiers who have arrived in London were engaged in the fighting at Fricourt, Serre, and Gommecourt.

An officer who was wounded at Fricourt, interviewed yesterday, referred with pride to the conduct of his men.

“They were splendid,” he said, “and went for the enemy with a yell. Men dropped in all directions from the machine-gun fire, but happily fatal wounds were not numerous.

“Dozens of Germans, dashing out of their dug-outs without equipment, rushed right into sudden death.

“The majority of the prisoners we took were not a very impressive lot, and were practically starving.”

Praise to the Division

[Wednesday, July 5, 1916]

For the gallant deeds of particular units (says the London Times) we must await fuller details, but already it is known that Scottish battalions assaulted Montauban with impetuous ardour, and that further north Ulstermen fought one of the fiercest combats of the whole war.

“It is no time yet to talk of victory,” says the special correspondent of the ‘Times’ at the front, “but we can assuredly claim great success. And, as always, there can be no praise too high for the gallantry of our men. It may be that they are almost too gallant and over anxious to go too far; but that is a splendid fault.

“On all sides, one hears praise of the Ulster troops, who had an extremely difficult task to perform. I have heard today most generous testimony to their gallantry.”

The Great Offensive

[Thursday, July 6, 1916]

News of the progress of the battle of the Somme continues to be satisfactory.

Up to date, the British have taken over 6,000 prisoners and the French more than 9,000.

Heavy fighting continued throughout Tuesday night on the British front in the region of the Ancre and Somme. Two attacks on our new trenches near Thiepval were beaten off with loss to the enemy. Yesterday was a day of local engagements, the result being that our troops advanced slightly in some sectors, and have lost none of the ground gained. The Germans suffered heavy casualties.

Battle of the Somme;

All Still Going Well

[Friday, July 7, 1916]

Sir Edward Carson has addressed “A message to the Ulster People”, in which he says that his Parliamentary colleagues and he have learnt with great pride and admiration of the unparalleled acts of heroism and bravery performed by the Ulster Division in the great offensive movement.

An eye witness of the work of the Ulster Division on Saturday last pays a glowing tribute to their indomitable courage, and says that as they advanced to the attack on the German trenches their battle cry was “No Surrender Boys!”

The Glory of Ulster;

Message from Sir E Carson

[Friday, July 7, 1916]

The people of Ulster have been thrilled with pride by the unofficial accounts that have come to hand of the glorious achievement of the Ulster Division in connection with the great offensive movement which was begun on the Western Front on Saturday last, and they will, we are sure, read with deep interest and satisfaction the following message from Sir Edward Carson KC, MP:

Message to the Ulster people

I desire to express, on my own behalf and that of my colleagues from Ulster, the pride and admiration with which we have learnt of the unparalleled acts of heroism and bravery which were carried out by the Ulster Division in the great offensive movement on the 1st July.

From all accounts that we have received, they have made the supreme sacrifice for the Empire of which they were so proud with a courage, coolness and determination, in the face of the most trying difficulties, which have upheld the greatest traditions of the British Army.

Our feelings are, of course, mingled with sorrow and sadness at the loss of so many men who were to us personal friends and comrades, but we believe that the spirit of their race will at a time of such grief and anxiety sustain those who mourn their loss, and set an example to others to follow in their footsteps.

How Ulster Troops Led The Attack

[Friday, July 7, 1916]

The Press Association has received from an eye witness the following account of the Ulstermen’s attack in the great offensive:

I am not an Ulsterman, but yesterday, the 1st July, as I followed their amazing attack I felt that I would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in this world.

My position enabled me to watch the commencement of their attack from the wood [Thiepval] in which they had formed up, but which long prior to the hour of the assault was being overwhelmed with shell fire, so that the trees were stripped, and the top half of the wood ceased to be anything but a slope of bare stumps with innumerable shell holes peppered in the chalk.

When I saw the men emerge through the smoke and form up as if on parade, I could hardly believe my eyes. Then I saw them attack, beginning at a slow walk over “No Man’s Land”, and then suddenly let loose as they charged over the two front lines of enemy trenches, shouting “No surrender, boys”.

The enemy’s gunfire raked them from the left, and machine guns in a village enfiladed them on the right, but battalion after battalion came out of the awful wood as steadily as I have seen them at Ballykinlar, Clandeboye, or Shane’s Castle.

The enemy’s third line was soon taken, and still the waves went on, getting thinner and thinner, but without hesitation. The enemy’s fourth line fell before these men, who would not be stopped.

Much reduced, I could see our men enter the fifth line of the enemy’s trenches, our final objective. It could not be held, however, as the Division had advanced into a narrow salient.

The corps on our right and left had been unable to advance, so that the Ulstermen were the target of the concentrated hostile guns and machine guns behind, and on both flanks.

Although the enemy in front were vanquished and retreating, the order to retire was given, but some preferred to die on the ground they had won so hardly.

My pen cannot describe adequately the hundreds of heroic acts that I witnessed.

The Ulster Division has lost very heavily, and in doing so has sacrificed itself for the Empire. The Ulster Volunteer Force, from which the Division was made, has won a name which equals any in history. Their devotion, which no doubt has helped the advance elsewhere, deserves the gratitude of the British Empire.

Staff Officer’s Tribute;

Ulster’s Ancient War Cries

[Friday, July 7, 1916]

A distinguished English Staff Officer writing at the Front to Lieutenant-Colonel Fred Crawford, Belfast, on 3rd July, says:

The Division has been through an ordeal by fire, gas, and poison. It has behaved marvellously, and has got through all the German lines.

Our gallant fellows marched into a narrow alley of death, shouting “No Surrender” and “Remember the Boyne”.

I wish I had been born an Ulsterman, but I am proud to have been associated with these wonderful men – the most gallant in the world. I fully realise how you feel where you are.

Many a family in Ulster will have lost a son or a father out here. I do not believe men ever passed to another world in so glorious a light.

After the day before yesterday, I hope I may be allowed the rest of my life to maintain my association with the Ulster Province.

Ulstermen’s Gallantry

[Friday, July 7, 1916]

The “Times” special correspondent at the British Headquarters, in a despatch on the great offensive, says: The Ulster troops behaved in a way that will be remembered as long as history is read or written. It is said the Royal Irish Fusiliers were first out of the trenches. The Royal Irish Rifles went through what was an absolute hell, went over the German parapets, and killed the men in the machine gun emplacements with their bayonets.

The Inniskillings rushed and cleared out certain positions in the enemy’s lines which have been named respectively “Enniskillen”, “Omagh”, and “Strabane”. It is said that they all went forward shouting “No Surrender” and “Remember the Boyne”.

They were subjected to a murderous cross fire, yet they went on over the German first and second lines. Some came back with prisoners. One man, it is said, herding a party of 15 Germans across “No Man’s Land”, where they were so afraid of their own barrage that he had difficulty in making them cross, which, however, he did with the utmost cheerfulness and success.

Brave Men Have Covered Themselves With Glory

[Friday, July 7, 1916]

Although no official account has yet been issued of the part which the officers and men of the Ulster Division have played in the great offensive movement that was begun on the 1st inst., the information which has leaked out from various unofficial but well-accredited sources proves beyond all question that the troops from the Imperial Province have covered themselves with glory by the courage, resource, and endurance they displayed in performing one of the most difficult and hazardous tasks that could possibly devolve on any body of men.

When the official casualty lists are published they will show that the heroism which has distinguished all ranks of the division has entailed an enormous sacrifice, but that fact, deeply as it is to be deplored, was inevitable when so much was at stake.

It is only by sacrifice on the part of the Allied Nations that complete victory can ultimately be attained, and the people of Ulster, despite the atmosphere of sadness and sorrow which may be created in their homes through the loss of those who are near and dear to them, will not shirk their share of responsibility for carrying the war to a triumphant termination.

It is impossible to think without emotion of the many brave men from our province who have laid down their lives in vindicating their loyalty and devotion to the Empire, but we have the consolation of knowing that they have met with a glorious death, and we know, too, that they have won imperishable fame, for the deeds they have accomplished will live in history, and future generations will find in their dauntless courage a great and noble inspiration. They have not died in vain, and in giving their lives for the sake of their country they have been true to the splendid traditions which they have inherited as their birthright.

Growing Roll of Honour

[Saturday, July 8, 1916]

Today many more casualties are reported amongst the officers and men of the Ulster Division, and the people at home are now realising the enormous sacrifices which were made by the troops from this province in carrying out the work entrusted to them in the attack on the German trenches on Saturday last.

In the course of one short week hundreds of Ulster homes have been plunged into mourning. All classes of the community share in the sorrow and the glory which the courage and devotion of our soldiers have brought to Ulster, and whilst they mourn for those who have given up their lives in their country’s cause, their grief is softened by the pride they feel in what has been achieved by the sacrifices.

Special Order of the Day by Major-General O S W Nugent DSO, Commanding 36th (Ulster) Division

[Saturday, July 8, 1916]

Th General Officer Commanding the Ulster Division desires that the Division should know that, in his opinion, nothing finer has been done in the war than the attack by the Ulster Division on the 1st July.

The leading of the company officers, the discipline and courage shown by all ranks of the Division will stand out in the future history of the war as an example of what good troops, well led, are capable of accomplishing.

None but troops of the best quality could have faced the fire which was brought to bear on them and the losses suffered during the advance.

The General Officer Commanding deeply regrets the heavy losses of officers and men. He is proud beyond description, as every officer and man in the Division may well be, of the magnificent example of sublime courage and discipline which the Ulster Division has given to the Army.

Ulster has every reason to be proud of the men she has given to the service of our country.

Though many of our best men have gone, the spirit which animated them remains in the Division, and will never die.

UVF’s Sympathy

[Saturday, July 8, 1916]

Lieutenant General Sir George Richardson, KCB, the General Officer Commanding the Ulster Volunteer Force, yesterday issued an order to the members of that organisation.

It states:

The officers and men of the UVF offer their heartfelt sympathy to the relatives of those who fell on the 1st July, 1916. They were put to the supreme test, and history will claim its own record.

It fills me with pride to think how splendid our men were capable of performing.

For those who fell in the service of their King, the Empire, and the glory of Ulster we mourn, but we have no regrets. We are proud of our comrades. Our path of duty is clear. Every effort must be made to fill up the casualties in the division, and maintain the glorious lead given by the brave men of Ulster.

Lord Primate’s Tribute

[Saturday, July 8, 1916]

In a message yesterday, the Lord Primate (Most Rev Dr Crozier) said: “All Ireland is proud of the noble gallantry of the Ulster Division. I have lived amongst these officers and men for the greater part of my life, and I expected nothing else. They are of the stock from which our heroes come and to whom our Empire owes so much – unconquered and unconquerable.

“Today our hearts are bowed with woe for their relatives at home who have been so grievously bereaved. For many years to come the gallantry of these sons of Ulster will be an inspiration to fresh generations of Irishmen.”

The Price of Patriotism

[Saturday, July 8, 1916]

The casualty lists in connection with the Ulster Division are growing to very serious proportions and it is unfortunately only too obvious that the Ulstermen suffered enormous losses in the attack which they carried out on the enemy’s trenches on the 1st July.

This Roll of Honour is steadily being added to, and the long list of names which we publish this morning of the men who have been killed or wounded bears eloquent testimony to the daring and devotion with which the soldiers of the 36th Division performed the very difficult and perilous task that devolved on them.

Ulster will never forget those of her sons who have made the supreme sacrifice in the assertion of their patriotism, and future generations, we can be sure, will speak with pride and exultation of the glory which was theirs in dying for their country.