21st Division 1914-18...a divisional history

Background

The battles of the Somme and in particular the 1st day, has and probably will for eternity be the symbol in the publics eye of the greatest wasteful, murderous massacre that the British Army has been involved in. From this impression grows the stories of all the men walking out into no mans land, playing football, led to their deaths by young innocent officers, ordered there by moustached bungling donkified Generals, who knew no better nor cared less to the lives of their men!

The reality for the poor infantry who went over the top is perhaps not really any different. But the reasons and intensions of the British Army High Command was far from being a careless bungled operation. Sir Douglas Haig had taken over command of the BEF at the end of 1915 from Sir John French and this was to be his first major action in command. Yet it was not of his choosing, preferring rather to attack in Belgium, but the British Army was still in theory and practicality, subordinate to the French Army. The Somme was really a French requirement and the British Government agreed to their demands.

Fourth Army under General Sir Henry Rawlinson was given the lions share of the task on the Somme with only VII Corps, commanded by Lt-General Sir T D'O Snow, coming under command of III Army under General Sir Edmund Allenby.

Gone were the days of the professional army, those that survived the days of 1914, had paid the price in the costly battles of 1915, the army was mainly made up of the New Army Divisions, raised as we have seen by Kitchener, who foresore the length and costliness the war would take. Haig and others had their doubts to the ability of the New Army units at this stage of the war and this did impact on the planning of the Army commanders. They were also still adapting to this war themselves in what is termed the learning curve and did so almost to the end of the war.

Unfortunately Haig and Rawlinson seemed to be at differing ideas of how the battle should be fought. Rawlinson the arch idealist of the Bite and Hold policy on the Western Front and Haig the Thruster, wanting the army to move on passed the Trenches and burst out into open country for the army to gain more mobility. Thus the plans for the battle would be hampered by the differing styles.

Regardless of General Haig's reservations and General Rawlinson having to change his ideas on the plan, both men were confident of the outcome. And why not, the amount of artillery ordnance dropped on the German lines was massive. It should have obliterated the German defences, wire and troops. However as the Artillery rained down on the lines of the German positions for days, the German infantry took shelter in the deep dugouts they had lovingly and expertly created.

To the attackers all that seemed to be required was for the first waves to go in and take the initial objectives.

21st Division Preperations

 

The Division had been ably rebuilt up after Loos by Major-General Claude Jacob. He had over seen the rehabilitation of the rank and file, the new draft of volunteers sent after the casualties and the needed pride restoration required for a division looked down upon by many other formations as the ones that ran away at Loos.

However the division like the army in the main had not been involved in any major actions since Loos and it would be the battle of the Somme that would be the test of all that had been done.

In early May 1916, Jacob was promoted to command of a Corps and the Division was taken over by the able David Campbell. A regular officer with a seeming over bearing nature he may at first have been seen as a distant commander. This was reinforced when he had Brigadier-General’s Wilkinson and Gloster sent home on the 13th May as being unfit to command. He seems certainly in the instant of Gloster, who had commanded the division temporarily twice since Loos, to have seen his age (he may have believed he was older than he actually was) as too advanced and sent him home to command without any reference to the officers ability.

However this may have been a good move. The fighting on the Western Front was proving if nothing else that this was a youngmans war. He was replaced by Hugh Headlam. Rawlinson was replaced by Cecil Rawling in command of 62nd Brigade.

The last brigade was the 63rd, last seen being led into the loos battle with its brigade commander, Tom Nickalls  paying the ultimate price being apparently killed by German artillery as he tried to rally his brigade. Now it was commanded by Brigaider-General E R Hill.

So as 21st Division approached the 1st of July they had new commaders in key positions. Time would tell if they were the right men. By now they were also under new higher command moving to Fourth Army and they were by now grouped under General Sir Henry Horne's XV Corps. The Somme would be the test to see if they could regain their reputation.

 

1st July Attacks at Fricourt

3rd July, action at Shelter Wood.

14th July, Battle of Bazentin Ridge