The main attack to be carried out by the 12th Royal Irish Rifles saw them advance across a ‘gully’ which runs from the Ancre River rising towards the infamous village of Beaumont Hamel.
In fact, many of the Co. Antrim men would have had relatives amongst the ranks of the nearby 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers who were part of the 29th Division which also contained the unfortunate Newfoundland Regiment after who the much visted Memorial Park is named.
Lt. Col. Bull’s account of the action continues:-
’C’ COMPANY’s ATTACK
Before zero, ‘C’ Company who were on the left of the 9th Royal Ir. Fus. left our wire and immediately came under very heavy machine Gun fire. At zero the company advanced, led by No 10 Platoon and followed by No. 11. No. 10 were held up by the wire, which had only two small gaps cut in it at this point. No. 10 Platoon at once split in two, each half going for a gap. Some of this party succeeded in getting into the German line, but as there was a German machine-gun opposite each gap the casualties were very heavy.
(Many of these gaps were more than likely intentional, and used to funnel enemy into the MG teams’ cone of fire)
No 11. Platoon immediately reinforced No. 10 and at once rushed the gaps and a few more men succeeded in getting through. The casualties were very severe, but Captn. Griffiths collected Nos. 9 and 12 Platoons and gave orders to charge. He was killed immediately he had given the order.
At the same time an order came to retire. The remaining men retired with the exception of Sergt. Cunningham, Corpl. Herbison and L.Cpl. Jackson who remained and fired at the Germans, who were standing on their parapet firing and throwing bombs at our men. They killed or wounded at least ten Germans. Rfmn. Craig with a Lewis Gun kept up a good fire by himself, all the rest of the team having been killed or wounded. L.Cpl. Harvey then rallied all the men he could find and rushed the gaps again but had to retire for the third time. The Company had then to retire to the Sunken Road. Sergt. Cunningham and Corpl. Herbison again did good work by helping wounded men to get cover in the Sunken Road. The road was being shelled very heavily all the time.
Analysis: ‘C’ company’s fate was repeated all over the Somme battlefield that morning. They were under fire almost from the moment they left their trenches and the weight of fire steadily increased. Those who made it to the German wire found only ‘canals of death’.
‘D’ COMPANY’S ATTACK
‘D’ Company’s attack was led by 2/Lieut. Sir Harry E.H. Macnaghten Bart., and No. 16 Platoon. Sir Harry was on the right of his Platoon and Sergt. McFall on the left.
(VC Winner Robert Quigg was servant to 2nd Lt. Macnaghten and took part in this attack. He won his decoration for his valour in rescuing wounded men from no-man’s land.)
At zero this Platoon rushed the German front line and entered it. Sergt. McFall found some dugouts on the left and detailed two bombers to attend to each . The German second line was very strongly held and the machine-gun fire from the salient on the left was very heavy. The Germans stood up on the parapet of their second line and threw bombs into the front line, while they kept a steady fire up against the other advancing platoons (13, 14, and 15) These suffered very heavily as they approached the German wire and line.
No 14 Platoon lost half its men before No. 16 had gained the German front line. An order to retire was shouted out and Sir Harry got out of the trench to order the men not to retire but to come on and just as he got out he was shot in the legs by a machine-gun only a few yards away, and fell back into the trench.
Rfmn. Kane who was quite close to Sir Harry bayoneted the German who was firing the machine-gun. ‘D’ Company then fell back behind the ridge and were at once reassembled with the remains of ‘A’ Company by 2/Lieut. Dickson, who ordered a second charge at the German trenches.
He was very severely wounded almost as soon as he had given the order, but carried on for a time until he fell, and then Sergt. McFall at once rallied the companies and they advanced a second time. The machine-gun fire from the Salient was very severe, and they had to eventually fall back on our own trenches.
‘A’ COMPANY’S ATTACK
’A’ Company who were on the extreme left of the Battalion front, were in touch with the 29th Division. They left their new Trench before zero and assembled along the Sunken Road. At Zero they began to advance, and at once came under very heavy Artillery and machine-gun fire. No. 4 Platoon led the attack, and were badly cut up, but what men remained entered the German front line. They were closely followed by No. 3 who at once reinforced them. The wire was well cut here but there were two machine-guns on each side of the gap and three or four in the Salient, as well as a German bombing party.
Lieut. McCluggage at once collected his men and tried to rush on to the German second line but was killed in the attempt. Nos. 3 & 4 Platoons swuffered very heavily from exceedingly intense Machine-gun fire. An order to retire was passed along, and as there were no supports on the spot ‘A’ Company did so.
Lieut. T. G. Haughton had been wounded in the leg soon after leaving our front line but led his Platoon on. He was wounded a second time during the retirement and killed.
The Company then retired to the SUNKEN ROAD when 2/Lieut Dickson, who was the only officer left assembled the men there and ordered another advance. The men advanced again but were met with a terrific fire from all the Machine-guns in the Salient (Q.17.B.) and had to ultimately retire to the New Trench.
Rfmn. McMullen, being the only man left of his team of Lewis Gunners, entered the German line with Lewis Gun and two magazines and fired from his shoulder at the Germans in the second. line. He retired with the company and brought the Gun with him.
Amazingly, despite these horrendous casualties and the repeated, costly attempts to storm the German line, military necessity dictated the need for yet another charge by the few survivors. Even more amazingly, it seems that some were ready to make yet another suicidal bid.Bull’s report reveals that common sense prevailed and the Rifles were ordered to man their own trenches in case of a German counter-attack.
An infantry battalion of 1916 boasted around 1000 men and 36 officers. It was rarely at full numbers and the actual fighting strength of the battalion was more likely to be around 800 men. During the first day on the Somme - in a period which could not have exceeded 120 minutes, the 12th Rifles were reduced to 46 men. Bull concluded his report:-
All companies had now been badly cut up, and had very few men left. We were ordered to attack again at 10-12 a.m. with what men we could collect. Major C.G. Cole-Hamilton D.S.O. took command of the front line, collected all the men he could find (about 100) and assembled them in the New Trench and prepared to launch the attack. The attack was made under very heavy shrapnel fire from the time of the assembly and was finally stopped by Machine-gun fire.
About 11 a.m. another attack was ordered for 12-30 p.m. in conjunction with the 29th Division. Every available man was collected Total number this time was 46.
The men went forward before 12-30 p.m., and were lying in cover by 12-30 p.m. Major C.G. Cole-Hamilton D.S.O. , finding that 29th Division did not launch an attack at 12-30 p.m. and not having a sufficient number of men to carry out an attack, sent a message to the Commanding Officer to this effect. The Commanding Officer ordered the men to be brought back and the front line to be re-organised and held. Sergt. McFall, Sergt. A. Smith and L.Cpl. W Harvey again did splendid work in getting the men back and re-organised under very adverse conditions.
By 2 p.m. all the men were back and sentries were posted all along the line. This state of affairs continued until the few men who were left in the line were relieved by the York and Lancs at 6-30 p.m.