Title - The Road to Destiny
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In the early evening of 30th June 1916, the Accrington Pals left Warnimont Wood to begin a march of more than 6 miles (10km) to the front line trenches opposite Serre. Despite the promises of a walkover, it was a rare man who felt no anxiety over what the morning would bring. Each soldier carried a rifle and equipment (less pack), a groundsheet rolled on the belt with a mess tin on top, a haversack on the back, 170 rounds of S.A.A. (small arms ammunition), four Mills bombs, 4 (empty) sandbags, a gas helmet (rolled under a steel helmet), iron rations in addition to one complete day's rations, and a tin triangle tied with string to the outside of the haversack.1


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Above: map of the route from Warnimont Wood to the front line trenches opposite Serre. The map references shown on the markers refer to Trench Map 57D NE, 1/20,000.

Shortly after 7pm the battalion reached 31st Division Headquarters at Bus-les-Artois Chateau, marching through the chateau gates and along a pleasant tree-lined track before moving off towards Courcelles-au-Bois. At 8.30pm the column began to arrive at Courcelles where the men were given tea and biscuits, and allowed to rest.

As the march resumed at 9.45pm, rolls of barbed wire, sandbags, shovels, pickaxes, rifle grenades, detonators and other equipment were distributed throughout the battalion. Darkness had now fallen and lamps were used to guide the column to a point just north of Colincamps where the men filed into the communication trench named Central Avenue.2 By this time Colincamps itself was coming under fire from high-explosive and shrapnel shells.

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Above: Bus-les-Artois Chateau.
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Above: The tree-lined track leading away from Bus-les-Artois Chateau.
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The going now became considerably harder as the floor of the communication trench was a foot (30cm) or more deep in a gluey mud. In many places the trench had been blown-in by shellfire, and entangled telephone lines made progress even more difficult. By 12.30am the battalion had moved barely 1,100yds (1,000m) along Central Avenue; with the very real possibility that his men would start the attack in a state of complete exhaustion, Lt.-Col. Arthur Rickman ordered them out of the trench and led them overland until firing from the field artillery batteries some 400-500yds (350-450m) further on forced them back into the trench system.

It was 2.40am - four hours later than planned - before Rickman at the head of the column reached the front line where he deployed the four platoons that were to comprise the first wave of the attack in partially blown-in fire bays and the Traffic Trench. The second wave gathered some 60yds (50m) behind in Copse Trench while the third and fourth waves were held 500yds (450m) back in Campion Trench and Monk Trench.

As dawn broke at 4am, German artillery fire began to fall over the British front line - for more than three hours, the men of the first wave hugged the floor of their trenches as the shellfire steadily stripped away their cover. At 7.20am on 1st July the gruelling wait came to an end, and the first wave went over the top to start the Battle for Serre.

Notes

  1. See British Soldiers' Kit on the Imperial War Museum website. The idea behind the tin triangle was that light reflected from the metal would help observers to follow the progress of the attack. [back]
  2. It has often been said that the Accrington Pals entered the trench system on the night of 30th June south-east of Colincamps at the ruins of the Sugar Factory. The contemporary account from Rickman as well as the memoirs from Rees, and battalion orders deposited with the 94th Infantry Bde. War Diary (TNA WO 95/2363) make it clear that this was not the case.  [back]

© Andrew C Jackson 2009
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Compiled from quoted sources, Lt.-Col. Rickman's account, the memoirs of Brig.-Gen. Rees, the letter from Pte. Will Clarke to his sister published in the Accrington Observer & Times of 15th July 1916, and "The Somme" by Lyn Macdonald, published by Penguin Books Ltd.

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