Friday 17th November 1916 had been a generally clear, if cold, day. At 6.30pm, darkness having descended over the Somme battlefield, 31st Division artillery opened fire over a 2,000yds (1.8km) stretch of the enemy front line. The burst of fire lasted just 45 seconds. At 8pm, another 45-second burst of artillery fire broke over the enemy front line.
Shortly before 9pm, a raiding party of 1 officer and 55 other ranks from the 11th Bn. East Lancashire Regt. (Accrington Pals) scrambled into No Man's Land 1,200yds (1.1km) north-west of Serre and took up position close to the British wire. Both flanks were protected by covering parties, each of which comprised at least 20 other ranks and a Lewis gun.
At 9pm - with the enemy hopefully by now accustomed to short bursts of artillery fire followed without incident - the divisional artillery again opened fire on the enemy front line. Forty five seconds later, the artillery fire was checked, then diverted to form a pocket around the intended point-of-entry.2 At the same time, the raiding party rushed forward. Their orders were to identify the units holding the enemy line.
Unfortunately, there seems to be no record of what followed, other than that the raiding party failed to enter the enemy trenches.3 Most likely the enemy were not after all taken by surprise and the raiding party ran into heavy fire.
Four men from the battalion were posted as having been killed in action on either 17th or 18th November: Ptes. John Clapham, Herbert Hartley, John Wadsworth and Fred Westwell. None has a known grave, and all are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. It must be likely that all four lost their lives during the overnight raid.
© Andrew C Jackson 2002.
Compiled from TNA document WO95/2363 and with the kind help of Kay Hartley and Dave Westall.