As ever, the end point for our day on the Somme was, in a way, where we started. First, where we started today, with the First Day on the Somme (by which we really mean the day the infantry assault was launched on the 1st July, 1916). Of course, the Somme means so much more than that first day, but there can surely only ever be one way to start.
That story will always be inextricably linked by the famous pals’ battalions. Old Novos stretched across many regiments, but perhaps the one most closely associated with RGS will always be the Northumberland Fusiliers, and within them the 16th battalion, the Newcastle Commercials. The headmaster of the school, John Talbot, was closely involved in both the raising and training of the office boys who enlisted into the 16th, the Newcastle Commercials.
Many of those office boys had been to the RGS. Arthur Thompson enlisted, but soon found himself gazetted (moved) to a very different battalion, as captain. Most of the 1st Tyneside Irish were cut from a very different cloth to those of the 16th, one of their officers famously remarking that so thick were their accents that he found them unintelligible. It was in command of these men, crossing the open ground from Tara-Usna Hill on that first morning, that Capt Thomson met his death, one of a battalion that lost 720 men killed or wounded.
Not all those on the Somme were pals’ battalions, nor was the Somme a one day battle. En route to where Arthur Thompson fell we went to Dartmoor Cemetery, which was a dressing station just outside of Albert, now a place of rest with a wealth of stories. There, we found two members of the Royal Field Artilley, both killed in the same action on September 5th 1916: Serjeant George Lee, of Peckham, alongside his 19 year son, Robert.
Like the Lees, Lall-Din was in the artillery, in this case a driver, killed on the first day.
Perhaps the saddest story of them all was John Sweeney. Sweeney was a member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, from a country of young men which saw more men as a proportion of its population serve than any other: he was, thus, another volunteer soldier. Sweeney’s military record is incomplete, but it seems almost certain that he had seen action at Gallipoli. On July 17th, he made his will, as soldiers did, whilst stationed behind the line at Etpales. The following day the Otago Regiment made its way towards the front at Amentieres. A week later, he had deserted. He was not recaptured for five weeks. He was tried by court martial on September 15th. No reprieve was forthcoming, and he was shot at 5.44 am on October 2nd.
The tragedy did not end there. In the first place, John Sweeney was a Tasmanian by birth. Had his family not moved to New Zealand, he would have served in the Australian Army: they did not shoot deserters. After his execution there was some unseemly wrangling over money being deducted from the pay his family was owed, to pay for missing kit and the weeks he had deserted. His father, Bernard, lost another son in 1918. That five New Zealanders had been executed in the war was kept secret at the time. When Benard Sweeney learned that the manner of John’s death was about to be made public, he took himself out into the hinterlands and committed suicide.
Private James Miller was aged 26 when he died on July 30th of tha yearfor his actions that day in ensuring that a vital message was delivered. His battalion had captured a position and James Miller was ordered to take a message back to his own lines, and to bring back an answer at all costs. He had to cross open ground, and on leaving the captured trench was shot in the back, the bullet exiting through his abdomen. He pressed his hand against the wound, and successfully delivered the message, before returning to his oiginal position with the answer. Once he delivered this to his oficer, he finally succumbed to his wound and died at us officer’s feet. Many other lives may have been saved by Pte Miller, who was awarded a posthumous VC.
Our initial reason for visiting Dartmoor cemetery was that it contains the grave of Lt Henry Webber. When war broke out in 1914, Webber was a retired stock broker, aged 66. He was a JP, a county councillor and was president of the local Boy Scouts Association. He was also a Master of the Old Surrey and Burstow Hunt. Three of us sons were serving in France. Martin Middlebrook, who tells his story in his great book, The First Day on the Somme, supposes that the war office finally granted him a commission to get him off their back when, despite the fact he was well over age, he simply refused to take no for an answer.
Thus it was that the Webber, as a horseman, was a Transport Officer. On the first day of the battle, to stop him going forward with the rest of his men, Webber was specifically ordered to stay behind: in the end, the 7th South Lancs saw no action that day. On the evening of July 21st, however, they were in Mametz Wood when Webber brought up supplies. He was talking to his CO when a single German shell hit twelve men and three horses. One of the men was Webber, who was badly wounded in the head and later succumbed without regaining consciousness.
Webber’s was a notable death: his family received personal messages of sympathy from the King and Queen. He was also mentioned in despatches. It seems his wife never really recovered, dying two years later. His three sons survived the war.
His tomb bears the familiar words: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. So too does our own school’s war memorial, in the same school hall Arthur Thompson would have known, the same school hall all of the students and staff who were stood looking across the ground upon which he fell see every working day. The same school war memorial upon which Capt Thompson is one of the 158 old Novos who fell in the Great War are commemorated.
We were back on the first day, the first day on the Somme, back with the pals’ battalions. Stood before Arthur Thompson’s grave. Just of all those Tyneside Irish who fell that day, just one of the Northumberland Fusiliers, just one of the 19,240 Bitish soldiers killed on that terrible day, just one of those men in whose tragic footsteps we had trod, just one among all those who fell in that terrible battle. We know little of his story. Perhaps we do not need too. For on this day it was enough to remember him as one of us, and one of the fallen.