Captain Page was in one of the support trenches behind the British front line between the villages of Serre and Beaumont Hamel when the great attack started at 7.30 am on July 1, 1916.
As a result, he was not among the East Lancashires who were gunned down as they approached the German wire and front trench.
But, if anything, the task facing the second wave of East Lancashires was even harder. Shortly after zero hour, Page and his men attempted to follow the vanguard across No Man’s Land. ‘It was truly amazing that anyone could live in such devastating fire,’ he wrote in his report after the action.
There were many casualties. They included Lieutenant Newcombe, the Battalion’s machine gun officer. Within minutes of going over the top, ‘Newky’, who was coolly walking along in Page’s wake, smoking a cigarette, was shot and killed. Shells and machine gun bullets were claiming their victims “left right and centre”, Page reported.
“Miraculously, I advanced through all of this,” he continued, “until I came to the slightly sunken road, about midway in No Man’s Land. Here, I urged forward some men, who were trying to find shelter from the deadly fire, although I can now see they probably had right on their side.
“About eight minutes after zero hour, when I was right up against the German wire, I saw a small group of enemy infantry standing on their parapet, waving their caps on their wooden handled grenades, and shouting ‘Come on English!’. I emptied my revolver into this group and as I did so, one of our field guns put their first shell right into the middle of them.
“That target was disposed of,” he concluded, “but any further advance was now impossible. Any movement in No Man’s Land brought a hail of bullets.”
Realizing that discretion was the better part of valour, he sought refuge along with those close to him, in one of a series of nearby shell holes, and resolved to wait until nightfall before attempting to escape.
It seemed to take a long time coming, but when darkness finally liberated Page, and when he and a companion started the long trek back towards the British lines, it was like a nightmare.
There were ‘Very lights’ shooting up in the air all around him, “explosions of every kind”, “sudden bursts of machine guns” and “salvos from guns which demanded rushes for cover to the nearest shell hole. A broad stretch of No Man’s Land was coloured khaki by the British dead and wounded which carpeted the ground.”
At the same time, there was the knowledge that saving themselves meant abandoning their wounded comrades. “Some were tenderly placed in shell holes”, although it was obvious they would not survive for long. But apart from that, all Page and his companion could do, was to “meander from one groaning figure to another, and give them water, or a word of hope and cheer.”
By the time the two East Lancashire officers made it back to the British front line, they were exhausted. Nevertheless, Page worked through the night, helping to bring in at least some of those, whose positions he had memorised on the way back. However, when the first streaks of dawn lit up the dark sky, and made further recovery of men too dangerous, even he had to call it a day. He returned to the safety of the Battalion’s dug out, in the support trench, where he was revived with a mug of tea.
“Of my feelings at that moment, it is very difficult to speak,” he wrote later. “Tears and a lump in the throat sound very sentimental and effeminate. But we had lost so many friends and men we knew to be great in character, all for no purpose.”
The enormity of the disaster was brought home to him when, on approaching the ‘White City’ dug outs behind the British front line, they bumped into Brigadier-General Wilding, commander of the 10th Brigade, who had also taken over the command of 11th Brigade. Its commander, Brigadier-General Prowse, had been mortally wounded. On seeing Page and his brother officer, Brigadier-General Wilding remarked rather tactlessly: “What: officers of the East Lancashire Regiment? Why, I thought they were all killed.”
After the 4th Division units were withdrawn from the front line, they were congratulated for attacking so strongly. That prompted Captain Page to conclude his report with the following critical verdict: “Divisional diaries may say that a certain very limited success was achieved, but from one who was in the midst of it, it may be glorious that many men die bravely in a vain endeavour, but many would have lived to accomplish great deeds, but for the ignorance, ill training, and lack of thought of our general officers.”
* Somme Into The Breach by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore published by Viking Penguin is available price £25.
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