How Northampton soldiers helped turn the Great War

Steelbacks embarking on the front from Egypt

Steelbacks embarking on the front from Egypt

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“Life on the Somme was one long, drawn-out misery.

“No wonder the Germans grimly called it ‘the bath of blood,’ for it was an orgy of slaughter with the horror of dead men blown to bits over living ones and sufferings that sent strong men into hysterics. “Still we stuck it and won through.”-

(From a Northampton officer’s letter to the editor of The Northampton Independent, WH Holloway)

When the Steelbacks - the 2nd Battalion of the Northamptonshire regiment were called back from Egypt at the beginning of World War One, they could scarcely have imagined the difference in the conditions they would go on to face on the Somme.

Soon after the beginning of the horrific offensive on July 7, 1916, they were moved from bivouac under orders to capture Contalmaison, during which they once again suffered severely from shell fire.

The main approach was along a sunken road, where they came under such heavy shell fire that the direction had to be changed, and similar attempts at approach along trenches were checked by heavy artillery fire inflicting serious losses.

Colonel Buckle and Captain and Adjutant O. K. Parker were wounded with several other officers, and Lieutenant Selby was killed.

On reaching Peake Wood on the outskirts of the village,the Northamptons met a battalion retiring rapidly and in disorder.

The Northampton Independent reported at the time that Captain Carritt of the Northamptons managed to rally them, “restore order out of chaos”, and held the line strongly in the mud and rain, despite heavy bombardments.

Eventually the Germans evacuated Contalmaison, and the Steelbacks with the Worcesters were ordered to occupy it.

The Independent wrote: “Directly we advanced the enemy, who had our range perfectly, dropped a terrific hail of hells which laid low many a gallant hero.”

Led by the late Colonel Latham against a deadly fire from machine-guns, the Northamptons struggled on heroically until they reached a line beyond Peake Wood, but only the Colonel and a handful of men got there.

Captain Carritt was killed and Major Williams mortally wounded.

After this, they happened to meet the sister battalion in billets and received an enthusiastic welcome.

They were subsequently entrained at Longeau and

carried on trench warfare until November, and then went back to the Somme, where they shared the fighting and winter hardships at Guinchy and Guillemont.

Here, the mud was so deep and sticky that, according to one officer, “it was like fighting with flat irons tied to one’s feet.“

Their next big action was the storming and capture of Bouchavesnes. All objectives given to the Northamptons were taken and held against repeated counter-attacks.

Captain Knight , Lieutenants Young, Bird and Palmer were killed and several wounded.

Later in the day Colonel C. G. Buckle was wounded in the head by a sniper while going round our lines. All told, the success of the Steelbacks in this sector was generally held to have been largely responsible for the general retirement of the Germans in April, 1917, when the 8th Division drove them beyond Villiers Guislains.

An achievement, the Independent said, that “shook the morale of the enemy very perceptibly.”