Gen. Horne’s overall attack strategy split XV Corps area of operations into two distinctive assaults, either side of the Fricourt salient with 7 th Division on the right attacking to the north and west and 21 st Division on the left assaulting eastward. The ground, available evacuation routes, condition of roads and tracks and the distance between the two attacking formations dictated it necessary for both divisions to have their own separate medical evacuation plans, RAPs, ADSs and MDSs. Only from MDSs to CCSs would the two medical plans converge and only then if one CCS was at capacity. The two divisional ADMSs worked on a medical plan to accommodate the Corps’ scheme of operations.
In outline, 7th Division would construct seven RAPs with evacuation off the battlefield to two ADSs; Minden Post and Citadel. There would also be one DCS on the Bray – Méaulte road and an MDS at Morlancourt. 21st Division’s scheme required eight RAPs and three ADSs, two main ADSs at Queens Redoubt and Subway and a reserve at Méaulte. The DCS would be located at a Chateau southwest of Méaulte and MDS at Méricourt.
Zero Hour (7.30 am) in the old church in Villers, Morlancourt, the medical staff at 7th Division’s Main Dressing Station (MDS) could hear the distant rumblings of the battle raging 5-miles to the east. It was a sure sign they were in for a busy day. Over the following hours, they waited in expectation for the rush of casualties. At first, it was a trickle, the first two cases arriving by ambulance car at 10.20 am. Lt. Col. George Brown RAMC recorded that the two soldiers had been wounded near Mametz at 8 am or shortly after. It had taken just over two hours to extract the men from the battlefield back on the tortuous 9-mile designated casualty evacuation route to the first level of specialist aid. Within ten-minutes, motor ambulances began to arrive in ones and twos, followed shortly by the first horse-drawn ambulance. By early afternoon, cases came in steadily at about a rate of 100 an hour. Lt. Col. Brown recorded in his log:
Three MO’s and six dressers tried to compete with the rush, but could not dress them as fast as they were coming in. About thirty-five cases an hour were dressed. A number had been properly dressed at the ADS already, these were not touched.
By early evening, the MDS had reached full capacity. A now concerned Lt. Col. Brown reported the situation to Col. Newland DDMS (XV Corps) who instructed him to divert further arrivals to 22nd Field Ambulance until space was cleared, as they had additional tents located next to the MDS. With the building and all tents filled to the brim, dressing of wounds continued outdoors with the aid of a large ‘flare lamp’ borrowed from XV Corps’ prisoner cage. At 9 pm, the wounded ‘state’ was recorded as 6 officers, 813 ORs and 20 Germans admitted, with 6 officers and 445 ORs evacuated primarily to No.5 CCS at Corbie whilst 388 OR cases remained at the MDS.
Similarly, at 21st Division’s Méricourt MDS, the day started slowly. The first casualties arrived at 10.30 am, coinciding with a visit by Col. Profeit ADMS, 21st Division. After a quick inspection, he expressed himself pleased with arrangements and departed. Several of the early cases, to the delight of the medical staff, claimed to have made it as far as the German support trench before being wounded. By 11.30 am, ambulance wagons were arriving thick and fast. To complement the motor ambulance convoy, Capt. Menzies, 64th Fd Amb commanded nine of the field ambulances, horse-drawn wagons and six converted general service wagons. CSM Page organised fresh horses and drivers from Méricourt, changing animals and men as required. Throughout the day, the wagons transferred lightly wounded from the Divisional Collecting Station (DCS) at Méaulte to 36th CCS at Heilly, thereby bypassing the MDS and elevating pressure. A Motor Ambulance Convoy took large numbers of wounded from the MDS at 3.45 pm, removing 110 lying cases and, again at 6.30 pm, transporting 451 patients. Throughout the night and following morning hundreds more wounded (both XV Corps and Germans) arrived at the two MDSs to be dressed or treated, then forwarded through the casualty treatment and evacuation system to the CCSs and beyond. In total, for Z Day, XV Corps casualties amounted to 8,790 all ranks, of which 5,848 were wounded. Medical posts and evacuation routes were at most times capable of accommodating the large number of casualties. However, at periods—particularly at the Advance Dressing Stations, Main Dressing Stations and at the Heilly Casualty Clearing Stations—it did reach capacity and there was congestion. There is very little evidence to suggest this congestion resulted in unnecessary deaths although we must presume it did in certain cases.
It was only precise planning and extensive preparations that ensured XV Corps’ medical plan was capable of processing the high volume of casualties—far more than had been initially anticipated.
On 5 July GOC 30th Division ordered it to be conveyed to all ranks of RAMC of the Division his appreciation of the excellent work done by them during the recent advance. Removal of wounded from the field was carried on in the most expeditious manner and all possible care was taken for the treatment and general comfort of the wounded.
By early evening on the first day, the main fighting was all but over. As darkness fell, an eerie quiet fell over the battlefield. Using darkness as cover, stretcher-bearers combed the battlefield, evacuating the last wounded. With enemy artillery all but destroyed, the only danger was the occasional inaccurate searching artillery fire from one of the few remaining operational German field guns. The ground over which the battle had been fought was strewn with the cost of war. XV Corps had suffered 2,771 officers and men killed. These were men that had ‘gone over’ less than 14-hours earlier, full of hope and enthusiasm, most never believing their number would be up. Naturally, nearly all had been fearful of what fate the day might bring and were aware of the dangers but also knew their duty and, most of all, did not want to let down their pals, their battalion or country. They had their orders, they knew their task and attacked as they had rehearsed and practised. Likewise, the German soldiers opposite had no option other than to fight to survive. Having endured the heaviest bombardment of the war to date many were shaken and traumatised from the barrage. When the attack came, if they wanted to live, they had to man their defences (or what was left of them) and fight harder than they had ever fought before. They could give no quarter; it was a case of kill or be killed.
The battlefield bore clear evidence of the day’s events. Where corpses lay thick and the discarded equipment of the wounded was scattered, the fighting had been severe. On the Corps’ right flank in front of Dantzig Alley, the Manchesters lay dense, bodies grotesque in all kinds of angles and postures. Mametz was a shattered ruin like a scene from hell. Fighting had been at close quarters and the dead, both friend and foe, were intermingled. Some bodies were burnt and charred amongst the smouldering ruins. In Carnoy Valley, in front of the railway halt and shrine, kilted corpses were spread over 500-yards. Not far away, on the slope to the left of Mansel Copse, the majority of two battalions of Devons lay motionless. Along the length of Bois Francais, 1,000-yards east to west, shattered trenches were full of opposing foes, lying intermingled. Their bloodied bodies were torn open with horrific wounds caused by bomb blast and fragments, high-velocity bullets fired at short range and bayonets. Many had skulls cracked open, smashed by the butt of a rifle or a medieval looking trench club carried by battalion bombers. In front of Fricourt, some hanging on uncut wire, were the carcasses of courageous Green Howards who had gone over knowing they faced almost certain death. To the north of the village, the 10th West Yorks had been destroyed, suffering the highest casualties of all battalions engaged during Z Day. Then there was Fricourt Spur. The dead of nine vanguard and supporting battalions and attached formations lay lifeless, spread over a hillside 1,500-yards long by 400-yards deep. Most had been cut to pieces by the crossfire of up to 23 machine-guns. Whole sections had been killed in lines, where bursts of 7.92mm bullets had cut them down like a scythe. As the infantry had advanced deeper into the enemy trench system, there was further evidence of slaughter. Where the Germans resisted, at points such as Sausage and Empress Support, Lozenge Alley and Birch Tree Trench, fighting had usually been at close quarters, brutal and conducted to the death. The survivors of each localised action advanced to the next line of resistance, trampling over the limp bodies of their fallen comrades and enemies alike.
The 21st Division had come off worst. Their total dead amounted to 91 officers and 1,091 ORs while 7th Division’s dead totalled 67 officers and 965 ORs. The (17th Northern) Division, with only one Brigade fighting (attached to 21st Division), suffered 21 officers and 536 ORs killed.
It is impossible to say these figures are truly accurate. They are a good estimate, but the exact totals will probably never be known. A comparison of war diaries, CWGC and official records compiled for ‘Soldiers Died in the Great’ War all provide different totals. Understandably, at the time many men were initially listed as missing. 7th Division posted the names of only 27 men missing, 21st Division had 111 and 17th Division 33. Many of these were dead, their bodies obliterated, evaporated in an explosion or buried by the up cast of a detonation. Others were wounded, evacuated back through the casualty chain, their units notified at a later point. Some (at least 60 of 17th Division) were taken prisoner when surrounded and cut off in Fricourt, yet the division’s official figures listed only 33 men missing. Many wounded died during the following days or even over subsequent weeks and months. A search of the rear area cemeteries along the Corps’ medical evacuation route finds 107 men of 7th Division, 98 of 21st Division and 56 of 17th Division who had died of wounds between 1 – 11 July. This equates to roughly 10% of all deaths for all three divisions.
XV Corps’ opposition comprised formations of 28 Reserve Division, predominantly RIR 111 (3x Bataillons and 3x MG Kompagnies), RIR 109 (2x Bataillons and 2x MG Kompagnies), RIR 110 (1x Kompagnie), 2x Pionier Kompagnies and 2x MGSST Detachments. In his post operational report (Gefechtsberichte über die Somme Schlacht) Generalleutnant Ferdinard von Hahn listed his casualties by unit under dead, wounded and missing. The figures (all ranks) recorded at the time (mid-July) were: RIR 109: 101 dead, 283 wounded, 1,783 missing, total 2,167 and RIR 111: 252 dead, 452 wounded, 1,121 missing, total 1,825.