British artillery support for the offensive was on a remarkable scale; planning and preparation was meticulous. The Royal Regiment of Artillery had grown in size since the early days of the war, now boasting an impressive array of guns, howitzers and mortars. Ammunition production had increased and was available on a scale that would have been unimaginable six months earlier. With this growth in weapons and materiel, many new methods and tactics were being employed for the first time.
Capt. Arthur Radclyffe Dugmore 10th KOYLI recalled: 'The great preliminary bombardment commenced. The greatest concentration of gunfire ever indulged in by the British up to that time. At least the Boche was to learn our strength and the learning must have been a decidedly painful experience. Everywhere, for miles back of our front line, guns of all sizes were belching death-dealing missiles with tireless energy.'
The day’s primary task was registration of ‘wire-cutting’ field artillery batteries. The morning was dull with low cloud and heavy rainstorms, environments adverse for accurate artillery shooting. It was planned to open registration and wire-cutting at daybreak (3.40 am), however early bad light delayed the start. By 6 am, along XV Corps’ 5,000-yard frontage wire-cutting field-guns and medium mortars were engaging enemy wire with Mortars targeting wire to the front of the German first trench and 18-pounders firing on enemy support and reserve lines. As the day progressed conditions and visibility improved. The secondary task of the day, should the enemy disclose their battery positions in retaliatory fire, was a concerted effort by the two counter-battery groups, 18th and 23rd HAGs, to destroy or disable German artillery. During the day heavy guns and howitzers of the three ‘destruction’ Heavy Artillery Groups, 3rd, 14th, and 21st HAGs were to remain silent, other than for the occasional registration of targets. Their opportunity to join the fight would come during the hours of darkness when they would target long-range billeting areas and communication routes. For the infantry in the trenches or within earshot, it was just another day but with the consolation that the Germans were getting it harder than them for once. Capt. Charlie May, 22nd Manchesters, recorded in his diary on 24 June:
The bombardment has commenced. It is quite gentle as yet but it will speed up in intensity with each succeeding day. Up to now Fritz is quiet. I’ve no doubt he is saving up ammunition for a real good burst when he does start.
Pte. John Coulson, 14th Northumberland Fusiliers, billeted in Méaulte recorded in his diary:
All our guns have been ranging this morning getting the ranges for the bombardment. I wish they would get on with the bombardment the sooner started the sooner finished.
The second day of the bombardment started on a better note with bright skies and warm weather. The artillery programme continued in earnest with divisional field artillery wire cutting for the second day. Results of the first day’s bombardment had been sketchy; the previous night’s patrols had reported damage to enemy wire, although in the main it was still a formidable obstacle. Better weather would bring improved observation, thus increasing the accuracy of the FOOs adjustments. Today the field artillery would be joined by the heavy ‘destruction’ artillery of XIII Corps and the French heavies of ‘Group de Menthon.’ It was to be a successful day for the heavy artillery groups. The months of planning and gathering of intelligence as to the enemy’s locations, strong points, machine-guns, artillery batteries, rear area billets and supply dumps was to pay off. By the day’s end observers could see several of the enemy’s ammunition dumps at Longueval and Montauban blazing away with large explosions audible as the German ammunition exploded.
The weather became unsettled. Along the Fourth Army front the phase of the artillery programme described as ‘destructive effect’ commenced. For most of the day all natures of guns and howitzers engaged the enemy trench system. A large explosion was observed on the northern outskirts of Fricourt. Fricourt Farm was considerably damaged and many houses in Mametz were destroyed by 12-inch howitzers. A concentrated bombardment took place from 9.00 am - 10.20 am. The plan had been to discharge smoke followed by Special Brigade releasing gas at 10.10 am, however, unfavourable conditions delayed the operation for an hour. Once smoke and gas were released the Germans retaliated, opening a counter-barrage against the Corps’ trenches and several battery positions. An ammunition store belonging to one of the 9.2-inch howitzers was hit, causing damage to the howitzer’s platform.
At 3 pm the bombardment was suspended to allow the Royal Flying Corps to photograph the area in order to obtain an exact record of the damage. Aerial photography revealed how the heavy shells had fallen and gave an accurate image of the condition of the enemy wire entanglements. The results of the bombardment appeared to be satisfactory. Still, it was decided the effort was to be doubled in intensity. During the evening at Fricourt a raiding party from 12th Northumberland Fusiliers successfully captured six enemy soldiers belonging to RIR 111.
The weather took a turn for the worse; at first light, a dense mist lay thick on the ground followed later by heavy showers. Although there were slight improvements during the day, low cloud and bad visibility seriously hindered X Day’s artillery programme. Particularly disrupted, with such reduced observation, were longer range counter-battery shoots and target correction from RFC aircraft and kite balloon sections. Adverse weather conditions helped the Germans greatly as their artillery, for a second day running, came out of hiding to fire with limited risk of compromising their positions. Only when the sky cleared during the evening were numerous ‘flashes’ of enemy batteries located. In retaliation XV Corps’ heavy artillery doubled its rate of fire onto known or likely German artillery positions and defences. It was hoped an increased rate of fire would subdue German batteries. A concentrated bombardment of 1 hour 20 minutes took place from 4.30 am – 5.50 am, smoke being discharged in the final 10-minutes. Artillery observers described enemy trenches as considerably damaged, Rose Cottage disappeared and Fricourt almost flattened. Wire cutting was reported as proceeding satisfactorily and nearly completed in the German front system of trenches. During the night patrols stated no repairs had been carried out on the enemy’s wire. An unknown German belong to RIR 111 recalled:
‘A shell landed right in front of one of the entrances of our dug-out, where I was sitting on the stairs about 5 – 6 metres underground. It covered me with stones (chalk). I received a small wound in the face and the stairway was half filled in right down into the dugout.’
Capt. May, 22nd Manchesters wrote:
‘The guns are never silent, sometimes their detonating is one reverberating roar which fills the whole air and causes even the ground to tremble. At others they dwindle down a little until you can distinguish the notes of different guns but always they fire and fire and fire.
For a second morning dawn saw a thick mist with heavy rain and low cloud. This was the final full day of the planned preliminary artillery programme. If British guns were to accomplish their mission of destroying German wire and defences, they would require accurate corrections from ground observation posts and via Royal Flying Corps aircraft and kite balloons. As a result of the continuing bad weather and by unanimous agreement between British and French GHQ, Z Day was postponed for 48 hours. The revised plan called for the attack to commence on Saturday 1 July. The two additional days were designated Y1 and Y2. The artillery programme for Y Day, a day devoted to destruction of defences, was to be repeated on the two extra days.
Although the morning started wet the day saw a striking improvement in the weather. It grew brighter with low clouds and a light warm breeze which assisted in drying the ground. Flying conditions were greatly improved. It was a vast improvement on the previous two days. Several photographic reconnaissance sorties revealed an update on enemy defences. Increased observation allowed the Corps’ heavy artillery to continue its destruction at longer range with increased accuracy but at a slower rate of fire and to ‘catch-up’ on counter-battery work. The daily concentrated bombardment took place between 4.00 pm – 5.20 pm and included the now routine smoke discharge during its final 10-minutes. The Germans retaliated against first- and second-line trenches with 7.7cm, 4.2cm and 15cm shellfire. In the Mametz sector, the Germans showed considerable activity with machine-gun and mortar fire from their support trenches.
The questioning of a German deserter from RIR 109 captured during the morning near Mansel Copse provided encouragement. His interrogator recorded:
It is with great difficulty that rations have been brought up to the German front line. Several prisoners and deserters say they have not received food from the rear for three days that they have eaten their iron rations without orders and have suffered from the scarcity of water.
The intelligence gleaned from the deserter coupled with evidence gathered from patrols and aerial photography gave hope for a successful outcome on Z Day.
XV Corps’ artillery force opened the final day’s bombardment with their usual energy. In line with the previous two days barrage principal tasks remained ‘destruction shoots,’ primarily against in-depth German positions. Targets included enemy support and reserve trenches, strong-points, reverse slope positions and dugouts within the first line system. Weather conditions remained dry in spite of some cloud, although an increase in wind on the previous day helped to dry the ground. Increased wind speed did, however, hinder the work of RFC aircraft and kite balloons and influenced flight trajectory of artillery shells, making correction and adjustments challenging on longer range shoots during counter-battery work. Still, visibility was clear and observation was good. Enemy artillery retaliation was heavy but at no point severe.
From XV Corps’ observation posts on Hill 124, Bois Francais Ridge and Bonté Redoubt observers looked across to German lines with telescopes and binoculars. Their view showed devastation with very little enemy wire remaining. Many defensive positions, particularly the first trench and those on forward slopes, appeared to be practically flattened. The fortified villages of Mametz and Fricourt were reduced to rubble. Except for sentries the enemy hid underground in surviving shelters. Several enemy soldiers wrote letters. Extracts taken from two highlight conditions endured by German troops:
Letter dated 30 June written by an officer of RIR 111 at Fricourt.
We came into the front-line ten days ago. During these ten days, I have suffered more than anytime during the last two years. The dugouts are damaged in places, but the trenches are completely destroyed.
And from a German diary found at Fricourt.
30th June; A dugout was destroyed and four men poisoned by the fumes of the explosion, one man suffocated. The strain on my nerves is terrible and I cannot write any more of what I have gone through.
By 4 am, 1 July all attacking and support infantry battalions of VX Corps were in their battle assembly positions. The earlier hours of Z Day were described as relatively quiet except for several bouts of retaliatory bombardment against the east of Bois Francais Ridge and trenches near Bécourt Wood. Occasionally a gun or howitzer fired a salvo or a heavy shell whistled through the air en-route to a distant target. Machine-gun sections opened short bursts of fire that arced through the sky, passing over the assembled infantry before falling on German positions. Vickers and Lewis guns in advance emplacements in the first trench fired occasional bursts on fixed lines into the darkness and beyond across ground where the German wire once lay. Out in No-Man’s-Land small infantry patrols and battalion scouts ventured over to the other side, checked for German activity and worked along the shattered enemy wire in order to check its destruction and to ensure no repairs had been attempted. Under cover of darkness other parties finished cutting lanes through their own protective wire. White tapes were laid indicating points where attacking troops should form-up in No-Man’s-Land. Divisional and Corps engineer companies fixed trench bridges in position, some as infantry crossing points and other sturdier constructions for the purpose of moving forward artillery and stores limbers after objectives had been gained. In the rear area gunners worked hard resupplying ammunition to the hundreds of guns and howitzers, stockpiling shells of all calibres next to their weapons in anticipation of the morning’s final bombardment. Underground, Royal Engineers covertly opened apertures into No-Man’s-Land from Russian saps and Tunnelling Companies connected and checked firing cables to plungers to be used to detonate destructive mines and manhole charges. Infantry not employed on tasks rested as best they could. The sun would rise at 3.49 am. The morning would bring, what was for most their first and, for many, their last battle.
At precisely 6.25 am battery commanders screamed ‘Fire!’ Everywhere, shells of all calibres shrieked through the air en-route to targets. The next 65-minutes saw the largest bombardment the British Army had ever fired. Shells rained down on German positions, every battery shooting to a fixed programme with boundaries overlapping to ensure no part of the enemy line remained untouched. Each gun, howitzer or mortar had a fixed allocation of ammunition. Infantry waiting in assembly trenches instantly detected the increase in the rate of fire as the noise rose to a crescendo. Pte. J B Simpson, Manchester Reg, writing home declared:
‘I shall never forget the last hour. It was as if the earth opened and everything was falling into space. There were tons of red-hot metal flying overhead every minute.’
Opposite Fricourt 2nd Lieut. Charles Edward Burton Bernard, 10th West Yorks recalled:
‘At 6:30 it commenced and gradually became more and more intense, till it developed into one mad continuous roar. I watched the village in front of us, which we were going to attack, going up into the air in chunks and disappearing like a house built of cards. It was a terrible bombardment. A barrage was then put on to the enemy’s front-line trenches, and the landscape behind was blotted out by the dust and smoke.’
All five Heavy Artillery Groups participated with every one of their twenty heavy and siege batteries playing a part, either as part of the fixed programme or on call to engage hostile enemy batteries. 7th Division employed seventy-four 18-pounders from fourteen batteries and sixteen 4.5-inch howitzers from four batteries. 21st Division committed five of its six field artillery brigades totalling eighteen 18-pounder and four 4.5-inch batteries. Equally, both divisions employed every available medium and heavy mortar. In total, XV Corps engaged the German positions with 318 guns, howitzers and mortars (78 heavy guns and howitzers, 200 field guns and light howitzers and 40 medium and heavy mortars). The figures do not include twelve French 75mm field-guns and sixty 2-inch mortars.
For the final 10-minutes all nature of artillery and mortars had instructions to increase their rate of fire to the maximum. During this ‘finale’ the artillery would be joined by other weapons and specialists including machine-guns, light-mortars, smoke discharges and subterranean mines. All had strict programmes, targets, arcs, boundaries and times when to open fire or detonate. The combined effort, it was planned, would kill or subdue any surviving German troops.
At 7.20 am the gun lines stepped up the rate of fire to the maximum. Gunners fed ammunition to their guns and howitzers, loaders slammed rounds into breeches and No.1’s fired as soon as the breech was closed. Hundreds of shells whistled through the air before smashing into German positions, the ground vibrated and the air filled with dust, smoke and the acrid smell of explosive.
In the assembly trenches Sergt. Richard Tawney, 22nd Manchesters recalled:
‘The sound was different, not only in magnitude, but in quality, from anything known to me. It was not a succession of explosions or a continuous roar, I, at least, never heard either a gun or a bursting shell. It was not a noise, it was a symphony.’
At 7.22 am, fifty Vickers machine-guns opened fire. Teams which had been firing on long range harassing shoots in the indirect role at a moderate rate of fire switched, increasing to a rapid fire in bursts against the German first-line parapet and targets deemed a threat to advancing lines of infantry such as known machine-gun or sniper posts.
Also at 7.22 am XV Corps’ 3-inch Stokes mortar batteries opened a hurricane barrage on German first line trenches. The initial 5-minutes were fired at normal rate, during which mortars ensured they had ranged on target then at 7.27 am every mortar increased to the rapid rate of 20-rounds per minute. As a combined Corps approximately 4,780 Stokes bombs rained down on the German first line in just 8-minutes.
The final bombardment took place at 7.26 am when smoke was used to ‘mask out’ Fricourt, Hill 110 and Bois Francais Ridge, the areas that would not be directly attacked by infantry at Zero Hour.
The first underground mines detonated at 7.27 am when two 500lbs charges were fired next to Austrian Trench. One minute later, in the centre of the Corps frontage, two out of three prepared charges detonated, one of 9,000lbs and a second 15,000lbs. A third even larger mine of 25,000lbs failed to detonate. Two more mines would detonate on Zero Hour, the largest 2,000lbs close to Bulgar Point and the other under Kiel Trench on the east of Bois Francais Ridge. The latter, containing 600lbs of ammonal in two 8-inch bore holes exploded on the dot, unfortunately the larger Bulgar Point mine failed. Three more 660lbs charges would be detonated, after Zero Hour, in sequence over 15-minutes along the German first trench on Bois Francais.
With seconds to go to Zero Hour the infantry huddled around trench ladders ready to go over, bayonets fixed, box magazines and safety catches checked, mates shook hands and wished each other luck. The mood was a mixed one of excitement and fear. Officers and sergeants looked at their watches, ‘5 seconds to go,’ as whistles were lifted to lips men looked towards their leaders. Long shrilling blasts sounded.