20 July 1916: ‘They had no chance’

‘Our turn will come if only we can be patient’

Eustace Maxwell, commanding the 23rd Manchester ‘Bantam’ Battalion, wrote to his family on the 16th of July 1916. The Battalion had been in ‘Happy Valley’ (‘here we still sit, bivouacking on the sides of a valley and heartily cursing our luck’) since the 13th of July, and Maxwell was feeling impatient.

‘Your anxieties, so far as my worthy self is concerned, have hitherto been quite misplaced, for we have as yet taken no share in the action. It is almost humiliating to have to say this over again… The other two brigades of this Bantam division have been lent to other divisions, and will be fighting tomorrow; we have been left out of it because our brigade was supposed to have had rather a rotten time in the wood from which I last wrote. It is very tiresome. But our turn will come if only we can be patient.’[1]

Maxwell’s patience was straining, but he was about to get his turn. This would be the last letter that he would write.

(Above) Then Lieutenant Maxwell, with a group of officers from the Bengal Lancers. Photograph from an album created as a ‘Souvenir of the Jubilee of the King Edward’s Own Lancers (Probyn’s Horse) Rawalpindi 1907’, NAM, 1973-08-17-1. Major Eustace Lockhart Maxwell had assumed command of the 23rd Manchester Battalion in May 1916. Aged 38, he had formerly been a Captain in the Indian Cavalry (11th King Edward’s Own Lancers).

On the 18th of July the Manchesters moved up to Talus Boisé. The weather had been wet and the roads weren’t good. They arrived at their destination in the early hours of the morning and bivouacked in a field next to the wood. The 35th (Bantam) Division were now relieving the 18th Division, which had been engaged in the Trones Wood area for the past three weeks.

Major-General Reginald John Pinney, commanding the 35th Division, arrived at Brigade H.Q. (‘Stanley’s Hole, an evil-smelling dug-out about 400 yards south-west of Maricourt’) on the evening of the 19th of July. He had just come from a corps’ conference. He gave the order now that units of the 105th Brigade were to go forward the next day and to capture 1,000 yards of enemy trench between Arrow Head Copse and Maltz Horn Farm. The operation was intended to secure a more advantageous position from which the forthcoming attack on Guillemont could go ahead. Maltz Horn Farm, an important defensive position for the enemy, faced the junction of the British and the French armies.

(Above) Detail of map taken from H. M. Davson, The History of the 35th Division in the Great War (1926), p. 29

The orders for the attack were issued to the 15th Sherwood Foresters, who had been occupying the trenches opposite the objective since the 16th of July. Through the 18th and 19th the position had been subjected to heavy bombardment, to tear and gas shells. The Sherwood Foresters were exhausted, hungry and having their nerve and stamina severely tested.

The Sherwood Foresters received their orders at 9.50 p.m. on the 19th of July. The length of front was too long to be attacked directly by one battalion; therefore, instead, the plan was to focus the attack on two points – Maltz Horn Farm and Arrow Head Copse. The orders stated that the enemy was to be shelled that night and then heavily bombarded from 4.25 a.m. to 5 a.m., at which hour the artillery would lift and form a barrage. One Company of the Sherwood Foresters was then to attack, in four waves at 50-yard intervals, from the south-west of Arrow Head Copse. Meanwhile, four waves of a second Company were to attack from just south of Maltz Horn Farm. Bombing squads were then to work their way along the enemy trench until the two attacking parties met up. From midnight, Pioneers were to begin to dig a trench out towards Arrow Head Copse which could be joined up to the enemy’s trench once captured. There was a sap running in a westerly direction ahead of the enemy front line (‘supposed to be occupied as sniping has been observed from it’) and wire along the front line trench (‘but it is not considered strong’).

(Above) From the War Diary of the 15th Sherwood Foresters: Catalogue Reference: WO/95/2488 Image Reference:316.

The official histories emphasise that the plans for the attack were made hurriedly. ‘It was an arrangement that left much to be desired, but time was short’, the History of the 35th Division concluded.[2] However, circumstances were to deteriorate further. Shortly before midnight, Lieutenant-Colonel R. H. S. Gordon, commanding the 15th Sherwood Foresters, sent an urgent message to Brigade H.Q.: having been subjected to three days of shellfire and gas attacks, his battalion was badly shaken. The men had been in gas masks for the past four hours and it was going to be a challenge to find two companies’ worth of men in a fit state to attack. ‘Disconcerting news,’ wrote Pinney in his diary. Gordon asked that reinforcements be sent up, and, his request having been agreed to, new orders were issued to the Sherwood Foresters at midnight. Two Companies of the 23rd Manchesters had been ordered towards and would support the attack from the right (i.e. from the Maltz Horn Farm end), occupying the trenches vacated by the attacking companies of Sherwood Foresters and providing carrying parties. ‘At very short notice on July 20th the 105th Brigade attacked Maltz Horn Farm,’ Brigadier-General Sandilands would recall. ‘At still shorter notice, without even being given time to digest or issue orders, the 23rd Manchesters were sent up to help them.’ ‘W’ and ‘X’ Companies of the  Manchesters, having struggled up the line in darkness, arrived ahead of Maltz Horn Farm at 4.55 a.m. The attack was due to commence in five minutes. In response to the allied bombardment, the Sherwood Forester’s position was experiencing severe shelling.

As the artillery weren’t able to secure positions from which they could observe the trenches near Maltz Horn Farm, there was evidently some best guesswork in their aiming. Moreover, as there was less than 500 yards distance between the allied and enemy positions, it seems that it was difficult to target the enemy front line without some danger to the Sherwood Foresters. The register of messages over the course of the day indicates that the artillery was falling short. At some time before 4.25 a.m. the allied front line trench had been evacuated.

At 5.00 a.m. the first two lines of Sherwood Foresters advanced towards the enemy. They wouldn’t make it very far. A Report of Operations, written afterwards by Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon, recorded:

On the signal for the advance being given four waves moved forward and on topping the rise came in full view of the enemy where they met by a devastating fire from Machine Guns as far as can be ascertained from concealed positions to the East of MALTZ HORN FARM. From reports received from survivors it appears that the Coy. had suffered severely from the enemy’s barrage fire, and owing to the lateness of the time for the attack and the light shining directly on them, they afforded an easy mark for the enemy’s fire’.

Somehow, a few men did succeed in reaching the enemy’s front line trenches. French observers, also advancing towards Maltz Horn Farm, recorded that they had seen some of the Sherwood Foresters reaching the enemy line, but they were driven out.[3]

The company attacking from the Arrow Head Copse end also faced devastating enemy fire as soon as they topped the ridge. The scattered survivors dug themselves into shell holes. The next two waves, again facing hostile fire, made it less far and were compelled to retire back to their trenches.

At 6.50 a.m. a message was sent back to 105th Brigade H.Q., notifying them that the attack had failed. An immediate reply ordered that the attack must be continued. ‘As the right of the attack near Maltz Horn Farm was at the junction with the French, who were attacking simultaneously and had made progress, it was important that headway should be made,’ the History of the 35th Division explained. At 7.30 a.m. a telephone call was made back to Brigade H.Q., warning that, if the attack was to be recommenced, further support was imperative. Brigade replied that another two companies of the 23rd Manchesters (‘Y’ and ‘Z’) were being sent up. The attack was to be repeated at 11.35 a.m. In the meantime, the troops in the front line trenches were experiencing heavy shelling.

‘Officers & men went over with no clear idea of their direction or objective’

At 10.45 a.m., in advance of the planned bombardment of the enemy’s position, the companies of Manchesters who had been occupying the front line trenches were ordered to evacuate and to take up assembly positions to the rear. The bombardment started at 11.05 a.m. At 11.08 a.m. a phone call was made back to Brigade informing them that the reinforcing companies of Manchesters (‘Y’ and ‘Z’) hadn’t yet arrived. Guides were sent out. Eventually arriving some time shortly after 11.35 a.m., the attack had already started by the time that the Manchesters reached the position. One of the companies was immediately ordered to follow the attack “over the top” and the second to hold the trench.

The attack advanced in eight waves. ‘Officers & men went over with no clear idea of their direction or objective,’ records the Manchester’s War Diary. A sense of confusion is clear. Major Maxwell was the first man over the top. Once over, they faced machine gun and rifle fire. Those that could, retired back to their trenches, which were now subject to intense bombardment by enemy artillery.

Shortly after 12.00 p.m. a message was received from the French indicating that they had observed signs of the enemy concentrating troops to the East of Guillemont with a view to counter-attacking. ‘I considered the situation at this period to be extremely critical,’ wrote Gordon. He went on:

‘The men of the Sherwood Foresters who had already occupied the Trenches for four days and had been incessantly subjected to intense bombardment during the whole period, and the remaining men of the Manchesters who had come up into a new part of the line without any knowledge of their whereabouts or the local condition after a trying forced march, were practically in a state of collapse, especially as the enemy had in addition been sending over considerable quantities of Tear and Chlorine Gas Shells.’

Gordon directed six special runners to Advanced Brigade H.Q. and sent up the “S.O.S.” signal by rocket. In the meantime, the remaining officers attempted to rally the men to be ready for a counter-attack. At 12.05 p.m. a phone call from Brigade ordered Gordon and the remaining Sherwoods and Manchesters to hold the line ‘at all costs’. Fortunately, no counter-attack took place.

In the afternoon, reports were sent to 105th Brigade H.Q. ‘strongly recommending’ (Gordon) that the Sherwoods and Manchesters should be relieved. The Manchesters were left without any senior officers and the Sherwoods with only one effective officer per company. The relief was sanctioned and, finally, at 9 p.m., they began the handover to the 18th Lancashire Fusiliers. It must have been with some weariness that the Manchesters began to the journey back to Talus Boisé. John Duffield, the Battalion chaplain, recalled the mental state of some of the men that evening:

‘We had such a lot of casualties, and, that night, I was in charge of about 50 or 60 men, all badly shell shocked, lying on the ground, waiting for ambulances… I went about amongst them and tried to talk to them and they really were broken men. There was no cowardice about it.’[4]

On the 20th of July the 15th Sherwood Foresters had lost 10 officers killed and 9 wounded. 39 other ranks had been killed, 146 wounded, and 36 were missing. The day’s entry in the Manchester’s War Diary concludes: ‘Major Maxwell fell in the attack. He was the first over and was later reported missing, believed killed. Capts. Rothband & Gosling were killed, Maj. Grimshaw shell-shocked & Capt. Cooper, Lt. Wilson & 2nd Lts. Hamer, Simpson & Lye wounded (2nd Lt. Lye died on the 21st). 28 other ranks were killed, 98 wounded, 9 shell-shocked & 13 missing.’

49 officers and men of the Battalion were ultimately listed as ‘killed in action’ or ‘died of wounds’ on the 20th/21st of July 1916. 36 of them, with no known grave, are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Harry Barnes was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Pendlebury. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private John Thomas Beaumont was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Manchester. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Albert Booth died of wounds on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 20 and from Hulme, Manchester. He is buried in the Corbie Communal Cemetery Extension.

Private Andrew Cassell was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 31 and from Manchester. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private George Henry Conley was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Manchester. He is buried in the Flatiron Copse Cemetery, Mametz.

Sergeant William Cox was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Bolton. He is buried in the Flatiron Copse Cemetery, Mametz.

Private William Crawshaw was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 22 and from Newton Heath. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private James Cropper was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 23 and from Bolton. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Thomas Cummins was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Salford. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Charles Lawrence Darlow was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 21 and from Salford. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Fred Dodd was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Harpurhey. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private William Dossantos was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Hulme. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Sergeant Thomas Henry Faraghan was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 24 and from Chadderton, Oldham. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private James Forrest was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Middleton. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Walter Gorin was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 37 and from Redditch, Worcestershire. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Walter Heaney was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 21 and from Manchester. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Joseph Heaps was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from West Gorton. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Acting Quartermaster Sergeant Rowland Herrick was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Salford. He is buried in the Flatiron Copse Cemetery, Mametz.

Private Frank Holden was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Hulme. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private William Horridge was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 38 and from Gorton. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Robert Simeon Hulme was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Newton Heath. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Corporal William Edward Hulston was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Ardwick. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Sergeant William James was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Oldham. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Joseph Johnson was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 25 and from Middleton, Manchester. He is buried in the Flatiron Copse Cemetery, Mametz. He was originally reported missing, but subsequently identified.

Private William Johnson was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Ardwick. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Peter Laithwaite was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Orrell, Lancashire. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Richard Lambert was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Chorlton-on-Medlock. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private James Leigh was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Collyhurst, Manchester. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Lance Corporal Michael Levy was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 29 and from Leicester. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Corporal William Christopher Lowry was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 21 and from Ancoats. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Walter Matthews was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Collyhurst. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Charles Millward was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 19 and from Todmorden. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Arthur Edwin North was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was 21 and from Coppice, Oldham. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Ernest Owen was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Manchester. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Harry Cromwell Pilling was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 29 and from Ashton-under-Lyne. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private George Robinson was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Collyhurst. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Bertram Taylor was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Manchester. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Joseph Ward was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Manchester. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Philip Wilkinson was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 24 and from Pendleton. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Company Sergeant Major William Henry Wolstenholme died on the 20th of July 1916. He was from Salford. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private John Yates was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. He was aged 19 and from Accrington. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Herbert Blacklock was killed in action on the 21st of July 1916. He was aged 32 and from Lower Broughton, Manchester. He is buried in the Peronne Road Cemetary, Maricourt.

Private William Doyle died of wounds on the 21st of July 1916. He was from Newton, Manchester. He is buried in La Neuville British Cemetery, Corbie.

Private Richard Pontefract died of wounds on the 21st of July 1916. He was aged 38 and from Pendleton. He is buried in La Neuville British Cemetery, Corbie.

Private George Frederick Wall died of wounds on the 21st of July 1916. He was aged 42 and from Blackley. He is buried in La Neuville British Cemetery, Corbie.

Lieutenant Gilbert Lye died on the 21st of July 1916. He was aged 23 and from Rochdale. He is buried in the Corbie Communal Cemetery Extension.

Captain Jacob (‘Jack’) Eustace Rothband was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916. According to family papers, Rothband walked along the parapet just prior to his Company attacking. Trying to rally his men he shouted, ‘Come on boys, don’t be afraid of their guns’. He was shot through the head almost immediately. Jack Rothband was from Cheetham Hill. An old boy of Manchester Grammar School, he had been an officer with the Jewish Lad’s Brigade in Manchester. He worked for the family firm of W. S. Rothband & Co., rubber manufacturers, in Cheetham. When war broke out he was in San Francisco, but he returned immediately to the UK and enlisted in the Public Schools Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. He became a Temporary Lieutenant in April 1915 and was subsequently granted a commission with the Manchester Regiment. On his death the Manchester Evening News published a letter from Lieutenant George Simpson. He wrote of Rothband: ‘His humour and cheery disposition often kept us going when everything else seemed against us. I have lost a beloved company commander and true friend.’ Jack Rothband was aged 34. He is buried in Flat Iron Copse Cemetery, Mametz.

Captain Frederick William Gosling was killed in action on the 20th of July 1916A former Liverpool Institute boy, he was working for Liverpool Corporation in 1914. Gosling volunteered as a private at the start of the war, but received a commission in November 1914 and became attached to the Manchesters. His rise was rapid and he was promoted to Captain in November 1915. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

 

(Above)   A selection of the ‘in memoriam’ and ‘missing’ notices for men of the 23rd Battalion posted in the Manchester Evening News (31st July, 5th August, 14th September 1916, 20th and 25th July 1917).

‘The best type of Bantams done in’

Pinney wrote in his diary: ‘400 Manchesters went for MALTZE HILL FARM [sic] and all got in, but it is on forward slope of hill and they got blown to pieces by Bosh [sic] guns, even before they had finished off the Bosh garrison. The best type of Bantams done in.’[5]

It was a hastily planned – and badly planned – attack. As the History of the 35th Division conceded, arrangements did indeed leave much to be desired. The battalions of the 35th Division would later face criticism for their performance on the Somme, but evidence suggests that the 23rd Manchesters played their part on the 20th July to the best of their ability.  Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon’s report on the day’s events concluded:

‘I also wish to bring to notice the conduct of the Officers and men of the 23rd. Manchester Regt. who, arriving at very short notice carried out the second attack with great fortitude and dash and although driven back cheerfully set to work to repair the line and place it in a state of defence in expectation of a counter-attack. I consider the conduct of the Officers and men deserving of high praise especially in view of the fact that they had lost their Commanding Officer and all their senior Officers.’

That evening General Magnan, of the French 153rd Division, sent a message to Pinney. The advance of the 23rd Manchesters had been witnessed by several of his observing posts. He recorded: ‘It was splendid, as on parade, but they had no chance on front face of hill.’

Eustace Lockhart Maxwell’s elder brothers (Laurence Lockhart Maxwell and Francis Aylmer Maxwell) were both commanding battalions on the Western Front at the time of his death. They investigated his disappearance in the weeks that followed, keen to piece together the course of events, to discover whether he truly had been killed and, if that was the case, to locate his body. They spoke to his fellow officers, his men and repeatedly went over the ground.

Francis Aylmer Maxwell wrote in his journal:

‘The 2nd in command of Eustace’s battalion, I gathered, had failed – it was he who should have taken the final company into action. Eustace therefore, against orders, took his place and seeing how bad things were, took a rifle and bayonet and went forward to certain death.’

That ‘2nd in command’ was ex-colour sergeant Major Grimshaw. It is noted, in the Battalion War Diary, that he was suffering from shell shock.

Francis Maxwell’s journal goes on:

‘Eustace was last seen to hand his waterproof to his orderly and to take the orderly’s bayonet. With that he went forward and was seen to fall at the German trench which was being attacked. That was all I could learn of the matter for certain, after several visits to the spot and from letters and interviews with his Brigadier, the officers of his battalion and wounded men of his battalion in hospital and from officers (of other units) who later took over the trenches whence this attack had been made.’

A note adds:

‘The dead and wounded of 23rd Manchesters after the unsuccessful attack were left in No Man’s Land – “but all were eventually brought in, or accounted for by night patrols – with the exception of Eustace”. The chaplain who later buried the dead stated that there was no trace of Eustace.

Conclusions –

He may have been hit directly by a shell in which case there would have been no trace of him.

He may have fallen – yet not been picked up by our people later – he may in that case have been buried undefined since.

He may have reached the German trenches – been killed or captured there.’

His body was never recovered. The anxiousness of the Maxwell family to know the truth about Eustace’s fate reflects what so many families must have been feeling at this time. Eustace Lockhart Maxwell is commemorated on a family grave in the Municipal Cemetery, Guildford, Surrey.

(The Maxwell family papers are in the archives of the National Army Museum. See MS Letters of Eustace Lockhart Maxwell, NAM 1974-02-34-40 and 41.)

[1] MS Letters of Eustace Lockhart Maxwell, NAM 1974-02-34-36.

[2] The account of the events of 20th July is put together from: H. M. Davson, The History of the 35th Division in the Great War (1926), pp. 34-36;  J. W. Sandilands, Lancashire Brigade in France (1919)pp. 13-14; War Diary of 23rd Manchester Battalion (WO 95/2484); War Diary of 15th Sherwood Foresters (WO 95/2488); ‘Account of the 23rd (Service) Battalion’s service in France and Flanders’; Diary entries for 20th July 1916 from Major-General Reginald John Pinney’s Army Book, number 3. Diaries and papers, IWM Collection 66/257/1.

[3] By 6.20 a.m. the French, whose attack coincided, had succeeded in taking Maltz Horn Farm. Over the course of the day the French right flank advanced around 2,500 yards.

[4] Interview with John Duffield, Catalogue number 4411, IWM.

[5] Diary entries for 20th July 1916 from Major-General Reginald John Pinney’s Army Book, number 3. Diaries and papers, IWM Collection 66/257/1.

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