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Reginald Divall

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Died : 1 July 1916

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The 1st day of July 1916 is one of the most poignant dates in the annals of the British Army. It was their blackest day - ever. At 07.20 the first of the infantry advanced. The Battle of the Somme had commenced. The initial attack was signalled by the detonation of some 40,600lb of high explosives at the German stronghold, known as Hawthorn Redoubt. Over an eighteen mile front 143 battalions pressed forward during the next few hours. By the end of that day well over 17,000 corpses littered the battlefield. A further 35,493 were wounded and a mere 585 were recorded as prisoners of war. All this for an overall gain of around three square miles in the southern sector. The onslaught in the remaining parts of the front failed on July 1st with the disastrous casualties mentioned.

During the following days our newspapers heralded the battle as a resounding success with few British casualties and massive gains. A motion film was quickly made and shown to packed houses, depicting the victorious British attacks. Books were written and illustrated to show what a glorious victory had been achieved in the ‘Great Push’. It was awhile before the casualty lists started to appear and the people began to wonder as to how great the victory really was. The ‘Battle of the Somme’ was to turn into a ghastly war of attrition and drag on for a further five months. The ‘Grim Reaper’ had many more young lives on both sides to claim yet before winter finally halted the slaughter that year. In that time there were almost a half million British casualties, over 100,000 being fatal.

On 6th June 1896 Thomas George, a bricklayer, and Emily Divall of The Green, Ringmer, became the proud parents of Reginald. He was christened on 1st July that year and, when the time came, enrolled at Ringmer School. He started there on 9th October 1899 and remained until 18th April 1910 when he commenced work at Horsted Place, Little Horsted. From 1908 to 1912 he was in Ringmer Scouts and became their first Patrol Leader before leaving the parish to take up a new appointment in Woburn Sands, Bedfordshire. It was whilst employed there as a footman/butler that he was recruited into the 16th London Regiment at their Westminster Headquarters. Its other name was the Queen’s Westminster Rifles (Q.W.R.) and Rifleman Reginald Divall, number 3251 (later changed to 550859), was posted to Number 6 platoon of ‘B’ Company. His address at the time is recorded as being in Pimlico and was probably the London home of his employer.

During 4th July 1915 Divall sailed for France, arriving at the Front just in time to be greeted by a flurry of gas shells. It was his timing rather than the shelling that entitled him to the 1914-15 Star, British War & Victory Medals. The Battalion was sent to the Ypres Salient in Belgium with the 6th Division and saw plenty of fierce action. In February it transferred into the newly formed 56th (London) Division, part of VII Corps, and commenced training for the forthcoming offensive. They moved back into the line on 5th May 1916 opposite Gommecourt in France. The Queen’s Westminsters was one of the twelve fighting battalions that formed the 56th Division. Among other units attached was a pioneer battalion and a Field Company of Royal Engineers. There were then three Brigades to a Division and Divall’s was numbered the 169th.
gommecourtmap Together with the 46th (Midland) Division, they were sent to an isolated part of the front, with orders to make their presence and preparations obvious to the enemy. They had to storm one of the best-prepared, most heavily defended and geographically difficult areas of the entire battlefield. For this task they were numerically inadequate and hopelessly outgunned in artillery and machine guns. The area to be crossed, in full view of the German gunners, of around 400 yards was too far for the heavily laden soldiers. It must also be remembered that as the Germans were expecting an attack here they brought up reinforcements and used them to full effect. That was after all the overall intention. The attack was a strategic failure despite good initial inroads being made by the men of the 56th Division.

The third Division, which made up VII Corps was the 37th. It was situated over five miles to the north of the others and ordered not to attack on 1st July. It was to shell the German lines nearby, release smoke and generally attract attention away from the primary ‘diversion’!

For seven days a constant barrage of shells had been rained upon the German positions. This was intended to destroy his trenches, dugouts and above all else his barbed wire. Despite countless shells being fired, the wire largely remained uncut. Although the trenches were rendered untenable the deep dugouts where the garrison sheltered from the bombardment remained largely unaffected. As soon as the barrage lifted the defending force rose, like the phoenix, to defend their lines. We now come to the eve of the Somme battle itself.

For Reginald and his friends, this forthcoming battle was, if anything, worse than for those in the main force, for it was part of a huge ‘diversionary attack’ never intended to succeed by itself. The area to be assaulted was the notorious salient around the village of Gommecourt. It stuck out from the German front line like a nose and was almost impregnable. The Corps Commander decided that the two Divisions would attack on either side of the salient simultaneously and avoid a frontal assault on the village itself. They would try to surround the fortress and cut it off. The 46th (Midland) Division was assigned the ‘bridge of the nose’ and the 56th the ‘upper lip’. The plan was simple, and if the 46th Division had succeeded in breaking through the German defences to reach their assigned objective, might well have succeeded. For its part the 56th Division fought splendidly. Two brigades, the 168th and 169th with four and three battalions respectively, opened the assault. The Queen’s Westminsters of the 169th Brigade, was in the first phase of the battle with the Queen Victoria’s Rifles and London Rifle Brigade.

 

The sands of time had started to run out for Reginald Divall who was destined never to celebrate his 21st birthday. Despite the title of his rank, Rifleman Divall was in fact a bomb thrower. He would have carried into action twenty Mills Bombs in addition to his rifle and other equipment. He would be a practised ‘bomber’ and able to throw the 1½lb hand grenade around forty yards.

After crossing No-Man’s-Land with surprisingly light loss, the men of the Q.W.R. were held up by uncut wire and had to file through such gaps as could be found. They were now being swept at close range by murderous German machine gun fire from flanking positions. The area just crossed came under an increasingly heavy artillery barrage and any idea of retreat quickly left their minds. In fact the only runner all day to survive the return passage arrived at 8.20am with the message that the battalion was held up with mounting losses. Because of the heavy casualties all the trench bridging equipment was lost and the men had to jump into and then climb out of the back of the German front line trench. This exposed them to even more fire. At this point Captain G Cockerill, commanding ‘B’ Company, was severely wounded. [He died two days later in captivity.] Some prisoners were taken and sent down to their own dugouts because we could not escort them back to our lines. It seems that as our men pressed onward, these prisoners broke out, took up arms again and fired into their backs. The casualties mounted up by the minute as our bombers fought their way along the German communication trenches yard by yard. They reached a position known as Nameless Farm Road where for a time no further progress was possible. Eventually all the Battalion’s officers were killed or wounded and the highest rank to return uninjured from that road was a sergeant.
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The objective of the Queen’s Westminster’s had been a German stronghold known as the Quadrilateral. The struggle was intense and gradually the supply of grenades began to dwindle. German bombs found in the dugouts were thrown until they too were used up and the enemy started to force the few men still alive to retreat at around 09.20. Attempts to send in reserves from the British lines met with costly failure owing to the intensity of the German machine gun and artillery fire. Isolated groups of men clung on to the section of trench thus far captured for as long as their bombs and ammunition lasted. Some hung on all day but inevitably were overcome by sheer weight of numbers. From the moment the attack by the 46th Division in the north failed, the men of the 56th Division were doomed. They were isolated and cut off behind the Gommecourt salient and subject to the full fury of the German counter attacks. By 12.30 2nd Lieutenant J. Horne, the last surviving officer of ‘B’ Company issued the order to withdraw. He stayed behind to help cover the withdrawal of his men and died working a Lewis machine gun alone, the rest of the team being already dead or wounded. A message that the Quadrilateral was currently unoccupied (probably because the defenders were engaged in direct hand to hand combat with our men further along the trench system) was in any event received too late to act upon. By then, at around 4pm the few who remained alive had already been forced to retreat back to the German front lines.

The Official History records, ‘The success of the 56th Division, the more remarkable on account of the failure of the divisions on either side, cost the lives of over thirteen hundred of some of the best infantry in the Armies in France.’ The Queen’s Westminster Rifles casualties (killed and wounded) that day were 28 out of 28 officers taking part and 475 out of a total of 661 men. This evidently does not take into account the missing. Casualty returns seem to vary from account to account and that of the Battalion History states; ‘Out of 750 officers and men who went into action,600 were killed, wounded and missing, and it is believed that not a single unwounded member of the Queen’s Westminster Rifles fell into the enemy’s hands.’

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Gommecourt British Cemetery No. 2

As a bomber in ‘B’ Company, Reginald Divall probably advanced as far as any man in the 169th Brigade that day. He and his comrades were killed in a forlorn yet immensely brave attempt to take a superior German position. In fact that position was never ‘taken’ in the true sense. The Germans eventually made a tactical withdrawal from the Gommecourt Salient as part of their policy of retreating to the massively fortified Hindenburg Line. Rifleman Divall’s body was found and identified in February 1917 when these battlefields were finally occupied. He is interred in Gommecourt British Cemetery No.2 near Hebuterne where there were originally 101 graves. The cemetery was enlarged after the Armistice by the incorporation of three nearby burial sites and isolated graves from neighbouring battlefields. It now contains 1357 graves.

dapted from Valiant Hearts of Ringmer by Geoff Bridger: Ammonite Press, 1993