1. This Panoramic taken from the trenches at the River Piave was used to show new soldiers the 'lay of
the land' before they arrived at the front line.
2. The PDF gives the operations orders for The Birmingham Pals to cross the river.
BACKGROUND INFO: It has long been known that the 3rd Birmingham Pals - one of three battalions comprising 4,500 volunteers, mainly "white collar" and professional employees, with a liberal sprinkling of sportsmen from local clubs - assembled for training at the commandeered Spring Hill College in October 1914 but in recent years the archive has provided a detailed picture of their occupation of the building, recruits dining in the college theatre, washing in an outside greenhouse and drilling and going on manoeuvres in wooded grounds previously used as a health spa and botanical gardens. We also have an unexpected glimpse of "extra-mural" activities by the discovery behind panelling, thanks to a watchful renovations contractor, of several 1914 artefacts; an empty packet for five Wills Woodbine cigarettes, handwritten notes of useful English-French phrases, a page torn from a serviceman's pocket prayer book and an invitation to the battalion to a concert in a local church hall have become treasured additions to our collection. Few among the 1,107 men and officers who marched off with confidence in April 1915 for further training at Malvern and later in Yorkshire and on Salisbury Plain, could have envisaged the war of attrition which would inflict a total of almost 650 killed on their ranks, supplemented by transfers in, after some of the more punishing battles.
The battalion - by now renamed the 16th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment - had been on the Western Front just a few weeks when, on Christmas Day 1915, while digging trenches on the front line on the Somme's Bray sector near Carnoy, six men were killed in a bombardment. This and two casualties the week before were to be the precursor to action on several fronts, including Northern Italy for a few months, in which the battalion earned 168 gallantry awards, 82 Military Medals and 20 Military Crosses among them.
After heavy losses in mid-January 1916 between Bray and Frise, January 1916, when nine men were killed and 13 wounded. And it was little better when they came out of the line and transferred to the Arras front in March. From support trenches into the front line for up to five days, then withdrawn for a few days' rest and regrouping became the way of life for the infantry and it was in a battle for Chalk Farm between 8-11 June that the battalion was awarded its first two MM's, one to 17 year old, underage, Pte Frank Newey, who went under fire into No Man's Land to aid a wounded comrade.
By now the raw recruits of less than two years earlier were battle hardy and when in late June they were relieved at Arras by the 10th Durham Light Infantry, it was only for brief respite before in mid-July, by now part of the British 5th Division, they marched south to the Somme. At the start of this new offensive they were held in reserve west of Montaubaun while the 14th and 15th Royal Warwick s- previously the 1st and 2nd Birmingham Pals - bore the brunt of the enemy response, along with the Devons, West Kents and Gordon Highlanders. It was in this series of attempted advances on High Wood that the 15th Battalion lost Percy Jeeves, the Warwickshire cricketer, who was the model for Jeeves in PG Woodhouse's Wooster novels. In five days of carnage the British front line suffered more than 1,000 casualties, the three Pals battalions suffering more than 130 killed, including four hit by shelling directed at the 16th RWR reserve trenches. At last, by 27 July, having been moved the short distance to Longueval and Delville Wood, with the Norfolks and Bedfords, the 16th jumped off into No Man's Land to be met by raking machine gun fire, platoons from A and B companies losing their officers. In two days facing continuous shellfire at Longueval the 16th suffered 267 casualties, of which 57 were killed, most of the bodies were never found and are honoured on the Thiepval memorial.
After being rested 40 miles from the front during most of August, the 16th were ordered back to the Somme near Dernancourt on 24 August, a week before taking up position in newly dug trenches at the heavily defended Falfemont Farm, which became the bloodiest of their battles so far. Skirmishes went on for days as all three Warwicks, with the Norfolks, Cheshires and King's Own Scottish Borderers, probed enemy positions among the ruined farm buildings, losing men on reconnaissance patrols, until at 3 am on 5 September the order was given to fix bayonets and attack in a bitter hand to-hand engagement.
By 7.30 am the objective was taken, the 16th RWR manned newly set up strongpoints to repel counter-attacks and counted their losses. This time the battalion had lost 195 wounded and a massive 65 killed but the action was rated by brigade commanders as "one of the greatest successes" of the war. The 16th's next "overwhelming success" was at Morval, where, due to autumn rains, the battlefield was a sea of mud which bogged down gun carriages. Thousands of water-filled shell holes drowned men diving for cover and the landscape was an ugly mix of blasted tree trunks and ruined buildings. This time the battalion went over the top with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the Bedfords, Cheshires and Home Counties Royal Engineers, an action in which the Cheshires won a VC and the three Pals battalions lost another 50 killed. Indeed, between 20 July and 28 September the 16th RWR suffered 178 killed, the14th 407 and the 15th 204, 471 of the 789 being original Birmingham volunteers of 1914. So on 29 September 1916 it was farewell to the Somme for the time being. Early in October the 5th Division moved to the four mile Bassee front, north of Arras and near Bethune, refining training and bringing in replacement troops, the 16th RWR having daily doses of German mortar fire north of Givenchy. It proved a relatively quiet period but the three Pals battalions lost another 50 killed between October and March 1917 when, with the weather improving, their Division moved to the Bruay district in preparation for action on several fronts in what became known as the Battle of Arras.
Mid-April saw several thousand troops pushing forward towards Lens against stiff German resistance. Intense artillery fire, savage hand-to-hand bayonet charges and bombing attacks wreaked mayhem and when the 16th RWR went into the line they lost 25 killed in four days.
At the end of June 1917, with the Norfolks, Cheshires and Bedfords, the 16th RWR were tasked with storming Oppy Wood, surprising the defenders, taking 143 PoWs and capturing numerous weapons. The four battalions suffered 352 casualties. The 16th lost four killed and 35 wounded and won three Military Crosses and seven Military Medals. They were honoured, too, by having two of the German trenches named Birmingham Trench and Brum Street.
The relative calm on the 5th Division's sector in the summer of 1917 was to be shattered when in late September it moved its battalions, including the three Pals battalions, to join the third Battle of Ypres, which had been raging since late July. The division's objective was the high ground of Passchendaele, in particular Polderhoek Chateau, heavily fortified and held by the Germans.
At 0520 on 9 October two companies of the Norfolks and three from the 16th RWR set off at first light, suffering many casualties in a vain attempt to breach the ruined chateau and a pillbox. Between 5 and 11 October the 16th RWR lost 104 dead, 25 of whom were original volunteers who would have come through Moseley and 200 wounded and in six weeks of misery on this front, compounded by mud and rain, the three Pals battalions lost 400 killed, most during further attacks on the chateau, which stayed in German hands until their final retreat a year later. The transfer to Italy in December, for more training, particularly for untested reinforcements, was almost like a holiday but here, too, the 16th and other battalions were back in action, holding a defensive line on the River Piave, near Padua until April 1918.
Then it was back to France for the final stages of the war. This followed a major German offensive along a 60-mile front embracing the Somme battlefields of 1916. The 5th Division were required to take up position on a 2,000-yard front at the edge of the 24 square mile Nieppe Forest to counterattack and take Merville. While the 14th and 15th RWR went into the front line, the 16th were kept in reserve until June, when a detachment led a raid in the Arrewage sector to gain valuable intelligence, although not before 10 of a party of 39 men were wounded by friendly fire.
Now the new Battle of the Somme developed in earnest, with at least six distinct actions in August, plus another five on the Hindenburg line in September, followed by six across Picardy in the final weeks before the Armistice. In thick fog at dawn on 21 August the 16th battalion with the Bedfords took prisoners and weapons as they entered Achiet-le- Petit. They then had to fight their way to the crest of a hill beyond a rail embankment, clearing a German artillery battery on the way but suffering 12 dead and 65 wounded. Two days later, in an action described as "especially brilliant", it was another village, another ridge, cutting through barbed wire under heavy machine gun fire, most of their officers and NCOs becoming casualties. A week later they faced aerial bombardment as well as ground fire, D Company taking 80 casualties, but pushed forward to take Le Buequiere before seeking cover in old enemy trenches. The Somme had again taken its toll on the three City battalions, who totalled 200 dead and now had only a handful of the original volunteers in ranks kept up to strength by new intakes. The 5th Division as a whole recorded 4,200 dead in about eight weeks to 4 September.
After short respite the Division was confronted by the heavily fortified Hindenburg Line. By 27 September the Royal West Kents, backed by the City battalions, gained a foothold and when the 16th attacked with the Bedfords under a hostile barrage they maintained a steady advance before next day with the Gloucesters, taking the village of Gonnelieu, breaching the key to the German defences. Again casualties were high and the 16th was left with just eight officers and 240 other ranks.
With so many casualties to all battalions across the Division, a reorganisation in October led to the 15th RWR being disbanded and many of their surviving men being transferred to the 14th and 16th battalions. Thus reinforced the 16th were given one moretask. At 2 am on 20 October they, with the 2nd KOSB's, captured a section of main road and railway line, enabling other troops to advance. Their action, in which the 16th suffered another 43 casualties, including 12 dead, brought them another citation from the General Officer Commanding 5th Division. It expressed his "high appreciation of the skilfully conceived and gallantly conducted attack" on an entrenched position which "the enemyn had every intention of holding at all costs."
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