21ST NOV. 1916: GOMMECOURT: ‘HEROIC WORK’ ‘THINGS OF PLAIN IMPOSSIBILITY’.

BASIL HIBBETT
BASIL HIBBETT.

BASIL HIBBETT, 95 Foden Rd: LETTER to Pte  BERTIE HIBBETT, The Cenacle Red Cross Hospital, Wallasey, New Brighton.

Tuesday 10. 0 am.  (Ed. 21st Nov. 1916) (1).

Dear Bertie,

I was reading the paper a few minutes ago about the new attack north of the Ancre (2) – the part of the line not captured on July 1st.  There are a few lines I would like to quote to your benefit:-

Though the attack north of the Ancre on July 1st (Gommecourt, Serre & Beaumont-Hamel) did not result in permanent gains such as those which have crowned our arms south of that river, the story of what was done there in the first stages of the offensive is such that, when it is fully told, Great Britain may perhaps be even prouder of the deeds of the regiments which fought on this section of the front and which achieved there some things of plain impossibility than of the successes further south”

“It may be doubted if the world ever saw an hour of more heroic work than our men did there” ‘Times’

That’s you & Sydney. Isn’t it fine?    Love from 

Dodger.

**************************

ELIZABETH HIBBETT WEBB
ELIZABETH HIBBETT WEBB

The Battle of the Somme ground to a halt with a final British attack, the Battle of Ancre, 13th -18th, Nov. 1916 and the onset of winter. Since 1st July, 20,000 British lives had been lost  & very little ground had been gained.  Pte Bertie Hibbett (suffering from grief, shell shock & a life changing injury) needed to know, along with the whole nation, that those who fought & died in the first stages of the Offensive had not toiled or died in vain. This Times’ report, sent to his brother by a thoughtful Basil, met a real need: the men were heroes & had achieved ‘things of plain impossibility’. 

Sir Stuart Wortley.
Sir Stuart Wortley. 1857-1934.

The Hibbett Family must have known by now that 46th Midland Division’s diversionary attack on Gommecourt, on 1st July 1916, was considered a complete failure. Blamed on its Commanding Officer, Sir Stuart Wortley (controversially dismissed by Earl Haig, 4th July), the failure left a shadow on the reputation of the men that must have been very hard to bear. 

Revd. Arthur H. Hibbett 1965
The Revd. Arthur H. Hibbett. Butlin’s Skegness. 1960s.

In My Memories. 1967, my father recalls his personal experience of the chaotic situation in the Foncquevillers trenches in that first half hour – and the dismay of his Commanding Officer at the sight of so many casualties – but he was not in the habit of apportioning blame. He had great respect for his Officers, especially those he had known from QMS Cadet days & throughout his time at the Front.  I remember how difficult he found the musical ‘O what a Lovely War!’ released 10th April, 1969.  ‘It wasn’t like that!’ he said.

My father would have appreciated the understanding of Alan MacDonald’s two definitive books on Gommecourt: Pro Patria Moriand ‘A Lack of Offensive Spirit’.

Eddie. Caricature by Spy in Vanity Fair 1899.
Edward Stuart Wortley. 1857 -1934. ‘Eddie’. Caricature by Spy in Vanity Fair 1899.

Quotation:-<http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_ Montague-Stuart-Wortley>  ‘ VII Corps commander, Lieutenant-General Thomas D’Oyly Snow, stated in official correspondence:

“the 46th Division … showed a lack of offensive spirit. I can only attribute this to the fact that its commander, Major-General the Hon. E.J. Montagu Stuart-Wortley, is not of an age, neither has he the constitution, to allow him to be as much among his men in the front lines as is necessary to imbue all ranks with confidence and spirit.”

General Snow ordered a Court of Inquiry on 4 July 1916 into the actions of the 46th Division during the attack, but before it delivered its findings General Haig as Commander-in-Chief ordered Montagu-Stuart-Wortley to leave the field and return to England.

Given that Montagu Stuart-Wortley’s orders prior to the attack had been “to occupy the ground that is won by the artillery” his dismissal remains a subject of controversy. According to Alan MacDonald, “the Division and its General were made scapegoats for the failure of a fatally flawed concept dreamt up by higher authority – the diversionary attack at Gommecourt“.

See also Hibbett Letters: 1st July 1916; 4th June 1916; 16th July 1915.

*********************

(1) The Letter’s Date: the first Tuesday after the Battle of Ancre 13th -18th Nov. was 21st Nov. 1916.  Basil was most likely reading that day’s Times. 

(2) The Battle of Ancre: the last major British attack of the Battle of the Somme, 13th -18th Nov. 1916. Operations on the Somme came to a halt because of the winter weather, ‘rain, snow, fog, mud, waterlogged trenches & shell holes’. 18th Nov.1916 is commemorated as the end of the Somme Offensive but research by Historian Peter Barton indicates the actual date was the Spring of 1917 when the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line, a German defensive line from Arras to Laffeux, near Soisons on the Aisne. See BBC 2 broadcast/ August 2016: The Somme 1916. From Both Sides the Wire.

NEXT POST: 25th NOV. 1916: ‘A Special & Careful Examination of Your Son’s Injury’.

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