Tag Archives: ‘A Lack of Offensive Spirit’.

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.

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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.

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(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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19TH SEPT: ‘BERT, WHAT MAKES YOU THINK ABOUT BARBED WIRE NOW?’ YOUR OLD PAL BEN.

South Staffordshire Badgee
South Stafford’s Knot Badge: ‘Hope &  Perseverance’.

YOUR OLD PAL BEN, 1/5th South Staffordshire Regiment at the Front: LETTER to Pte BERTIE HIBBETT, The Cenacle Red Cross Hospital, New Brighton, Cheshire.

Field Post Office 152    Censor L. J. Taylor.

                               Sep. 19th  1916.

Dear Pal Bert,

I was very pleased indeed to get a letter from you so quick and it gave me such a surprise when I opened it and saw your photo (1) a straw would have knocked me down in the trench.  Reg Taylor * fainted when he saw it.  He said to me ‘Ben, he has got some swank on him now, with his ring on and a cigar in the same hand’.

Bertie
Pte Bertie Hibbett.  Aug.1916.

Bert we are having a very pleasant time where we are. I think we have frightened them just where we are holding. We have had the pleasure of catching a few of them since we have been at that part.

I hope by the time you get this letter you are better in health and look better.

Bert I was so proud of the five fags as I was smoked straight out and they made me a very comfortable night.

What do you mean Bert that you like my style of writing.  What is it like –  a young lady’s style? (2).

Yes Bert, I think myself that you had had enough – and also myself, don’t you think so, Bert. I am A.1. myself and ready for them any time they have got the mind to come over.

Serj. SydneyI was very sorry indeed when I read your letter and you said that you had wrote  (about Sydney) to the N.M. Div. Base (3) and had it returned back to you, but you may get some news, I say Bert, better late than never.

There is one above who knows where he lies at rest.

I say Bert it was a very hot 1st of July.  I shall never forget Derby Dyke (4).

Cheveaux de friezes. Barbed wire entanglement.
chevaux de frises: barbed wire entanglement.

Bert what makes you think about barbed wire now you have got a contented mind and you are so far away from the Boss (i.e. ‘Bosche’).(5)

Venables* is a prisoner in Germany (6).  J. Maley* is with us now and in the  pink. Yes I have heard about A. O. Jones* being in Blighty (7).  I say it is luck.

I may see some of the old faces shortly as they say we have got a big draft at the Base (8) waiting to join us.  It is very seldom I see Pte Gurley* (9) now as he stops at Head Qrs.  I shall see him when I get out of the line and I will show him your photo and letter.

D. Ball* (10) has left the Batt. some time now, he has gone back under age.

I now close and more next time.

I remain your Old Pal,   Ben.

Write back Bert.

Bert – let me know if you move and send your address.

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ELIZABETH HIBBETT WEBB
ELIZABETH HIBBETT WEBB

More evidence of the many letters my father wrote in the search for his brother and the whereabouts of his friends. I would love to know more about his ‘old pal Ben’, he sounds such a cheerful lad but without a surname to go on this will be very difficult. He was probably in my father’s ‘A’ Coy if he was in Derby Dyke trenches facing Gommecourt Wood, on 1st July 1916. 

Well might Pte Bertie Hibbett be haunted by barbed wire. Not only did he have to face the possibility of being caught on the German wire if he managed to cross No Man’s Land but he also had to carry his own chevaux de frise along the flooded Derby Dyke to the Front Line (700 yrds or more). In his Memories of the First World War my father describes how impossible this was under the relentless shelling. A detailed description of Derby Dyke on 1st July 1916 is given by Alan MacDonald in A Lack of Offensive Spirit? p 348.

(1) Pte Bertie’s Photo: probably one taken by Harold on the beach at New Brighton, Aug/Sept. 1916. (2) Writing Style: perhaps Bertie had teased Ben about his conversational repetition of ‘Bert‘ in a previous letter. (3) 46th N.Midland Division Base: Rouen.

(4) Derby Dyke: 1/5th S. Staffords Assembly Trenches, Foncquevillers, Battle for Gommecourt, 1st July 1916. One of the principal communication trenches named after the Division ( Staffords Avenue, Lincoln Lane, Leicester Street, Nottingham Street, Derby Dyke, Roberts Avenue, Rotten Row, Regent Street, Raymond Avenue & Crawlboys Lane). Derby Dyke ran through orchards at the edge of the village parallel to Nottingham Street & the modern road into Foncquevillers. These trenches had been deepened from 2 ft to 7 ft in the lead up to the Battle and on the day were full of water. Derby Dyke held the ‘Advanced Battalion HQ of the right attacking Bn in the right brigade’.

(5) Barbed Wire: See My Memories of the First World War ref to chevaux de friezes/ barbed wire contraption my father was desperately trying to carry through the trenches on 1st July 1916. (6Arthur Venables*: Missing on 1st July 1916 after he had dressed Pte Bertie’s wound and saved his life. It was possible but I think an unlikely hope that Venables was captured that day. Commemorated on Thiepal Memorial to the Missing & Walsall War Memorial.

(7) Corp. A.O. Jones: the Hibbett family was anxious to trace Sydney’s pack & belongings, which in his last letter he said he was entrusting to his friend Jones ‘in case’. If Corp Jones was wounded & back in Blighty that would account for the lack of news, especially as the Battalion had moved to a different part of the Line on 2nd July.

(8) Base: Rouen. (9) Gurley*: my father had also written to Sergt Price about Gurley. See Hibbett Letter: 17th Aug. 1916. (10) D.Ball*: younger brother of Sydney & Bertie’s pal Ball. He appears to have been with the S Staffords in 1914, so very much under age if he was still under 18 when the Military Act 1916 caught up with him.

NEXT POST: 4th Oct. 1916. Soldier’s Concert at the Cenacle, Red Cross Hospital, New Brighton.