Since the beginning of this year I’ve been posting a daily centenary update on Twitter about the 9th Devons, under the tag #OnThisDay. History tends to remember the battalion on 1 July alone but their war began long before that day. And when the day was over, battered though they were, their war did not end.
Having been unable to post for a few days it seems better to catch-up here, so:
From 7 – 10 July 1916 the survivors of the 9th – less than half the battalion – were in billets in Ribemont-sur-Ancre, a long way behind the lines, resting and assimilating reinforcements. On the 10th, for example, a 2nd Lieut Machon of the Gloucester Regiment arrived with a complete mix of men – 59 other ranks from the Dorsets, the Somerset Light Infantry, the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry – no Devons.
Old friends were returning too. On 1 July Jack Inchbald arrived from the base depot where he had been convalescing from measles, too late to be involved in the fighting. When John Upcott was sent to attend a course in Fourth Army School at Flixecourt at the beginning of June he had fully expected to return in time lead his company into the fight for which they had all prepared. But he was not recalled. By the end of June he realised that he and his companions were being held back deliberately to provide a reserve of experienced officers to rebuild shattered battalions. He commented on 1 July how strange it was to find himself in bed at 7.30am, knowing that miles away his friends were in the thick of things. As the days passed he became increasingly tense, wondering what had become of the 9th.
No news reached him. Other officers were recalled, he was not, and he hoped desperately that this might be a good sign – perhaps the 9th had done well and did not need him. He was on the very last transport out ofFlixecourt on 10 July and despite his forced optimism, inside he was in such a turmoil that when he caught sight of the Chaplain in the street at Ribemont he jumped off the moving lorry without a thought for his kit or anything else; he just had to find out what had happened. ‘His news was ghastly.’ he wrote, ‘Everyone I care for gone.’
But there was no time to grieve. After less than a week out of the line and with no time to assimilate the newcomers, the 9th Devons were about to move back into the line. More men had been posted to the battalion from a rag-bag of West Country and southern regiments; 486 men in all and only 46 of them were actually Devons. At 1am on 11 July the battalion paraded and marched out towards the line. By 10.30pm they were in place, and consolidating new positions near Bazentin-le-Grand. As on 1 Jluy, they were panfully exposed to German fire and suffered constant shelling. The communication trench leading to the front line could only be used at night. Through the morning of 12 July the shelling was incessant; commincations were frequently interrupted then the wires were hit and it proved almost impossible to evacuate the wounded. The most forward position, beyond Caterpillar valley, where Jack Inchbald and his men were was the most dangerous. From some way behind, John Upcott watched British shells fall on the village of Bazentin-le-Petit until it was all on fire.