The Cambridgeshires and the Schwaben Redoubt - October 14th & 15th 1916

Part 3 – Misfortune & Postponement

As the details for Riddell’s now approved attack plan were being finalised, most of the men of the 1/1st Cambridgeshires were busy with the unglamorous task of fatigue duty. The battalion’s 2nd in Command, Major Harry Few, noted that on October 11th:

… the battalion has found over 580 men for work and carrying. As this is about 180 in excess of available men a large number have had to do two shifts.

The hard work of bringing up supplies and trench repairing continued on October 12th, after which the battalion was finally pulled back and began to get ready for the attack the following day. After months of fighting and shelling the landscape had been turned into a cratered moonscape and it was incredibly easy for units to lose their way. To help avoid this, Riddell was keen to make sure that his officers were familiar with the ground they were to move over. To do this he ordered his company officers to carry out a reconnaissance of the ground that their men were to move over to reach the assembly line.

This shrewd move sadly led to a costly loss for the battalion when one of two random enemy shells landed amidst the party of officers from A Coy, killing or incapacitating them all. This one chance shell meant that the number of officers available for the attack was greatly reduced and officers would need to be moved between the other companies to fill the gaps in A Coy as best as possible. Of the A Coy officers who set out on the reconnaissance trip, the company commander Captain Tom Formby was killed, platoon commander 2nd Lt Tom Scott was also killed and his fellow platoon commanders 2nd Lts Horace Ashby and George Brown were left severely shell shocked. The location of field graves of Tom Formby and Tom Scott were sadly lost and both are now listed on the Thiepval Memorial that overlooks the very spot where they fell.

Writing about this tragic loss in the regimental history Riddell noted that it led to the Schwaben attack being postponed for 24 hours. He also dates the event as happening on the afternoon of October 12th. These two details have always caused some uncertainty with us and recent information has come to light that confirms the delay was actually for another reason.

A key element of Riddell’s assembly plan was the construction of a new basic trench line on the left half of the start line. This trench line would keep his men concealed and protected while they readied for the advance. The shortage of manpower and terrible state of the ground complicated this task and by the morning of the 13th this position was not even close to being ready. As dawn broke over the Somme battlefield the Brigade Staff made the rather risky decision to delay the Schwaben attack, specifically due to the fact the start line would not be ready and was in parts not even taped out.

Delaying such an attack was by no means an easy task and carried with it huge risks. Numerous units involved in the operation, such as the artillery, Royal Flying Corps and medical facilities to name just a few, would all need to be informed that the attack was postponed. All of these communications put the secrecy of the entire operation in jeopardy and increased the likelihood of the Germans being alerted to the attack well in advance. As a precaution in case the Germans were now expecting an attack at 3.17pm, the start time was brought forward by 30 minutes. Start time for the attack was now set for 2.47pm, October 14th.

In his account of the tragic loss of the A Coy officers, Riddell mistakenly places the event as being on the afternoon of October 12th. This error explains why he later associated it with the delay of the Schwaben attack. His dating of the event is in contrast with all other accounts of the event, including the entries for the field ambulance units that treated the wounded officers. The reconnaissance and loss of the A Coy officers actually took place on the afternoon of the 13th – some time after the decision to delay the attack had already been made by the Brigade Staff. While the loss was a cruel and unfortunate blow for the Cambridgeshires, due to the risks discussed above it is highly unlikely that it would have ever led to the delay of the entire operation.

For the men the delay meant an uneasy night and when dawn eventually broke on the 14th the final preparations were started. Riddell’s unorthodox start time gave his men plenty of time to ready themselves and they began making their way to Paisley Dump around midday. After final checks and distribution of bombs and ammunition the men moved off behind Riddell’s canvas screens to the assembly line.

Full strength for an infantry battalion numbered over 1000, but the Cambridgeshires were already well below that number after their long stay in the Hamel sector. After deducting the non-combat support troops (such as transport section and QM’s staff) and the battle surplus (a small core group of officers and men left out of battle to form the nucleus to rebuild the battalion should it be wiped out) the actual number of Cambridgeshires who would be taking part in the assault only numbered between 400 to 500.

Even after the 24-hour delay the assembly trench was still not complete. Ground conditions, shell holes and hostile artillery had made the task of digging it in the available time impossible. Despite this, even in the uncomplete sections, it had now been marked out so the troops would be able to find their positions and their direction of advance. Writing about this in the regimental history, Riddell notes that he fortunately checked on the taping out of the positions earlier on in the day. On doing so he found they were in parts out of alignment, owing to the RE officer having a faulty compass - the error was corrected just in time.

During the planning stages for the operation Riddell had asked that the time between assembly and the assault be kept to a minimum. Standard practice of the day was for troops to be in position ready for attack well in advance of the start time. While this was sensible in allowing time should any troops be delayed or out of position, it gave the enemy plenty of time to spot and open fire on the troop build up. This could easily lead to mass casualties in the congested positions. A compromise was agreed on and Riddell was permitted to reduce the time down to 30 minutes. In an out of character, but understandable lapse in obedience to his orders, on the day Riddell purposely further delayed his troops arrival in the assembly positions.

At 2.37pm on October 14th with just ten minutes to spare the men of the four companies of the 1/1st Cambridgeshires took their place in the assembly positions. Among them were their comrades from units such as the 118th Machine Gun Company. Off to their left bombing parties from the 1/6th Cheshires readied for their smaller scale bombing attacks. To the right of the Cambridgeshires the men of the 4/5th Black Watch stood ready. To their rear and off to either flank hundreds of artillerymen waited to unleash a torrent of shells. The time had finally come for all of Riddell’s thought and planning to be put to the test.

Part 4 - The Assault

Back to the top of the page.

The Cambridgeshires & the Schwaben Redoubt

Part 1 - Background & History of the Redoubt

Part 2 - Riddell's Plan

Part 3 - Misfortune & Postponement

Part 4 - The Assault

Part 5 - Strong Points & Riddell Trench

Part 6 - Gallant Deeds

Part 7 - Counter-Attacks and Relief

Tom Formby, killed on October 13th, has no known grave and is listed on the Thiepval Memorial.

This site went live on the 14th February 2015 to mark  100 years since the 1/1st Cambs went off to war.

WE WILL REMEMBER THEM

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