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30 June 1916

This was a challenging episode to research, and I hope you'll excuse me if I focus on the story we told of a telephone being used so close to the line the Germans were forewarned of British intentions the following day.


For that reason I'm not going to go through all the other historical details that I'm afraid you'll have to take my word were true.


As you know, TOMMIES has been the signaller's story of WW1. Therefore when we got to the Somme I knew I couldn't ignore the biggest story of failure of communications at this crucial time.


And I was about to accuse some individual - nameless, but a real person - of this all-too-human lapse with its terrible consequences. I wanted my facts straighter than ever.


Strangely though, I spent a huge amount of time researching the following paragraph from the signallers' Official History, by Priestley, p105-106. In talking about the overhearing problem he says:


"The classic example of obstinate stupidity was brought to light when on the Somme in the autumn of 1916...Ovillers-la-Boisselle was taken from the Germans and our troops billeted themselves in...converted cellars. In one of these was found a complete copy of a former operation order issued by one of the British Corps for a previous operation. This had been heard by enemy interpreters taken down from beginning to end and issued to the German commanders concerned in good time to enable them to take measures to defeat the attack... Inquiries were made and it transpired the order had been repeated in full over the telephone by a Brigade Major to one of the battalions of his Brigade. He, knowing the danger, had protested, but had been over-ruled by his Brigadier. Hundreds of brave men perished."


I was unable to stand this story up on any count. I went up and down the chain of signals and corps to battalion war diaries from 1st July to the fall of Ovillers-la-Boisselle on 16th July and a little beyond but could find no trace of this incident.


Quite why Priestley timed the discovery to 'the autumn' is unclear when the fall of Ovillers was in July, unless he thought the billeted troops only found the incriminating document long after they took up residence.


I discussed this with the ever-helpful Jack Sheldon who put me onto several sources, the key one being the Captain W. Miles OH of the War (though all subsequent interpretations are my responsibility). That document highlights a specific incident to time and place:


"The section of the 110th Reserve Regiment opposite the 34th Division suffered greatly during the bombardment... The entrances of the few deep dug-outs not smashed up could only be kept open by constant attention. The assault did not come as a surprise: At 2.45am the 56th Reserve Brigade from its battle headquarters at Contalmaison reported to the 28th Reserve Division a fragment of an order of the 34th Division, picked up by the Moritz overhearing post at the southern point of La Boisselle.


It ran: "The infantry must hold on obstinately to every yard of ground that is gained. Behind is an excellent artillery."


This order, apparently the conclusion to an order of the Fourth Army, pointed to the beginning of the general enemy offensive in the morning. In the monograph the message is given in German, It has been translated back into English. The actual message sent out by the Fourth Army to the Corps, Reserve Army and IV Brigade RFC at 10.17pm on the 30th June ran:


"In wishing all ranks good luck the Army commander desires to impress on all infantry units the supreme importance of helping one another and holding on tight to every yard of ground gained. The accurate and sustained fire of the artillery during the bombardment should greatly assist the task of the infantry.""


(For my first look at the actual text I am indebted to Fellop on the Great War Forum, real name Peter I believe.)


So that was putting us somewhere with both date and time and place, if a little different in content to Priestley's bludgeoningly dictated order.


And indeed the story has traction elsewhere.


Martin Middlebrook's THE FIRST DAY ON THE SOMME for example:


On p111: "At Querrieux Sir Henry Rawlinson had prepared a message for 4 Army...At 10.17 pm this not very stirring message was sent out to all units in the Fourth Army. In the 34th Division, opposite La Boisselle, a harassed staff officer was afraid that the message might not reach the forward units by hand through the crush in the trenches. As a result he transmitted it over a field telephone, although the use of this equipment for important messages was forbidden. It was suspected that the Germans had a listening post that could pick up such telephone conversations."


And then at p283: "Perhaps the greatest loss of life due to a single mistake by a junior officer was that which should have borne on the conscience of a brigade major in the 34th Division who, against orders, had sent Rawlinson's eve of battle message to a front-line unit by telephone."


And in SOMME by Lyn Macdonald, p169, quoting a Director of Army Signals memo of 11 July 1916 about "very serious consequences which have undoubtedly resulted from the enemy overhearing buzzer or telephone messages..." she goes on to say:


"It was not surprising that the Army was edgy about signals. In the last few days it had had several unpleasant revelations and the most unpleasant of all had been at Ovillers where troops who had gained the first foothold in the village had established themselves in a deep dugout, once the German Command Post. In it they had found a complete, verbatim copy of the operation order for the First of July attack at Ovillers, with a German translation appended. A similar unpleasant discovery had been found in similar circumstances at la Boiselle, where the British Corps commander's 'Good luck' message to the troops had been read 'in clear' over the telephone to the front line on the eve of the battle. Taken together they explained why the Germans had been was a terrible confirmation of a suspicion which had been growing in the minds of intelligence officers for months that...the Germans...listening."


The first of these incidents seems to be Priestley revisited, and the second from the OH. I wondered if the details had been filled in by the many veterans both these authors had interviewed. And lots more textbooks seemed to do roughly the same thing, lifting their material I suspect from the sources above.


So I felt the need even more acutely to establish my own, independent sequence of evidence. What could we actually say for certain?


Pause for another film:





















I wanted a time, and I wanted a location. That would seem to be a reasonable evidence base. Could the OH story, the most likely candidate, be authenticated? If it really was centred at "the southern point of la Boisselle", then the unhappy candidate would be in the brigade opposite, the Tyneside Scottish.


The brilliant John Ferris led me to a document written between Charteris (Haig's Chief Intel officer) and MacDonogh (Head of GHQ intelligence): WO 158/897, dated 5 July 1916. This was dated for the fall of la Boisselle, but can't of course pinpoint that this was the particular gadget in question, tempting though that would be to think so:


It includes the lines: "Among other things in the loot was a secret box and showed beyond all doubt the Germans are making use of their apparatus for overhearing out telephone messages and are getting news of practically all our intentions...There is no doubt that by the telephone the Germans were able to avoid a tactical surprise north of the Somme. South of the Somme it was a surprise both tactical and strategical."


So at least we had a major security problem associated with the Somme attack in a documentary source, not a piece of paper possibly found in a dugout by an idle soldier some months later.


I'd been in the archive looking at the 179th Tunnelling Company for all the camouflet material needed for the 9th July episode. So I was delighted to find the following in their war diary: a report undated but about their investigation of the la Boisselle mining system upon capture, so roughly around that first week in July. It goes on to say, under the heading 'Moritz System', a reference to the German listening device, "In going through his listening rom at I.8.2/3 I found certain papers that made me suspicious. They were obviously copies of British signal messages recorded by a German from the style and characteristics of the handwriting, spelling etc."


I felt we now had a document containing British orders in a German position opposite the Tyneside Scottish. But had they been used to alert the Germans?


Further conversations with Jack led me to his summary of the memoirs of Generalleutnant Freiherr von Soden, CO of the 26th Reserve Division, in the line opposite the Tynesiders.


Referring to some parts of the Somme attack coming as a surprise, he goes on to say "...the Moritz station near Contalmaison made up for the deficiency in the early hours of the 1st July when it intercepted an order from 34 Div, which made it quite clear the offensive was about to begin."


Von Soden published his memoirs in 1939, and one wonders if Miles' OH drew on this book while it was being prepared for publication.


That seemed a good solid base of two original contemporary sources and two official ones, so I decided to go ahead with the story.


Why is this not a bigger part of the national remembrance of the Somme?


I think it has just been too awful, too human, too dreadfully ordinary for us to contemplate as part of a story of such loss.


As the drama of record of the signallers of WW1, TOMMIES could not shy away - understandable though that might have been - from telling what might prove to be an unpopular story.

Another short film to kick us off.