The Slaughter of the county regiment, the Steelbacks – the fateful 9th May 1915.
Geoff Grainger is a member of the international Western Front Association and has an MA in First World War Studies from the University of Birmingham. He specialises in family research about the Great War.
As part of Northampton’s Conflict and Community program I will be delivering a talk at Abington Park Museum on Saturday 9th May to commemorate the centenary of the Northamptonshire Regiment at the battle of Aubers Ridge, in Northern France. One hundred years ago to the day, the old regular 1st and 2nd battalions of the Regiment were on the Western Front near the villages of Neuve Chapelle and Fromelles respectively. Part of the British First Army, they were to go ‘over the top’ at 5.50am, in a general pincer offensive to break through the German front and seize the relatively higher ground of Aubers Ridge.
For the British Army, the 9th May 1915 was to prove a disaster. For the County of Northamptonshire it was to be arguably the blackest day in its history, yet the battle has been largely forgotten.
During the night of 8th May the men of both battalions had moved-up to their front-line positions. The hazy dawn promised a sunny spring day, as the Northamptons peered over the flat, marshy terrain to the enemy trenches some 350m away. Rum rations had been issued, morale was high and all ranks were eager for the coming battle.
Precisely on zero-hour, 5.00am, the British artillery unleashed a fierce bombardment onto the German front lines. The shelling seemed so ferocious that little resistance was expected- but resistance there was, and it came as a terrible surprise to the attackers.
The Northamptons and other regiments waited with fixed bayonets but things had already started to go wrong. Some units were hit by their own artillery shells that were falling short. Fifty minutes later the guns fell silent and whistles signalled the infantry attack. As the Northamptons climbed their ladders to charge over No Man’s Land they were hit by hurricanes of machine-gun, rifle and artillery fire. Within a short time both battalions suffered immense casualties and very few men reached the enemy positions. Those who did, unable to advance or retire, came under constant attack by the German defenders. Finally, after some fourteen hours and under cover of darkness, remnants of these isolated groups managed to regain their lines, crawling through heaps of dead comrades.
In total the Northamptons suffered 984 casualties, or nearly 60% of the soldiers who had seen the dawn. Apart from the wounded and the dead who could be named, many hundreds disappeared in No Man’s Land, never to be identified, except as ‘The Missing’.
My talk will explain why it all went wrong, who was blamed, and the repercussions. It will also focus on some of the effects on the County’s communities.
In order to fully understand the landscape and military situation, I have just been over to research Aubers Ridge myself. Kindly received by the Mayor of Aubers, and guided by two local historians, I was able to visit many of the features of the area.
But I had also gone to Aubers in an attempt to discover if fate had played another role during the tragedy. Might the whole destiny of the modern world have hung in the balance on that one day in May 1915?
I will be pleased to share my findings at Abington Park Museum on 9th May.
For tickets please contact Northampton Museum & Art Gallery on 01604 837397.