I have been guiding groups around the fields and byways of the Somme for twenty years. Over the years I have taken hundreds of battlefield tourists to Devonshire Cemetery in Mansel Copse, just overlooking the village of Mametz. Before I came to work at Kingham Hill, it was simply an interesting place to stop: the cemetery has a special story related to the fact that a sign next to the graves once declared "The Devonshires held this trench; the Devonshire hold it still". This stemmed from the fact that men from the 8th and 9th Battalions of the Devonshire Regiment who had gone over the top in the attack on the first day of the Battle of the Somme were later buried in the trenches from which they had advanced. In total there are 163 men buried there, all but two of whom were killed on 1st July 1916.
The cemetery took on a special significance for me when researching the first Kingham Hill tour which I led in 2012. One of the men on our war memorial, Sidney Collier, is buried there. Since that discovery, I have been trying to nail down the details of Sidney's last hours for inclusion in my latest book, Kingham Hill in the Great War. For those of us who know the site, there are some oft-peddled vignettes relating to some of the men buried in Devonshire Cemetery. One of these is an episode revolving around the Company Commander, Captain Duncan Martin and his contoured plasticine model of the battlefield.
Traditionally, the story is told that, having made such a splendid model, Martin went to his superiors to say that the attack from Mansel Copse would amount to nothing short of suicide and that he and his men would be despatched in short order by a machine gun in the "Shrine" (supposedly at the foot of a crucifix in the civilian cemetery in Mametz). The story carries on that his superior officers told him to "shut up" and so the Devons went over the top at Zero Hour on 1st July 1916 and were wiped out immediately: another case of "lions led by donkeys".
As far as I can ascertain, the story was first related in Martin Middlebrook's celebrated book, First Day on the Somme, first published in 1971. Middlebrook had unearthed an account from the 9th Devons' chaplain, Ernest Crosse in the 1930s: "Having made the model [Duncan Martin] came to the conclusion that there must be a concentration of enemy fire just in front of Mansel Copse. This is what happened. Capt. Martin & most of his company fell just here."1 Now, over the years the story has become embroidered and the dig at British high command was easy to insert into the narrative for it to become the well-known yarn I first heard as a teenager on my first trip to the trenches. It became established into the folklore of the Somme. I will hold my hands up to confess that I, too, have dipped my hands in Caesar's blood, so to speak, on countless occasions in Devonshire Cemetery. I have even been recorded on video relating the same story in The Somme: The School Boys on the Line, a documentary created by one of our former pupils, James Tanner, for his Extended Project Qualification a few years ago.
A link to the documentary can be found on this webpage: it is a splendid piece of work, showcasing James's talent as a researcher and a filmmaker. When I recently happened to review the documentary, I was horrified by what I heard myself say. In the course of my continuing research into Sidney Collier, I happened upon a book which covers the attack of the 9th Devons at Mansel Copse in considerable detail. Charlotte Zeepvat's Before Action: William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, published in 2015 has caused me to reconsider the truth behind the story of Duncan Martin and his plasticine model. She has turned up evidence which, on the contrary, shows Martin's superiors were keen that all officers in 8th and 9th Devons and 2nd Border Regiment should see the model2. She has also cast doubt on the assertion that it was one machine-gunner who was responsible for such heavy losses from the companies of the 9th Devons as they attacked through Mansel Copse. The evidence from the battlefield, the war diaries and the personal diaries of survivors of the attack all points to the deadly fire actually coming from a combination of German strongpoints closer to the action, near the railway line and the Albert-Péronne road at the site of the Halt (a small station which served Mametz). In addition, German artillery shellfire was particularly accurate on the day: they had already taken out the front line trenches in Mansel Copse, meaning that the advance had to set off three minutes earlier than planned from the British second line trenches. Many accounts point out that Captain Martin was the first man up over the top and he was the first man killed, falling even before he got to his own front line trench.
So now, being fully appraised of the evidence, I will now no longer trot out the lazy, duff history of the received version of the story. The true story is by far the better one and it deserves to be told. I am pleased to include James Tanner's documentary on our page, but I felt we could not put it up without the correction to my own mistake. Of course, it is a salutary warning of the dangers of accepting something as true without checking the evidence first. So often, we think we know what the First World War is about, but the more we discover about the conflict, the more we realise that the old hackneyed narrative of blundering generals and heroic Tommies is a simplistic cliché which blinds us to the depth and fascinating complexity of what really happened.
With that in mind, I have changed the way I have taught the First World War from my first days as a guide in my early twenties. I am sure that I shall have plenty more to change in the next twenty years. 1 Ernest Crosse in a letter to Brigadier General Sir James Edmond, compiling the British Official History, History of the Great War, in papers from CAB45/132 f.673-674 (with thanks to Charlotte Zeepvat, Mark Banning and Paul Reed). 2 Brigade Major Foss's order of 21st June 1916, quoted in Aggett W.J.P., The Bloody Eleventh, The Devon and Dorset Regiment, Wyvern Barracks, Exeter, 1995, vol.III.p.44; in turn quoted in Zeepvat, Charlotte. Before Action: William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons; a Story of the Great War. Pen & Sword Military, 2015.
The Somme, The Schoolboys on the Line - James Tanner
This documentary, The Somme: The School Boys on the Line, is a one-hour piece created by Hillian, James Tanner. It was made as a submission for James's Extended Project Qualification in 2018. In the documentary, James retraces the footsteps of four boys from Kingham Hill and four from Rugby School who were killed in the Battle of the Somme. It is a very-well researched piece of work which features interviews with experts, footage and pieces to camera recorded on location and an analysis of historical sources. The Imperial War Museum kindly gave permission for James to include excerpts from Geoffrey Malins's 1916 film The Battle of the Somme in order to give perspective and context to his documentary.
The research which James carried out and the documentary which resulted from it were instrumental in securing James a post as intern with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the summer and autumn immediately after he finished his time at Kingham Hill. As well as being the youngest intern the Commission had appointed, James was particularly fortunate to secure the post to coincide with the events to mark the centenary of the Armistice in November 1918. His work was based at the British Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval, welcoming and guiding visitors around the site. He had the honour of escorting the Prime Minister, Theresa May and the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, around the site when they visited for the official centenary ceremonies.
Click here to view the video