At least 23 solicitors and articled clerks were killed on the first day of the Somme.
After the Great War, the British authorities, unlike their French allies, tried to preserve battlefield cemeteries rather than concentrating their dead in vast ossuaries. So 100 years on, immaculately maintained Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries on the Somme still mark the geography of the doomed attacks of 1 July 1916.
Evocatively, many of the cemeteries still bear the names they were given by the Tommies who dug the first graves. One such is Gordon Dump cemetery, just off the once dreaded Albert to Bapaume road, centre of the Somme offensive which began 100 years ago on Friday. It is the burial place of two articled clerks (trainee solicitors) Louis Frederick Byrne and John Alfred Arnott Fountain.
Byrne and Fountain were among the 19,240 British and Commonwealth servicemen to die on 1 July. According to the Law Society’s Record of Service, 23 of the first day’s dead were solicitors and articled clerks; nine more were wounded. Both figures are underestimates, as not every entry in the record gives a date of becoming a casualty. A more likely total for the wounded is at least 50, some of whom would die.
No other single day in history can have taken such a toll on the solicitors’ profession, which in 1916 numbered 14,360.
While the first day on the Somme made an impact on every corner of British (and Commonwealth) life, the law suffered disproportionately because so many of its members served as junior officers, statistically the most dangerous job. Although lieutenants and captains would have worn privates’ tunics and helmets, they would have been conspicuous targets as they led from the front.
One such must have been John George Todd, son of James Todd, of Overdale, Newcastle upon Tyne. Todd graduated from Jesus College Cambridge, was admitted in November 1907 and was a member of Newcastle firm Maughan & Hall. In 1916, he was serving as a captain in the 23rd Northumberland Fusiliers, a ‘pals’ battalion better known as the 4th Tyneside Scottish. It had been formed among Tynesiders with Scottish connections, responding to Lord Kitchener’s call in 1914.
At 7.30 on the morning of 1 July 1916, to the sound of the battalion pipes, the Tyneside Scots attacked in the centre of the British line opposite the village of La Boisselle, their first objective. Their advance took them across Mash Valley (another Tommy name; it was adjacent to Sausage) where they were enfiladed by machine-gun fire. By the end of the day, the survivors were back where they had started, after losing 629 men out of 700 – the third worst battalion loss of the day.
Todd was one of the 19 officers to fall. He was 33 and is buried in Bapaume Post cemetery, the first on the road from Albert.
Louis Byrne was another Northumberland Fusilier, serving as a second lieutenant in a pals’ battalion, the 1st Tyneside Irish. In the recurring story of the morning, the battalion was cut down by machine-gun fire as it advanced across nearly a mile of no man’s land. Byrne, articled to Mr E Bentham of Newcastle upon Tyne, was 21. The regimental chaplain, George McBrearty, wrote a consoling note to his mother: ‘He was found dead with his prayer-book open in his hand.’
One of the most famous pals’ battalions was actually mustered by a solicitor, Barnsley practitioner Sir Joseph Hewitt, admitted 1893. The 13th battalion York and Lancaster regiment, the ‘Barnsley Pals’, was manned by miners who joined up together and on 1 July walked ‘in parade-ground fashion’ together into the German machine guns at Serre, on the left of the British attack. Colonel Hewitt was not allowed to lead his men to France and submitted only a single line to the Record of Service: ‘Served at home’. But just above him on the page, his articled clerk gets five lines. George Alfred Guest Hewitt was mobilised in August 1914 and wounded at Ypres and the Somme before being killed on 2 November 1917. He was Sir Joseph’s son.
Among those of the 1 July dead who have no known grave was John Robert Somers-Smith. The old Etonian had rowed for his school and represented Britain at the 1908 Summer Olympics. He was admitted in 1913 but on the outbreak of war was mobilised with the 5th London Regiment (London Rifle Brigade) and won the military cross at Ypres in 1915. On 1 July the 28-year-old captain lead a diversionary attack at Gommecourt. His name is engraved on the gateway for the missing of the Somme at Thiepval.
In northern industrial towns, the loss of the Somme was symbolised by the drawing of curtains in house after house in the same streets as the War Office telegrams arrived. In the genteel world of the legal profession, a similar impression must have been created by the Gazette’s monthly Roll of Honour (pictured), which leaped to three and a half pages of brief notices that August.
And the battle would continue to November.
A century on, military historians point out that the Somme was not all the pointless sacrifice for which it is remembered in popular culture. But in Gordon Dump, and the other Commonwealth cemeteries dotting the landscape, it is hard to think of anything other than wasted lives.
Worth a detour, if you're driving south this summer.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor