A British officer on the opening day of the Somme (1916)




Paul Esmond Russell-Jones (1894-1934) was a Welsh-born British Army officer who served in World War I. Nineteen-year-old Russell-Jones was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 4th Welsh Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery. He saw action in France, Palestine and the Middle East, was mentioned in dispatches and promoted to acting captain. He survived the war, qualified as a solicitor and represented Wales in rugby union in 1921. Russell-Jones was present at the opening day of the Battle of the Somme (July 1st 1916) where he was tasked with providing artillery support for British infantry charges. He recorded his observations of the battle in his diary:



[Just after dawn]

“For seven whole days our guns have been pounding the enemy’s line, and now on the early morning of the eighth day, the attack is about to take place. Our little battery has done its share in preparing the way for the infantry. Most days we have fired with excellent results, though, I’m sorry to say, not without casualties to ourselves.

We were up at 2am this morning and at 3.45am set off for our positions. Dawn was just breaking and a heavy mist hung over everywhere, shutting out any view of the lines. As we came up communication trenches, there were hundreds of infantrymen lying about in all kinds of old corners, some even stretched out on the bare trench boards, sound asleep and sublimely unconscious to the sounds of war, which even at that early hour were making themselves heard…

I’m sitting in a tiny little dugout, which is just about splinter-proof but no more, surrounded by dozens of our bombs and ammunition boxes, waiting for the next 35 minutes to pass as quickly as it can, for at the end of that time we open fire and keep it up for 65 minutes, just to put the wind up Fritz before the assault.

War is a curious business and very well for those who like it, but I must say I am no lover of the game. At the moment I feel pretty rotten and hate myself for it, for when one has such splendid fellows under one as I have, one feels one’s deficiencies very much…

[Later]

We got our rounds away nicely, heaps of stuff [landed] all around us but just seemed to miss each time. Our troops going over was a magnificent sight. At the given signal they were all out of their trenches, lined up as if on parade, and set off for Berlin. The front line presented little difficulty, having been almost levelled or rather filled in by the artillery fire, but of course [the German] curtain of fire did a heap of damage and many poor fellows only got outside the trench to be knocked in again.

We’re sitting now in an underground dugout which, if it were propped decently, would be a decent place, but the props we have are none too strong… There are three poor fellows lying in here with us, one a sergeant has had his left foot blown off and the other two are pretty badly messed up. It is useless to try to get them away at present, we’re waiting to see if things will cool down a little…

[Later]

What a ghastly business this whole affair is, but on the other hand what a success it has all been. The Boches are simply giving themselves up in hundreds. We’re captured Montauban, on our left they’ve got Mametz and on our right, the French have taken Hardecourt. Let us hope we are in sight of the finish. All the Allies are advancing and behind the dark clouds, there is just a little ray of sunshine, which we trust will mean peace for ourselves, our children, our children’s children, aye, and even peace forever and a day.”

british soldiers somme
British soldiers moving ammunition in the early stages of the Battle of the Somme, July 1916
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