Hell on front line

PUBLISHED: 14:00 06 July 2006 | UPDATED: 11:50 04 May 2010

I AM sitting at my computer on July 1, 2006 - exactly 90 years to the day the Battle of the Somme began. At 7.20am that day, the bombardment stopped. At 7.25am, the troops went over the top of the trenches, believing the constant shelling had wiped out m

I AM sitting at my computer on July 1, 2006 - exactly 90 years to the day the Battle of the Somme began.

At 7.20am that day, the bombardment stopped. At 7.25am, the troops went over the top of the trenches, believing the constant shelling had wiped out most of the enemy.

At 7.30am, the officers blew the whistle and the lines marched forward into no-mans-land to face a barrage of machine-gun fire.

The attack had stopped by midday. High command had lost contact with the waves of infantry that had gone forward and were unaware of the extent of losses and injured.

The medical services were quite simply overwhelmed. By the end of that day 20,000 British soldiers lay dead and another 40,000 were wounded. July 1, 1916 still remains our country's bloodiest day of warfare ever.

On June 25, 1916 Second Lieutenant Roland Ingle, of the Lincolnshire Regiment, wrote in his diary "we are taking part in what may be a historic event - for us personally, of course, historic, but also possibly in years to come a historic event in the great war." He was stationed with his men at Becourt dressing station near Albert. Although he writes "the men who are going to be knocked out in the push - there must be many - should certainly not be looked on with pity" he could not have foreseen what a momentous day this was either to himself, or to the nation.

The Battle of the Somme had huge repercussions at home. The casualty lists hit every level of society. The Pals system, which meant whole streets of men joined up and fought together, left entire neighbourhoods without their menfolk.

Roland himself was born at number one Waddington Terrace, St Mary's Street, Ely on May 23, 1886. His sister described him as a timid little boy who was "all his life very sensitive" yet he was later to look upon the battlefield as the scene of "a great game".

Roland attended the King's School, Ely and won an open scholarship to Queen's College, Cambridge, leaving school in 1905.

When war was declared in 1914, Roland joined up and in 1915 found himself in Gallipolli. The conditions were gruelling and Roland succumbed to dysentery. Nursed back to health, he refused a staff job in England and, in May 1916, found himself in the trenches waiting for the "great push" to begin.

In his diary entries from June 24-30, 1916 we gain an insight into what it was like waiting for the battle. For Roland, life appears almost normal.

The bombardment over enemy lines, the sounds of gunshots, the white gun flashes blazing in the night sky and the "red burst of shells falling on their target". Above the constant and increasing noise the chaplains tried to raise their voices and the men sung Fight the Good Fight and O God Our Help.

Days were taken up with training the reserves, poring over maps, observing the lie of the land and pow wows among the officers. In the evenings, Roland went to look over the battle-lines with comrades, perhaps to gain some comfort or a quiet respite from planning his part of the "push".

His route to the lines went past the cemetery of the dressing station and Roland observed daily the new mounds of earth with roughly hewn crosses, the dead man's cap or flowers on them. Often pals from the man's company were tending the graves.

On the night of June 27, 1916 Roland and his men from the British Trench Mortar Battery had moved to their place on the front-line, but the intended start of the attack on the morning of the 29th had been postponed, due to heavy rains. Eventually, the orders they had been waiting for were set for 7.30am on July 1, 1916.

The evening before Roland had walked up to look over enemy lines for the last time before the "push". On his way back he visited the grave of his friend Rowe, who had been with him in the Lincolnshire's. His last entry is at 7pm on June 30, 1916 and it ends:

c 'This ends the diary before the push as I must pack up. Ever Yours Ro.'

Roland and his men, attached to the Trench Mortar Battery, started the attack at 7.15am on that day and they were killed instantly. A military observer said, "all the TMBs were unable to get much beyond the front line, so intense was the machine-gun fire".

Roland's commanding officer wrote to the family:

"He has been buried in the British cemetery near Becourt in a wood surrounding the battlefield. The fire the officers and men had to face in this battle was terrible, and he led his men through it till he fell."

Roland Ingle is buried close to his friend Rowe.

This is one man's story out of the 20,000 British troops who lost their lives on July 1, 1916.

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