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Archive of the month

Archive of the month

Records of the 2/1st Bucks Battalion – the Battle of Fromelles

D-X 780-73July 1916 saw several Buckinghamshire units face their first major engagements of World War I. For the men of 2/1st Bucks Battalion, the Battle of Fromelles was to be their first action. The Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies holds various records relating to the 2/1st Bucks and people involved in the battle. The story of the unit is told in 'The 2nd Bucks Battalion, 1914-1918', by Major General J.C. Swann (reference TA/6/40), whilst the Battalion’s roll of honour is reference TA/6/3. D-X 780 are papers of the Phipps family, including letters and diaries of Charles Percy Phipps of 2/1st Bucks killed at the battle. The picture above (reference D-X 780/73) shows Phipps (left) with Col Pownall Phipps, his father Rev Constantine Phipps, Captain Lionel Crouch as well as his brothers in law Captains Guy Crouch and Ivor Stewart Liberty. Lionel was also killed in July 1916 whilst Ivor Stewart Liberty lost a leg.  Phipps’s diary is particularly moving. The entry for July 19th (below, reference D-X 780/29) reads ‘Zero fixed for today’. His death that evening means the rest of the diary is blank.

D-X 780-29

The battle took place on the 19th-20th July 1916, around 50 miles to the north of the Somme and nearly 10 miles from Lille.  The purpose of the attack by the allies was to divert German troops, equipment and supplies away from the Somme.  The area was chosen as the place of attack partly because of the low-lying ground found there, as well as the fact that defences here were largely absent of trenches, instead consisting largely of breastworks.  

The 2/1st Bucks Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry were part of the British force during the battle and were ordered to attack the strong German defence in an area known as the Sugar Loaf salient, near Fromelles (a small town behind the German lines).  The Sugar Loaf was a piece of land that stuck out into No-Man’s Land and its position meant that the German machine guns stationed there could cover the whole area. 

The few days previously had been spent with the allied artillery battering the German trenches, and the initial part of the attack on 19th July involved more targeted artillery bombardment.  Reports since the battle have concluded that the artillery fire was only partially effective as there were areas of barbed wire and trench systems that remained intact, and the key German emplacements (including the Sugar Loaf) remained unscathed.

The 2/1st Bucks along with the 59th Australian Battalion were the units that charged with taking the Sugar Loaf.  A and D Companies were supposed to be leading the assault, with B and C Companies in reserve, but because of casualties received in the previous couple of days, a lot of the men of C Company were deployed to fill the gaps.  At 11am the bombardment started and continued for seven hours.  As men left the British trenches to cross no-man’s land, they were immediately hit with German machine gun fire.  Most of the attacking force barely made it out of the trenches and few soldiers made it to the German positions.

The whole operation proved to be a disaster, not least because of a lack of communication as to the scale of the losses back to the generals at headquarters.  After 24 hours of engagement, the British has suffered 1,547 casualties (killed, wounded or captured) whilst the Australians had suffered 5,533 casualties.  German forces had suffered approximately 1600-2000 casualties.  It was later described as “the worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history”.

There were a number of reasons for why the attack ended in such heavy losses for the allied forces.  For starters, the assaulting forces were outnumbered 2:1, with the size and strength of the German forces being significantly underestimated before the battle commenced.  Moreover, many of the soldiers who took part in the battle had little experience with trench warfare, as revealed by diaries and testimonials concerning the battle.

Buckinghamshire as a county suffered a great deal in the battle, with the 2/4th Battalion Territorial Force and 2/1st Buckinghamshire Battalion being involved in the assault.  C Company, in particular, suffered a great deal of casualties.

The Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies is running a project researching the people of Buckinghamshire affected by the war either at the front or at home. If you’d like to be involved, get in touch with us archives@buckscc.gov.uk or 01296 382587.

The originals of these records are on display in the Archives searchroom.