At 7.30am on July 1, 1916, the whistles blew and thousands of British soldiers scrambled over the top into no man's land to meet their enemy. Many never came back. Among them were the Durham Pals, the volunteers who had joined up as groups of friends from across the county. Here, Tony Kearney uses their documents, letters and diaries to tell the story of that terrible day. This material has provided the basis for the new walk-through experience at the Gala Theatre because for those brave men of the 18th DLI, 100 years ago today, there really was No Turning Back

THE plan was simple enough. The 18th Battalion Durham Light Infantry and West Yorkshire Regiment were crouched in trenches facing the German defences around the fortified village of Serre, at the northern end of the Somme battlefield.

Along the front, eight days of massive artillery bombardment was launched along the 14-mile length of the battlefield.

The orders were to walk steadily towards the German trenches, towards wire which would be shredded by shellfire, towards machine guns which would be pulverised.

At Zero Hour, the first wave, the Leeds Pals and 1st Bradford Pals, would go over the top and walk calmly across the 200 yards of No Man’s Land to capture what remained of the German frontline.

The second line of trenches held the 2nd Bradford Pals and D Company of the Durham Pals, who would press on a mile-and-a-half through the German lines and take Pendant Copse, a small wood which bordered Serre.

Finally, the rest of the Durham Pals held in reserve would move up and set up defensive positions to hold the ground they had just captured if a counter attack came.

They had rehearsed it again and again on the training fields at Gezancourt, but the reality on the killing fields of the Somme would be very different.

BY 4.30am, three hours before Zero Hour, the Durham Pals were in position in the shallow assembly trenches facing the enemy: 200 men from D Company alongside the Bradford Pals; the remaining 789 men of the battalion further back in Maitland trench in the reserve.

Almost immediately, the German artillery pinpointed their positions and opened up a fierce barrage which cut the Pals to pieces in their trenches as they waited and waited for the order to come.

The Northern Echo:
DEADLY: Lance Corporal Charles Moss was able to watch the German machine guns opening up on his trench. Photograph reproduced by permission of Durham County Record Office and the Trustees of the former DLI

Lance Corporal Charles Moss, from C Company, wrote: “They must have waited until we were all in position then they opened fire on us.

“Along on my left there was soon word being passed along for stretcher-bearers. We heard several of the company had been hit by the first salvo.

“The trench was so shallow I had to crouch low into the front of it. Regardless of danger, Lieutenant Simpson kept moving up and down the trench with head and shoulders in full view of the Germans. I told him he was asking for it, but he took no notice and kept having a word here and there with the fellows as we waited.”

For months, British miners had tunnelled under No Man’s Land to plant 15,000lb of high explosives under the enemy frontline trenches on Hawthorn Ridge and at 7.20am it was detonated, sending a great rumbling sound over the battlefield and a mushroom of smoke and debris high into the air as, in an instant, an untold number of young German men were vapourised.

Massive mines had been laid along the length of the battlefield, but elsewhere they were timed to go off at Zero Hour – the early explosion at Hawthorn Ridge gave the Germans ten minutes warning of the imminent attack.

The Northern Echo:
EXPLOSION: The great mine on Hawthorn Ridge containing 15,000lb of high explosives was detonated 10 minutes before Zero Hour

Using periscopes, British soldiers watched as the enemy poured out of their shattered trenches and into the crater left by the great explosion, calmly and methodically setting up high-calibre machine guns on the rim and training their sights on the white tape left in the night by the Pathfinder units to mark safe passage through the British wire.

The explosion was also the signal for the German artillery to open up a triple-fire barrage on the British trenches. At 7.30am, through the roar of high explosive shells and the screams of the men hit by shrapnel, shrill whistles sounded along the British lines and the men went over the top.

“AS long as I live, I shall never forget it” Private Eardley wrote home to his family in Catchgate, near Stanley. “No pen nor paper can describe it and I don’t suppose Hell can equal its murderous fire.”

Those who made it up the trench ladders were cut to ribbons by machine-gun fire, the survivors clinging to life in shellholes alongside the dead.

Lance Corporal Bob Clark went over the top with D Company: “When we got over the top of our trenches we could see nothing of the Leeds who were supposed to be in front of us, although we could see our fellows going over in fine style on our right.

“We came under a terrific machine gun fire as well as bombardment and it quickly thinned out the ranks.

“Sergeant Hall from Hartlepool was soon hit and Lance Sergeant Brydon from Sunderland almost immediately afterwards, so I was in charge of the platoon, but only for two minutes when I also stopped one.

“I was shot in the left hand within ten minutes of going over. I took cover in a shell hole and made myself as comfortable as possible, it was no good trying to get back to the trenches.

“Just then they were sniping at anyone who showed so much as an eyelid, but while there I was hit in both legs by shrapnel. It was not until dark that I got back to our trenches.”

Fathers, husbands and sons fell across the battlefield: teenage cousins Harry and Arthur Birks from Hartlepool; Private Henry Monks, a 34-year-old barber from Ferryhill; Sgt John Carr, a 23-year-old teacher from Wearhead and son of the village tailor: Private John Alderson Hutchinson, a 26-year-old from Tow Law.

The battalion’s official war history recorded that the Germans began: “hurling a deadly avalanche of shells up the highest calibre; their masked batteries opened and, with absolute accuracy of aim, poured hell and destruction onto our trenches, crowded with men who were now on the point of climbing out.

“A few of our men broke past our wire, fewer still crossed No Man’s Land, and only a mere handful reached the German lines.

“The ferocity and volume of the Boche batteries was as overwhelming as it had been unexpected.”

Across No Man’s Land, Otto Lais was serving with the 169th (Baden) Regiment, nicknamed the Iron Regiment.

After the battle he wrote: “Wild firing slammed into the masses of the enemy. All around us was the rushing, whistling and roaring of a storm.

“Throughout all this racket could be heard the regular tack-tack of the machine guns. Belt after belt was fired.

“The enemy closes up nearer, we fire on endlessly, the British keep charging forward. Despite the fact that hundreds are already lying dead, fresh waves keep emerging from the assault trenches.”

Estimated suggest as many as 2000 men were killed or wounded near Serre before 8am. The Leeds Pals and Bradford Pals simply vanished and D Company of 18DLI followed them into the smoke of the battlefield.

BACK in the reserve trenches as they waited orders to go forward, the remaining 790 men of 18DLI were largely unaware that their friends in D Company were being massacred.

Just after 9.45am, they were ordered to go forward from Maitland trench in the rear to the frontline Monk trench. While they were in the open, they became a new target for the German gunners and suffered heavy casualties.

Private Frank Raine, of A Company, said: “There were two officers who disdainfully helped us out of the trench because we had this weight on. The two officers never stepped out of the trench, they should have been leading us”.

The Northern Echo:
WIRE: One of the German barbed wire defences at the Battle of the Somme. Picture courrtesy of the Imperial War Museum

He went over the top with his friend Private Broomhead: “The only thing I remember after that was this terrific bang and a great black cloud of smoke above us. I felt a knock on my hip, which I didn’t take much notice of and walked on. I turned round a bit after that and Broomhead had gone.

“I walked on a little bit and looked round. I could not see a soul of any description, either in front of me or behind me or anywhere. Oh my God, the ground in front of me was just like heavy rain, that was the machine gun bullets.

“As I looked round I said: ‘Where the Hell is everybody, I can’t see anybody, I’m not going out there by myself,’ and I turned round and came back to my own trenches. I didn’t meet a soul”.

Lance corporal Charles Moss, Chester-le-Street boot salesman serving with C Company, managed to catch a glimpse of the German machine-gun teams aiming at him. He said: “They fixed their gun in front of their parapet and opened out a slow and deadly fire on our front. The gunners were without tunics and worked in their shirtsleeves, in quiet a different manner to their usual short sharp bursts. Their fire was so slow that every shot seemed to have a definite aim”.

At that moment, they received orders to be ready to go over the top and moved into the jumping off trench. “I nearly bumped into a soldier who seemed to be carrying a big piece of raw meat resting on his left arm.

“He was doing a sort of crying whimper. Then I realised it was the remains of his right forearm he was carrying in such a way”.

The trench was becoming increasingly chaotic. An officer nicknamed Big Lizzie by the men, was brandishing a pistol and shouting at the soldiers to go up the ladders and over the top.

L-Cpl Moss said: “Down the trench came one of the battalion runners, he was very excited and shouting as he came, something to the effect ‘the whole show’s a bloody balls up’.

“The CO spoke to him, but I couldn’t hear for the infernal row of the shellfire, but the CO came and spoke to Big Lizzie: ‘Wait a minute, a minute or two will neither win nor lose this battle.’ “The officer at once stopped waving his revolver and stopped the fellows who were climbing the ladder.”

Just a minute later, they received fresh orders to stay in the trench they were in and hold the line.

AND then, at 10.27am, something extraordinary happened.

Headquarters received a telegram from a Royal Artillery spotter to say that soldiers of D Company of 18DLI were in Pendant Copse.

The Northern Echo:

Almost three hours after they disappeared into a hail of gunfire and the smoke of the battlefield, the Durham Pals had achieved the seemingly impossible and reached their objective one-and-a-half miles behind enemy lines.

One-and-a-half miles through a hail of machine-gun fire and shrapnel shells; one-and-a-half miles through a deadly labyrinth of enemy trenches and barbed wire; one-and-a-half miles from help.

The bravery D Company showed on the road to Pendant Copse and what they endured over that three hours will never be known, because no-one survived to tell the tale.

There was a second sighting of the survivors in Pendant Copse 20 minutes later, but it would be the last time they were seen alive.

Any hope of capturing enemy positions had now gone and the survivors of 18DLI were now ordered to dig in against a possible German counter attack.

L-Cpl Charles Moss reached the frontline from which the Leeds Pals and Bradford Pals had set off on their ill-fated attack.

He wrote: “The artillery fire was much quieter by the time we reached the front line trench, but it was nearly impossible to tell it from No Man’s Land.

“The whole of the front was an awful chaos of duckboards, sandbags and stakes, wire netting and dud shells strewn about.

“Among the wreckage were the dead bodies of a Leeds Pals Lewis Gun team with their gun and drums of ammunition lying near them.

“One of my team picked up the gun and we took it with us, making two guns in our team for the rest of the time were in the front line.

“One of the dead soldiers was a horrible sight, a shell must have burst so near to him that it had ripped all the uniform and flesh from the front of his body”.

The Northern Echo:
BARRAGE: British artillery in action during the Battle of the Somme. Picture courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

THEY dug in as best they could in the shattered remnants of the trenches and, during that scorching summer day, waited for nightfall to rescue the dead and the dying.

Sgt Charles Cross, from Durham City, crawled out into No Man’s Land to rescue his wounded lieutenant, while snipers finished off many of the injured.

By mid-afternoon, they were able to take roll call. Of the 200 officers and men of D Company, only ten reported for duty. The rest of the battalion had lost 11 dead and more than 130 wounded.

In all, 18DLI lost 75 men killed and more than 250 wounded in a single day of carnage.

Many of those wounded that day would die of their injuries over the coming days, weeks and months, others would be maimed for life.

Their relatives at home had no inkling of the slaughter unfolding in France. A Press Association report carried in The Northern Echo the following day said: “Our troops are making good progress into enemy territory beyond the frontlines. We have taken Serre and Montauban.

“I have heard that it was delivered with irresistible elan and brilliant success”.

Across the Somme, more than 19,000 British soldiers were killed and another 38,000 were wounded on that first day of a battle which would rage until November.

The Durham Pals were eventually relieved on July 4.

SERRE was never captured. In February 1917, the Germans abandoned the village and withdrew to their defensive stronghold on the Hindenburg Line.

When the Allies moved in to occupy the village, they found the unidentified bodies of British soldiers still hanging on the barbed wire entanglements between Serre and Pendant Copse.

  • Help commemorate the sacrifices made by the men of the Durham Light Infantry at the Somme. In the month of July 2016, we are aiming to raise £10,000 to create a battlefield memorial to those who fell 100 years ago. To donate, either go to and make a pledge, or send a cheque made payable to Former Charities of the Durham Light Infantry to The Rifles Durham Office, Elvet Waterside, Durham DH1 3BW.