Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Cambridgeshire Regt and the Schwaben Redoubt.

The Territorial Army has often been the butt of many a joke - "Saturday Night Soldiers", "Weekend Warriors" and the awful "STAB", often used by Regular soldiers who have had little contact with the TA/Reserve. However, the First World War changed all that and much like operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have changed opinions of today's Reserves, the TF regiments soon had the opportunity to prove that they could be taken seriously as professional soldiers. The Cambridgeshire Regt was one such regiment. A true "county" regiment, it had been raised from Volunteer Battalions and Militia when the TF came into existence in 1908. They were mobilised for service two days after their Summer Camp ended and were sent to the Western Front in February 1915. At the end of August 1916, they arrived on the battlefields of the Somme as part of 117 Bgd, 39th Div.
The Schwaben Redoubt was a maze of strongly defended trenches and strongpoints which dominated the lines around Thiepval. On the first day of the Somme battle it had been attacked by the 36th (Ulster) Div who were successful in taking it - one of the few divisions to complete their objectives.But because the flanking divisions did not have the same success, the Ulstermen were left isolated and were soon cut off, the redoubt falling back into German hands the next morning. 

There were continuing attempts to regain the redoubt and finally on 26th September, the 18th (Eastern) Div managed to take the southern face. The job of completing the task was given to the 39th Div and in the afternoon of the 14th October, the 117th Bgd (comprising the Cambridgeshires,and battalions from the Black Watch & KRRC)  advanced towards the Schwaben under a creeping artillery barrage. The battalion War Diary notes that casualties were few in this assault but some of those were from their own shelling as success was gained due to the assaulting troops keeping close to the barrage as it moved forward and thereby gaining the element of surprise as the Cambridgeshire men were upon the enemy before they could properly bring their MGs into action.
There followed an afternoon and evening of consolidation and hand to hand combat as the Cambridge men bombed their way through the German lines. Strong points were dug in front of the German trenches and later linked together and wire laid to form a new defence line. This not only kept casualties low due to the Germans shelling their own - now empty - trenches, but when counter attacks came the next day, they were able to easily repel the enemy who were not expecting the British to have dug in so well right in front of their old lines.

Several of my ancestors served in the Cambridgeshire Regt, one such being Percy Nunn from Sawston. He joined the 1st Battalion in September of 1914, along with his brother Albert. They disembarked in France on the 14th February the following year, thus qualifying for the 1915 Star. Their father, Owen, not wanting to be left out, lied about his age (taking 8 years off it) to enlist in the Royal Engineers. He was a Blacksmith by trade so was a valuable recruit  He went to France in January 1916 and spent 18 months on the Western Front before being sent back to the UK, physically unfit. His wife, Althea, had died two months before he returned, leaving his eldest daughter Dorothy to look after his 3 youngest children. Owen was discharged in 1918. He married again in 1920 and died in 1959.

On the day of the battle to capture the Schwaben Redoubt, Percy was part of the Linesmen section. His job was to go out and repair the telephone cable which was very susceptible to damage from shelling, and enemy action. On this occasion, he went out with the Section Sgt to repair a line in front of their defences after the initial assault. They had just reached the damaged line when a shell exploded next to it and killed them both instantly. He was described by his OC as being "the coolest man I had". His body was never found and he is now commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, only a  short distance away from where he was killed, and on the Sawston Town War Memorial.

 The above photo was taken by myself on the recent Army Staff Ride to the Somme in September 2016. It shows 4 unknown soldiers buried in Mill Road Cemetery which is sited on part of the Schwaben Redoubt. Behind these graves, the redoubt stretches up the hill. Who know if Percy's remains lie beneath one of these graves, or in one of the 810 other unidentified burials in the cemetery.
For more information about the Cambridgeshire Regt, I recommend the following website: The Cambridgeshire Regiment 1914-18.

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