Decisions, discipline and disobeying orders – Arras Memorials – Page 36 & Arras South – Page 321

According to “Military Operations – France & Belgium 1916 – Volume I”, the 46th (North Midland) Division sustained 2,455 casualties on the 1st July.Its attack that day was stopped in its tracks with many of those casualties lying dead or wounded out in no man’s land, but actually the picture was a bit more complicated than that. In his book, “The First Day on the Somme”, Martin Middlebrook tells how a company of the 1/5th Lincolnshire Regiment had been ordered to go out later that night to try to locate and relieve a party of Sherwood Foresters thought to be still holding out in the enemy’s lines, possibly cut off. However, the information appears to have been no more concrete than that. One of the men of the 1/5th Lincolnshire Regiment was Company Serjeant Major Wilfred Ernest HAMP.

With the Germans fully in control on that part of the battlefield, it seems highly unlikely that a single company could have carried out the task or have made any difference to the situation. We don’t know in any detail what transpired between HAMP and the officer who gave him the order, but apparently HAMP declined to carry it out unless more information was forthcoming regarding the situation that lay ahead. There was a vehement disagreement between the two, but the relieving party never set out. HAMP was warned by the officer that his refusal to obey orders could lead to his being court-martialled.

It’s fair to say that the picture in front of Gommecourt was one of great confusion. The attack was meant only as a diversion and it was never intended that the battle here should continue beyond the first day, though pinching out the salient there was one of the day’s objectives. It became apparent early on that this was not going to happen. This in itself was a disincentive to press on with further ventures. Rescuing and dealing with the wounded was a key priority, re-organizing dislocated units was also a priority, and although the idea of locating and assisting isolated units still holding out in captured parts of the German line was a noble one, the chances of success were slim and risked incurring further casualties. As the day drew to a close it became increasingly clear that there was little more could be achieved and that it was time to start cutting (and counting) the day’s losses.

In the aftermath of that fateful day for the 46th (North Midland) Division, the remaining officers within the battalion, and indeed many at brigade level, might well have taken the same view as HAMP. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps the officer with whom HAMP had disagreed may even have come round to realizing the futility of asking men to risk their own lives on enterprises where there was little chance of success and without the provision of proper support. The overall failure, notwithstanding the many acts of gallantry and self-sacrifice that day, would certainly have overshadowed this one small episode involving HAMP and his men. In the cold light of day his refusal to leave the trenches might well have been seen as a very sound decision.

Over the course of the next couple of weeks the 46th (North Midland) Division was subjected to intense scrutiny regarding its performance on the opening day of the battle of the Somme. Leadership, in particular, was felt to have been lacking and it was believed by some that the division lacked the necessary drive, or ‘offensive spirit’ as it was often referred to. It is hard to see how its performance differed from that of others north of the Albert-Bapaume road, but judgements were being formed that would have soon have repercussions. Individual officers within the division now came under increasing pressure to tighten discipline and ‘get a grip of things’ in a bid to salvage the reputation of the division. Their own reputations would also have been very much at stake.

Towards the end of July a Lance-Corporal from the 1/5th South Staffordshire Regiment, which also formed part of the same division, was required to take charge of a party of men for a night raid on German trenches as part of a larger operation. There happened to be a bright moon that night and Lance-Corporal Frederick HAWTHORNE made strong representations that the raid shouldn’t go ahead given the circumstances. His concerns were overruled, and when the raiding party began to move off, HAWTHORNE and his men, some of whom supported his view, remained behind in their trench in what amounted to a clear refusal to take part in the operation. HAWTHORNE was immediately arrested for cowardice and subsequently placed before a court-martial.

On the face of it, we have two sets of circumstances where orders to leave the trenches were disregarded. In the case of HAMP, he faced no disciplinary charges whereas HAWTHORNE was found guilty and then executed by firing squad. Of course, we don’t know the minute details involved in each particular case, but the mood had clearly changed with regard to discipline within the division, and indeed higher up the chain of command.  The outcome for HAWTHORNE might not have been any different had his actions taken place in the run up to the Battle of the Somme, but his refusal to obey orders could not have come at a worse time. The fact that he was in a position of authority and that some of the men in his party appear to have supported his decision only aggravated the matter, but that was equally true in relation to HAMP’s case. All things considered, HAMP may appear to have ridden his luck rather well, but crucially his decision had taken place amid the utter confusion and chaos of a thoroughly disastrous day. Set against all that, and with the benefit hindsight, his decision may well have been seen as an inspired piece of leadership that saved further unnecessary loss of life rather than an act of wilful disobedience.

The case of HAWTHORNE is referred to in ‘Arras South’ (he is buried in Warlincourt Halte British Cemetery – page 321) whereas HAMP, who has no known grave, is referred to in ‘Arras Memorials’ (he is commemorated on the wall of the Arras Memorial – page 36). Circumstances surrounding such differing fortunes in time of war are often far from clear, and sometimes they even appear very contradictory. The story of HAMP and HAWTHORNE provides a good example of just how different those fortunes can be within the space of only a few weeks depending on the outcome of events. Though covered in different volumes of ‘Visiting the Fallen’, I feel this is a good place to bring the two stories together.