Following the costly losses of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the next Battalion of The Suffolk Regiment were called forward to play their part.
7th Suffolk, who had been behind the lines on 1st July, were rushed forward to support trenches early on the morning of 2nd July. Later that afternoon, the Battalion Commander, Major George Henty, received fresh orders that the Battalion would make a frontal attack against the village of Ovillers at 3.15am the following morning.
In the failing light of a pleasant summer evening, Henty organised his Company commanders to get the men ready for an early attack. Additional ammunition was distributed along with additional gas helmets and picks and shovels. The men fearful, yet outwardly optimistic got what sleep they could.
At 3.05am in the still darkness, an artillery barrage was brought down in front of them in front of 'Usna' Hill; a small rise upon which the German line skirted. Here it hovered, awaiting is followers, before slowly advancing forward towards the German front line. Hard on it's heals went the two leading Company's of 7th Suffolk: 'D' on the right, 'C' on the left. Closely following this creeping barrage, they headed into no-man's-land. These frontal company's were divided into two waves; the first close up behind the barrage, the second about 100 yards back. As the barrage edged closer towards the German front line, it crossed it and continued towards the German second line. The leading men followed it obediently, and so did the second wave. All was going according to plan.
The CO observing this from his dugout, ordered the follow up waves to go forward ten minutes later at 3.15 am and 'B' Company followed the advance of 'D' Company on the right, whilst 'A' Company followed 'C' Company on the left. Unlike their colleagues in the 11th Battalion two days earlier, everything was going well for them. The German third line was reached and it seemed that a breakout was possible. To their right, along the Albert-Bapaume road, 5th Royal Berks had followed 7th Suffolk and were reaching the south of the village of La Boiselle.
Seizing the initiative, the CO ordered them to press on. In the darkness, the leading Company's went to ground in the German third line, and set about securing the position and consolidating it. Elements, then pressed on ahead into the village of Ovillers itself. Believing that the supporting waves would be there soon, those in front
Such had been the speed of their advance that in the briefest possible time, between the leading Suffolk Company's crossing the German second line, and reaching the third, the Germans had managed to get back into the second line in force and were able to fire on not only the leading waves in their third line, but the advancing support troops coming to support them. In the darkness, it was now all going wrong.
"It was at this 3rd German line" wrote the Adjutant in the Battalion war diary "that the chief casualties occurred and the assault was brought to a standstill. The two companies of the Essex Regt. moving up in support were too far behind and were practically annihilated by machine gun fire during their advance across the open." As the dawn broke, the horror of the situation unfolded in front of Major Henty. His men lay dead and wounded as far as the eye could see and he had no idea of just how many had reached the village and may have be cornered there.
For an attack that started well, one might say almost 'textbook' it had once again descended into disaster. The enthusiasm of the men to get on was regretfully their downfall. Like the 9th Battalion at Loos the year before, command and control was essential and with the benefit of hindsight, the advance should have halted at the German second line and consolidated there.
The Battaion suffered 18 officers and 458 other ranks, killed wounded or missing, although over the next 24 hours, many of those feared lost, filtered back into the Suffolk lines. For a Battalion that had shown such gallantry when attacking the 'Hairpin' 10 months earlier, it was a crushing blow to morale.
Thomas Edward Soloman Sharman was one of those killed in the attack against Ovillers that morning. A native of Lowestoft, he left behind a wife and three children. He was 27 years old. Before he went to France with the Battalion in 1915, he and his family had their photographs taken in a studio in Lowestoft. Thomas carried these photos with him whilst away on active service, whilst his wife had a second set at home. Thomas's body was never found.
With thanks to the Roll of Honour website for the image of Thomas Sharman.
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