Battle of The Somme Remembered

July 1st, 2016

1st July 2016 is the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme – acknowledged by many as the bloodiest day in the history of the British army.

The battle was fought on the banks of the River Somme in France, and lasted for 141 days. On the first day alone British troops had 57,470 casualties, with 19,240 killed. By the end of the battle more than 1 million men had been killed or wounded, including about 485,000 British and French troops.

After a six day artillery bombardment, at 7.30am on 1st July the first wave of British infantry advanced towards the German lines. Their aim was to take control of the area to the north of the River Somme. But rather than having been destroyed by the artillery bombardment which had rained down on them for six days, the German troops had retreated into their deep bunkers, and when the British troops advanced on that first day, the German soldiers emerged from their shelters and gunned down the advancing troops.

Of course many Derbyshire men lost their lives on this day but one soldier in particular had what must be quite an unusual life story. Thomas Sherriff was born in Ripley Derbyshire in 1885, to a family of Travellers. His father, Hope Sherriff known as ‘Gypsy Jack’ was a grinder, cutter and pedlar and the family travelled across the region, eventually having at least 13 children. Thomas enlisted in the Sherwood Foresters in 1899 aged 17. However in 1900 he was sentenced to seven days hard labour for attacking his cousin Henry Clayton, in Wirksworth Market Place.

Worse was to come when in January 1903 PC William Price went to the Gypsy encampment at Anslow, Staffordshire to investigate the theft of three ferrets. A fight broke out between the constable and Hope Sherrif, his brother in law Arkless Holland and three of Hope’s sons, Thomas, Joseph and John. PC Price was struck over the head with his own truncheon and died of his wounds. The brothers fled the scene but all five men were later arrested and brought to trial at the Stafford Assizes. The three brothers had taken the blame for the attack and Verdict Sherrifso their father and Arkless Holland were aquitted. There was discussion as to who had struck the fatal blow but the judge stated that in cases such as this, everyone involved was equally to blame, whether they participated or simply stood by and allowed it to happen. The brothers were sentenced to 15 years in prison. Joseph died in prison but John and Thomas were given early release in 1914 to serve their country. John joined the Coldstream Guards and Thomas, the Lancashire Fusiliers.

On 5 August the Derbyshire Times newspaper stated that the parents of Thomas had been informed that he had been missing since July 1st. It was a long 10 months later uSherrif obitntil he was officially reported as killed in action.

The war diary of the Lancashire Fusiliers gives us a first hand account of what conditions were like on that first fatal day at the Somme:

“At 6.30am the artillery fire became rapid until 7am when it became intense. It was the most extraordinary sight. The Bosch line could not be seen for smoke and bursting shells. Bosch still hardly answered at all. The first mistake was made at 7.25am when the Beaumont Hamel line under the Hawthorne Ridge Redoubt went up. This gave the Germans 5 minutes to consolidate the crater which they made use of. Zero hour was at 7.30am.

At 7.50am the first wave went over and then things began to happen. In spite of the six days bombardment German machine guns got going from every direction. Beaumont Hamel was a veritable fortress….. Gen. Prowse left the headquarters too soon and was killed rushing a machine gun. He was shot in the stomach and died that evening. The losses of the Brigade were awful….. The Roman Road on the afternoon of July 1st was ghastly, wounded in every place conceivable coming up all the time. Macdonald with a bullet in his chest… The attack finally ended as far as the Division was concerned at 2am July 2nd when the last of our people came back from the Quadrilateral.

The sum total of the attack was a bad hammering and no ground captured, but from all accounts Bosch lost heavily too…..The Bosch showed his fighting powers that day, and he put up a grand fight.”

There is no grave for Thomas but his name is one of the many commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial in FrancdbImagee.