Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Ninety two years on

Horace Ham was in the line opposite Hawthorn Redoubt when it was blown up at 7.20am on 1st July 1916. He wasn't a Chailey man but he was there on the Somme on the day that the British Army suffered its heaviest casualties in a single day. Today, it's headline news when a soldier is killed in Afghanistan. On 1st July 1916, the British Army sustained nearly 60,000 casualties, almost a third of these killed and most of those killed in the first hour of the British attack. The failure of that attack and the reasons behind it have been written about ever since. But today, 92 years on, I'll leave the talking to Horace Ham.

Horace was 93 years old when I interviewed him at The Royal Star and Garter home in Richmond-upon-Thames in 1988. Before the war he was a footman, but on July 1st 1916 he was a private soldier, one of Kitchener's men waiting in a trench, ready to go over the top with the 16th (Public Schools) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment.

"The 1st July 1916 was a proper mess up. You see we were told that all the barbed wire would be cut and all the Germans would be dead, all that sort of thing. Instead of that, the Germans were very clever. They'd built marvellous dug-outs which they built properly. They were like houses underground, beds and everything in there. The Germans said they were going to stay put and when our people started shelling, they went down their dug-outs. As soon as they stopped and we advanced, they came up, put their machine guns up and mowed our fellas down like ninepins.

"I was lucky mind. I saw Hawthorn Ridge go up and I got hit in the hip with a bit of shrapnel just as we started. I didn't actually get over the trench, I was lucky. All my pals got killed or wounded, gone. There was five of us sort of joined up together. There was myself, a fella named Walker, a fella named Richardson and two brothers named Mellish - they came from Wembley. We sort of palled up and all went around together in the army. Well on the 1st July, I got wounded, Richardson got wounded, young Mellish got through it and Jerry Walker and the eldest Mellish we never heard of, they got killed.

"I should have been in the first wave but I was lucky, I tell you. I was really lucky and I've had my fingers crossed ever since then. I wasn't the only one. Bags of them got wounded just as it started. I saw some of the fellas that came back when we were being seen to and you've never seen such wounds in your life. I've seen some terrible sights but who hasn't in war?"

PS/1491 Private Alfred George Mellish is buried in Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery Number 1 at Auchonvillers. Jerry Walker must be PS/1609 Private Alfred Walker who was killed on this date (the only Walker killed whilst serving with the 16th Middlesex) and who is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. The 16th Middlesex lost seven officers and 155 men killed on 1st July, others would die of their wounds over the days that followed.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, WE WILL REMEMBER THEM.

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