“What about that machine gun, the one at the shrine?”
This was what Captain Duncan Martin asked the General Staff.
The time was June 1916 and the shrine was at the corner of the churchyard of Mametz, a village held by the Germans on the Somme front. Captain Martin’s orders were to lead the spearhead of the assault on Mametz on 1 July.
Captain Martin commanded no.1 Company of the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. They were all volunteers, men who flocked to join up in 1914. Most of them came from the Exeter area. One of them, 18-year-old John Milford, came from Clapham in the parish of Kenn.
The plan of the General Staff was that at Zero hour, no.1 Company would go over the top of their trench, on the edge of Mansel Copse, go down a slight hill, over No-Man’s land, up the hill and storm the German trenches.
There was only one snag, that machine gun at the shrine. It would put down deadly crossfire right across the 9th Devons’ line of advance.
“So what about the machine gun at the shrine?”
Captain Martin even made a plasticine mock-up of the ground to make his point.
The answer from the Staff was clear, “Don’t worry. The machine gun, the shrine, the whole lot will be blasted by the artillery barrage.”
Zero Hour. Dawn on 1 July, the Big Push, the opening of the four month Battle of the Somme. The big guns fell silent, the whistles blew, Number 1 company stood up and started to advance, straight into the fire of that machine gun.
Only half a dozen men made it to the German trench. No.2 and 3 Companies did not fare much better. Eventually, Lieutenant Saville led no.4 Company along a fold of ground sheltered from the machine gun fire.
Survivors rallied, they got into the German trench, the French heavy guns gave brilliant support, the 8th Devons came charging in behind and Mametz was captured.
At the end of the day, the 9th Devons collected up their dead comrades and buried them in the trench from which they had started only that morning. There were 160 of them. Usually, there were twice as many wounded as killed, so there were about 480 casualties among the 9th Devons, six out every ten men.
The 160 dead men were laid to rest and the trench was filled in. One of the burial party made a rough wooden cross and scratched an inscription on it.
After the war, the War Graves Commission tidied up the cemetery, planting trees and making it a place of beauty and peace. The 160 still sleep there, among them John Milford from Kenn and Captain Duncan Martin.
A new cross was put up, with the original inscription, there for all time;
The Devonshires held this trench. The Devonshires hold it still.
All these facts come from the history and War Diaries of the Devonshire Regiment. They are collected in the book, “West Country Regiments on the Somme”, a work as thorough and learned as it is moving. It is written by Tim Saunders and published by Pen and Sword. It is to Tim Saunders that all the credit for the telling of this story is due.
Jo Clarke, Publications Officer at Devon County Council, recently visited the Devonshire Cemetery in France, and was moved by what she saw and her experience. Here are some of the images her husband Steve took of the cemetery, and the memorials to those 160 Devon men who were laid to rest there.