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Signaller Thomas Dewing, 34th Division, Royal Engineers
Last witness to the blowing of the Lochnager mine on the Somme, 1st July 1916
Thomas was born in April 1896 and grew up with his two siblings in East Rudham, a village in Norfolk, where his father was the local grocer and draper. A scrupulously honest man, Thomas would not lie about his age in order to enlist and so waited to join up until the day after his 19th birthday in 1915.
He became a sapper in the Royal Engineers, part of the 34th Division, training near Sutton Veny in Wiltshire until the Division was ready to leave for France in January 1916.
Thomas served at the Battle of the Somme and witnessed at close quarters the disastrous consequences of the first day’s battle, when 60, 000 British Tommies were killed or wounded. That day was forever etched on his mind.
He later served at the Battle of Arras and during the German offensive in 1918, when he narrowly avoided being taken prisoner of war.
After demobilization in 1919, Thomas became a primary school teacher and married in 1921. He later became headmaster of a school in Saffron Walden and continued to teach, having a particular interest in helping children with learning difficulties. He remained in the town for the rest of his life.
Thomas resisted ever returning to the Great War battlefields but in 1997 he gave a detailed account of his service on the Somme for television. He died shortly after suffering a stroke in 2001, aged 104.
“We realized that we were in for a battle, no doubt about that. Everything was building up to such a vast scale that we were all convinced that this was the push, the ‘Big Push’ that was to end the war.
We had a Norfolk sergeant with us, Sergeant Britcher, an old soldier, and he wasn’t too keen. He said:
“I ain’t a-going to be in no push, I’m going back to England.’
To us that seemed extremely unlikely, but Britcher had it all worked out. So he claimed to the doctor that a tumour on his face, which he had had for years, was making him deaf. The doctor said it could not possibly be the case but Britcher persisted and it became increasingly difficult to hold a conversation with him.
The officer knew perfectly well he was swinging the lead, so did we all, and he knew that we knew. One evening we were in an estaminet and one of the lads went quietly up behind him:
‘Would you like a drink, Sergeant?’ Britcher glanced round to see nobody was watching, ‘It ain’t no good you saying would you like a drink, ‘cos I can’t hear you.’
In the end he managed to convince the authorities that he was deaf, even though the doctor was adamant he was shamming, and Britcher was sent back to England to train other troops.
The first day of the Battle of the Somme
On 30 June, the day before the attack, two of us were sent to an observation post called Smiths Redoubt. This was a small dugout with a slot that enabled us to look over the German lines. There we were joined by the Brigade Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant ‘Blanco’ White, and various runners.
We were also connected to Brigade Headquarters by telephone, and had a powerful telescope that could be mounted on a tripod.
Shortly before 7.30am on 1 July we felt the ground heave from the explosion of the mine at La Boisselle but we could see nothing. In the first place, there was a certain amount of mist and then when you add to that the enormous amount of smoke from the barrage, a great deal was hidden. Then when the mist and smoke cleared, we were able to see the infantry going forward in open formation as if on the parade ground.
In many cases the men didn’t get very far, they were just wiped out. One of the officers in our dugout had some field glasses which he allowed us to use from time to time, and looking into the crater we could sometimes see a German getting up, raising his rifle and firing. During the attack, a signaller, Corporal Bone, and one or two other men followed the infantry to their first objective.
They set up a heliograph, as the weather was ideal for its use, and we waited anxiously for the first flash. When it came, we were thrilled; they had reached their objective. They sent our call sign, ‘ZJA, ZJA’. Z stood for Brigade, J was the tenth letter of the alphabet, A the first, so we got 101st Brigade. We waited for the message that was to follow but it never came. The enemy had seen the flashing and opened up with a machine gun.
We didn’t realize what had happened until afterwards, until the next church parade. At Brigade headquarters we had regular church parades, and on this occasion, instead of the troops coming along as they usually did, there was just a handful out of each battalion of a thousand men.
We felt sick.
The colonels were sitting in front of what was left of their men, sobbing. The service was taken by Padre Black. He was a man we all respected; he was more likely to be found in the trenches than in the officers’ mess.
How he managed to take that service, I don’t know. His text was ‘I will restore unto you the years that the locusts have eaten’. He meant every word of his sermon, and we knew it. There were so few, so few men left. How can you describe a mere handful of men where you used to see about a battalion? It must have been a great ordeal for him to conduct that service. It is an occasion that I shall always remember.