That terrible phrase “friendly fire”, or its more recent equivalent “blue on blue”. To fire on one’s own side. I have seen hundreds of Western Front references to it. In many cases, it was when infantry were trying to advance and were under instruction to stay as close as possible behind their own artillery’s creeping barrage: a technically complex thing to achieve. But in this article and many other cases, the position was static and it was a matter of bad information about locations, bad shooting, worn-out gun barrel or faulty or poorly manufactured shell.
This article is adapted from my study of Pte 16773 Richard John Jordan of the 1st Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment, who died on 29 May 1916. Aged 20, he was the son of Mary J. Jordan of 7 Chase Road, Pensnett, near Dudley in Staffordshire and the late James Jordan. I researched Richard for a private client in 2012 and was pleased to do so, not only because of my long-term interest in his battalion but because I had got to know Pensnett people well during my three years as an engineering works manager there in the early 80s.
Richard had enlisted in January 1915 and joined the battalion in France on 18 May 1915. He survived the Battle of Loos and many periods of trench warfare, but met his end as a result of “friendly fire”. At the time, the battalion was under orders of 91st Infantry Brigade of 7th Division.
The battalion war diary describes how in January 1916 the 7th Division moved into the area that would soon become famous as the site of the Battle of the Somme. During the next months, the division occupied the front line facing the villages of Fricourt and Mametz. No major battle took place there until the Somme offensive, and on that opening day of 1 July 1916 the battalion captured the formidably defended Mametz. In the intervening period the sector was what was known as “lively”. Both sides employed underground mining to explode mines below enemy positions and on the surface there were fights to gain the craters they created; there were also many patrols, local trench raids and even in quieter times the ever present threat of occasional shell fire or the unwary being hit by snipers.
During the period when the battalion was taken out of the front line, it moved to billets in the nearby town of Bray-sur-Somme. In April it moved further out to the larger town of Corbie, before returning to Bray and the trenches. But even Bray was not immune to long range enemy shellfire. On 20 May 1916 a shell exploded in the battalion’s billets, wounding four officers and four men with many others having narrow shaves. The casualties included the veteran Regimental Sergeant Major Charles Hopkins, who was discharged as a result of severe wounds; Captain Roy Limbery, who had won the Military Cross at Loos and was later killed in the attack on Mametz; Lieutenant William English-Murphy, who would later go on to command the battalion and won the Military Cross in Italy.
On 24 May the battalion moved up into the front line once more, occupying a position south of Mametz. It was raining heavily and the battalion spent much of the time repairing and cleaning up the line, despite occasional shellfire which caused a number of casualties. The battalion was also sad to lose its quartermaster, a former ranker Lieutenant Samuel Bradbury (a veteran of the First Battle of Ypres back in 1914), just after going into the line.
The day on which Richard died, 29 May 1916, is described thus:
Battalion in trenches. Our sector was heavily shelled. Our artillery retaliated, causing two casualties. Wiring [laying our barbed wire defences] was again carried on and our patrols did good work.
It could be read from this that Richard was a victim of British artillery firing short. On analysing the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission I found that one other man died on the day: Pte 9961 John Wright. Three bodies – the other being that of Pte 12787 Robert Kyte who had been killed on the previous day – were taken out for burial in the fast-growing plot at the spot known as the Citadel, which was between the front lines and Bray. Pte 9773 George Everall and Pte 10050 George Williams were killed by heavy enemy shellfire two days later and taken to the same cemetery.
Why was the artillery firing short?
The battalion’s location was known. The front had been static for months and was well-mapped. There appears to have been no enquiry and no action taken, so commonplace were such incidents.