George Shemmings


Samuel's parents, James and Eliza (nee Rayner) both came from long standing Hoxne families. Until the 1911 census James occupation had been a brick maker, sometime resident of both Hoxne and Wingfield and quite likely employed by the Kerrison Estate at their Eye Road Brickworks, but on the 1911 census he appears as a general labourer living with his family in Church Street Hoxne. Samuel George, born in 1895, appears to have been their only child and by 1911 he was employed as shop assistant, conceivably in one of the numerous shops that existed in Hoxne at this time.

Samuel George Shemmings's service records have not survived but his service number indicates that he enlisted sometime between December 1915 and January 2016 and was posted to the 7th (Service) Battalion Suffolk Regiment. We do not know how long Samuel spent at basic training but with the Western Front consuming enormous numbers of men and Field Marshall Haig's plans for a new offensive well underway the likelihood is that Samuel was in France by March or April 1916.

The 7th Battalion was one of the New Army Battalions. Formed at Bury St Edmunds in August 1914 and forming part of the 35th Brigade, 12th (Eastern) Division the battalion landed at Boulogne at the end of May 1915. Blooded at the Battle of Loos in September 1915, the beginning of March 1916 found the Battalion in reserve at Vermelles where the War Diary records significant German artillery activity could be heard at the front. On the 4th March the Battalion moved into the frontline and, although suffering no causalities, the German artillery was "again very active". By the 7th the battalion was back in reserve and spent time "stood to" because of German bombing activity against the front line. On the 10th they were back in the frontline but the "enemy very quiet". After two days in the lines they were moved into support then on the 16th into Reserve then back to support on the 19th and on the 22nd to the frontline where the trench mortars and rifle grenades made life difficult. In support from the 26th to the 28th and back in the frontline on the 29th. This time however the German's were very active and on the day they arrived four men were wounded by bombing activity and on the 30th a man was killed and another wounded. March was a typical month with the battalion being rotated between the frontline, support and reserve.

Between 1st and 9th April the Battalion moving into billets at the Orphanage which was situated on the Boulevard Frederic George, in Bethune. After settling in the Battalion was involved in training until it moved to the front on the 10th. For the rest on the month the battalion was either in the front or in support. The Battalion War Diary for this period does not record any casualties which , if true, was most unusual.

On the 1st May the battalion was in a rest area at Floringhem. With the Somme offensive only weeks away the Samuel and his colleagues now entered a period of intensive training and during the next two weeks this revolved around the defence of outposts, the responsibility of advance guards and the attack itself. Half way through the month the Battalion arrived at Marles Les Mines, a village to the west of Lens where training was intensified. On the 20th May the Battalion moved to the concentration area near Houchin where, presumably to keep the men at the peak of effectiveness, there was a great of physical exercise including sporting events plus the normal training programme of practicing assaulting trenches, assaulting from trenches to attack further trenches and work on the firing range. On the 30th they were ordered to be prepared to move at an hours notice and on the 31st and two companies were attached to the 16th (Irish) Division for working party duties not rejoining the 35th Brigade until the 8th June when the battalion was placed in reserve at Marles-Les-Mines. The training programme continued covering the consolidation of craters (from the detonation of mines under the German lines) and assaulting from trenches with the cooperation of trench mortars and machine guns.

The 12th (Eastern) Division were originally kept in reserve to exploit the expected breakthrough at the start of the Somme offensive, hence the training programme devoted to assaults from captured trenches. On the 1st July the Battalion left Franvillers and marched to Hennicourt and from there to the support trenches ready to exploit the attacks success. Whilst in the support trenches the battalion received orders to attack the German lines around the villages of Ovillers and La Boiselle at 3.15 am the following morning. To the waiting battalion this was a clear sign that Haig's carefully scripted offensive was beginning to run into serious problems and the troops would not just walk over to occupy the German positions as predicted by the General Staff. According to the British plan, Ovillers was planned to have fallen by mid day on the first day of the offensive. The 8th Division tasked with capturing Ovillers had, despite the support an unprecedented artillery bombardment, been decimated by the defending Germans, who having survived the bombardment, came out of their well prepared dugouts set up their machine guns and cut great swathes through the advancing Brigades of the 8th Division. By the end of the first day the Division had suffered over six thousand casualties, any small gains that were made were soon lost as they were skilfully pinched out by local German counter attacks.

The failure of the 8th Divisions attack meant that the 12th Division was brought forward, not as anticipated to exploit a breakthrough, but to make a frontal attack on the untaken frontline. The Battalion War Diary provides a detailed narrative on what was to follow. "C" and "A" Companies were placed on the left flank, "D" and "B" on the right. At 2.15 am the British artillery barrage started, first concentrating on the German frontline then moving rearward to disrupt any reserves or counter battery fire from intervening in the attack. At 3.15 am on the 3rd July 1916 Samuel and his comrades clambered out of their trenches and under the cover of the continuing artillery bombardment and the pre dawn darkness the Battalion advanced in eight successive waves.

The first waves, "D" and "C" companies, penetrated as far as the German third line and some elements even entered the village itself but the darkness, which had aided the speed of their attack, was now their nemesis as succeeding waves were unable to close up fast enough. This allowed the Germans to, in the words of the Battalions War diary, "to get in between the waves and cut off the leading ones at the 3rd line of resistance, it was at the 3rd German line that the chief casualties occurred". We do not know what company Samuel served in but the fact that his body was never recovered indicates that he could have been in the first waves. The Battalions casualties numbered 21 Officers and 455 Other Ranks dead, wounded or missing but, as the War Diary notes, some of the missing "eventually rejoined the Battalion during the following night". Samuel is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, he was 21 years old.