On 18 November, the final day of the Battle of the Somme, the 97th Infantry Brigade were charged with capturing portions of the German front and support lines on Redan Ridge. At 6.10 a.m. the British barrage commenced and the men advanced across no-man’s-land in driving sleet, headed for enemy positions. Despite some of the soldiers reaching the German line, they were unable to hold it with any sort of numbers and by dusk all remaining soldiers had been pushed back by the enemy, or so it was thought. As war was declared against Germany, George Higginson, a 28-year-old teacher from Tenbury in Worcestershire, had applied for a commission. At the time there were more applicants than openings and many men impatiently enlisted in the interim. George did so as a private into the 19th Royal Fusiliers at Westminster in September 1914, offering two years’ previous experience in 2nd Warwick Volunteer Regiment, and until his commission came through in December 1914, George underwent training with the 19th Royal Fusiliers at their camp in Woodcote Park, Epsom.
In December 1914 George was commissioned into the 12th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers as a Second Lieutenant. The battalion remained in Britain undergoing further training until eventually landing in France in September 1915. Less than two months later, George was injured by an explosion during grenade instruction at Bayonvillers on the Somme. During the instruction a grenade detonated accidentally, killing one soldier and wounding George and another officer. The extent of the injuries to George’s right arm was so severe he was evacuated home for treatment. A Medical Board hearing at the 1st Southern General Hospital, Birmingham, on 17 November 1915, noted that George’s arm had healed sufficiently that he was fit for active service, but he was still suffering from deafness. After leaving the hospital, George was transferred into a different battalion of his regiment. Since their arrival in France in November 1915, the 16th Lancashire Fusiliers spent most of their time in the Somme region, apart from a brief spell between August and November 1916.
On Redan Ridge, unknown to the British, a party of 120 men from the 97th Brigade – a mixture of 11th Borders, 16th Highland Light Infantry and 2nd King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry – still held a portion of Frankfurt Trench and remained there in isolation, with the enemy completely unaware of their presence. This didn’t last for long and on 20 November the Germans launched their first attack, which was beaten off by the beleaguered troops. The following day an NCO and one of the men from the trapped party broke back through the German lines and alerted the British to their predicament. An attempt later that night to bring back the marooned troops failed as the rescuers were unable to breach the German front line. By this time, the occupiers had run out of food and rations and so some of the stranded men volunteered and were sent back out over the enemy front line and into no-man’s-land to take supplies from the bodies of dead soldiers.
On 22 November a pilot from 15th Squadron flew over the trapped soldiers and signalled ‘CI Tonight’, which was quite possibly an instruction telling them to ‘Come In Tonight’. His plane was seen by the stricken men, who waved flags at him, but the pilot was unsure whether they had seen or read his signal. He also noted that the trench in which the men were holding out was practically destroyed. Later that morning two other men from the trapped group managed to make it back to British lines and confirmed that the remaining soldiers would make an attempt to break out later that evening. Their attempt never materialised, despite men from their brigade being positioned 200 yards from the German lines to assist their dash for freedom. A second German attack was repelled on the 23rd, although by now the situation for the stranded men was becoming perilous. Over half of them were wounded and the lack of supplies was becoming desperate.
Whilst all this was happening, on 19 November, George Higginson and the 16th Lancashire Fusiliers moved into the British lines opposite the German trenches where the stricken men were isolated. After the failure to break out from the German lines, it was decided that another rescue attempt should be mounted.
At 2.40 a.m. on 23 November, orders were issued that 240 men from the 16th Lancashire Fusiliers and 60 men from the 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers would attempt to assist the soldiers trapped in Frankfurt Trench. The men were to form up in four waves. The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers would protect the right flank, while two waves of the Lancashire Fusiliers were to reach the Munich Trench and hold it, allowing a third, commanded by George, to push on through the Frankfurt Trench and rescue the stricken British soldiers.
Zero hour was 3.30 p.m. George and his Lancashire Fusiliers,along with the 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, advanced under the cover of an intense artillery barrage. Initial progress was encouraging. Munich Trench, the German front line, was reached and occupied without too much opposition. Once inside, the attacking troops bunched up in places with the result that the trench was not occupied continuously. These gaps enabled the Germans to emerge from their dug-outs to launch counter-attacks against the British. Fierce fighting at close quarters took place:
‘About 20 of the enemy, including one Officer were bayonetted.’
Despite the ensuing maelstrom, George and some men from the second wave of the Lancashire Fusiliers managed to cross the Munich Trench and head towards Frankfurt in search of their trapped comrades.
Intense German machine-gun fire and the fact that a second wave of the 16th Lancashire Fusiliers appeared to get caught up in their own barrage ensured no further progress was made. Reports suggested that George and some of his men made it 150 yards beyond Munich Trench. Shortly afterwards George was seen to fall. German machine-gun fire drove the rest of the soldiers back and, in the retirement, casualties were heavy. This brave attempt to rescue the isolated troops had failed and had caused a further 231 casualties in the process. On 29 November, George Higginson’s already widowed mother received a telegram from the War Office informing her that her son was missing, believed killed.
Immediately after the attack, the army received information that pointed to George being wounded and wrote to his mother passing on this information. The authorities then began making enquiries in an attempt to clarify what had happened. Statements were taken from seven soldiers who attacked alongside George and the contradictory nature of some of these statements revealed how difficult it was to accurately recall events that took place under extreme conditions. A Private Gordon said that he and Lieutenant Higginson were both near the German third line when George was hit. Sergeant Ablett said that the officer was shot at some point between the first and second German lines. Private Kane had a slightly different recollection, saying that George was hit by a British shell. Private Thorne concurred with Ablett, saying that Higginson had been hit by a bullet in the chest between the German first and second lines. Sergeant Ferber said that he had been informed by a stretcher bearer that George was killed by shellfire shortly after going over the top. Private Conrad, who by this time was a prisoner of war, managed to confirm via the Red Cross that he had seen George get badly hit in the attack. Finally, a Sergeant Holt said that Higginson was between the German first and second lines when he was shot by a machine gun. When Holt went to his assistance he found that George was already dead and so he dragged him into a shell hole and covered him with a waterproof sheet.
The majority of the army enquiries appeared to corroborate the information that they had received shortly after the attack: that George Higginson was shot and killed in the attack on 23 November somewhere between Munich and Frankfurt Trenches. On 20 March 1917, the War Office wrote again to George’s mother, sending their deep regrets, but informing her that they had received a report:
‘Lieutenant G.N. Higginson 16th Lancashire Fusiliers, who was previously reported “Missing, believed killed”, is now reported to have been killed in action on November 23rd, 1916.’
George’s body was recovered in March 1917 and he was laid to rest in Waggon Road Cemetery, C.3. The men stranded in the German trench were never rescued and managed to hold out for another couple of days. By the time that they came to surrender, after another severe enemy attack, only 15 unwounded soldiers were able to stagger out of Frankfurt Trench and hand themselves over to the Germans.
This is exclusive bonus material related to Somme: 141 Days, 141 Lives by Alexandra Churchill and Andrew Holmes