Each morning, from the time he entered King Edward VI School in May 1903, CYRIL HOSKINS took the train on the GWR North Warwickshire line from Yardley Wood Station. The station has remained almost untouched over the last one hundred years. The entrance building to the station on Highfield Road and the waiting room remain the same. Cyril enjoyed rugby at School and was Captain of the 1st XV for 1907-1908. Two of his four brothers also attended KES: Herbert Ronald Hoskins (1900-1907 and Captain of the 1st XV 1906-1907), he became a Major in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment; Hugh Gilbert Hoskins (1904-1908) who served as a Private in the 1/8 Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
On leaving KES, Cyril served in the Territorial Force Royal Army Medical Corps, reaching the rank of Sergeant. When his engagement expired and he retired on February 14 1914, he immediately applied for a Territorial Force commission and was made a Lieutenant in the 1/8 Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, Territorial Force based at Aston Manor in Birmingham, in the Warwickshire Brigade of the South Midland Division. Within a month of the outbreak of war, it had moved to the Chelmsford area for the intensive training that would prepare it for action on the Western Front. On March 22 1915 the battalion sailed from Southampton and disembarked the following day at Le Havre, where they paraded for inspection by the Commander of II Corps, Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien.
Following two weeks of intensive training Hoskins and the Brigade entered the trenches at Steenbeck on April 16. Although they had a fairly gently introduction to battle conditions when they were lightly shelled, the Brigade suffered its first casualties.
On April 30, Cyril Hopkins was conducting instruction in the field in the use of hand grenades when one of them exploded. Two of his men were killed and two others were wounded. In accordance with procedures, a court of inquiry was called ‘upon casualties caused by the accidental explosion of a hand grenade.’ The conclusion was that the grenade had been defective, the accident had arisen in the course of duty and no blame was attached to any individual. Hoskins had been wounded in the left ankle, seriously enough for him to leave his unit and return to England four days later on the SS Carisbrooke Castle. A medical board sitting in the Caxton Hall in Westminster granted him sick leave. On June 3 the medical board at No. 1 General Hospital Birmingham pronounced him fit for general service, and five days later he was back in France.
There followed a long period of undramatic activity for the Battalion, with the usual alternation of short periods in the front trenches succeeded by periods of training, rest and working parties, and further periods in the support trenches. They were not called upon to mount or support a major attack, although a number of small raids and minor thrusts were carried out. Their main hazards were artillery shells and snipers.
With a brief period in Ploegsteert Wood, the battalion was mainly to be found in the area around Fonquevillers, south-west of Arras. There was much work done on the strengthening of the trenches. In December, in spite of pumping and bailing, constant heavy rain produced seas of liquid mud, often as thick as caramel and deep enough to drown a man.
By the end of the year, forty men of 1/7th Battalion had been killed. During this time also, and although details are not recorded, Hoskins was wounded a second time.
Decisions were being taken by the politicians and the General Staff was producing plans for the next phase of the war. The French armies were under severe pressure in their sectors and looked to their British allies to launch a major offensive that would draw away German reserves and share more equitably the burden of this very costly warfare – costly in lives and equipment. General Haig was eager to test the mettle of the New Army and to try new tactics to overcome the overwhelming advantages of the defender in most major actions. He had a plan, and he imagined that he had plenty of time. He would wait until the middle of the year when the British soldiers would be better trained, and then, with forty French divisions, they would attack on the Somme – the British to the north, the French to the south. ‘The German line would be battered to pieces by a great weight of shells,’ wrote A.J.P. Taylor, ‘and the infantry would occupy the empty German positions. The cavalry would then go through with bugles blowing and lances glittering.’ He had not accounted for the Battle of Verdun that shattered the French fighting spirit. For four months from February 21 1916, a ferocious and hugely costly battle was fought in a salient of the French line. It bled the French army white.
Nevertheless, the British preparations for ‘a Great Push’ on the Somme continued. In the opening months of 1916, training increasingly concentrated on attack, patrols increased in frequency in many sectors with the object of taking prisoners for interrogation and investigating the effectiveness of enemy defences. Artillery duels too became more frequent. The tempo increased as July approached, the time set for the opening of the Battle of the Somme. The preparations, wrote Edmund Blunden, the author and soldier-poet, ‘were extraordinary. Railways, roads, motor transport, mules, water supply, aircraft, guns, mortars, wire, grenades, timber, rations, camps, telegraphic systems – all multiplied as in some absurd vision. Such monstrous accumulations, and transformations of a countryside which, in the sleepier period of its war, had been called ‘the Garden of Eden’, could not be concealed from the intended victims.’ All through the spring and early summer, the British marched to the Somme.
The woods and lanes behind the line echoed with the songs of so much hope and optimism. ‘Few battles in history,’ says the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, ‘have started with the buoyant confidence shown by the British Army, and no battle can compare to the catastrophic losses suffered by the end of the first day.’
The offensive, ‘the Great Push,’ was due to begin at 7:30am on June 29 and bombardment from 1500 guns and howitzers opened on June 24 1916 on an eighteen-mile front. Edmund Blunden wrote that ‘their sound crossed the sea. In Southdown villages the schoolchildren sat wondering at that incessant drumming and the rattling of the windows. That night, an even greater anxiety than usual forbade wives and mothers to sleep.’ 48 Division occupied a section of the line but was not to attack on the first day. But, fatefully, two of its battalions were detached to form the left wing of the 4 Division assault to the south of Serre, 1/8 Royal Warwickshires forming the first wave, with 1/6 in support. The whole British action was postponed for two days, but at 2:00am on July 1 the Battalion was reported present in the forming up trenches, and by 4:30am the men had had a good breakfast, encouraged by the strength of the British bombardment and assured that the German wire had been cut. It had pitted the ground so heavily with shell craters as to make orderly advance impossible. By 7:00am the artillery battle was ‘very intense on both sides’ and at five minutes before zero hour, German machine guns swept the British front trenches. The assault troops were already lying on the parapets as the whistles blew and the advance began.
Martin Middlebrook in The First Day on the Somme explained: ‘Suddenly they were in the midst of a storm of machine gun bullets, and men began to twirl round and fall in all kinds of curious ways as they were hit. Although the leading waves had been broken, individual survivors kept their steady, disciplined pace.’ The waves behind them met the same fire and always a few men survived and kept going. ‘Men could hear the German machine guns; they could see, farther along their wave, comrades falling silently into the grass or crying out as bullets struck home; they could sense the fire scything towards them, they suffered a variety of emotions, from astonishment and anger to numbness or absolute terror, but few wavered.’
The Germans everywhere occupied the crests of the hills; the attackers would have to fight their way upwards against a concealed enemy. The Gommecourt salient, north of Albert, where Hoskins was waiting, was a position of great strength and a place of psychological and strategic importance to the Germans – it was their most westerly possession in France and the tree at the furthest projection of Gommecourt Park was called the ‘Kaiser’s Oak.’ Gerald Gliddon in The Battle of the Somme described the ground as having ‘a series of deep chalk pits which gave every advantage to the defender and the Quadrilateral Redoubt (called Heiden Kopf by the Germans after one of their officers) gave a flanking fire along the whole position and bristled with machine guns.’
In Cyril Hoskins’ sector, the German first and second lines were very quickly reached and passed, but they were almost entirely empty. However, British casualties were mounting in the face of machine gun fire from the third and fourth lines of trenches, where the wire in front had not been destroyed by the artillery barrage. A particularly troublesome gun was taken in rushes and the attackers bombed their way forward along trenches and reached their objective at about 8:15am, forty minutes since zero hour. They at once consolidated the position and began to clean their rifles, as the men of 1/16, greatly depleted, began to arrive. Unable to advance, they helped with the consolidation. Repeatedly German bombers drove them from their position, but each time they were able to counter-attack and regain it until their supply of bombs ran out. They retreated to the third line and held on with rifles and machine guns. Small parties gathered up all the bombs of both sides that they could find, and the fourth line was regained.
No communications had been established with the rear and no fresh supplies appeared. German snipers and machine guns dominated, and the Battalion could only hold on until it was finally relieved by a reserve battalion from the rear at 7:30pm, and withdrew to billets in Mailly-Maillet. Night fell upon a disaster never equalled in British Army history.
It was only at roll call the following morning that the full extent of the disaster became clear. The Battalion Commander and seven other officers – amongst them Lieutenant Cyril Hoskins – had been killed, aged 25, twelve were wounded, one missing and one a prisoner of war. Of the other ranks, 57 were killed, 255 wounded and 251 missing. In the grim table of battalions with over 500 casualties on July 1, 1/8 Royal Warwickshire Regiment was eighth. July 1 was the end of so much optimism and so much hope. Dismay at the lack of success, bitterness at the deaths, the apparent futile deaths of so many men. Disenchantment, it was said, had come quickly to the British soldiers fighting on the Somme. The outbreak of the Somme, wrote Blunden, may be described as a tremendous question mark. By the end of the day both sides had seen, ‘in a sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men,’ the answer to that question. ‘No road. No thoroughfare. Neither race had won, nor could win, the war. The war had won, and would keep on winning.’
The dead lay beneath their crosses on a hundred hillsides. The stones are the symbols of who knows what unfulfilled promise.
The body of Cyril Hoskins was never found. He became part of what Vera Brittain called ‘that singular wasteful and inefficient orgy of slaughter.’ He is commemorated on the great Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. Easily visible for miles, the colossal arched memorial sits high on the ridge just off the main Bapaume to Albert road. On the panels are the names of more than 73,000 men who have no known grave. Cyril is also remembered in the Memorial Library at King Edward VI School.