Lieutenant John Webster SHANN
10th West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales Own)
Date of birth: 16 May 1894
Date of death: 1 July 1916
Killed in action aged 22
Buried at Fricourt New Military Cemetery Plot C. 13.
John Webster was born in Leeds, the elder son of Silvanus Shann, and his wife, Ann Elizabeth Webster, of 19, Well Close Place, Carlton Hill, Leeds. Silvanus was the son of a coal miner and was employed as a Tailor’s Cutter.
John went to Leeds Grammar School and came up to Christ Church in 1913 as an Exhibitioner.
At the outbreak of war, he joined the 10th West Yorkshire Regiment which was formed at York in September 1914, commencing Service on 1 January 1915. The 10th Battalion formed part of the 17th (Northern) Division, 50th Brigade. The brigade consisted of the 7th East Yorkshire Regiment, 7th Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards), and the 6th Dorset Regiment. After a period of training in Dorset, the battalion (in Division) landed at Boulogne between 12 July, and 14 July 1916. After disembarkation the battalion marched towards the Ypres Salient where it remained for the next 11 months suffering considerable casualties. In preparation for the forthcoming Allied offensive on the Somme, the Division moved south in June 1916. On the 26 June, the 50th Infantry Brigade were placed under the orders of the 21st Division for the attack on the village of Fricourt. The objective of the West Yorkshire's, was to protect the right flank of the 4th Middlesex Battalion, 21st Division, which was expected to be vulnerable to enfilade fire. The village itself had been turned into a veritable fortress both above and below ground. Extensive mining and counter-mining operations had taken place in the area for over a year, first by the French, and then by the British when they took over the sector in September 1915. This mining activity took place in an area known to the British as the 'Tambour,' a salient protruding into the front line and heavily contested due to the field of observation it occupied. Preparations had been made however to deal with this position, and three mine shafts had been driven forward from the British front line by the 178th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers. These mines, from north to south, contained the following charges of ammonol: 9,000lbs, 15,000lbs and 25,000lbs respectively. On detonation, the resulting explosions would not only disrupt the fortified position, but most importantly of all, the resulting 'spoil' thrown upwards would create a 'lip,', many feet high, preventing any enfilade fire from the enemy. The 'Tambour' and the village itself were not to be attacked frontally but, the intention was to 'pinch out these fortified positions by the attacking battalions. The date initially set for the opening of the battle was the 29 June, but due to bad weather, overcast and rain, the date was postponed and the attack was rescheduled to take place on the 1 July.
"Z" Day, Saturday 1 July, 1916.
All along the length of the Somme front, the men of the attacking Divisions waited in their front line trenches for "Zero" Hour which was designated as 7.30 a.m. Prior to the attack, the leading Companies of the 4th Middlesex Battalion, located on the left flank of the West Yorks, had climbed out of their front line trenches to assemble on forming up tapes in No Mans Land. Observed by the enemy, this manoeuvre was met by heavy machine-gun fire resulting in many casualties. Forced back to their own front line trench, the Commanding Officer of the battalion decided to abandon the plan of attack on a company frontage, and elected to send his men over enmasse.
As the West Yorkshire's waited for the signal to attack, the artillery increased their rate of fire onto the enemy positions, supplemented by a 'Hurricane Bombardment' by Trench Mortar Batteries. At 7.28 a.m. (source, Official History), the mines located under the 'Tambour' position were detonated. Evidence would suggest that only two of the charges placed actually detonated. A number of days later, the Royal Engineers salvaged the failed mine and identified that the cause of the failure of the charge to explode was due to 'dampness.'
"Zero" Hour, 7.30 a.m.
As the artillery bombardment 'lifted' from the enemy's front line to concentrate on positions in the rear, "A" and "D" Companies of the West Yorkshire's climbed their parapet and proceeded to advance. These companies crossed No Mans Land relatively unscathed due to the confusion caused by the detonation of the mines in the 'Tambour' and their first objective, 'Konig' Trench, was reached successfully, parties of these two companies then proceeded to press on to the northern edge of Fricourt village.
Following the success of the leading wave, "B" and "C" Companies climbed the parapet and prepared to advance, however, by this time, the enemy had overcome the initial confusion caused by the detonation of the mines in the 'Tambour', and heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, in enfilade, caused severe casualties.
Pressing forward, the men of "A and "D" Companies and survivors of the following waves, proceeded to encounter parties of the enemy, consequently, this attacking force became fragmented. Some, drawn into the fighting that ensued in clearing and bombing their way along communication trenches, became isolated in the area of 'Hare Lane' Trench. Eventually, running out of ammunition and depleted in numbers, these isolated parties were then surrounded, killed or captured.
The 10th Battalion suffered the worst casualties of all infantry battalions engaged on the first day of the Battle of The Somme. The casualties were, 22 Officers and 688 O/R's killed, wounded or missing.
The War Diary of the battalion, no doubt written up many days later as the Adjutant, Lieutenant John Webster Shann was killed in the attack, concludes:
'At 7.30am the Battalion took part in the general assault, on the right was the 7th Division, and on the left the 21st Division. The Battalion assaulted in four waves. Two lines got through to the German positions to the fourth line (of the objective) and were cut off, the attack on our left having failed. Casualties were very heavy, chiefly caused by machine gun fire which enfiladed our left flank, and were so deadly that the third and fourth lines failed to get across No Man's Land.'