Percy Robert MARSHALL
Rank: Private
Number: 34855
Unit: 17th Battalion MANCHESTER REGIMENT
Date of Death: 12 October 1916
Age: 36
Cemetery: Warlencourt British Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France

Almost nothing is known about Percy. He had been born in Stockport and his brother, Harold, still lived in the town at 106 Oliver Street. Some time prior to the Great War, Percy had moved to live in Withington.

Percy's service number suggests that, in the spring of 1915, he went to a recruiting office in Manchester and joined up. He will have gone overseas in the summer of 1916, as part of draft of troops replacing casualties from then on-going Battle of the Somme. The 17th was the second of the city's "Pals" battalions but, although the new replacements were not friends or colleagues as were the original members, many were still from Manchester and the surrounding area.

It's very probable that he was killed in his first time in a major attack. On 11 October, the Battalion went into the front line north of the Somme village of Flers in preparation for a large scale attack the next day. Five Army Divisions - around 90,000 men would take part.

"C" and "D" Companies would form the first two waves and attack on a front approximately 400 yards wide (i.e. about 6 foot between each man) and 150 yards between each wave. "A" and "B" Companies would follow. The assault was planned to take place under cover of machine gun fire from selected positions, Lewis guns which were to be pushed forward providing covering fire and a creeping artillery bombardment. The bombardment would not start until Zero hour so as to give no warning to the enemy.

Major Whitehead, commanding the Battalion, issued orders "the greatest care must be taken to keep very low and quiet in the trenches. Bayonets will not be fixed until 2 minutes before Zero, in case there is any error in timing. Men must be ready to fix."

As the men "went over the top", at zero hour of 2.05pm, the Germans immediately opened up with heavy machine gun fire. Whitehead's description of the attack was contained in a report he wrote for his superior officer:-

"The first, second and third waves of our right flank were mown down as soon as they crossed their parapet and within 50 yards of their front line trench, by enfilade fire. CSM Ham, who went over with the third wave, returned and, on his own initiative, ordered the fourth wave to remain in the front line trenches and garrison same in case of counter-attack.

My left flank came under heavy machine gun fire also, but pushed on and succeeded in occupying a shallow enemy trench about 100 yards to the front. There they were held up and all officers being out of action, the men ("D" Coy) joined up with those of the 2nd Bedford regiment.

'B' Coy, under Capt. Sidebotham, formed the third and fourth wave on the left flank. They suffered few casualties in reaching the enemy front line. This was reported as being little damaged and not very deep. Men could see over it to fire. Capt. Sidebotham was looking over the parados to the enemy second line trench when he was shot through the head. At this point, Lt Dawson took command of the two platoons forming the third wave and entrenched himself."

At 6.30pm, the 17th was withdrawn from the front line. The attack was acknowledged to be a failure with the loss of 12 officers and 213 other ranks (of whom 59, including Percy, were fatalities).

Whitehead's report concluded "While regretting the circumstances which were the cause of the failure to seize and hold our objectives, may I point out that out of 12 Company officers who led men into action, seven were killed and five wounded; that the NCOs found themselves face to face with a situation which has seldom occurred in the whole history of the British Army and for which their short and hurried training rendered them unsuited and unprepared."

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