Meredith Magniac: New look at Hitchin officer’s Somme hell in book by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore
A historian has described his work researching the role played on the Battle of the Somme’s first day by troops led by an officer from Hitchin.
Lt-Col Meredith Magniac, known to friends as ‘the maniac’, was in command of the 1st Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers on the northernmost flank of 86 Brigade on July 1, 1916.
The 36-year-old officer, a first-class cricketer before the war, had taken part in both evacuations during the Gallipoli campaign. He was killed in France in 1917.
The actions he orchestrated north of the village of Beaumont Hamel became some of the best-known of the Somme’s first day – partly because of the famous 1916 Battle of the Somme film.
Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, author of the book Somme: Into the Breach, told the Comet how he had pored through war diaries at the National Archives at Kew to research the story of Lt-Col Magniac and his Fusiliers’ attack on the Somme’s first day.
“Stills taken of the battalion waiting for zero hour have become an iconic image of the battle,” said Hugh, 62.
“That made me determined to find out as much as possible about the Lancashire Fusiliers’ attacks.
“Fortunately the war diary for the 29th Division’s 86 Brigade, to which Magniac reported, contained the whole story – and this, buttressed by the Lancashire Fusiliers’ war diary, enabled me to write a detailed account.”
Lt-Col Magniac, who had 75 men and an officer in a sunken road in No Man’s Land after the hellish initial attack, was evidently horrified to be ordered to advance against the German machine guns again after 12 noon.
He wrote back advising his lack of troops, but did not receive a new order calling off his advance until too late. He ordered an officer with 25 men to move up from the front line to the sunken road, ahead of a 100-man do-or-die assault on the German front line.
Raked by the German guns, only the officer and four men got to the sunken road. Magniac duly called off his planned attack.
Describing his research, Hugh said: “I was fortunate in finding one of Magniac’s men had written a dramatic account, including that scene where Magniac calls for a signaller to request reinforcements – only for him to be shot down.
“I found that very moving, since it seemed to symbolize the chaotic and doomed nature of the whole attack on July 1, 1916.”
Somme: Into the Breach is published by Penguin and available from most book retailers priced from £7.50.