Tom Edwin ADLAM, V.C.
Although his service record is still held by the Ministry
of Defence, I have pieced together his life and military service
as best as I can. The bio below, especially the story of the action
he won his V.C. in is based on a mixture of many sources and is
as accurate as I can portray.
Tom Edwin Adlam was born at Waterloo Gardens in Salisbury,
on the 21st October 1893, the son of John and Evangeline Adlam.
Following his education at Bishop Wordsworth's School, Salisbury,
he was training to be a teacher and joined the Territorial Force
in September 1912. When war broke out in August 1914, Tom Adlam
was embodied for service and had worked his way up to Sergeant when
commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Bedfordshire Regiment
in November 1915. He joined the regiment at Sittingbourne, Kent,
and was soon moved to and trained as Bombing Officer as he had the
unusual tlent of being able to throw Mills bombs '40 yards' with
both arms, which he put down to years spent playing cricket.
The 7th battalion served with distinction on the Western
Front and had suffered heavy losses since the opening day of the
battle of the Somme on the 1st July 1916. They had been in the front
assaulting waves on that notorious day, which saw them storm and
hold the German positions on the southern edges of the battlefield.
Not only had they been one of the few British battalions to successfully
get into the German trenches, but they had taken the front three
lines of enemy trenches as well as the heavily fortified and stubborn
Pommiers Redoubt that bristled with machine guns. Two weeks later
they were again mauled during the assault on the deadly Trones Wood,
after which battle a further draft of reinforcements saw the new
Second Lieutenant Tom Adlam join them in the field on the 18th July
1916. He was posted to C Company and, other than two weeks in August
spent in the front lines opposite Lille, spent the period leading
up to the storming of Thiepval and the Schwaben Redoubt in reserve
positions. Here the battalion initially rested after their ordeal
on the Somme, then started training for their involvement in the
Somme battles that September.
Tom joined what he called a 'very
happy platoon' and remarked how he was never bitten by a
bug during his time on the Western Front, although his impression
of it all was that it could be 'bloody
awful at times'. His mother died while he was on the front
that summer but as the burial and service would have been finished
by the time he returned to England, he chose to remain with his
platoon. This innocuous decision would ensure he was with the battalion
while they stormed Thiepval and the Schwaben
Redoubt, otherwise he would not have been with them during
the action that saw him win the Victoria Cross.
In what would go down in the Regimental annuls as
one of the finest military feats of the battalion's impressive involvements
in the war, the 54th Brigade were 'wound
up' to take on the defensive positions around Thiepval with
the 7th battalion assigned to assault the 'impregnable'
and formidable defensive work called the Schwaben
Redoubt once the village itself had fallen.
Thiepval stood on a high ridge that dominated the surrounding countryside.
The fortified village itself sat in the middle and on either shoulder
of the ridge the defenders had built redoubts to repel any attempts
to overrun the ridge. These redoubts were complex tangles of barbed
wire, trenches, reinforced machine gun posts and dugouts in which
the defenders could shelter from shelling. The Ulstermen of the
36th Division, despite the bravest of attempts, had failed to hold
it on the 1st July when they were assigned the unenviable task of
assaulting it and had almost been wiped out in the process. Early
in September the relatively inexperienced Territorial troops of
the 49th (West Yorkshire) Division had also failed to take it but
the shoulders of the ridge had finally been captured. After almost
three months of horrific battles and casualty levels, the now highly
experienced 54th Brigade were moved up overnight to make yet another
attempt at taking the carefully crafted positions high on the Thiepval
Taken standing on the site of the front trench of the Schwaben
Redoubt, looking towards Thiepval Memorial on the left and Thiepval
Wood on the right
The assault on Thiepval - 26th and 27th September 1916.
On the morning of the 26th Tom Adlam and the battalion were moved
through a heavy German barrage that ringed Thiepval and held in
reserve as the other three battalions of the 54th Brigade assaulted
the fortified village. At 12.30pm, after a creeping barrage that
got the troops to within striking distance of the German front lines,
the Brigade launched themselves at the village. Their first objective
fell, being to reach the road running east-west through the village,
but no further progress could be made so the survivors dug in and
protected their gains. At 1am on the 27th the Bedfords were issued
orders to prepare to assault the untaken northern portion of the
village and at 2am the battalion officers held a conference in the
Chateau to discuss their plans.
Trench map showing the before
and after front lines from the storming of Thiepval village
The route to the front line was extremely unclear,
the ground was unknown and the battalion were given no time to prepare
for the assault. Nevertheless they set about their task and at 5.30am
on an extremely dark morning that caused the assaulting companies
a lot of trouble when forming up, the battalion shook themselves
into two assaulting lines facing the northern section of the village.
With D Company still forming up on the left in the growing light,
Tom Adlam and C Company on the right charged across the open road,
swept into the village despite heavy machine gun and rifle fire.
D Company, who could not get into position until 6.50am soon followed
on in support and by 8am they took the remaining part of the village.
In a bloody, confused fight in the dark over 100 Germans were killed
by rifle fire and bayonets and 36 were taken prisoner, almost all
of which were wounded so could not fight on. Each house was heavily
fortified and resembled a mini fortress in itself so had to be taken
by the point of the bayonet and hidden machine gun nests were charged
and overcame one by one. Vicious bombing duels prised stubborn German
defenders from their hiding places and few of them surrendered even
when their positions were hopeless. Despite the apparent odds being
in the Germans favour, the Bedfords' training, elan and sheer bloody
mindedness won the day.
A and B Companies quickly moved up and helped fortify
the newly won line in readiness for German counter attacks as the
3 other mauled battalions were withdrawn to supporting areas, out
of range of the German artillery that soaked the area. 2 Officers
and 110 men from the battalion became casualties in the assault,
which, considering the positions they took, was a remarkably light
toll. After almost three months of a determined and skilled defence,
the German strongpoint of Theipval had fallen and the Bedfords were
not about to let it be retaken. The fall of the village allowed
for the assault of the second line of German defences high on the
crest of the ridge, which included the formidable Schwaben Redoubt.
The battalion's C.O., when writing his report of
the day's operations was full of praise for his men who had once
again triumphed despite the most difficult of conditions. He wrote
"... is rare proof that the discipline,
determination and morale of the men was of a very high order. In
my opinion the ensuing operations, successful though they were,
in no way compares with those of the 26/27th"
The assault against the Schwaben Redoubt - 28th and
29th September 1916.
Overnight Second Lieutenant Adlam and the now exhausted
men worked like fury to prepare for their assault on the 'impregnable'
positions on the 28th, fully aware what the redoubt had done to
all battalions and their attempts to assault it before. By noon
on the 28th the battalion were ready, with A and B Companies in
the assaulting waves and D Company assigned to clear the dugouts.
C Company, including Tom Adlam, was held in close support ready
to be pushed in should the going get too tough for the assaulting
waves. Adlam recalled how the men stood around chatting, smoking
and telling dirty jokes as they waited, even remembering how a 'particulary
unpleasent smell' left over from previous fighting was written
off as someone having an accident in their trousers, to the great
amusement of the waiting soldiers!
With the Queen's battalion from the 53rd Brigade
to their immediate right and supporting fire provided from the British
trenches on their exposed left flank the battalion formed up for
the assault and at 1pm the barrage soaked German positions. The
relatively new concept of the 'Creeping
Barrage' was employed, meaning that the line being bombarded
would be moved back 100 yards at pre arranged intervals. Whilst
the barrage was pounding German positions, very little fire was
experienced by the battalion as they formed and advanced to within
50 yards of the inferno being unleashed on German trenches but as
soon as it lifted every machine gun left intact opened up on them.
A Company on the right made for the cemetery but their
right hand platoon were wiped out to the man by German machine gunners
who mowed them down from the redoubt at the top of the ridge. The
Queen's battalion also veered into the Bedfords line of advance,
forcing A Company further to the left and away from the cemetery
where they met stiff machine gun fire from German positions on their
left flank. Those who could not reach the relative safety of the
German trench running back towards the second line went to ground
and, when Tom Adlam and the supporting waves came along, were swept
with them towards the redoubt. Back at Battalion HQ in the village
the adjutant, Captain Bridcutt, noticed a large group of Germans
lining the parados of a trench running to their rear through his
recently discovered German periscope and ordered a collection of
cooks, signallers, runners and servants to fire on them. The Germans
were quickly scattered and sent running back in the direction of
St. Pierre Divion, thus allowing the right side to get their assault
B Company on the left made quicker progress and reached
the German trenches almost immediately. Much of their section of
trench fell within the first 15 minutes as they quickly killed,
captured and routed the defenders before they could establish a
Adlam himself remarked that they advanced right on
the heels of the barrage and when they were at around 50 yards from
a huge crater just in front of the main redoubt, they found it was
lined with Germans who opened up on them with all they had. The
company went to ground and Adlam sought the Company O.C. in another
shell hole, nicknamed Father, to
debate what the best course of action was. He decided to 'have
a go at getting in' to the German trenches, to which Father
solemnly shook his hand before departing, expecting to not see him
Having played a lot of cricket, Tom had a stronger
than normal arm and was capable of throwing grenades further than
most. The men fed him with bombs and he threw them from his shell
hole until it was feasible to rush the surviving defenders. Moving
in short burts, his platoon made it into the German trench and,
charging along the trench 'like a lot
of mad things', they bombed the more stubborn German posts
including a well defended machine gun position.
On arriving at a second machine gun post which was
causing havoc among the attacking troops, Adlam had already run
out of bombs but his platoon collected every German stick grenade
they could lay their hands on. Stacking them up next to him, Adlam
threw one after another in a continuous stream, silencing the post
and allowing his platoon to clear it with their bayonets, before
moving on to clear the entire section of trench in the process.
Lieutenant Adlam was wounded in his throwing arm during
the phase that saw them pushing through the heavily defended trench
but he simply reverted to using his other arm which was just as
effective! He led his men from the front and continually bombed
their way deeper into the German first line positions, remarking
how even the gentlest and calmest men in his platoon lost both personal
control and all shreds of mercy whilst in the heat of a battle like
the one they were embroiled in. Once cleared, they started moving
along the trenches towards the next line of trenches but many of
the sections had been blown in by the artillery barrage, making
their journey even more hazardous.
By 3pm both parties were in the second line of German
trenches as well as the redoubt itself and started bombing their
way along the heavily protected trenches yard by yard. Section after
section fell and defensive posts were established to repel any German
counter attacks aimed at them.
At about 4pm the shortage of Mills Bombs was getting
acute so parties quickly salvaged German grenades for use in their
defensive battles to come. The situation was precarious as the Queen's
to their right had not reached their objectives, leaving the Bedfords
isolated and vulnerable. A long section of trench to the right of
the battalion was not known to be in British hands so, with no bombs
available, the Bedfords started to clear that section using just
determination and their bayonets.
When the C.O. arrived in Adlam's section he insisted
Tom retired due to his wounds, so he retired, escorting a dozen
POW's to the rear when he went back.
By 7.15pm the redoubt was more secure but neither
bombs nor water had arrived and the casualties were mounting. Captain
Keep on the extreme left cleared a disputed section of trench and
managed to link up with the West Yorkshire's, thus consolidating
that flank somewhat. When supplies of bombs arrived at 9pm the battalion
knew they had a chance of holding the position despite there still
being no water. All that night bombing duels raged all along the
redoubt as parties of Germans tried desperately to regain the position
before British reinforcements could scramble through the barrage
now swamping the areas around the ridge.
Trench map showing the
before and after front lines from the assault on the Schwaben Redoubt
Around midnight a Company from the West Yorkshires
reinforced the battered battalion and officer patrols were started
to keep the exhausted survivors awake. One point at the northernmost
end of their position was lost early in the morning to a massive
bombing attack under cover of smoke but by daylight on the 29th,
the redoubt had been held. At 6am relief came and section by section,
the utterly exhausted and desperately thirsty men were sent back
to assembly points in reserve at Thiepval.
After all their efforts and sacrifice, a significant
foothold had been established in the formidable Schwaben
Redoubt. It would be weeks later that the Cambridgeshires,
Black Watch, Hertfordshires and other British battalions would take
the trenches on the reverse of the hill, but, for now, the front
of the redoubt was in British hands. As in numerous other battles,
single trench lines were now shared between British and German forces
with bomb stops and barricades put in place to keep one another
in check. But for now the expensive gains atop Thiepval Ridge were
consolidated and held.
In his battle report the battalion C.O. could not
praise his men enough. One of the comments made said; "As
inevitable, the question of water was one of extreme difficulty,
by far the larger majority of the men fought on without fluid of
any sort from Zero. The courage, resolution & endurance displayed
by all ranks was quite wonderful. They were out to kill and the
Battlefield is a witness that they carried out to the full their
intentions. Even when the Battalion had been relieved by the R.W.K.
and volunteers were called for in the event of a counter attack
being successful on the ground they had so dearly won the preceding
day, every man declared his willingness to return at once if needed."
As with the assault on the Pommiers
Redoubt on the 1st July, the battalion had once again performed
an incredible feat in taking the Schwaben
Redoubt. Personal congratulatory messages poured in from
everyone from Sir Douglas Haig downwards. Dozens of gallantry awards
were handed out in the coming weeks and months which included a
well earned Victoria Cross for 2nd Lieutenant Tom Adlam, as well
as many D.S.O.'s, D.C.M.'s and dozens of Military Crosses and Military
Medals. Unfortunately over 100 Officers and men lost their lives
during the assaults on Thiepval and the Schwaben Redoubt with around
300 more being wounded.
The Brigade's commanding Officer visited the remnants
of the battalion on the 1st October and said "The
7th Bn. Bedfordshires were one of the best fighting battalions it
was possible to find & he was very proud to have such a battalion
under his command" The War Diary added that "he
particularly referred to the severe fighting & the daring manner
they had snatched from the Bosch a position they boasted of being
"impregnable & impossible for the English to take".
An 'artists' impression'
of the assault
Second Lieutenant Adlam's Victoria Cross was gazetted
in the London Gazette on the 25th November 1916. It reads:
"Second Lieutenant 7th
Bn, Bedfordshire Regiment. For most conspicuous bravery. A portion
of a village which had defied capture had to be taken at all costs,
to permit subsequent operations to develop. This minor operation
came under very heavy machine-gun and rifle fire. Second Lieutenant
Adlam, realising that time was all-important, rushed from shell-hole
to shell-hole under heavy fire, collecting men for a sudden rush,
and for this purpose also collected many enemy grenades. At this
stage he was wounded in the leg, but nevertheless he was able to
out-throw the enemy, and then seizing his opportunity, and in spite
of his wound, he led a rush, captured the position and killed the
Lieutenant Adlam was in Colchester recovering when
news of his VC reached him. No one had mentioned him even being
proposed for a medal but he returned to the Orderley Room from a
night out only to find himself swamped with telegrams. Calling his
father to ask what everyone was congratulating him for and why newspaper
people wanted to get his photograph, his father was the one to give
him the news!
Although I am unable to confirm this due to the lack
of a service record, Tom Adlam does not appear to have served on
the front lines after this battle, at least not within the Bedfordshire
Regiment. He was transferred into the newly formed Royal Air Force
and ready for embarkation to Singapore when news of the Armistice
came. Being stationed in Cambridge, he joined the celebrations and,
getting carried away, climbed the flagpole in the main market square.
In his interview he revealed he was more terrified then than at
any stage of his assault against the Redoubt but could not climb
down and lose face!
After the war he served in Ireland and continued to
have connections with Sandy in Bedfordshire, where he was the first
chairman of the local British Legion branch between 1922 and 1926.
Later he moved back to Wiltshire and became headmaster of the village
school in Blackmoor, Hampshire, where he lived with his wife Ivy
and their four children.
World War 2 saw him recalled, serving in the Royal
Engineers movement control section as Embarkation Commandant at
Tilbury, and later in Glasgow, after which he returned to family
Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Adlam,
V.C., circa 1945. (Source; The Shiney Seventh, edited by Martin
After a full and relatively long life Tom Adlam died
on the 28th May 1975, during a family holiday on Hayling Island,
Hampshire. He was 81 years old and is buried in St Matthew's Churchyard,
Blackmoor, near Liss in Hampshire.
The Regiment displayed his medals until recently,
but since the 27th September 2003 his medals and a gold watch presented
to him on his return from France have been on display in Salisbury's
Silver Cabinet in the Grand Jury Room at the Guildhall.
The Imperial War Museum Sound Archive
interview, reference 35.