When people think of Britain’s involvement in the Battle of the Somme, they usually remember the 57,470 British casualties on the disastrous first day.
But one of the next stages of the battle, though smaller in scale, is just as replete with courage and self-sacrifice.
DOUBLING DOWN: BUILDING UP TO BATTLE
On July 1, British and German lines had largely faced each other over a north-south axis, but at one point, the German line, tracing the high ground, had edged back at the village of Fricourt, and instead run east-west for about two and a half miles.
Because the British successes that had occurred on July 1 were over this east-west axis, British commanders aimed to keep up pressure on the Germans in this sector. To this end, the 38 Welsh Division was sent in to clear Mametz Wood (just north of Mametz village).
In typical Great War fashion, the battle, meant as a routine assault to last a few hours, turned into a miniature battle in itself, lasting from July 7 to July 12, and seeing the division take about 4,000 casualties.
The 38 (Welsh) Division assault Mametz Wood
To the east of the Welshmen, the 30, 9, and 18 Divisions had launched attacks to capture Trones Wood, holding off savage German counter-attacks.
The sacrifice and bravery of the Welshmen in the west, and determination of their comrades to the east, had forced the Germans back. It had also put the rest of the Commonwealth forces in the sector within spitting distance of the German second line, which Field Marshal Haig knew he’d have to smash in order to achieve a breakthrough.
The next phase of the battle would be the Battle of Bazentin Ridge. The line of attack for July 14 extended from Bazentin-le-Petit Wood in the east, to Delville Wood in the west.
THE NEXT BIG PUSH
In his recent account ‘Somme: Into the Breach’, Hugh Sebag-Montefiore combines detailed analysis of the next stage of the battle, with harrowing eye-witness accounts.
Unlike July 1, the logistics of this attack were far better applied. Zero hour was to be at 3:25am, with troops using the cover of darkness beforehand to assemble in no-man’s-land. Tape, run parallel to any nearby features such as roads running towards the German lines, was used for reference. More white tape, run at right angles, signalled assembly points.
Once troops were in position, they waited, no doubt apprehensively, for the pre-assault artillery barrage.
An artillery barrage, this one most likely a German attack on Allied trenches during the Second Battle of Ypres
Unlike July 1, the relative lack of heavy guns and one-third of shells that failed to detonate were not as much of a problem. The intention at this point was to stun the German defenders with a rapid barrage, rather than try to finish them off entirely using the artillery.
1,627,824 shells had been fired by the British in the lead up to July 1. Although impressive in scale, their 1,500 guns were spread quite thinly over a frontage of 25,000 yards. On July 14th, they had 1,000 guns deployed over just 6,000 yards.
In fact, the original plan had been to bombard the Germans with artillery for 30 minutes before the attack commenced, but the 9th Division’s gunners, mindful of their brothers in the infantry, pointed out that this time-frame might give the Germans time to retaliate with their own artillery, killing the soldiers waiting in no-man’s-land. Instead, a short hurricane bombardment was proposed, and they opened fire as planned at 3:20, five minutes before the attack.
Neil Fraser-Tytler, a Royal Artillery observer, described the moment his guns opened up:
“It was a stupendous spectacle! The darkness lit up by thousands of gun flashes. The flicker of countless bursting shells along the northern skyline, followed by a few minutes later by a succession of frantic SOS rockets and the glare of burning Hun ammunition dumps”.
The barrage worked, and troops of the 7 and 21 Divisions (of XV Corps) and the 3 and 9 Divisions (of XIII Corps) pounced on Bazentin Ridge. They captured Bazentine-le-Grand and Bazentine-le-Grand Wood, as well as Bazentin-le-Petit and Bazentine-le-Petit Wood, and some of the village of Longueval, though the British could not force the Germans out of the northern section of the village.
Major John Bates, a doctor with the 8 Black Watch in the 9 Division, described the back-and-forth action at Longueval.
“During that first morning after we attacked I was in a trench when a [shell]… burst exactly over my head.”
“My servant, a yard on one side of me, was wounded, and my orderly, a yard the other side was killed outright. I then jumped into a shell hole to attend to two fellows wounded.
“I went back to the trench 20 yards away for some gauze, and while I was getting it, an enormous shell landed in the hole I had just left and blew the two wounded men to bits and killed my corporal, who I had left there.”
Likewise, the north-west corner of Bazentin-le-Petit Wood bedevilled the 21 Division. In the middle, the 7 and 3 Divisions had been largely successful. Officers from the 3 Division wandered northwards to High Wood without seeing any resistance. However, these infantry units had been ordered to await cavalry to exploit any breakthrough.
The 2 Indian Cavalry Division had been assigned the job of supporting a breakthrough in this sector, but, assembling at Morlancourt, four miles to the south of Albert, they’d found it difficult to get horses through slippery ground pitted with shell holes, and didn’t arrive at Montauban until midday.
General Horne, commander of XIII Corps, received an erroneous report that all of Longueval had been captured, and ordered the 7 Division forward to High Wood at 5:15 pm, with the cavalry to cover its right flank.
The 2 Indian Cavalry Division
The infantry found very little in the way of resistance in the south of High Wood, but were held up when they encountered the bulk of the German defenders in the north.
The 7 Dragoon Guards galloped to their aid, the Guards’ history describing the action:
“All B Squadron had their lances unslung. The rest drew their swords…”
“After a couple of hundred yards (Lieutenant) Pope and his troop reached a steep bank beyond which lay a field of standing corn…
“Leaping up the bank they wheeled to the right, levelled lances and charged some machine gunners taking cover in… shell holes. About 15 of the enemy were speared.. 32 surrendered. Others fled.”
During unusually kinetic battle, the 7 Dragoons suffered 24 casualties and lost 38 horses (horse casualties for the First World War were incredibly high).
Meanwhile, over the course of the action, the 7, 9, 3, and 21 Divisions had 9,000 casualties between them.
Wounded British soldiers and a wounded German POW leave the battlefield to seek first aid
In addition to the huge losses suffered during the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, the need to sector the right flank to enable pushing on to the German second line opened up another bloody battle in the adjacent Delville Wood (which lasted from July 15th to September 3rd).
Troops in this part of the campaign also suffered heavily. One soldier, Private Alf Mandy, a South African, had his jaw shot off during the third day of the battle at Delville Wood. He describes his ordeal while being treated:
“As soon as I could attract the attention of a nurse, I showed [her] my notebook which stated I had not drunk anything for three days. She came back with a feeding cup, but even that did not quite solve my difficulty. Nor did a normal sized rubber tube fitted onto the spout.
“Fortunately she found a very narrow tube and I whittled it down to a point and gradually worked it down my throat past the obstruction. The nurse then fitted the cup onto the tube and [was consequently able to pour]... liquid down my throat. In that way I was able to slake my terrible thirst and get some liquid foods into my stomach.”
Unfortunately for the men who had given so much, the Battle of the Somme would not be over until November.