The Anniversary of the Battle of Bazentin Ridge 14 July 1916

Map of the Battle of Bazentin Ridge

The opening of the Battle of Bazentin Ridge marked the start of the second major phase of planned advances by the British and Commonwealth Allied forces on the Somme in 1916. The Somme offensive has generally been characterised as an utter failure on the part of the military planners to understand the landscape and the nature of trench warfare. Coupled to their perceived unswerving commitment to advancing wave after wave of soldiers in a constant terrible slaughter of attrition, day after day until the last man stood on the field.

It is true that the casualty rates add substance to that perception. Indeed it has well been documented that the first day saw casualties on a tiny strip of French countryside in the tens of thousands from all combatants. But what is less known or appreciated in some areas is that in fact the planners were very much aware of the nature of the battle that they had planned, were indeed ready and willing to adapt the prosecution of the battles with information from the front on progress and casualties; and were certainly able to make changes to the way the offensive progressed based on not just gains on a map, but the terrain that accompanied each village name.

The battle of the Somme opened on a wide front and was largely left to the planning of the British 4th Army under General Rawlinson. With an objective ultimately to take and liberate Bapaume in order to help relieve pressure on the French on the right. Although not the perfect place to launch an offensive, with rolling countryside and the enemy generally on higher (if drier) ground, it was not in any way the quagmire of Flanders.

The Germans had constructed a formidable defensive line. By 1916 the Germans focused more on consolidation of ground gained, rather than further gains of French territory. The British were still fighting a more fluid attack strategy – that being to drive the Germans back to their borders. As a result, German positions were more often than not supported by concrete bunkers, well-supported trench systems and carefully planned machine gun emplacements. The British trenches were more temporary and served more as channels to approach the enemy, rather than strongpoints to hold. This mentality extended to all aspects of the plans for the Somme and an over reliance on troop killing shrapnel over the deep destructive power of high explosive served to render the German positions weakened but by no means the empty wasteland to be occupied at the walk.

Bagpiper on Bazentin Ridge

The first day casualties indeed shocked the High Command and General Haig as the British Supreme Commander, ordered some immediate changes. On the left, from Ovillers to the outskirts of Arras, gains were minimal as the terrain was not suited to an offensive. This area was given to General Gough and much of the tactics for the next few days focused on “hammer thumps” to take the higher ground of Thiepval and around to Beaumont Hamel, the scene of terrible attrition and the Hawthorn mine that signalled the start of the whole Somme Offensive.

On the right, roughly from La Boisselle village to Fricourt, gains had been made, albeit with appalling losses. Haig saw these gains as an opportunity to press on and if a breakthrough had been made here, then the Germans may well have suffered a defeat as had been hoped for. He charged Rawlinson and the 4th Army with the task to press on and move through the German first line.

During the thirteen days between the first day of the Somme and the date set to attack the German second defensive line (later known as the Switch Line) which ran from Pozieres (just north of La Boiselle) to Longueval, Rawlinson set about two major tasks. Firstly, ensuring that the objectives set for the first day were met and the Allies were in position in front of the Switch Line and secondly, that the offensive on the second line of German defence was more successful than the attack on the first.

Broadly he saw that the German positions had been pounded relentlessly in the week prior to the first of July. The Germans were weakened, shell shocked and weary certainly, but they were also unsurprised and able to mount a formidable wall of machine gunfire when the barrage lifted and mines went off prior to the British advance.
The tactics of walking across No Mans Land at fifty yards per minute may be seen as tragically comical from the distance of history, but the idea of arriving fresh after traversing up to a mile of territory with an extremely heavy load of kit ready to occupy and mop up resistance was seen as sound as long as the defences were indeed pulverised as anticipated. As it turned out, the tactic resulted in appalling losses with little opportunity to revise the tactics once the battle had started.

So Rawlinson reviewed this approach and also the map of the ground to be taken. He could see a chain of villages, woods and copses whose names are now infamous in British military history, but whose real-life presence is as quiet, very rural, isolated hamlets with gentle and steeper slopes in and between them.

He ordered the progressive taking of objectives on the right from Mametz and the wood, Bernafay wood, Trones wood, Delville wood, Guillemont and Ginchy (if possible) and La Boiselle. The villages of Contalmaison and Longueval had been intended for capture but were elusive for much of this preparatory period.

So, on the eve of battle, the Allies were broadly positioned in front of the second line, having sustained terrible attritional losses, but with more limited objectives set and gained, perhaps fewer than may otherwise have been suffered in a grand pursuance of the broad front battle selected by Haig.

Rawlinson set the order of battle when he realised that the Allies would make the necessary gains. He intended to field in the region of five to eight Divisions in a more limited and focused assault. The units in the line on the day of battle have been well documented, but included much of the 4th Army that struggled through the last two weeks of fighting.

Rawlinson made some interesting changes to the way the battle was to progress. He had been given very reluctant permission by Haig to launch the offensive at night (with at least an hour of darkness left) to enhance surprise. Haig was chastened by the losses to date and imagined that night would only increase the catastrophe with units getting lost or blundering around in the darkness alerting the enemy. He chose a very short hurricane bombardment of five minutes which scarcely perturbed the Germans who supposed that this would now go on for days. He placed soldiers out in No Mans Land right in front of the enemy under cover of quiet, darkness and barrage. He had learned the lessons, but what he still could not control were the communications once battle was commenced and the likely nervousness of senior commanders who may otherwise still want to retain the trench advance tactics used thus far.

As it turned out the preparations went extremely well. He had arranged for 950 guns to bombard a front of only some 2000-3000 yards from Bazentin-Le-Petit to Longueval. He set the objective of the Bois de Forcaux, known to the British as High Wood because of its slight prominence over the surrounding terrain.

The time of zero hour was set for 0325 with the bombardment starting only at 0320. At zero hour, troops rushed the lines and immediate and tangible gains were made up the slopes towards Bazentin-Le-Petit. By 0900, the whole village was secure and the Germans had fled the wood and the ground in between was undefended and relatively undisturbed by shelling. The barrage had been effective, pinning the Germans down in many places and the creeping barrage towards the rear positions was seen to be effective and would be perfected later in the war.

The British made gains along the front, although on the right, Longueval and Delville wood proved to be more challenging and would not be taken in the first day of fighting after all.

The road to Martinpuich from Bazentin-Le-Petit. From here the slope curves towards High Wood

The road to Martinpuich from Bazentin-Le-Petit. From here the slope curves towards High Wood

With High wood undefended and the Germans in retreat in that part of the front, the British had a chance to truly break the line. However, as has so often been the case, the opportunity was not seized upon and the Divisions in place to occupy the empty wood were denied permission to advance for fear of enfilading (cross) fire from the untaken Longueval or swift German counter attacks that in fact did not materialise.. Commanders cautiously stuck to the original plan for cavalry to exploit any gaps.
Rawlinson had planned an ambitious cavalry charge to be led by Hussars and the Deccan Horse, made up from soldiers from across the Commonwealth including India and South Africa. These mounted troops made an early start at 0740 but from too far back and it took them twelve hours to move from south of Albert to the front line.

The slope to the village attacked at 0325 on 14 July 1916

The slope to the village attacked at 0325 on 14 July 1916

Meanwhile, in the middle of the day, the Allies dithered and stalled. In fact an unusual event of two Generals undertaking a reconnoitre of the ground in front of High wood took place. Brigadier-General Potter of the 9th Brigade (3rd Division) and Major-General Watts, commander of the 7th Division, eventually walked almost to the edge of High Wood without a shot being fired on them. They noted the pleasant undisturbed fields and were satisfied that a cavalry assault would be possible. What was missed was the opportunity to take the wood to provide a channel for a charge and to notice the Germans slowly re-occupying the wood with machine gun teams and assault troops.

Charge of the Cavalry at Bazentin Ridge

Photo Courtesy of Steve Smith

At 1940, the cavalry finally charged with lances between Longueval and Bazentin-Le-Grand right up the slope of Bazentin Ridge and into the wood. Whilst taking losses to shelling and machine gunfire, many got through into the wood and for some time held pockets of ground. It was by no means decisive and the wood was not taken. It was a case of the right idea possibly, but executed poorly and frustratingly losing an opportunity for a true gain on the enemy. The route taken by the Squadrons of the Deccan Horse shows a sweep towards Longueval and Delville Wood. The 7th Dragoons were further north and skirted High Wood itself.

Shrapnel Shell on the Ridge 2013

So in the evening of 14 July, the British had taken villages in front of the Switch Line, much of Longueval and the village of Bazentin-Le-Petit. Some cavalry and infantry held small parts of High wood, but not enough to claim it was taken.

Bazentin Le Petit

Bazentin Ridge 3

The Cavalry formed up beneath this Cross on the evening of 14 July 1916

The Cavalry formed up beneath this Cross on the evening of 14 July 1916

The morning of the 15th opened with confusion. Reserve Brigades moved up and had been told to dig in near the wood in the safety of its capture. They soon realised this was a mistake and took casualties. They were then instructed to focus to the left and assault Martinpuich, bypassing the wood to their right. A small Pals unit was sent into the wood to take it, but were woefully outgunned. Of the 200 or so who entered, only 67 came back. The attack on Martinpuich was therefore an unmitigated disaster.
The right hand side of Longueval, Guillemont and Ginchy proved a challenge still. Delville wood changed hands repeatedly and this area of the battlefield was bitterly fought over time and again.

Caterpillar Valley cemetery looking towards High Wood. Bazentin Ridge is the the left and in front. Longeval is just off to the right.

Caterpillar Valley cemetery looking towards High Wood. Bazentin Ridge is the the left and in front. Longeval is just off to the right.

Eventually the battle ended some two days later. The element of surprise gone, the Germans had been given time to reinforce the Switch Line and it would cost the 4th Army to take it. Some two months of terrible trench warfare eventually saw High wood taken, but the lessons and successes of the Battle of Bazentin Ridge had sadly not been learned and the Army returned to hammer blow trench assaults into the face of stiff resistance. Only with the evolution and perfection of the creeping barrage and the tank, did Generals like Herbert Plumer return to clever tactics to take trenches.

The cemetery at Delville Wood

The cemetery at Delville Wood

The road up which the British attacked. They reached the point where the picture was taken at just before 0845

The road up which the British attacked. They reached the point where the picture was taken at just before 0845

The main cemetery in the village

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  1. Flatiron Copse Cemetery, South West of Bazentin Ridge | The Mad Game – A Love and War Series - May 25, 2014

    […] Almost all the concentrated graves are those of men who died in the summer and autumn of 1916. […]

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