Cavalry on the Somme – 1916

Bazentin Panorama

Extended Panorama of Longueval/Bazentin/Caterpillar Valley

(Click the picture to expand)

At the bottom right of the above panorama is the site of the old windmill, the crossing point of two squadrons of the Deccan Horse who then charged to the left of the road to High Wood, crossing and riding off to the top right of the picture. B squadron crossed near the Cross at Crucifix Corner, charging across and along Caterpillar Valley, along the line of the original Caterpillar Wood. This is an extract of the account of their actions from the ‘The Royal Deccan Horse’ who in July 1916 were the 20th Deccan Horse and belonged to the Secunderabad Cavalry Brigade of the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division. Another account of the action is contained in the book “The Hell They Called High Wood” by Terry Norman.

Bazentin Ridge

Map of the Battle of Bazentin Ridge

The main attack ran from close to Contalmaison, across Bazentin Ridge to Longueval and began at 03:25 on 14 July. To have been successful, the cavalry should have been deployed before 11:00, whilst High Wood was undefended.

In the Squadrons’ own words…

The regiment remained in bivouac at Pont Noyelles until the 13th July, when it marched to Dernancourt and bivouacked just south of Meaulte. At 01.30 on the 14th, the regiment marched in brigade to Bray-sur-Somme, arriving just before dawn. Here horses were watered and fed, and at 08.30, a further advance was made into the valley just south of Montauban. During this time the 2nd Infantry Division had succeeded in advancing, under cover of darkness, some thousand yards in front of their own frontline trenches, and at 03.25 they commenced an attack on the front extending from Longueval on the right to Bazentin-le-Petit on the left.

A bagpiper on the sunken road on Bazentin Ridge, Somme

A bagpiper on the sunken road on Bazentin Ridge, Somme

Heavy fighting continued throughout the day, and towards the evening, the German resistance appeared to be weakening. The opportunity could only be a fleeting one and therefore it was decided to take the risk of sending forward the whole of the Cavalry Division in an attempt to break through and trust to the infantry supports being able to arrive in time to make good any positions that might be captured. However, it was learnt, just about the moment when the Secunderabad Cavalry Brigade left Sabot Copse that the supports could not arrive for several hours, and therefore the orders for the advance of the remainder of the Cavalry Division were cancelled. The Secunderabad Cavalry Brigade, having been selected to act as advanced guard, received orders at 17.30 to advance and co-operate with the 9th and 22nd Infantry Divisions, who were about to attack the enemy holding High Wood and Delville Wood. The Brigade moved to a position of assembly near Sabot Copse, and there the regiment received the following orders :—

Sabot Copse

Deccan Horse track at Sabot Copse

“Move at once, with your right on line cross-roads 250 yards North of V in Longueval and S.11 Central, into a position to attack Delville Wood from the N. and N.W., so as to enable the 9th Division to complete the capture of that place. “Your left via the Quarry in S.22 C and Windmill 300 yards N. of G in Longueval. On arriving on the ridge in S.11 push forward strong patrols towards Flers. Be sure, to maintain communication with the 7th Dragoon Guards on your left and also with the 9th Division on your right. G.O.C. will move slightly to the rear of and between you and 7th Dragoon Guards.”

Deccan Map

Deccan Map

In compliance with these orders “A” Squadron, under Captain Jarvis, was detailed as advanced guard to the regiment with its objective the high ground in Square 11. Unfortunately, the only passage through our lines from the assembly position at Sabot Copse was over a rough and narrow track which necessitated the advance being made in half-sections for a considerable distance and, as the 7th Dragoon Guards were leading, there was some delay before the regiment could get through. As it passed through the defile cheers were raised by the gunners and infantry, as this was the first chance that the cavalry had had of acting mounted since the commencement of trench warfare. As each squadron cleared the defile it formed line and advanced at a gallop in the direction taken by the advanced guard, which lay through a broad belt of standing corn, in which small parties of the enemy lay concealed. Individual Germans now commenced popping up on all sides, throwing up their arms and shouting ” Kamerad,” and not a few, evidently under the impression that no quarter would be given, flung their arms around the horses’ necks and begged for mercy — all of which impeded the advance. It was about this time that one of our aeroplanes came over, flying very low and firing tracer bullets to show the positions of hostile machine-guns and also that of a German trench which ran from High Wood to Delville Wood and which, owing to the corn, was invisible.

Bazentin Ridge

Google Earth View of the Battle of Bazentin Ridge

When the advanced guard reached its objective, a German trench to the north of Delville Wood, occupied by infantry, could be seen clearly and German artillery (located by the flash of the guns) opened fire from a point near Square 6. During the whole period of the advance the regiment had been exposed to flanking machine-gun fire from Delville Wood; consequently “C” Squadron was ordered to form a defensive flank upon the right of “A” Squadron, and “D” Squadron was moved up to occupy the gap between the regiment and the 7th Dragoon Guards, who appeared to be held up some distance south of High Wood. “B” Squadron was retained in a central position as a support in case of unforeseen eventualities. vo085dwa.jpg

Deccan Horse

The Deccan Horse at Bazentin Ridge

The Brigadier had specified that communication was to be maintained with the 7th Dragoon Guards on the left and the 9th Division on the right. As no touch could be obtained with the 9th Division, whose whereabouts were unknown, and as any further advance of the regiment to a position from which to attack Delville Wood from the north would separate it still further from the 7th Dragoon Guards, messages were sent back to the Brigadier asking for instructions, but unfortunately he could not be found. Captain Jarvis now reported that bodies of Germans were massing on his right front, as though preparing for a counterattack, and consequently ” B” Squadron was warned to be ready to act at any moment. The German attack, however, did not materialize. It had now become dark and as the left flank of the regiment was in the air, whilst the right flank, “C” Squadron, was under heavy fire from Delville Wood, and not being able to get in touch with the Brigadier, Lieutenant-Colonel Tennant ordered the regiment to fall back and take up a position extending from the right flank of the 7th Dragoon Guards along the valley towards Square 17, where it was hoped contact would be made with the infantry.

Deccan Muster Point

Deccan Muster Point

This retirement was carried out in the nick of time, for shortly afterwards the enemy opened heavy artillery fire upon what had been the regiment’s advanced position, and as no cover of any sort was available for either men or horses the casualties would have been extremely heavy. About midnight the enemy once more opened heavy artillery fire over the valley, but failed to locate the position, and the night passed without further incident except that a German patrol, advancing from Delville Wood, ran into one of the regimental listening patrols and was fired on, two prisoners being taken, both belonging to the 16th Bavarian Regiment. At 3.30 a.m. the Brigade was ordered to retire. Fortunately, the morning was misty, which enabled the troops to ride back, undetected by the enemy, through the artillery positions (which were saturated with tear gas) to the valley of Montauban, where horses were watered and fed, and the Brigade returned to bivouac at Meaulte. Later in the morning the Divisional Commander, Major-General Macandrew, visited the regiment and congratulated it on its performance, especially commending Captain Jarvis for his leading of the advanced guard. The casualties were as follows: — Rissaldar Konsal Singh and Ressaidar Ali Sher Khan, wounded; 9 other ranks killed and 39 wounded (total 50); 19 horses killed and 53 wounded (total 72).

Neuve Chappelle

Neuve Chappelle Memorial

The casualties of this action are commemorated on the memorial wall at Neuve Chappelle.

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One Comment on “Cavalry on the Somme – 1916”

  1. Chris Cherry (The Mad Game) Says:

    Reblogged this on The Mad Game Books by Chris Cherry and commented:

    Digging in this evening…


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