From February 1916, the French and German armies fought a titanic struggle over the fortress city of Verdun. By the summer, the French Army was close to collapse because of the casualties it had suffered. To take pressure away, the British Government agreed to a major battle in the Somme region. Unfortunately this region had for some 18 months been a quiet sector of the Western Front, so the Germans had had time to prepare formidable defences using reinforced concrete and thick barbed wire. Based on the use of artillery bombardments at Verdun, the military planners decided to achieve a break-in by using the highest concentration of heavy and light cannons ever utlised. Their reasoning was that if sufficient shells hit the wire and the concrete emplacements, the defences should be smashed. Unfortunately the 106 fuze was not yet in service. This new fuze was designed to ignite the shell’s explosive charge on even grazing the wire. Furthermore it did not lead to cratering and reduced ‘back splash’. The fuzes available to the gunners in June 1916 were far less sensitive and needed to impact directly onto a hard surface before they would explode. The importance of fuze availability was crucial because the assaults were planned to use large numbers of New Army battalions, many with very limited experience of warfare and thus not capable of carrying out complex assault programmes. To allow them to implement a simple assault programme (basically, marching in line abreast across No Man’s Land towards the German trenches) in reasonable safety, these defences had to be so damaged that no Germans were left within them capable of stopping the break-ins.
Because French troops manned the trenches astride the river Somme, the Somme offensive was originally planned as a joint attack. But the demands of the continuing Verdun battle meant that their effort had to be scaled down, with only thirteen French divisions being available on the right flank to support the British divisions attacking to the north of the river rather than the forty originally planned. Nevertheless a significant number took part in the offensive and suffered heavily, as recognised by the equal number of French and British soldiers now buried in the cemetery at Thiepval.
On the bright summer morning of the 1st of July the British Army moved forward to its most terrible disaster. Within a very few hours, some 50,000 soldiers were casualties of which some 20,000 were dead. The gunfire had failed to smash the defences and the Germans manning them. Where the wire had been hit, the explosions had usually re-arranged it (often making it even more difficult to cross) than cut and blown it away. The German machine-gunners were presented with the easy target of slowly advancing over-burdened British soldiers. From Gommecourt to Beaumont-Hamel and especially before Serre, many soldiers of the Pals battalions were shot as they attempted to leave their trenches. Few reached the German wire, many of those that did were impaled on it to be riddled with bullets. At Thiepval, the 38th Ulster Division penetrated beyond the Schwaben Redoubt but their heavy losses lead to their eventual repulse. Further south to beyond la Boisselle, little was achieved for heavy losses. Yet in assessing these losses, it has to be recognised that the losses on the 1st of July were of the same proportion as those at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo.
But from Fricourt to Cappy, the British and French troops broke through the German front line. However, through the lack of success on the left flank these units had to slow their advance and consolidate their gains. The terrible losses to the north meant that plans had to be altered to take advantage of the limited gains in the south. For the next two weeks, the British and French troops continued their assaults, with the British moving forward through heavily defended woods such as Mametz and Trones. Eventually the troops were facing the Bazentin Ridge which held the German second line and was the barrier to the open country beyond.
The 14th of July
Despite the deep concern of the British Commander-in-Chief, the Commander of the Fourth Army, Sir Henry Rawlinson, decided to try a different method to the heavy bombardment which had proved to be so ineffectual on the 1st of July. He believed his New Army troops were capable of moving up close to the German trenches at night without being spotted, an operation needing great skill. His troops were quietly brought up to the underside of the ridge where they waited for the intensive five-minute barrage fired just before dawn. When that was completed, they rushed forward over the remaining No Man’s Land and took the trenches. Only in Longueval village did they encounter stern resistance. However the South African Brigade the next day was able to establish a secure placement in the nearby Delville Wood. So demoralised were the Germans that senior British officers were able to walk across the gentle valley leading to the empty High Wood from the Bazentin villages. The cavalry that were planned to build on the amazing success of the dawn attack were on their way across country. Unfortunately the military command had decided that the cavalry should advance in exploitation to capture High Wood, so the infantry now resting nearby were not allowed to place even a few machine-guns within the wood. But by the time the 20th Deccan Horse and 7th Dragoon Guards squadrons reached the valley and began their charge, eleven hours had passed and the Germans had re-occupied the wood. Charging horses and cavalrymen fell before the machine-gun fire leaving High Wood in German hands. Many weeks of bitter fighting during the high summer passed before they were driven back towards Flers.
Mid-morning on the 14th of July was one of the very few times between August 1914 and August 1918 when there was a real chance of breaking out beyond the German lines. Once the Germans recovered their nerve, they launched heavy attacks using a large number of regiments supported by intensive bombardments on Longueval village and Delville Wood. The South African stand over six days is one of the truly great defences in world history. When they were withdrawn on the 21st, only 20 % remained unwounded. But left behind with their dead comrades were the bodies of the many thousands of German soldiers spent in trying to recover the wood. The stand by the South Africans gave time for the Fourth Army to consolidate on the Ridge. By the 21st, the British troops were so secure that they could not be driven off it. However neither could the Germans easily be pushed back from the slopes beyond to which they clung tenaciously.
During the ‘forgotten battles’ of the high summer, the British armies edged forward slowly down these slopes and through High Wood but losing thousands of soldiers. Fortress villages such as Guillemont and Ginchy were taken at great human cost. The battle of the Somme had become a battle of attrition. Yet it was being fought on a battlefield of size no bigger than that of Austerlitz where Napoleon won his great victory over the Austrians and Russians on the 2nd of December 1805. In September, the first tank used in action helped clear the last Germans out of Delville Wood. Later the first major tank assault cleared the village of Flers. But the Mark 1 tanks were too unreliable and vulnerable (they had no armoured plate) to avoid damage and soon there was the return to the assaults based on infantry alone following up behind the artillery barrages. On into November the assaults continued despite the heavy rains. Gains were made, but measured in yards, at the cost of thousands of troops. After July 21st began the reputation which the name ‘The Somme’ has had for over 80 years.
- Explain the reasons why the British armies attacked on the Somme?
- Why was the initial assault on July 14th so much more successful than that on July 1st?
- In strategic terms, what benefits can be gained from seeking to seize higher ground such as the Bazentin Ridge?
- What lessons can be learned from the failure to exploit the opportunity presented by the empty High Wood?
- Was the German response at Delville Wood a sensible way to react to Rawlinson’s ‘bite and hold’ policy?
Exploring the Bazentin Ridge
The battlefields of the Somme over which the attacks were made on the 1st of July are vaste, stretching a distance of some 30 kilometres. However the battles fought after the 1st of July were, as previously noted, on a battlefield the size of Austerlitz. The Bazentin Ridge from Bazentin-le-Grand to Delville Wood is relatively quite small.
Driving from Albert towards Bapaume along the D929, the village of Pozieres is reached. Here the Australians fought magnificently after their ordeal the previous year on the Gallipoli peninsula. Beyond the Australian and Tank Corps memorials is the turning to Martinpuich. Leaving Martinpuich, the road descends into a valley and then climbs towards a wood on the left side of the road. This wood is the privately-owned High Wood. Turning right at the next junction leads onto the Bazentin Ridge which runs towards the tiny settlements of Bazentin-le-Grand and Bazentin-le-Petit. Across the valley, towards High Wood, can be seen the ground over which the cavalry squadrons made their unsuccessful charge. Returning to the junction, beyond it is Longueval village, now rebuilt. Crossing onto the road towards Guillemont, the road to Ginchy branches left. First on the left is the excellent cafe with many parking spaces, then the entrance to the tree-lined walk leading to the South African Memorial buildings. Behind these buildings stands the hornbeam which was the only tree, although severely battered, to survive the battle for Delville Wood. From the buildings radiate the now-widened Rides with names drawn from London, Edinburgh and Capetown streets. From the back of the wood can be viewed the slope leading towards Bapaume.
Before returning to Martinpuich, the villages of Guillemont, Ginchy and Flers can be visited. But they show few signs of their pasts except for the occasional monument.