Amiens, 8th to 12th August 1918 Part 1

The Prelude

In the spring of 1918, the German Army launched the Kaiser’s Offensive which broke through the British Fifth Army and pushed it back by some fifty kilometres. When that assault eventually petered out at the town of Villers-Bretonneux to the east of Amiens, the Germans launched major assaults to the west of Lille at Givenchy and Festubert in the Battles of the Lys. Messines, Armentieres, Merville, Bailleul and Meteren were captured in fighting to the north. Mont Sherpenberg was held. German attention then switched to the French sector along the Chemin des Dames. So began the Third Battle of the Aisne. The American Third Division helped the French contain the attack after four British divisions sent to the supposedly ‘quiet’ French sector to rest and recuperate received another mauling to follow their heavy losses during the fighting in March and April.

By the 20th of July, General Erich von Ludendorff realised that his five separate offensives had gained some ground but at the cost of his decreasing human resources. The highly-trained assault soldiers (including Ernst Junger, the Pour La Merite author of ‘Storm of Steel’and ‘Copse 125′), the best troops in his Command, were dead or seriously wounded. The divisions released from Russia after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk were spent, only the machine-gunners remained an elite force. At the cost of some 750,000 casualties, the defensive capacity of his now-exhausted armies had been worn out.

On the 4th of July, in front of the town of Villers-Bretonneux, Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash had planned an all-arms assault by the 4th Division of his Australian Corps on the German lines at le Hamel. Despite some rancour, following the debacle with British tanks at Bullecourt in 1917, 60 Mark V tanks and 12 supply tanks drove forward to assist the Corps’ attack. Eight American companies, which had disguised themselves in Australian uniforms to escape General Pershing’s wrath, attacked with them. 111 machine-guns laid down a ‘beaten zone’ barrage in support of the artillery bombardment and aeroplanes parachuted in over 100,000 rounds of ammunition to resupply the Australian machine-gunners. A stunning victory was achieved in just 93 minutes! The methodology was to be used again on a large scale five weeks later on the 8th of August.

On the 29th of July the Australians launched a large raid at Morlancourt. This had the unfortunate effect of stimulating a German reprisal raid by an elite assault division which damaged the 18th and 58th British Divisions on the 6th of August. The effect of this was in fact harmful to the Australians two days later who became exposed to enfilading fire from the Chipilly Spur.

From June 1918, some 500 tanks a months were reaching the Western Front. In August both the French and the British had 1,500 each. By November the French were using over 2,000 – mostly the light Renault tanks, whereas the British had the heavy Mark V and V* tanks as their main assault tanks and the light Whippet tanks and armoured cars to pursue the retreating enemy driven out of their trenches.

The Battle of Amiens

The 8th of August 1918 was the day Ludendorff in his memoirs described as ‘the black day of the German Army in the war’. General Sir Henry Rawlinson planned with Lieutenant-General Monash, Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie and General Debeney that the BEF Fourth Army and the French First Army assault the German lines in front of and to the south of Villers-Bretonneux. In support of the attacking Australian, British, and Canadian infantry were to be some 800 British aeroplanes, 420 fighting tanks of which 324 were the new Mark V heavy tanks, 96 of the faster but smaller new Whippet ‘chaser’ tanks, 96 supply tanks (converted from the now-obsolete Mark IV fighting tanks), 22 gun carriers (used instead as supply tanks where previously they were employed in carrying field guns forward from their main firing-line so that they could support infantry which had advanced beyond the protection of the firing-line) and 6 Austin armoured cars. The French forces were covered by some 1,000 aeroplanes but were without tank support.

The intensive barrage allied to the early morning mist surprised the Germans and the Australians and Canadians were soon on their objectives. The Mark V tanks proved irresistable in crushing the barbed wire and machine-gun emplacements, whilst the Whippet tanks destroyed German troops and gun batteries caught in the open, with the exploits of the Whippet tank ‘Musical Box’ becoming famous. Three of the heavy tanks, each towing two of the armoured cars, were able to release them beyond the German trenches and these cars drove forward to Proyart and Framerville-Raincourt creating chaos in the rear areas where previously the Germans had thought they were safe. At Framerville-Rainecourt, not only did they create havoc without one shot being fired against them, but in honour of the 5th Australian Division to which they were attached they nailed the Australian flag to the German general’s front door.

However, the Chipilly Spur, a high ridge dominating the northern bank of the Somme on the left of the Australians, proved to be a strong obstacle to the 58th (London) and 18th Divisions throughout that day. Meantime the French on the right of the Canadians advanced slowly not having tanks to clear the barbed wire barriers and the machine-gun nests.

The German losses of most of their frontline troops, either killed or taken prisoner, and many guns on the ‘black day’ for the German Army reflected the application of the lessons of the battle of Hamel on a large scale. Careful co-ordination of all the available fighting techniques and machinery was the basis of the all-arms assaults. The aeroplanes were used to straff with machine-gun fire the German trenches and to bomb more distant targets, 284 tons being dropped in the fortnight before the battle – compared to 50 tons during the Battle of the Somme. The artillery bombardment, using many huge cannons with their silent registration, predicted fire and counter-battery fire, was able to destroy German cannons which would otherwise have been targeted at the advancing BEF and French troops. The creeping barrage gave protection to these troops from German machine-guns firing from their front line trenches. The 3-inch Stokes mortars gave close-range ‘artillery’ support under the control of the local infantry commanders. Hand grenades were used to burst apart machine-gun nests and trenches manned by resisting German riflemen. Mobile Lewis light machine-guns gave covering fire to riflemen moving to within grenade-throwing range of the German machine-gun nests. Vickers medium machine-guns provided bombardments of bullets on enemy trenches.

Mobile heavy tanks added shell and machine-gun fire to their trench-crossing and barbed wire crushing capabilities. Whippet tanks and armoured cars gave mobility behind the trench systems to surprise and outrun enemy trains, troop units, wagons and even cavalry. Indeed the 6 armoured cars proved themselves in this action to be worth more than a cavalry division. Supply tanks allowed the rapid movement forward of rifle and machine-gun cartridges, cannon shells, petrol and water, and all the other equipment voraciously needed by an agggressively advancing army. At the battle of Hamel in July, four carrier tanks had brought forward the supplies which it was later calculated would have required the use of 1,250 human bearers. Better communications including using continuous wave wireless meant that artillery spotters were able to identify individual targets needing attention from the artillery to make easier the infantry assaults. They also allowed unit commanders to more speedily modify their objectives having assessed the changing situations as some units advanced more rapidly than expected, others experienced delays outside their control – as when the Australians found themselves being enfiladed from their left because of the failure to capture the Chipilly Spur on the 8th.

Four years previously, on the Aisne, rifle and pistol bullets together with the bayonet and the light mainly shrapnel-firing 18-pounder gun were the main offensive weapons available. By 1918, new and developed mechnical, scientific (counter-battery sound-ranging equipment, continuous wave wireless and aerial photography, for example) and chemical (smoke and gas shells, for example) devices had added an arsenal of new and effective weapons to those of 1914.

The nex day the 58th Division, with the remnants of the 131st American Infantry Regiment, finally cleared Chipilly Spur allowing the Australians to resume their advance. During the next two days the advance continued but more slowly against the stiffening German resistance as they poured in their reserves. The loss of most tanks to enemy action and mechanical problems meant that their support was temporarily ended. Of the 420 tanks beginning the battle on the 8th, 145 were servicable on the 9th, 85 on the 10th, 38 on the 11th, and only 5 on the 12th! Sir Douglas Haig then switched his attention to General Byng’s Third Army for an attack towards Albert and Bapaume.

The Aftermath

The Battle of Amiens was over but the Advance to Victory had begun. During the next 94 days, a long series of victories marked the final ‘One Hundred Days’. All along the Western Front, the Allied units bit into the German trench systems, attacking different sectors on different days so that the Germans could not use their railway networks fast enough to rush up reinforcements to replace their lost units. This was based on the concept of attacking a sensitive spot then shifting the blow rapidly to the flanks in order to create a state of flux which gave the military advantage to the attacking troops.

The Australians seized the formidable Mont-St Quentin position, using rifle grenades whilst being covered by Lewis machine-guns (they had two or three in each platoon), to destroy the German machine-gun nests. Then the Canadians conquered the Drocourt-Queant Switch trench system to the east of Arras. The Americans suffered severe casualties at Bony but continued to push through the Hindenburg Line at Bellicourt ably supported by the Australians. The British 46th (Midland) Division crossed the St. Quentin Canal and captured the important Riqueval Bridge. Thereafter the Allied troops pursued the Germans retreating across open country who were no longer able to rely on the trench defences of the now left-behind Western Front.

To the south the revitalised French armies forced their way north-east whilst the American Army under General George Pershing drove through the Argonne Forest, west of Verdun, towards Sedan having gained a spectacular victory at St. Mihiel due south of Verdun. The Belgium forces between Ypres and the North Sea recaptured large areas of their country whilst the British First and Second Armies on their right recaptured Lille on their way to Mons, halting on the 11th of November close to where the BEF had begun fighting four years before.

But these One Hundred Days were not a stroll behind a retreating enemy. The German machine-gunners in particular continued to fight heroically, prefering to die than surrender. Many thousands of Allied troops were killed during assaults on hills and over canals even during the last ten days of fighting. The civilian cemetery at Ors contains the small British Communal Cemetery with its possibly the highest concentration of military heroes. Amongst the sixty graves lie two winners of the Victoria Cross (2nd Lieutenant James Kirk and Lieutenant Colonel James Marshall) and Lieutenant Wilfred Owen MC.

Questions

1. Why was le Hamel a pilot study for the Battle of Amiens?

2. How were the various resources available exploited before and during the battle?

3. Explain the advances in warfare technology made between the First Battle of the Aisne and the Battle of Amiens.

4. What competitive advantage did all-arms co-ordination bring to attacking enemy trench systems?

5. What strategic planning was done to ensure the Germans could not recover from reverses on any sectors?

Exploring the Battlefield

To the east of the massive Australian national memorial north of Villers-Bretonneux, twelve kilometres to the east of the city of Amiens, is the small village of le Hamel with its recently built hilltop memorial to the Australian victory there on the 4th of July 1918. Eastwards lies flat country which was ideal for charging heavy and light tanks, with the armoured cars raiding the fourteen kilometres to Proyart and Framerville-Rainecourt. Above the valley, on the other side of the river Somme, is the Chipilly Spur. At its base commemorating the 58th (London) Division’s capture of the Spur is the emotive staue of an artilleryman comforting his wounded horse.
Besides this statue and the Australian memorials, there is little to show of those four days in August 1918. Perhaps this is a continuing reflection of the British wish to brood over the deaths of the civilian warriors on the first day of the Somme rather than to commemorate the ultimate defeat of a magnificent army created over during years since the Prussian disaster at Jena-Auerstadt. As Professor Bond (1991) pithily wrote of many populist British Great War authors, ‘…they succumb to the tyrannical hold which July 1916 is now beginning to exert on British First World War studies…’. The contrasts to this attitude are seen on the hilltop close to le Hamel where the Australians remember their victory of the 4th of July 1918, and particularly on Vimy Ridge where Canadian students come during the summer months to serve as guides in celebration of their countrymen who captured that infamous ridge on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917.

The Aisne, 12th to 15th September 1914 Part 2

External Circumstances

Political tension had been building up within Europe over the four decades since the stunning victory over France by the Prussian forces in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1, a revenge for the famous Napoleonic victories at Jena and Auerstadt in 1806. The seizure of Alsace and Lorraine by the now Greater German Empire preyed on French minds and set the good reason for France to seek to recover these provinces. The growing economic strength of Germany as the result of successful industrialisation coupled to their now large poulation (by European nations’ standards) meant that Germany wished to gain a position of authority not only in continental Europe but globally. The acquisition of overseas colonies (taking what was left after British and French colonisation in particular) and the building of a large battle fleet were symbols of their determination to have their power internationally recognised.

After the creation of Belgium and the British guarantee of its independence in 1839, should Belgium appear to be threatened, treaty obligations were likely to draw Great Britain into any conflict between Germany and France which involved fighting on Belgian territory. Thus in August 1914, the small British Expeditionary Force was permitted by France to position itself to the west of the northern French armies so should an invasion of Belgium occur, the BEF could come to the aid of the Belgian Army.

On August the 4th, German troops invaded Belgium and the BEF moved forward to meet them at Mons. The battle on the Aisne a month later was a direct consequence of the German assault upon Belgium and France as set out in the German war plan known as the Schlieffen Plan. The failure of the French Plan XVII meant defeat at the Battle of the Frontiers followed by a fighting retreat of the French Army and the BEF to south of the river Marne. Following their unexpected defeat at the Battle of the Marne, the German forces were disorganised and had to conduct a strategic withdrawal to geographical positions of potential military strength and settled on the Chemin des Dames heights north of the river Aisne.

Selection of the Assault Units

The battle was fought by the professional Regular soldiers of the BEF. They were highly trained in rifle markmanship (fifteen aimed bullets a minute). Leadership was outstanding. Their offensive tactics had been developed under the conditions of colonial warfare; charging with the bayonet at the enemy whilst aimed rifle fire forced them to shelter. Meanwhile 18-pounder field guns brought into action by teams of horses covered the sheltering enemy with shrapnel fire which rained down bullets on them from above.

Heavy cannon in the form of a few old pattern 6-inch howitzers only became available towards the end of the battle in time to help consolidate the positions gained by the advancing troops.

Methods of Assault Adopted

The assaults during the battle were based on the above traditional methods as last used in the Second Boer War. The vulnerability of troops to machine-gun fire charging across open ground was largely ignored because native and irregular forces rarely had machine-guns. The lessons of the Russo-Japanese War and Boer sharp-shooters were deliberately ignored by the British military tacticians until after the casualty rates at Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, and Loos caused by the German Maxim machine-guns were experienced.

The Rival’s Reaction

Unfortunately the Germans had manufactured modern heavy cannons with shells of size far in excess of the Royal Field Artillery’s 18-pounders. These shells were high explosive capable of destroying field fortifications which had become common in the American Civil War and in sieges such as Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War. German artillery fire was thus able to pulverise the British troops as they lay in their flimsy shelters. Meanwhile because the German soldiers were skilful in using their entrenching tools, they soon created shelters to protect themselves from shrapnel fire yet from which they were able to fire upon the advancing British soldiers.

With three times the ratio of machine-guns to rifles, the Germans were also able to lay down an intensive curtain of fire far greater than could be sustained by the British machine-gunners. One machine-gun’s fire was equivalent to that of 40 rifles being fired by trained musketeers.

The Lessons of the Aisne

The Aisne showed that technological advances in equipment and processes by competitive rivals must be continually monitored to avoid becoming uncompetitive. Leadership without the support of the appropriate resources is heroic but wasteful, such as charging machine-guns without adequate supporting fire to distract or destroy the machine-gunners. Once a disadvantageous situation is recognised, it is far better to consolidate the gains made, or withdraw to safer ground if not possible, than lose resources which may never be so abundant again. Furthermore, before committing all resources to an operation, especially of technical expertise, it is sensible to retain some to rebuild the operating capabilities of the organization in the event of disaster. By 1916 some 10% of the troops were kept behind when a battalion went into action to serve as its nucleus when it was rebuilt later.

The significance of this is seen in the consequences of the casualties sustained during the battle and the rest of 1914. The loss of so many outstanding officers had a significant lasting effect on the human resourcing of the British war effort, especially in 1916. During the Great War, 27% of officers were killed on the Western Front compared to 12% of men. The quantity of knowledge of how to become a military professional soldier was so reduced that when the soldiers of the New Armies were trained, the training was often poor because the training officers had to be brought out of retirement and their knowledge was obsolete. Hence the tactics of marching in line at a steady pace towards the enemy, so disastrous for the 21st and 24th Divisions at Loos and on the 1st of July 1916, was dictated by the limited training (in terms of transfering professional expertise) the Derby volunteer civilians received.

Rating the Quality of the Operation

Rating the performance on the analysis of 34 questions utilising the Likert Scale, the deviation from the neutral level of performance was found to be favourable by 3.9%. The performance was close to be a normal distribution but with a pronounced peak. This demonstrates that the BEF performed at the standard expected of them although the circumstances they faced were beyond their professional experiences in colonial policing and maintaining the security of the colonies. Nevertheless the survivors knew that they had done marvellously well to halt the German Field Army and for the rest of their lives were proud to be known as the Old Contemptibles.

Views of the Battlefield


The Aisne valley from the village of Paissy towards the slopes up which British soldiers fought in the September of 1914.


The region is riddled with underground caves, here is one at Paissy which is still used for storage by the farmers.


The Chemin des Dames road running along the ridge above the Aisne valley; the view towards Cerny-en-Laonnois from the Caverne du Dragon.


A German 105mm light field howitzer model 1916 cannon, probably manufactured by Krupp, by the entrance to the Caverne du Dragon showing the Aisne valley in the background, the scene of bitter fighting from 1914 to 1918.

The Aisne, 12th to 15th September 1914 Part 1

The Prelude

After a month of retreating across Northern France, the French Armies and the British Expeditionary Force halted beyond the River Marne. In a succession of titanic battles at the frontiers with Germany and Belgium, the French Armies suffered horrendous casualty rates, higher even than at Verdun in 1916. On the 29th of August the last ‘Napoleonic’ attack was made at Guise led by Franchet d’Esperey. The red pantaloons and the shiny officers’ swords had become too easy targets for the German machine-gunners. The French proved it was not ‘chic’ to die wearing white gloves. Even today, at the St. Cyr Military Academy’s museum can be seen on display a pair of these gloves, a memory of the entire Class of 1914 who were commemorated en masse because there were too many individual names to record of the St. Cyr officer cadets of 1914 who died for France.
The BEF also took heavy casualties at Mons, Landracies and Le Cateau. But they also shot down many German infantry and cavalry men with their steady fiften rounds per minute of rifle fire. Thereafter the Germans believed they had been the victims of machine-guns not rifles. After these battles, the BEF retreated in a south-easterly direction across the Somme region and to the east of Paris, periodically facing the following Germans in short, but bloody, engagements such as at Nery. Meanwhile on their right flank, the French had been painfully retreating, continuing to suffer heavy casualties such as at Peronne.

To the amazement of the Germans once over the River Marne, they found themselves facing an advancing enemy both in front and on their right flank, the result of the famous drive of the Paris taxis laden with the French troops of the Garrison of Paris. The French adopted the tactics of attack that the Germans had used so successfully the previous month (which were set out in the French Army’s Field Service Regulations of 1904 but ignored in 1914). Soon the Germans were driven across the treacherous Marshes of St. Girond and retreated northwards to the River Aisne. Once on its northern bank, they began to dig trenches, proving to be very good at using entrenching tools to protect themslves. The advancing BEF then came up against them and so began the First Battle of the Aisne.

Although this battle is little known, it is important as being the first serious attempt by British troops to attack the Germans in defences that the Germans had had time to prepare. However the French had already faced this situation in the August’s Battle of the Frontiers when they had advanced across Lorraine towards Morhange and
their regiments had been shattered. For the British advancing between Soissons and Bourg-et-Comin, they found themselves facing an entrenched enemy sheltering behind the wide river, swollen with rain, whose bridges had been demolished.

The First Battle of the Aisne

The cavalry commander, Douglas Haig, was later criticised for the tardiness of the advance. So by the time the BEF troops reached the Aisne, they faced their foe in trenches which could only be taken by frontal assault because their continuity left no flanks to turn. Although the trench system had not yet the sophistication and depth later prepared on the Somme, around Ypres, and in the Hindenburg Line, nevertheless the new trenches were formidable defences. Furthermore, after crossing the swollen river, the BEF units had to attack up the slopes of the escarpments.
The 12th of September began the three days of attacks to establish footholds beyond the Aisne and to drive the Germans northwards. By means of brilliant bridge building by the engineers under enemy fire and the fortuitous finding that not all bridges had been successfully blown, footholds were established. But only in certain places was
it possible to reach the German trenches and overwhelm their occupants. Machine-gun and artillery fire, coupled with the newly erected barbed wire, meant that too many attacks were repulsed with heavy British casualties. The BEF had a far lower ratio of machine-guns to rifles in their fighting units so were unable to put down enough fire to silence the German machine-guns and keep the German infantry’s heads down below the parapets of their skilfully-built trenches which gave them much protection.
Linked to the paucity of machine-gun fire was the problem of firing the 18-pounder field guns through the thickly-growing trees to hit targets on the Chemin des Dames heights above the Aisne. Furthermore the gun barrels could not be elevated enough for the shells in flight to clear the ridges of the escarpments, hence the rear of the carraiges had to be lowered into specially dug gun pits, difficult to do when the gun crews were under heavy bombardment from the 5.9-inch and 8-inch German cannons brought south after the subjugation of the Belgium and French frontier forts. However the few available old pattern British 6-inch howitzers had not been with the BEF earlier but reached the Aisne in time to help stabilise the front-lines.
On the 15th the BEF Commander, Sir John French, recognising the futility of further attacks, ordered his units to stop attacking. In this he was conforming to the secret directive to minimise the losses of men and equipment. Soon afterwards the surviving troops handed over their positions to French units and entrained for northern France.

The Aftermath

Eventually the BEF marched into the Belgium town of Ypres to halt the thrusts of the German army at Gheluvelt to the east of Ypres during what has become known as the Race to the Sea. By the end of First Ypres, the BEF of August 1914 had ‘wasted away’, but the German army was too exhausted to mount new attacks until the next spring.
Strangely German troops did occupy Ypres a week before the BEF arrived but did not stay! Over the next four years, Ypres became a symbol of defiance for the British and her Empire’s troops (particularly Canadian, Australian and New Zealand units) in the same way that Verdun became that symbol for the French. In neither case did the Germans capture these cities despite the deaths of hundreds of thousands of fighting men.
Undoubtedly Sir John French’s decision on the Aisne to act on the directive and conserve troops was correct. By preventing further attacks there, just sufficient numbers of troops were left to halt the increasingly desperate waves of assaults at Ypres. Despite suffering colossal casualties, the still-numerically large German army could not break through to the strategically important French North Sea ports which supplied the BEF from across the English Channel.
The most famous battle on the Aisne took place in April 1917 in what is now known as the Nivelle Offensive, named after the French Commander. The French units suffered appalling losses, partly because of the driving snow. Serious mutinies were triggered leaving France having to take a back-seat for the rest of 1917. German attention had to be diverted to the north so the BEF launched attacks at Messines and later began the battle of Third Ypres, the infamous Passchendaele. During the Kaiser’s Offensive in the spring of 1918, the Third Battle of the Aisne was fought as the Germans again advanced south from the Chemin des Dames to the Vesle river beyond.

Questions

These questions can be answered more fully by scanning the many books written about the Great War, some of which are listed in the Readings division.
1. Why did the BEF butt up against the German army at the River Aisne?

2. What limited the effectiveness of the British assaults?

3. What competences were shown by the British troops even though the battle and previous engagements were of limited success?

4. What were the long-term implications of the German army’s defensive system?

5. Explain the strategic significance of Sir John French’s decision.

Visiting the Aisne

Soissons lies midway but to the north of the line between Paris and Rheims. The famous Chemin des Dames meets the road to Laon and driving along it gives superb views over the Aisne valley far below. The steep slopes show clearly why they were such formidable obstacles to the British in 1914 and the French in 1917. Fort de la Malmaison (now
ruined but beside a beautifully maintained German military cemetery) is on the left flank of the British assaults, Caverne du Dragon (where German units sheltered before emerging to crush the French assaults) beyond the right flank. South from Cerny-en-Laonnois is the British cemetery at Vendresse. From there the Aisne at Bourg-en-Comin is soon reached. But it is worth diverting to Paissy where the caves which sheltered Germans now store the French farmers’ tractors. Some of the farmers are proud to show the interiors of these caves. Driving westwards along the D925 passes military cemeteries of France, Germany and Italy before Chavonne and Vailly-sur-Aisne are reached. Looking at the modern bridges needed to cross the river shows why the destruction of the original bridges made it so difficult for the British to support their troops fighting on the slopes beyond the Aisne.

Cambrai, 20th November to 7th December 1917 Part 2

External Circumstances

As the attacks on the Passchendaele Ridge during the Battle of Third Ypres became bogged down in the Flanders mud, the proposal for an attack on the Hindenburg Line before the town of Cambrai was made. The original suggestion was to launch a large tank raid exploiting the Mark IV tanks rapidly coming off the assembly lines which could not effectively be used at Ypres. The topography of the rolling ground, well drained, in front of Cambrai offered the opportunity to use the strengths of the tanks in being able to cross open country and not rely on tarmaced roads, vulnerable to damage from shell fire.

The raid also offered the political and psychological benefits of achieving a victory after the many reverses and few successes of 1917. Hence the planning for the raid ‘grew by topsy’ so that it became a full-scale attack employing numerous divisions besides the tanks. But recognising that the divisions were weakened after their fighting at Third Ypres, two cavalry divisions were added to the force.

Selection of the Assault Units

The tank force was to consist of 378 Mark IV fighting tanks, 88 supply tanks – many pulling sledges, and 5 wireless tanks to relay information on progress back to British High Command. Some 1,000 cannons were supplied. Five infantry divisions were to be used in the main attack. These were the 62nd (West Riding), 51st (Highland), 6th, 20th (Light) and 12th (Eastern) Divisions. The 36th (Ulster) Division was to attack later the empty Canal du Nord and its spoilheap strongpoint. And the two cavalry divisions were to be available to advance in exploitation of a break through.

The Methods of Assault Adopted

Unlike the normal preliminary bombardment of sometimes days’ duration, a short but intensive barrage was fired by the cannons carefully positioned and camouflaged close to the two-mile long brushwood and bush screen which also hid the tanks. This positioning was to permit the cannons to range more deeply behind German front lines without needing to be moved forward once break through was achieved. The camouflage protected them against German counter-battery fire. The tanks had been brought forward with their engine and track noises being suppressed by the sound of aeroplanes flying over the German trenches and machine-gun firing.

After the intensive barrage, a lifting barrage with 100 yard lifts was fired as the tanks moved forward followed by the infantry. Despite the capture of some Ulster Division prisoners two days before making the Germans aware of an impending attack, this short barrage fooled the German defenders so they were surprised by unexpectedly finding themselves facing the advancing tanks. The tanks fanned out from the so-called Grand Ravine in front of Havrincourt Wood to crush the belts of barbed wire. The following infantry then entered and captured with relatively few casualties many sections of the German front line trenches.

The Rival’s Reaction

German commanders were aware of the basic abilities of the British tanks and some divisions had trained in using cannons, machine-guns and adapted rifles in an anti-tank role. The 54th Division at Flesquieres village were able to so weaken the attack on the first day that greater success was contained. The German High Command then used their skill in moving troops rapidly over the railway network to bring forward eleven divisions. When the momentum of the British assaults began to subside, these divisions were released into action and the British troops driven back to the Flesquieres Ridge and elsewhere to near their starting-lines.

Lessons of Cambrai

This battle was the first occasion when the major innovation of the Great War, the tank, went into action in large numbers. Their numbers were such that the preliminary bombardment was dispensed with in favour of allowing the tanks to attack with limited artillery support beforehand. This plan was the opportunity to test whether or not tanks could achieve surprise using their own cannon-fire to supplement the limited barrage. The plan worked well during most of the first 48 hours, the planned duration of the attack.

It was less successful in the co-ordination between the tanks and the following infantry. The infantry found themselves being caught by German machine-guns once the tanks had passed them. Instead the infantry could have advanced alongside the tanks using the steel walls of the tanks for protection from which they could destroy the machine-gun nests, leaving the tanks to destroy solid gun emplacements with their cannons and large concentrations of German troops with their machine-guns. Unfortunately better co-ordination required better communication between tank and infantry commanders and the existing wireless communications technology and design of the tanks prevented this. The wireless tanks, for example, proved to be ineffective. Furthermore the tanks themselves destroyed the means of communication. The brushwood fascines, weighing some two tons, positioned on their roofs to be used as fillers of trenches, brought down overhead telephone lines. The sledges being dragged behind the supply tanks cut the ground laid wires.

The decision of General Charteris to ignore the reports about the arrival of the three fresh German divisions from the Russian front was unacceptable – a decision for which he was later sacked. Their presence and fighting capability left the infantry and the cavalry seriously exposed to counter-attack once the tank force had been spent (over half being damaged or destroyed, being stranded by falling into trenches, or breaking down mechanically during the first day) and the eleven German reserve divisions brought up by railway. These events suggest the lesson was that having achieved the break through, the vulnerable units should have been allowed to consolidate until the tank force had been revitalised and the cannon line moved further forward, the principle of ‘bite and hold’. Originally planned as a 48 hour attack, the continuation beyond the first two days for limited gain was a reversion to the type of control which had brought such poor returns during the last weeks of the Battle of the Somme.

Nevertheless the development and exploitation of the tank was clear evidence that the Allies had at last pulled back the technological lead of the Germans. Fortunately the German High Command were complacent that their way of waging war still gave them a competitive advantage – thus they regarded the tank as something of a joke. Their attempt to build a tank, the A7V, was pathetic. Its performance was mediocre, its country-country ability almost non-existant, and its design suggested a miniature mobile Hohenzollern Redoubt. The 9 tanks they built were rapidly put out of action. Instead they took to recycling broken-down British tanks left behind after Cambrai by mending them and painting on the Iron Cross. Together with repaired French tanks they had some 170 recycled Allied tanks to use in the Kaiser’s Offensive of the spring and early summer of 1918 – but these were soon used up.

This failure to understand the importance of the new technology and to develop an effective rival machine in sufficient numbers to protect their infantry meant that during the Offensive their mobile storm troopers speedily made great gains but suffered huge casualties. These troops were the cream of the German Army soldiers drawn from Western Front units and units no longer needed in Russia. They were carefully trained in assault techniques. But once they were used up, the poor calibre of the remaining troops was to be exposed in the assaults at le Hamel, St. Mihiel, and then at Amiens.

Rating the Quality of the Operation

Examining the analysis of the 34 questions using the Likert Scale, the deviation was found to be favourable by 4.9%. The distribution showed a marked concentration on performance ranging from the good to the poor with very few being considered either very good or very poor performance. This mean that overall the performance was as might be expected to be achieved by competent managers but showed little sign of sustained excellence. The events after the first 48 hours can be held to justify this conclusion.

Views of the Battlefield


The Grand Ravine Cemetery on the southern edge of Havrincourt Wood, typical of many Great War cemeteries which are geographically isolated yet often visited by Western Front visitors.


The so-called Grand Ravine up which the some 400 tanks advanced from Havrincourt Wood towards Flesquieres and Ribecourt-la-Tour at the head of the valley.


Another view of the Grand Ravine showing that it is nothing more than a gentle incline towards the Hindenburg Line on the Flesquieres-Ribecourt ridge.


The modern bridge at Masnieres across the St Quentin Canal replaces the bridge which collapsed under the weight of the tank ‘Flying Fox’ on the 20th of November that effectively drained away the impetus of the British advance.


The Newfoundland Regiment’s Caribou Memorial on the northern edge of Masnieres which could also commemorate the success of the Fort Garry Horse during the battle for which Lieutenant Henry Strachan was awarded the Victoria Cross.


A bas relief by C.S. Jagger carved on one of the walls of the Cambrai Memorial at Louverval which vividly illustrates in stone the nature of trench warfare.

Cambrai, 20th November to 7th December 1917 Part 1

The Prelude

After the disaster of the French Nivelle Offensive and the spectacular Canadian capture of the Vimy Ridge on Easter Day (9th April 1917), the British Army continued assaults around Arras which were largely unsuccessful. But on the 7th of June, 1917, the Messines Ridge near Ypres was torn apart by the explosions of some 15 mines. Supported by a creeping barrage, British, Australian and New Zealand infantry and tanks surged forward to clear the ridge. Two days later the battle was closed. After an interval of some seven weeks, the attacks around Ypres on the 31st of July began Third Ypres. Soon the rains turned the battlefield into a swamp. Even when the rains stopped, the drying conditions allowed the exploding shells to throw up clouds of dust. During the terrible months of September and October, the troops fought forward over the swamp until on the 10th of November the Passchendaele Ridge was finally taken. Six kilometres of advance had taken fourteen weeks for a cost of some 225,000 British and Empire casualties.

As the tanks had proved unable to cope with the swamps of the Ypres Salient, the British High Command decided that the tanks rolling off the assembly-lines should be tried out in a mass attack on ground not ruined by earlier battles and capable of carrying the weight of each tank. After the Battle of the Somme, in early 1917 the Germans retired to the newly-prepared line of strong fortifications, the Siegfried Stellung (nicknamed the Hindenburg Line by the British), in front of the town of Cambrai. Not only was the ground suitable for tanks being relatively flat and well-drained, but also it gave the opportunity to test out the capability of the Mark IV tank to break through the new German defences.

When the proposal to attack the Hindenburg Line was first made, Fuller saw the assault as a tank raid. However during the planning process, the operation ‘grew by topsy’ into a large scale attempt to break through what British Intelligence thought was a weakly-defended German sector. The Divisions assigned to the assault had recently been at and taken heavy casualties at Third Ypres so were in the Cambrai sector being refilled with replacements of newly-arrived soldiers. To compensate for these soldiers not being battle-hardened, cavalry was substituted. The initial planning was for the battle to be terminated after forty-eight hours if no substantial gains had been made.

The Battle of Cambrai

Before most British offensives, long barrages were employed. But as with the assault on the Bazentin Ridge, a short barrage was used using predicted fire. Beforehand the cannons had been silently registered onto identified targets. But rather than the effective creeping barrage based on 10 yard lifts which was ideal for suppressing German fire (their troops naturally hid in their underground dug-outs until the barrage passed, by which time the British troops were entering their trenches), a lifting barrage was used with 100 yard lifts. To achieve longer range, the guns had been hidden behind a two-mile long screen of cut brushwood and bushes along the edge of Havrincourt Wood. The 378 Mark IV fighting tanks and 93 support tanks (54 supply tanks pulling sledges carrying ammunition, fuel, water, wire, etc., 32 fitted with grapnels for shearing away the belts of barbed wire to make gaps for the cavalry to pass through, 2 carrying bridging equipment and 5 fitted with wirelesses) had been brought forward by their sound of movement being masked by British aircraft flying over the German trenches and drowning the noise with their own and by the firing of the Vickers machine-guns. The tanks then moved forward to crush the barbed wire enclosures before the Hindenburg Line and achieved complete surprise.

Soon the tanks were beyond the German trenches and with the following infantry and cavalry began to advance through the open country behind the trench systems and stormed through the villages of Masnieres and Marcoing. But the tanks were slow and vulnerable to artillery and anti-tank fire. Their assault capabilities were rapidly weakened, especially on the ridge before the village of Flesquieres where the gunners of the German 54th Division manning the line had been specially trained by their commander, Lieutenant-General von Watter, to fight tanks. The gunners manhandled their 77mm cannons into exposed positions from where they could fire directly at the approaching tanks. Twenty-eight tanks were ‘brewed up’, and the 51st Highland Division lost the protection these tanks would have provided.

An innovative German tactic was for the machine-gunners in the front line to wait for the tanks to pass then fire upon the following infantry, leaving the second line to engage the tanks. Their response was given assistance by the lifting barrage which meant that the machine-gunners were able to wait for the barrage to lift beyond them before emerging to fire on the advancing British troops, a practice not possible with the creeping barrage. With the rapid dwindling in numbers of tanks and British soldiers, the Germans gained time to regroup well beyond their former trenches. At their defensive positions along Bourlon Ridge, they resisted stubbornly. As the tanks bottomed on the tree stumps, they were not able to greatly assist the assaulting British troops who were unable to securely capture Bourlon Wood lying along the Ridge.

Unfortunately the BEF Director of Military Intelligence, Brigadier-General John Charteris, did not accept the information that three fresh German divisions had recently arrived from the Eastern Front following the collapse of Russia and so misinformed Sir Douglas Haig. These divisions helped slow the advance until the arrival of another eleven divisions over the next few days. During the first forty-eight hours, the British troops had achieved great success, measured by capturing formidable trench systems and large numbers of prisoners, despite the two set-backs at Flesquieres and Bourlon Wood.

The dilemma for the British military tacticians was now either to halt the attack and retreat to defensible positions or to continue with the aim of consolidating on Bourlon Ridge. This would give visual observation dominance over the land around the town of Cambrai – a substantial prize under the conditions of the Western Front. The British High Command decided to commit the limited reserves available in seeking to achieve this consolidation but the German troops on the ridge continued to fight valiantly. Skilfully exploiting their railway system to speedily bring up their reserve divisions, the German High Command then launched a series of attacks and by the 8th of December had driven back the British infantry to near their start-lines of the 20th of November although they held on to Flesquieres and its Ridge, Ribecourt and Havrincourt.

The British began the battle with very limited reserves because of the casualties suffered at Third Ypres and the troops sent to northern Italy to bolster the Italian Army following its disaster at the Battle of Caporetto. After days of fighting, British troops were left with small gains, and the tank force was spent. Communications also soon broke down because of the tanks. The fascines on the top (bundles of brushwood to aid in crossing trenches) brought down the overhead telephone wires. whilst the sledges being dragged behind the supply tanks cut the ground-laid wires. Furthermore the Mark IV tanks were still not mechanically reliable and were too easily disabled by artillery and anti-tank rifle fire. Nevertheless the use of tanks en masse was the most dramatic innovation using machinery during the Great War by the British High Command.

The Aftermath

Cambrai was the last major offensive of 1917. Together with the battles of Arras and Third Ypres, it had achieved little despite early promise. Although the new technologies of tanks, the creeping barrage, counter-battery fire and the continuous wave wireless were not sufficiently reliable to give sustainable competitive advantage, nevertheless they were changing the face of battle after the previous three years of stalemate and horrendous casualty lists.

Questions

1. Why did the planned assault at Cambrai ‘grow by topsy’?

2. What measures were taken to achieve surprise?

3. What limited the exploitation of the successful breakthrough?

4. Why did communications fail, both on the battlefield and with British Intelligence?

5. What skills did the Germans show during the course of the battle?

Touring the Cambrai Battlefield

As Professor Brian Bond of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, has commented, touring the Cambrai battlefield is difficult because the present road layout does not relate to the routes followed by the advancing tanks and infantry in 1917. This is because the dry ground freed the tanks from having to drive along roads so they were able to follow the contours of the ground rather than having to keep to the roads. The battlefield is to the west of the city of Cambrai. Havrincourt Wood is at the bottom of the shallow valley, strangely called the Grand Ravine, along which the tanks drove up to Flesquieres and Ribecourt. The tanks broke through to Marcoing and Masnieres beyond, towns on the St. Quentin Canal. The bridge at Masnieres replaces the one which collapsed under the weight of the first British tank crossing it, thereby ruining the advance of the mechanical forces. At the northern edge of Masnieres beside the N44 road is the Caribou monument marking the Newfoundland Regiment’s contribution to the battle (as well as the Canadian Fort Garry Horse which broke into the open country beyond but had to withdraw because their support was delayed by the collapsed bridge). In this part of France other Caribou are also found, at Gueudecourt and at Beaumont-Hamel. The latter statue presides over the famous Newfoundland Memorial Park where the Royal Newfoundland Regiment marched to thei deaths on July the 1st, 1916.

To the north of the N30 road from Cambrai to Bapaume is Bourlon Wood, on the Ridge dominating the relatively flat countryside to the west of Cambrai. The Memorial to the Missing at Louverval further along on the right of the road has the superb bas relief panels by C.S.Jagger which capture in stone the essence of trench warfare.

The Bazentin Ridge, 14th to 20th July 1916 Part 2

External Circumstances

On the 6th of December 1915, the French and British agreed to a joint offensive astride the river Somme. But on the 21st of February 1916, the Germans launched their attack upon Verdun. The ensuing titanic struggle between the German and French forces at Verdun became attritional to both. The French High Command realized that their heavier casualty rates during the previous two years meant that their capability to replenish the losses was weaker. To lessen this risk the Somme front needed to be opened rapidly. The British agreed to bring forward the date of their attack to the 25th of June. British volunteer divisions were at what the High Command considered an adequate level of training. This was provided that the preparation for the battle minimised the fact that they were inexperienced in actually fighting.

The original date of 1st of July was restored as it was able to meet the need to balance how long the French could hang on at Verdun against making final preparations on the Somme. This was especially in terms of bringing up to the front areas the 1,400 cannons and their shells for the preparatory bombardment which would smash the German fortifications and blast away the barriers of barbed wire.

Because of the inexperience of the volunteer divisions, an intensive bombardment was fired from the 24th of June. All parts of the German front lines were subjected to this bombardment. At around Zero Hour (7.30 a.m. on the 1st of July), mines dug under the German front line trenches were blown (the large holes remain at the Hawthorn Crater, Beaumont-Hamel, and the Lochnagar Crater, La Boisselle) to stun the German defenders close to them not killed by the explosions.

The assaults were largely failures except for some along the right flank. Changed plans were needed to exploit these limited gains and to attack the German second line between Bazentin le Grand and Longueval villages on the 14th of July. During the fortnight, the German strongpoints of Mametz Wood, Contalmaison village and Trones Wood were captured.

Selection of the Assault Units

The Somme was the occasion of the first major employment of the New Armies, made up of Derby volunteers who two years before had been civilians without any military training. Although Regular and Territorial battalions were still to be found, most of their experienced soldiers had gone ‘over the hill’ in the battles of 1914 and 1915.
Launching the attack on the Bazentin Ridge were battalions of the 3rd, 7th, 9th (Scottish), 21st and 34th Divisions. During the next week, some were relieved by the battalions of the 1st, 5th, 18th, 23rd and 33rd Divisions as battalions were rapidly consumed in the ferocity of the German counter-attacks – which themselves consumed many German regiments.

Rather than the long bombardment used as a preliminary to the attack on the 1st of July, a five-minute intensive barrage was planned. The objective was to surprise the Germans grown used to long bombardments before major attacks.

The Methods of Assault Adopted

The night before the dawn of the 14th, the British troops moved up close to the German trenches to await the intensive bombardment. After it finished, they sprung forward in the dawn light to rapidly overwhelm the defences particularly around Bazentin-le-Grand. But around Longueval high casualty rates were suffered by both sides as the German defenders of the strongly fortified village resisted strongly throughtout the day. As a result, the next day the South African Brigade within the 9th Division were ordered to capture Delville Wood and entered it to begin their heroic defence. Too late in the afternoon of the first day the 20th Deccan Horse and 7th Dragoon Guards squadrons of the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division made their charge upon High Wood. This proved to be strategically unsuccessful in that they and the accompanying infantry could not complete the capture of the wood. The Germans held on to the Switch Line within it and the two month battle for the wood began.

The Rival’s Reaction

Once the Germans recovered from being ejected off much of the Ridge, they determined to regain the lost ground. Using bombardments in an attempt to ‘soften up’ the British defenders, they launched waves of attacks in hopeless assaults. Against withering machine-gun fire they soon used up their regiments and then their divisions. After the Somme they recognised that the attrition during these attacks had destroyed the old German field Army built up skilfully over the 110 years since the disasters of Jena and Auerstadt.

Lessons of the Bazentin Ridge

The main lesson is that of missed opportunities once the assault troops had achieved their objectives shortly after dawn (except at Longueval). Perhaps the general inertia shown after the successful break-in was a reaction to the events of the 1st of July. Surprise at gaining such a rapid victory may have caused the unit commanders to fear a trap; thus they waited for further orders not wishing to risk entering a trap.

This is a reflection of the bureaucratic chain of command then existing. With little decentralization of the power to make decisions being given to unit commanders they were not able to act as they saw fit, independently of orders which had yet to be passed to them by the Army Commander and his staff. Hence several senior unit commanders, seeing High Wood lying quietly in the July sun across the valley, walked up the slope towards it and found no enemy troops or defensive works. However they did not feel empowered to move even a few machine-gun units forward and into the wood. Their presence would have deterred the Germans from creeping back in and saved the later two months of agony in attempting to capture the wood.

The second missed opportunity was the eleven hours between the dawn attack and the charge of the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division. This is no reflection of the valour of the cavalry but rather on their being held so far back from the front. It would have been more sensible to hold the cavalry reserves close to the jumping-off trenches so that a break-through could have been rapidly implemented. By spreading them out among shelter behind the trenches, the casualties from German artillery fire would have been limited – and the cavalrymen could soon have concentrated into their units for the charge. However military tacticians would counter by saying that the cavalry needed to be kept far back to move forwards to parts of the German lines where the barbed wire had been properly cleared away, thereby being no danger to horses’ legs. But the conditions on the Western Front were very different from those on the veldt of South Africa – and if keeping horses from injury was so important, charges by cavalry should not have been planned into the programme of attack.

Rating the Quality of the Operation

The analysis of the 34 questions using the Likert Scale finds a favourable deviation of 13.7%. The spread of answers, a distribution skewed towards the very favourable but with many neither favourable or adverse, reflects this positive deviation showing that overall performance was improving. Hence the rapid success by the skilful co-ordination of artillery bombardment and infantry assault reflected General Rawlinson’s determination to try a method not used a fortnight earlier albeit with troops of similar levels of training. But the reliance on the cavalry to complete the victory was to ignore the bitter lessons of 1914 and 1915.

Views of the Battlefield


Bazentin le Petit village showing the slope of the Ridge up which the British troops advanced in the dawn of the 14th of July having been brought up to shelter under the ridge the night before.


Bazentin Ridge from the Bazentin le Grand farm towards Bazentin le Petit; today a tranquil scene of cultivated fields.


Bazentin le Petit Wood across the gentle valley, from High Wood, whose fields of waving corn lay deserted of German troops for most of the 14th of July.


The line of the Indian Cavalry attack in the late afternoon of the 14th, an attack too late to stop the German snipers and machine-gunners moving forward into the fields and High Wood.


South African trenches within Delville Wood which the Brigade fought to hold against intensive artillery barrages and gun-fire between the 15th and 20th of July.


The superb South African National Memorial which commemorates the Brigades‘s outstanding defence of Delville Wood during the critical days after the assault on the Bazentin Ridge.&nbsp

The Bazentin Ridge, 14th to 20th July 1916 Part 1

The Prelude

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.

The Aftermath

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.

Questions

  • 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.