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.