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.