Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 243rd installment in the series.
July 14-17, 1916: Battle of Bazentin Ridge
The disastrous opening of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916 is still remembered as the bloodiest day in British military history, but it was merely the beginning of five months of horror that resulted in 1.3 million casualties on both sides, including 310,486 killed and missing. The lion’s share of these were inflicted in a series of incremental Allied offensives throughout the summer and fall of 1916, as the British and French pushed forward again and again in search of an ever-elusive breakthrough.
The second big push fell just two weeks after the first assault, during the Battle of Bazentin Ridge from July 14-17, when the British scored a rare victory but then failed to exploit it, giving the Germans a chance to regroup and dig in again – by now a frustratingly familiar result on those rare occasions when either side scored a success.
In the wake of the blood-soaked initial assault, which yielded gains in the south but disaster in the north, British Expeditionary Force commander Douglas Haig ordered the Fourth Army under General Henry Rawlinson to push ahead on the southern front, resulting in ineffectual piecemeal attacks that failed to breach the second German defensive line, or “Braune Stellung” (Brown Line), the original objective of the offensive.
Where the British had succeeded in capturing the German first line, terrible scenes prevailed, as described by brigadier general Alexander Johnston, who visited captured trenches near La Boisselle on July 10: “I have seen some bad places this war but have seen nothing like this place, piles of dead all over the place both German and British, most of them about 10 days old in an awful state black in the face and stinking horribly, the battered communication trenches are full of them, and one has merely to walk over the top of them.” Incredibly, wounded British soldiers were still dragging themselves out of no man’s land as well. One British officer, Lionel Crouch, wrote to his father on July 10:
One man lay out wounded for five days. He finally crawled into our trenches. He had been unable to tell which were ours and which were German until he saw a bully-beef tin lying outside, which made him guess that they were British… He had subsisted on grass. He had a fractured thigh, but the wound had healed. His arm was badly hit and there were actually maggots in his arm. He was very cheerful and ate a large meal. Old Summerhayes attended him, and says that he will lose his arm but ought to live.
After the meager gains won by the subsequent British attacks from July 2-13, Rawlinson, still determined to pierce the Braune Stellung and achieve a breakthrough, laid out a new plan for an attack along a low rolling hill, Bazentin Ridge, just south of two villages, Bazentin-le-Petit and Bazentin-le-Grand. Unusually for the First World War, Rawlinson actually drew on recent lessons from the battlefield when formulating his strategy, including the experiences of the Fourth Army during the Somme offensive over the previous two weeks.
Among the lessons learned, Rawlinson insisted on an overwhelming concentration of artillery against the enemy’s second line positions, which were still vulnerable, as the Germans hadn’t had time to replicate the 40-foot-deep dugouts of their abandoned first line. The plan also called for close air reconnaissance and support to ensure British shelling was hitting the right targets. Finally, Rawlinson’s plan also called for the element of surprise mostly lacking in the original assault: infantry from the 3rd and 9th Divisions of the British XIII Corps would advance deep into no man’s land under cover of dark (a perilous stratagem, to say the least) and then spring their attack on the German second line in the early morning, advancing behind a precisely measured creeping barrage. Meanwhile the 7th and 21st Divisions of XV Corps would attack to the north, where the jumping off trenches were much closer to the enemy’s. In a sign of their confidence, the British also brought up three cavalry divisions, two British and one Indian, to exploit the hoped-for breakthrough.
The plan required considerable preparation, as described by the war correspondent Frederick Palmer, who wrote: “New roads must be made in order that the transport could move farther forward; medical corps men were establishing more advanced clearing stations; new ammunition dumps were being located; military police were adapting traffic regulations to the new situation. Old trenches had been filled up to give trucks and guns passageway.”
The huge bombardment that began on July 11 left no doubt of the Allied advantage in artillery on the Somme during this period. For three days straight British and French guns of all sizes pumped shells into the relatively exposed German second defensive line along the Bazentin Ridge (now actually the frontline), wiping out trenches and cutting off communications with the rear. Palmer left the following, somewhat surreal impressions of the bombardment:
The ruins and the sticks of trees of Fricourt and Mametz with their few remaining walls stood out spectral in the flashes of batteries that had found nesting places among the debris. The whole slope had become a volcanic uproar. One might as well have tried to count the number of fireflies over a swamp as the flashes. The limitation of reckoning had been reached. Guns ahead of us and around us and behind us as usual, in a battle of competitive crashes among themselves, and near by we saw the figures of the gunners outlined in instants of weird lightning glow, which might include the horses of a caisson in a flicker of distinct silhouette flashed out of the night and then lost in the night, with the riders sitting as straight as if at drill.
In the early morning of July 14, the shelling culminated in a five-minute “hurricane” bombardment, described by Major Neil Fraser-Tytler: “The whole world broke into gunfire. It was a stupendous spectacle – the darkness lit up by thousands of gun flashes – the flicker of countless bursting shells along the northern skyline, followed a few minutes later by a succession of frantic SOS rockets and the glare of burning Hun ammunition dumps.”
At 3:25 a.m. the British troops, who had already succeeded in infiltrating no man’s land undetected, began advancing behind the creeping barrage, which protected them from German counterattacks. The British quickly reached the first German trench, which they discovered was already abandoned in many areas, and began rolling up the German defenses with flank attacks down the trenches. As the morning went on, support battalions brought up trench mortars and machine guns to consolidate the British gains, while the first wave of attackers continued on past the ridge and into the woods in front of the villages Bazentin le Petit and Bazentin le Grand. After clearing most of the German defenders from the woods, around dawn they fought their way into Bazentin le Petit, the first major objective, where they fought off fierce German counterattacks.
By 10 a.m. on July 14, the British 3rd and 7th Divisions had torn a hole in the German defenses, clearing the way for an advance into the High Wood north of Bazentin le Petit, but the divisional commanders were under orders to hold their positions and couldn’t call on reinforcements, which were being held in reserve in case of potential German counterattacks elsewhere. Thus the British 33rd Division was left kicking its heels in nearby Montauban while the Germans rushed to reestablish their defensive line.
Meanwhile the British attack didn’t succeed everywhere: the 9th Division in particular, attacking the German lines near the village of Longueval, suffered very heavy casualties as it tried to push the Germans out of Delville Wood (Delville Wood would soon earn the baleful nickname “Devil’s Wood”; below, a scene from a trench near Delville, top, survivors of the 9th Division returning). South African troops continued to battle for Longueval and Delville Wood from July 14 to July 17 (and beyond), but the planned cavalry attack was called off after an abortive advance by the Indian cavalry division revealed the Germans were still well entrenched; the Indian cavalry were further hindered by shell holes and debris strewn across the battlefield, and forced to retreat.
On the two following days, July 15-16, the British occupied most of Delville Wood and held it in the face of intense German bombardment with heavy artillery and gas shells, but the Germans still occupied the northwest corner of the wood, allowing them to hit Allied troops around Bazentin le Petit with machine gun fire. The British next tried to push the Germans out of their positions here with a pincer attack from Bazentin le Petit and the positions already gained in Delville Wood, but the situation remained a stalemate – albeit an extremely violent one, with the wood and village continuously raked by machine guns, heavy artillery, mortars, and gas shells. F.J.G. Gambling, an artillery signaler, remembered being forced to suddenly take shelter by German artillery outside Bazentin le Petit: “Some of us were lucky enough to get there, but two of the chaps were not. One of them was blown to smithereens and the other’s head was completely cut off. That finished our signaling there for that day. The body of the one chap and the few pieces we could find of the other were buried where they fell.”
By July 17, the arrival of growing numbers of German reinforcements finally spelled the end of the fleeting British success at Bazentin Ridge (below, exhausted British troops resting).
The British troops were left to consolidate their gains amid conditions that defy comprehension by modern readers. In the aftermath of the Battle of Bazentin Ridge one British soldier, Stanley Spencer, described advancing up a key trench known as Longueval Alley:
It was full of dead men, both visible – lying about as they had been killed in the trench itself – and invisible – killed and buried with loose earth from the caved-in sides of the trench – and now formed part of the floor in which everyone walked… Some of the bodies under the floor of the trench had swollen and the result was a springy, cushiony feeling when walking along which gave us a rather queer and very unpleasant sensation.
On July 19 the British officer Lionel Crouch described similar conditions in a captured German communication trench:
It was extraordinary to see all these men lying there apparently asleep. About fifty yards of this trench was a veritable charnel-house; the dead were everywhere on the sides, in the floor of the trench. It was like walking through a bivouac of sleeping men. One had to step over and round them. I found one of my men sitting on one; he thought that it was a pile of sandbags! All this sounds very horrible and all that from home and peacetime standards, but isn’t so really. We don’t worry over this kind of thing.
Meanwhile the physical landscape of the Somme River basin was being completely transformed, as village after village were simply erased by relentless artillery shelling and counter-shelling, in most places leaving a smudge of masonry dust and little else. Crouch noted of one unnamed village in the same letter home, one of his last before his death on July 21, 1916:
I had never before realised the power of high explosives. This village must have been once a pretty little place in its cluster of trees on the crest of a rise. According to the map, there was once a church, no doubt with its usual pointed spire showing through the foliage. That village is now completely off the map. I know you will think it an exaggeration, but it is true. There is not a vestige of a brick wall. I never even saw a brick. The place is merely an area of several acres of mounds, craters, and banks of earth and chalk, with a few burnt stumps of trees emerging from heaps of debris; there is not the slightest indication of a house of any sort.