WWI Centennial: Battle of Bazentin Ridge

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. 

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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. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

Thomas Franklin Vaughns, 99-Year-Old Former Mechanic for the Tuskegee Airmen, Just Received Five Army Medals

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

After his service in the Korean War, Thomas Franklin Vaughns was so desperate to come home that he didn’t stick around to collect his National Defense Service Medal. The Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette reports that now, at the age of 99, Vaughns has finally received it.

Along with the Korean War medal, Arkansas Congress members also presented Vaughns with four replacement awards for his service in World War II: the World War II Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal-World War II, the Good Conduct Army Medal, and the Honorable Service Lapel Button. Vaughns had initially received these after the war, but misplaced them in the decades since.

Vaughns was a mechanic for the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, serving the U.S. at a time when the military made it difficult for African Americans to do so. Segregation in the armed forces didn’t formally end until 1948, two years after Vaughns was discharged the first time.

“You are the ultimate patriot and the ultimate hero because you served when even by law and by practice many said you couldn’t and you shouldn’t,” Arkansas state representative Vivian Flowers said during the ceremony. “There was discrimination on every level of society and you served despite that.”

After the Korean War, Vaughns returned to Arkansas and started setting community youths on the path to success through his work with AmeriCorps VISTA, Delta Service Corps, and 4-H Clubs of America. Some of his former mentees even attended the medal ceremony. Ben McGee recalled how Vaughns helped him and his two brothers through college at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB).

“I had 20 cents in my pocket. I got on this campus and never got a penny from home in four years,” McGee told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette. “I got on work study, got in the agriculture department, and worked every evening on the college farm.”

Vaughns firmly believes in the importance of education, and estimates that he’s probably helped 80 to 90 students pursue degrees at UAPB; he refers to them as “my kids.”

"He’s a hero in every sense of the word," Arkansas senator John Boozman said of Vaughns. "Not because of his military service—that’s part of it—but he’s a hero because of the way he’s lived his life."

12 Surprising Facts About Red Dawn

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

On August 10, 1984, Red Dawn stormed into theaters. The Cold War-era film envisioned a WWIII-like scenario of what it would look like if Communist Soviets and Cubans invaded a small Colorado town, and what might happen if a group of teenagers fought back with heavy artillery. The cast included then-unknowns Jennifer Grey, Lea Thompson, and Charlie Sheen, plus rising stars Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell (who had co-starred in 1983’s The Outsiders), plus veteran actors Powers Boothe and Harry Dean “Avenge Me!” Stanton.

John Milius, who had been nominated for an Oscar for co-writing Apocalypse Now and who had co-written and directed 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, directed Red Dawn from a script—originally named Ten Soldiers—written by future Waterworld director Kevin Reynolds. With a budget of $17 million, the film—the first to be distributed with the newly formed PG-13 rating—grossed $38.3 million. Here are some things you might not know about Red Dawn.

1. John Milius rewrote the script of Red Dawn.

Kevin Reynolds wrote Red Dawn while still a student at USC film school. MGM optioned the script and asked Milius to direct it. “I brought the writer in and said, ‘This isn’t going to be easy for you to take because, you know, you’re kind of full of yourself, but I’m going to take this and I’m going to make it into my movie, and you’re just going to have to sit back and watch, and it may not be too pleasant,” Milius told Creative Screenwriting. “My advice is to take the money you have and spend it on a young girl. Enjoy getting laid and write another script. Because this isn’t going to be fun to watch.’”

Milius said Reynolds’s script was similar to Lord of the Flies. “I kept some of that, but my script was about the resistance. And my script was tinged by the time, too. We made it really outrageous, infinitely more outrageous than his vision. And to this day, it holds up, because people ask, ‘What’s that movie about?’ And I say that movie’s not about the Russians; it’s about the federal government.”

2. Milus had a very unique way of auditioning actresses for the film.

Red Dawn co-casting director Jane Jenkins explained that Milius would ask each auditioning actress “What would happen if you were in the wilderness and you were starving? Could you kill a bunny?” “And he’d always say a bunny, not a rabbit,” Jenkins said. “And he’d say, ‘Could you kill a bunny and skin it, and eat it?’ And the girls were horrified at that suggestion, and needless to say didn’t go any further. The girls who said, ‘Well, if it were life or death …’ got to go on and read for the parts they eventually were going to play.”

3. Red Dawn was described as "the most violent movie ever made."

After the movie was released in 1984, The National Coalition on Television Violence deemed Red Dawn “the most violent movie ever made.” They said it contained 134 acts of violence an hour, and they rated it X. “This summer’s releases are the most violent in the history of the industry, averaging 28.5 violent acts an hour,” the Coalition said. They also gave X ratings to Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

4. Milius put Patrick Swayze in charge of Red Dawn's cast.

Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Lea Thompson, C. Thomas Howell, Darren Dalton, Brad Savage, and Doug Toby in 'Red Dawn' (1984)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Because Patrick Swayze was older than most of the actors, and because he had more acting experience than them, Milius trusted Swayze to control his co-stars. “Milius is a very intense director,” Swayze said in the Red Dawn commentary. “He’s a very wonderful director, but we had to call him the General and he called me, he says, ‘Swayze, you’re my lieutenant of the art. I’m directing these little suckers through you.’ He put a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, and I took it really seriously.”

5. The U.S. military named an operation after Red Dawn.

In 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, Army Capt. Geoffrey McMurray named the mission Operation Red Dawn. “Operation Red Dawn was so fitting because it was a patriotic, pro-American movie,” McMurray told USA Today. A commander in the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division had already named the target farmhouses Wolverine 1 and Wolverine 2, so McMurray said the name made sense.

6. Milius knew Hollywood would "condemn" him for making the film.

“I knew that Hollywood would condemn me for it,” Milius said in the Red Dawn commentary. “That I’d be regarded as a right wing warmonger from then on, uncontrollable and un-housebroken.” Milius supposedly left one of his guns on his desk while journalists interviewed him, so he demonstrated his ideals well.

“I was the only person in Hollywood who would dare do this movie,” he said. “Hollywood was very left-wing. But I have a lot of contractions. I’m a militarist and an extreme patriot at times, so I believe in all of that rugged individualism hogwash.”

7. Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey did not get along.

Not all the actors were thrilled with Milius's decision to put Swayze in charge of the cast. Swayze told Daily Mail that he butted heads with Jennifer Grey in particular, who disliked how he ordered her around. “At the end of Red Dawn, however, when we shot her character’s death scene, she seemed to warm to me,” he said. “It's a tender scene and, as I stroked her hair, it was truly emotional. I think it endeared me to her, and it was clear she and I had chemistry together.” Almost exactly three years later, the pair’s chemistry would ignite the dance floor in Dirty Dancing.

8. Patrick Swayze got frostbite.

Filming in Las Vegas, New Mexico, sometimes meant extremely cold conditions. So cold, in fact, that Swayze ended up with frostbite. “I got frostbite so bad in my hands and my toes, that now if my hands and fingers get the slightest bit cold it feels like someone’s shoving toothpicks under my fingernails,” he said in the Red Dawn commentary.

C. Thomas Howell had a different perspective on the cold temperatures. “You know it’s cold when you’re forced to spoon Charlie Sheen,” he said. “That’s what we were forced to do: to huddle together and pretend we liked each other.”

9. William Smith frightened Charlie Sheen.

William Smith played the Russian Colonel Strelnikov, but in real life he had been a Russian Intercept Interrogator for the CIA. “He was terrifying,” Sheen said in the Red Dawn commentary. “I don’t know if he was in character the whole time, but you couldn’t talk to him on the set. You just kept your distance. But it worked in the movie—look how brilliant he is in the film. He’s an imposing force.”

10. Milius thought Red Dawn was a "zombie movie with Russians."

In the ‘80s, the Cold War was in full swing, and the world lived in fear of a nuclear attack. (Not totally unlike today.) “Red Dawn the film was about the impending possible reality, which at that time was an actual fear of the Soviet Union invading this country,” Milius told Mandatory. “People actually thought that way. That’s why I made that movie, that’s why people liked it. The fear was real and it played on that. That’s what made it an exciting movie.”

Milius compared the film to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “In this case, I made a movie of the same vein but with Russians. It’s like a zombie movie with Russians. That’s what it was like at the time. People were paranoid about aliens and people were paranoid about Russians. It was Close Encounters with Cold War Russians.”

11. The studio cut a love scene between Lea Thompson and Powers Boothe.

In the Red Dawn commentary, Thompson described a “beautiful love scene” between her and co-star Powers Boothe, who was 13 years older than her. “I say, ‘I’m going to die before having made love. Will you please make love with me?’ We said okay, and disappeared out of frame. And they took the scene out of the movie, which was sad because it explained my character. It was a nice scene.”

12. Fans still yell "Wolverines!" at C. Thomas Howell.

Charlie Sheen, Patrick Swayze, and C. Thomas Howell in Red Dawn (1984)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

One of the most iconic lines in the movie comes from C. Thomas Howell’s character, Robert. From a mountaintop he shouts “Wolverines!” which is the name the guerilla group gives themselves. It’s also the name of their high school mascot.

“I get that about twice a week in real life,” Howell told USA Today in 2012. “And about 40 times a day through Twitter.” He said in real life he doesn’t shout back, “but on Twitter, I cannot help typing a ‘Wolverine’ with a few exclamation points on it.”

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