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High Wood is a small forest near Bazentin le Petit in the Somme département of northern France which was the scene of intense fighting for two months from 14 July to 15 September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.
The French name for the wood was Bois des Foureaux (now called Bois des Fourcaux), but to the British infantry who fought there it was known as High Wood and, like neighbouring Delville Wood, it earned an evil reputation. The stench of rotting corpses in the wood was overwhelming in summer and it inspired E.A. MacKintosh to pen a parody of Chalk Farm to Camberwell Green.[Note 1]
The British Fourth Army of Lieutenant General Henry Rawlinson first attempted to capture High Wood on 14 July 1916 during the Battle of Bazentin Ridge. Though the wood was initially abandoned by the Germans delays, confusion and hesitation meant that the British did not attempt to occupy it until the evening when two regiments of cavalry, the 7th Dragoon Guards and the 20th Deccan Horse, made the only cavalry charge of the battle. Though the cavalry gained a foothold and held out until the morning of 15 July, they were unsupported and forced to withdraw.
The next attempt on the wood was made by a company of the 16th Battalion, King's Royal Rifle Corps, 33rd Division on 15 July but by this time the Germans had reoccupied the wood in numbers. High Wood became an anchor for the new German defensive trench line, known as the Switch Line, that connected their second defensive line near Pozières with their incomplete third defensive line east of Flers. The Switch Line ran through the northern tip of High Wood and both proved impregnable to the piecemeal attacks mounted by the Fourth Army.
The 33rd Division attacked again on 20 July and managed to capture part of High Wood while the 5th Division and 7th Division attacked the Switch Line to the east. (It was during the 7th Division's attack that Private Theodore Veale won the Victoria Cross.) The next big Fourth Army assault came on the night of 22–23 July and on this occasion the 51st (Highland) Division attacked High Wood but here, as everywhere else on the Fourth Army front, they were repulsed with heavy casualties. Sergeant Bill Hay of the 1/9th Battalion, Royal Scots, described the attack thus:
- "That was a stupid action, because we had to make a frontal attack on bristling German guns and there was no shelter at all. ... There were dead bodies all over the place where previous battalions and regiments had taken part in previous attacks. What a bashing we got. There were heaps of men everywhere — not one or two men, but heaps of men, all dead. Even before we went over, we knew this was death. We just couldn't take High Wood against machine-guns. It was ridiculous. There was no need for it. It was just absolute slaughter."
The British field guns had difficulty supporting attacks on High Wood because they had to fire over Bazentin Ridge. The low elevation of the guns meant the shells were just skimming over the British trenches and the margin for error was small with numerous casualties from friendly fire.
On 18 August the 33rd Division was called on to attack High Wood once again and failed. The division tried on 24 August between High Wood and Delville Wood and as preparation for this assault, a machine gun barrage was fired by the 100th Machine Gun Company (100th Brigade) which in twelve hours fired over 1 million bullets from ten machine guns.
Another failed attack was made on 3 September as part of the fighting for Guillemont. By 14 September it was estimated that the British had suffered 6,000 casualties in the struggle for High Wood.
High Wood was captured along with the Switch Line, in the next big British offensive the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on 15 September 1916. Success was not achieved without further blunder and sacrifice. Due to the closeness of the two front-lines the III Corps commander Lieutenant General Sir William Pulteney, decided to use the new tank instead of artillery. After two months of constant fighting High Wood was not ideal terrain for tank operations, especially these first under-developed tanks. Four tanks were allocated to High Wood but only one, D-13 penetrated any distance and its presence was not decisive.
The task of capturing High Wood had fallen to the 47th (1/2nd London) Division. Their first attempt with tank support had failed but the attack resumed and after a hurricane bombardment of German positions by Stokes Mortars, in which 750 bombs were fired in 15 minutes, High Wood was finally in British hands. The 47th Division's performance was considered a failure because High Wood was only one of their objectives for the day; after four days of fighting in which the division suffered over 4,500 casualties, the commander Major General Charles Barter was relieved of command for "wanton waste of men" (though prevailing opinion lays the blame with Pulteney).[Note 2]
On the edge of High Wood is the London Cemetery and Extension. This Commonwealth cemetery was opened with the interment of 47 soldiers of the 47th Division in the days following 15 September 1916. The men were buried in a large shell hole. The cemetery now contains the remains of some 4000 men, most being First World War casualties. High Wood is also mentioned in a poem of Siegfried Sassoon.
HIGH WOOD TO WATERLOT FARM
Is a bloody high wood.
Tune "Chalk Farm to Camberwell Green"
There is a wood at the top of a hill,
If it's not shifted it's standing there still;
There is a farm a short distance away,
But I'd not advise you to go there by day,
For the snipers abound, and the shells are not rare,
And a man's only chance is to run like a hare,
So take my advice if you're chancing your arm
From High Wood to Waterlot Farm.
High Wood to Waterlot Farm,
All on a summer's day,
Up you get to the top of the trench
Though you're sniped at all the way.
If you've got a smoke helmet there
You'd best put it on if you could,
For the wood down by Waterlot Farm
- There is a "soldier's eye-view" of the 14 July attack and its aftermath in Dunne who privately published what he considered to be a more accurate account of the Great War as experienced by the soldiers.
- Dunne, J. C. (1938). The War The Infantry Knew: 1914–1919: A Chronicle of Service in France and Belgium (Cardinal 1989 ed.). P.S. King & Son. ISBN 0-7474-0372-4.
- Mackintosh, E. A. (1918). War, The liberator and Other Pieces by E.A. Mackintosh, M.C. Lt Seaforth Highlanders (51st Division) With a Memoir. London: The Bodley Head. OCLC 220702411. Retrieved 26 June 2013.
- Campbell, C.; Green, R. (2004). Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold: Lt. E. Alan Mackintosh MC 1893–1917 Poet of the Highland Division. Scotland: Argyll Publishing. ISBN 1-902831-76-4.
- Duffy, C. (2006). Through German Eyes: The British and the Somme 1916 (Phoenix 2007 ed.). London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson. ISBN 978-0-7538-2202-9.
- Miles, W. (1938). Military Operations France and Belgium, 1916. History of the Great War Based on Official Documents by Direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence. II 2nd July 1916 to the End of the Battles of the Somme (IWM & Battery Press 1992 ed.). London: Macmillan. ISBN 0-901627-76-3.
- Philpott, W. (2009). Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme and the Making of the Twentieth Century (1st ed.). London: Little, Brown. ISBN 978-1-4087-0108-9.
- Prior, R.; Wilson, T. (2005). The Somme. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-10694-7.
- Sheldon, J. (2005). The German Army on the Somme 1914–1916 (Pen & Sword Military 2006 ed.). London: Leo Cooper. ISBN 1-84415-269-3.
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