Battle of Bazentin Ridge
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The Battle of Bazentin Ridge (14–17 July 1916), was part of the Battle of the Somme (1 July – 18 November) on the Western Front in France, during the First World War. The British Fourth Army (General Henry Rawlinson) attacked at dawn on 14 July, against the German 2nd Army (General Fritz von Below) and was the start of the second phase of the battle. Dismissed beforehand by a French commander as "an attack organized for amateurs by amateurs", it turned out to be "hugely successful" for the British, in contrast to the disaster of the First day on the Somme on 1 July. The British were unable to exploit the success and the 2nd Army recovered, leading to another period of attrition, before the general attacks of September.
The Battle of Albert (1–13 July), comprised the first two weeks of Anglo-French offensive operations in the Battle of the Somme. The Allied preparatory artillery bombardment commenced on 24 June and on 1 July, the First day on the Somme the Anglo-French infantry attacked south of the river from Foucaucourt to the Somme and from the Somme north to Gommecourt, 2 miles (3.2 km) beyond Serre. The French Sixth Army and the right wing of the British Fourth Army inflicted a considerable defeat on the German 2nd Army but from the Albert–Bapaume road north to Gommecourt the Fourth Army attack was a disaster, where most of the c. 60,000 British casualties of the day were incurred. Against the wishes of Marshal Joseph Joffre, General Sir Douglas Haig abandoned the offensive north of the road, to reinforce the success in the south, where over the next few days, the Anglo-French forces pressed forward through several intermediate defensive lines until close to the German second position.
The French Sixth Army advanced across the Flaucourt plateau on the south bank and reached Flaucourt village by the evening of 3 July, taking Belloy-en-Santerre and Feullières on 4 July and pierced the German third line opposite Péronne at La Maisonette and Biaches by the evening of 10 July. German reinforcements were then able to slow the French advance and defeat attacks on Barleux. On the north bank, XX Corps was ordered to consolidate the ground captured on 1 July, except for the completion of the advance to the first objective at Hem next to the river, which was captured on 5 July. Some minor attacks took place and German counter-attacks at Hem on 6–7 July, nearly retook the village. A German attack at Bois Favières delayed a joint Anglo-French attack from Hardecourt to Trônes Wood by 24 hours until 8 July.
British attacks south of the road between Albert and Bapaume began on 2 July, despite congested supply routes to the French XX Corps and the British XIII Corps, XV Corps and III Corps. La Boisselle near the road was captured on 4 July, Bernafay and Caterpillar woods were occupied from 3–4 July and then fighting to capture Trônes Wood, Mametz Wood and Contalmaison took place until early on 14 July, when the battle began. As German reinforcements reached the Somme front, they were thrown into the battle as soon as they arrived and had many casualties. Both sides were reduced to piecemeal operations, which were hurried, poorly-organised and sent troops into action on unfamiliar ground, with inadequate reconnaissance. Attacks were poorly supported by artillery-fire, which was not adequately co-ordinated with the infantry and sometimes fired on ground occupied by friendly troops. The British attacks have been criticised for being uncoordinated, tactically crude and wasteful of manpower, which gave the Germans an opportunity to concentrate their inferior resources on narrow fronts.
The loss of c. 60,000 British casualties on 1 July, was not repeated and in the fighting from 2–13 July the British lost another c. 25,000 men, a change in the rate of loss from c. 60,000–2,083 per day; German casualties from 1–10 July were 40,187. The effect of the battle on the German defenders has received less attention in English-language writing. The strain imposed by the British attacks after 1 July and the French advance on the south bank, led General Fritz von Below on 3 July, to issue an order of the day forbidding voluntary withdrawals ("The enemy should have to carve his way over heaps of corpses.") after his Chief of Staff General Paul Grünert and the XVII Corps commander, Günther von Pannewitz were sacked, for ordering the corps to withdraw to the third position close to Péronne. The German offensive at Verdun had been reduced on 24 June, to conserve manpower and ammunition and after the failure to capture Fort Souville on 12 July, Falkenhayn ordered a "strict defensive" and the transfer of more troops and artillery to the Somme front, which was the first strategic effect of the Anglo-French offensive.
British plan of attack
Rawlinson, planned an attack at dawn on 14 July on a front of about 7,000 yards (6,400 m), when there would be insufficient light for German machine-gunners to see far ahead. XIII Corps was to attack with two divisions from Longueval to Bazentin-le-Grand and XV Corps was to attack from Bazentin-le-Petit to the north-west edge of Mametz Wood; one division of III Corps was to attack further west. The British infantry was to cross up to 1,200 yards (1,100 m) of no man's land in the dark and assemble close to the German second line, which in this area had become the front line, after the British and French advances during the Battle of Albert (1–13 July). A preparatory bombardment began on 11 July and a shortage of heavy artillery ammunition along with transport difficulties over wet and cut up ground, were eased by the air supremacy of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), which made it impossible for the German air units to reconnoitre behind the British lines. On 14 July, the 9th (Secunderabad) Cavalry Brigade of the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division were to capture the wood and the Switch Line either side with two cavalry regiments, after which the 7th Division was to relieve the cavalry and the 21st Division was to advance and occupy the area between Bazentin-le-Petit and Martinpuich. The advance was expected to assist III Corps to the west, when it attacked the German second position and then combined with the 1st Division attack at 2:30 p.m., as the 34th Division probed towards Pozières in the west.
The attack would be preceded by a hurricane artillery bombardment lasting only five minutes. An intermittent bombardment began on 11 July but it was not as heavy as on 1 July and so did not signal so obviously the British intentions to attack and emphasis was placed on counter-battery fire, to eliminate the German guns. Rawlinson had 950 field gun and howitzers, two thirds the artillery strength available on 1 July for a quarter of the 1 July frontage, only 7,000 yards (6,400 m) compared to 22,000 yards (20,000 m). Also the depth of the planned advance was less so the German second position was subjected to a saturation of shells; 660 pounds (300 kg) per yard/metre of German trench.
General Haig expressed doubts about the plan, believing it to be overly complex and that a night march by inexperienced New Army troops would result in confusion and disarray before the attack even began. Haig proposed an alternative plan, involving attacking from Mametz Wood, where the lines were closest and then "rolling up" the German flank towards Longueval. Rawlinson insisted and Haig deferred to the man on the spot, though he required that XIII Corps reserve division, the 18th (Eastern) Division, would clear Trônes Wood on the extreme right flank.
The section of the German second position from Bazentin le Petit to Longueval was held by the 3rd Guard Division. At 3:20 a.m. the British artillery opened a hurricane bombardment on the German front-line trenches. At 3:25 a.m., when the bombardment lifted to the second-line reserve trenches, the infantry rushed in. The bombardment fell on the reserve trenches for a further two minutes before lifting again. The first wave of British infantry, made up of bombing parties, was to push straight on to the reserve trenches, leaving the following waves to mop up the front-line. Surprise was not complete and in places the German defenders met the advancing infantry with rifle and machine gun fire but elsewhere the garrisons were caught in their dugouts. As on 1 July, the quality of the wire-cutting was variable; sometimes it posed no obstacle, elsewhere the attacking waves got held up and cut to pieces.
At the left, the 21st Division attacked from Mametz Wood, crossing no man's land into Bazentin le Petit Wood. On their right was the 7th Division which, having been faced with over 1,000 yards (910 m) of no man's land to cross, had crept its assaulting battalions within 100 yards (91 m) of the German wire when the bombardment lifted. The 7th Division were faced with a complex of German trenches — Flatiron Trench, Marlboro Trench and The Snout — beyond which lay Bazentin le Grand Wood but they reached all their objectives. By mid-morning these two XV Corps divisions had captured the village of Bazentin le Petit.
On the right, attacking between Bazentin le Grand and Longueval were the two XIII Corps divisions, left to right, the 3rd Division and the 9th (Scottish) Division. The 9th Division, which also contained the South African Infantry Brigade (in reserve near Carnoy), took Longueval and reached the fringe of Delville Wood which flanked the village but were unable to take the German redoubt at Waterlot Farm.
In the centre, things did not go well for the 3rd Division attacking from Montauban towards Bazentin le Grand. The German wire was uncut and the defenders alert. The German defensive barrage laid down in no man's land missed the assaulting battalions but caught the supporting waves. The 7th Battalion, King's Shropshire Light Infantry (8th Brigade) lost eight officers and 200 other ranks killed. The 18th (Eastern) Division, attacking from Bernafay Wood east of Montauban, had captured Trônes Wood.
General Friedrich Bertram Sixt von Armin had taken over the front Longueval–Ancre river that morning; he ordered all troops to hang on. 7th Division (IV Corps) was moving up between Bazentin-le-Petit Wood and Pozières to relieve the 183rd Division so was spread out to reinforce the front attacked. Parts of 185th, 17th Reserve, 26th Reserve, 3rd Guards divisions and part of 55th Landwehr Regiment were sent to join in. West of Longueval the Germans rallied on the new 'Switch Line'. When news arrived that cavalry were near High Wood ant 8:40 p.m. (German time was an hour ahead of British time) Armin sent all his reserves (8th, 5th, 24th Reserve, 8th Bavarian Reserve divisions) with orders to hold the British and then counter-attack. When the true situation became known he removed 5th and 8th Bavarian Reserve divisions and stopped the big counter-stroke.
While progress was slow on the right and the struggle for Longueval continued, XV Corps had control of the Bazentin villages by 9:00 a.m. and the prospect of a breakthrough loomed. From the Bazentin ridge, the British could look north-east across a shallow valley towards High Wood, beyond which lay the incomplete German third position. There was no sign of the enemy and thick stands of grain indicated terrain only lightly damaged by shellfire, promising good going for cavalry.
Before advancing, the generals decided to reconnoitre; Brigadier-General Potter of the 9th Brigade (3rd Division) and Major-General Watts, commander of the 7th Division, eventually walked almost to the edge of High Wood without a shot being fired. The wood, so it appeared, was empty buta request to XV Corps to allow the reserve brigade of the 7th Division to take possession of High Wood was rejected, because the Fourth Army wanted it to remain ready to deal with counter-attacks and 2nd Indian Cavalry Division would be used as planned.
The 2nd Indian Cavalry Division had been held in readiness to exploit the breakthrough but it had encamped at Morlancourt, 4 miles (6.4 km) south of Albert and would have to negotiate the churned battlefield over which the British had been advancing for the past fortnight. The division was ordered forward at 7:40 a.m. but by midday had only reached Carnoy, close behind the old British front-line. At 12:15 p.m., Fourth Army HQ ordered the 7th Division to advance but the order was immediately countermanded because Longueval had not been cleared and German guns could enfilade the approaches across the valley to High Wood.
At 7:00 p.m., the cavalry arrived and the 7th Dragoon Guards and the 20th Deccan Horse, passed between Bazentin le Grand and Longueval, then charged with their lances against High Wood. Unfortunately, the opportunity for an easy victory at High Wood had passed and the Germans, having regrouped after the shock of the morning, had begun filtering back into the wood. The cavalry were met with artillery and machine gun fire.
The cavalry regiments reached High Wood, killed a number of Germans, took 32 prisoners and held on through the night of 14/15 July but no reinforcements were forthcoming, the rest of the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division had been ordered to retire to their bivouacs. The following morning the Dragoon Guards and Deccan Horse withdrew.
The 33rd Division in XV Corps reserve, had begun moving forward via Fricourt at 2:00 p.m. and reached Bazentin ridge as the cavalry attacked. The division had orders to pass through the 21st Division on the next day and continue the advance but the situation that night was confused, with senior commanders believing High Wood had been captured. The 100th Brigade was ordered to consolidate but while attempting to dig trenches in the southern tip of the wood, it became all too apparent to the brigade's commander that High Wood had not been captured.
On 15 July, the 100th Brigade was told to form up across the valley, facing north with High Wood on their right flank and advance towards Martinpuich. Protests to the division headquarters were ignored and the attack went ahead at 9:00 a.m. after half an hour of preliminary bombardment. Enfiladed by German machine guns in the wood, the attack failed. One company of the 16th Battalion, King's Royal Rifle Corps (the Church Lads Brigade Pals battalion), had been given the task of 'clearing' the wood in support of the advance but of the 200 who went in, only 67 came out.
In the German Official History (Der Weltkrieg) and regimental accounts, some units were not surprised. The British attack succeeded at a few points, from which the troops worked sideways to roll up the German defenders, a tactical manoeuvre not used on 1 July. Bavarian Infantry Regiment 16 lost c. 2,300 men and the headquarters of Infantry Regiment Lehr, Bavarian Infantry Regiment 16, I Battalion, Reserve Infantry Regiment 91 and II Battalion, Bavarian Infantry Regiment 16 were captured. General Armin, the IV Corps commander, who had taken over from Longueval to the Ancre that morning, ordered troops to hold their positions. The 7th Division had been relieving the 183rd Division and part was sent to Longueval and the second line further back, along with resting units from the 185th, 17th Reserve, 26th Reserve and 3rd Guard divisions and troops of the 55th Landwehr Regiment (7th Landwehr Division), equivalent to fourteen battalions. After alarmist reports of British cavalry in High Wood and that Flers and Martinpuich had fallen, the 5th, 8th, 8th Bavarian Reserve and 24th Reserve divisions were ordered by Below to counter-attack to stop the British advance. When the true situation was discovered, the counter-stroke was cancelled and the 5th and 8th divisions returned to reserve.
The failure to seize the opportunities of the morning of 14 July proved costly for the Fourth Army. It would take two months of attrition before High Wood was captured. Following the loss of the Bazentin ridge, the Germans built a "switch trench", known as the Switch Line, to connect their second position near Pozières with their third position under construction on the next ridge. The Switch Line ran through the northern tip of High Wood and one could not be captured without the other and so it was not until the next major offensive, the Battle of Flers–Courcelette on 15 September, that High Wood and the Switch Line fell.
A similar situation developed at Delville Wood which changed hands a number of times over the following month. Having breached the German second position, attention now turned to the flanks. On the right, after Delville Wood was taken, the villages of Guillemont and Ginchy had to be captured in order to bring the French forces into line. On the left, the German strongpoint of Pozières protected the second position north of the Albert-Bapaume road.
The dawn attack of 14 July, suggested that the British had discovered the formula for successful battles in trench warfare but subsequent fighting demonstrated that the lessons had not been learnt. The next large Fourth Army attack came on the night of 22/23 July, involving six divisions but failed. Attacks were uncoordinated, artillery preparation was inadequate and the Germans, who had learned from their experience, adopting a more flexible system of defence, moving away from concentrating defenders in the front-line trench.
The battle cost the Fourth Army 9,194 casualties,1,159 in the 9th Division, 2,322 in the 3rd Division, 2,819 in the 7th Division and 2,894 in the 21st Division. Bavarian Infantry Regiment 16 had 2,300 losses. In July, British casualties were 158,786, French losses were 49,859, a combined total of 208,645 casualties. The German 2nd Army had 103,000 losses, 49.4 percent of the Allied loss.
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