Friday, 29 July 2016

Battle of the Somme 5 - action to end of July 1916

British walking wounded leaving
Bernafay Wood July 1916
As the full awfulness of the Day 1 outcomes became undeniable to a disbelieving British high command, so did the need for a significant change to Haig’s original plan. The lack of progress from Fricourt, at the southern angle, to Gommecourt at the north end of the sector - coupled with serious losses - meant that no short term actions could be countenanced. However from Fricourt and east to the junction with the French forces beyond Maricourt, the gains made on the first day could be followed up. This created a shift in the 'centre of gravity' of the push. Rawlinson had pinned his hopes on the central breakthrough along the Roman Road at least as far as the heights of Pozieres, about one third of the way to Bapaume, his ultimate objective. He would not abandon this objective, but his planned advance moved to a more south to northeast direction, rather than from west to east, and he had to move resources to support it. It changed the nature of the terrain, and brought into play the now infamous woods – Mametz, Trones, Delville, Bernafay, Leuze and High.

In the aftermath of day 1, Rawlinson made important changes to the disposition of his 4th army. He transferred more northerly troops, the 8th and 10th Corps to Gough’s Reserve (5th) Army, which now became officially the 5th Army, covering that sector of the front. The capture of Thiepval was its most pressing priority, but for the moment it was in no shape to do so. Rawlinson himself focused his 4th Army on the southern aspects, striving to take Fricourt, Ovillers and La Boisselle (the latter two straddling the Roman road as it emerged from Albert towards Bapaume); and also exploiting the one area of success on day 1 between Mametz and Montauban. Rawlinson was strengthened by the quality of the French at his right edge, whose success on day 1 made their main objective (Peronnne-sur-Somme, 15 miles south of Bapaume) more realistic than Rawlinson’s Bapaume. Indeed, by 5th July they were only three miles short of Peronne.
The extent of British advances in July -
160,000+ casualties, 3 miles advance max.

Fricourt’s position at the angle of the line meant that some success on either side of it would create a narrow salient, which could be encircled. Reserves were brought down from behind Thiepval and by noon on July 2nd Fricourt had indeed been encircled and taken – the one significant gain of the day, and good at least for the morale of the shattered men in that section.

Despite the effectiveness of their defences, and the violent slaughter inflicted on the New British Army, the Germans had been badly shaken by the massive pre-bombardment and the relentless waves of British infantry attacks. On 3rd July, von Below issued an order to his army that indicated considerable strain: “The decisive issue of the war depends on the victory of the II army on the Somme”. No pressure, then. The 2nd Army had held their first line of defence brilliantly from Ovillers northwards. However, the British now held a part of La Boisselle, and along the southern stretch were pushing the Germans back on their second defensive fortifications, which were on a line of Pozieres through Bazentin to Guillemont. Contalmaison, a fortified village between the 1st and 2nd lines was under infantry attack. On the next day the British took the remainder of La Boisselle and pushed further towards Contalmaison. Not for the first time (or the last) the weather turned dramatically from high summer heat to torrential thunderstorms that reduced trenches to quagmire. Nevertheless, to the 16th Rawlinson continued to throw artillery and men at the Ovillers/Contalmaison/Longueval line. On 16th July the British finally occupied the rubble of Ovillers (a pre-breakfast objective for 1st July). 
At the angle, in front of Fricourt, a similarly attritional battle ended with the capture of Mametz wood on 12th, only to enable the exhausted mens' replacements to press on to a similar nightmare in Trones wood, short of Longueval.

The actions were forerunners for multiple battles along this section from 14-23rdJuly. The greatest advance came on 14th – Bastille Day, when in Paris huge demonstrations of Allied solidarity were taking place. By mid afternoon the objectives of Bazentin le Petit, Longueval and Delville Wood had apparently been taken, and only 1000 yards ahead lay High Wood, a potentially vital prize. A brigade of infantry from 33 Division, actually accompanied by a brigade of cavalry, were able to advance almost unmolested into the western fringes of the wood. At this point the British appeared to pluck defeat from the jaws of victory. At the very verge of a real cavalry breakthrough into open country towards Bapaume – the sort of moment they had been dreaming of for two full years – the opportunity stalled. Two further cavalry brigades, set to join any breakthrough had been stood down, and the two other cavalry Divisions based south of Albert received no information at all. This combination of abysmal communication and lack of initiative meant that the cavalry waiting nervously in High Wood stayed put and after nightfall filtered slowly back behind their own lines. The poor infantry were left to dig in, and spend a miserable night isolated in the wood. By next morning German reinforcements had returned and the foothold was lost. It would be another two months before High Wood was taken.

Delville Wood was also lost to strong counter-attack on 15th. A South African brigade was then sent in to re-take it, and a fierce fight ensued that lasted for thirteen days. Of 3,000 South Africans entering the wood, only 768 responded to roll call at the end of the action – the highest proportional loss of any unit. The superb South African memorial at Longueval is a fitting tribute.

Pozieres main street 1914
Pozieres main street August 1916
 In the last major breakthrough attempt of the month more Empire brigades distinguished themselves – this time the Australians. Amidst more dreadful weather, a two days artillery bombardment (21-22nd) July preceded yet another infantry assault on the Pozieres to Guillemont section. A two pronged attack on Pozieres was made by was made by the 1st Australian Division and the 48th (South Midland Territorials) Division on 23rd. Going beyond anything they had experienced, even at Gallipoli, the Australians fought their way through to occupy Pozieres by 26th. Only the Windmill – the highest point of the ridge just to the eastern edge of Pozieres – remained in German hands.

And so, as the first month of the Somme campaign drew to a close, the main objective of day 1 had been taken, but at what cost? On 29th, Haig received a communiqué from his Chief of Staff, Sir William Robertson, in London, expressing disquiet. In spite of Haig’s upbeat reports - including the use of the chilling phrase “normal wastage” to describe casualty numbers - parliament and the country knew that all was not going according to plan. The lists of deaths in the newspapers, and the endless stream of badly injured men shipped home to overfilled hospitals around the country, ensured the truth could not be concealed by 1916 spin.
By the end of the month British casualties were above 160,000 – well above the numbers of the entire BEF shipped to France (for a short war) in August 1914.