Notes on High Wood
Any visitor to the 1916 Somme battlefields today will quickly spot an unusual feature in the rolling open countryside. These are the angular and compact woods that liberally sprinkle the otherwise monument and military cemetery dominated countryside in the area where some of the most concentrated and prolonged fighting of the Great War took place. Many copses are also to be seen. These concentrations of trees became the natural fortresses in the fighting that relentlessly raged across the Somme countryside for five months in 1916.
Today, many of the regrown woods and copses occupy precisely the same place, and have the same aspect, as they did in early 1916 when the British soldiers marched into their trench-lines along much the same roads as we travel in our motorcars today. Some of the woods are still defined by the original lines of minor roads and tracks that marked their bounds in 1916.
It is quite reasonable to suppose that the British soldiers had no idea, as they marched across the pleasant rolling countryside, what an important role these innocuous assemblages of trees would play in their lives, and fates, in the 142 days that the First Battle of the Somme raged. Or that these woods would be the anonymous final resting place of so many of them.
On occasion, the British referred to the massed trees by their French name – e.g. Bois des Fourcaux, (often written Bois des Fourceaux, although the official French road sign on the national highway D107 spells it as Fourcaux). But most British military records and maps show them as being a ‘Wood’ as in the aforementioned case, ‘High Wood’. The smaller concentrations of trees were called Copses, e.g. the infamous ‘Flat Iron Copse’ and the surely eccentrically named ‘Poodles Copse’.
The Woods were an assemblage of different species of deciduous trees. High Wood was renowned for its sweet chestnut that was the local source of the wood used to make pitchforks. Mametz Wood was said to be a tasteful collection of limes, oaks, hornbeams, hazel and the occasional beech. With brambles and saplings taking over much of the ground cover, due to the lack of maintenance of the woods since the war began in 1914. Some of the Woods were selectively planted and trimmed to provide grassy avenues called ‘rides’, that opened up the woods for horse riding, shooting and leisure by their owners and friends. These ‘rides’ were to become notorious lanes of fire when the armies clashed.
As the war swept across the landscape, all the numerous Woods and Copses were involved to a greater or lesser extent in the fighting. During the battle, most of the trees were reduced by artillery- and machinegun-fire to a tangled mass of shredded branches and shattered stumps; in Delville Wood, only a solitary tree – shrapnel and shell splinter lashed – was left standing; it still stands today. The corpses of many British and German soldiers became embedded and entangled in the destroyed vegetation and roots; many were never recovered.
A careful review of the 1916 British Ordnance Survey Maps, covering the actual battlefield of the First Battle of the Somme, gives a count of around 44 Woods or Bois (French = wood) and 15 Copses.
The largest was Mametz Wood (186 acres and known to the BEF as ‘The Queen of the Woods’) and the smallest, perhaps, Observation Wood which was just a small cluster of trees, almost too small to appear on the military maps.
The Copses were almost uniformly much smaller than the Woods, but a few were larger than the smallest Woods, e.g. Sabot Copse which covered just over two acres.
It would be impossible to write a short article detailing all the battles that took place in and around all of these Woods and Copses and, in any event, the details are not always available in the records. To give an idea of what the fighting for these Woods and Copses entailed, there are two of these Woods that have good records and that also have the added cachet of having personal connections for the author.
Firstly, the author’s father fought in High Wood and its environs. In particular, in the northwestern and eastern part of the Wood, and in, and around, Northampton and Clarke’s Trenches. These two trenches were sited along the track between High Wood and Bazentin-le-Petit village and close to the German Switch Line (the well-prepared defence trench that ran for 300 yards through the Wood and extended out on both sides along Bezantin Ridge). Both of these British trenches are clearly marked on the British Army Ordnance Map GSGS 2742 dated 01.09.1916. At this time the author’s father was serving with the 1st Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, III Corps, Fourth Army.
Secondly, because Mametz Wood was a major battle for the 38th (Welsh) Division, whose heroic action in capturing the Wood is commemorated by the stunning red and black Welsh Dragon memorial which since 1987 has over-looked the so-called Hammerhead feature of Mametz Wood. This memorial was raised and is maintained, by the South Wales Branch of the Western Front Association (WFA) to which the author belongs.
(N.B. In writing this article certain arbitrary decisions had to be made. The number of the individual British Army units involved in the High Wood fighting alone was considerable. There were: 64 infantry Battalions plus Pioneers, 47 infantry Regiments, 7 infantry Brigades plus one Cavalry, 9 Divisions including New Zealand and 4 Corps including one Heavy Machine Gun. These numbers make it extremely difficult for the non-specialist reader to keep track of events and for the author to keep focussed. Therefore, the whole of the action in both of the Woods has been restricted to what happened at the Divisional level. Of course, not all the elements of a Division took part in all the actions. Often, not even all of a battalion did that.
No doubt, this decision not to specifically mention the role of certain individuals, Regiments, Battalions, Companies, Platoons and even Sections in a specific action, will cause angst to some who are closely interested in the doings of a particular unit(s) or individual(s). Also, the narration is largely restricted to the action that took place in the Woods and their immediate environment: to have delved into the action that took place simultaneously all around them would once again greatly complicate the story and its telling. It is hoped that this simplification of a very complex subject will facilitate the understanding of the general reader. What is emphasised are the respective dates of the actions; many otherwise detailed accounts are annoyingly vague or imprecise about this. There are also many accounts of the fighting in the Woods; unfortunately, agreement on all the details is rarely unanimous. The author quite anticipates remonstrations about at least some of versions used here. On the other hand, any inaccuracies that the author may have perpetrated are due, no doubt, to the fog of battle!)
HIGH WOOD. APPROX. 75 ACRES = 0.12 SQ. MILES.
On the 1st July 1916, High Wood was situated well behind the main line of German trenches. The battle for it, from the 14th July to the 12th September 1916, was the last of the 1916 battles of the Woods and Copses to be concluded. It was also the longest battle – 64 days – and well deserved the soubriquets, ‘The hell of High Wood’, ‘The rottenest place on the Western Front’ and ‘All ways seem to lead to High Wood’, amongst many surely unprintable ones!
Sited in a saddle on Bazentin Ridge, High Wood could be clearly seen from the south by the advancing British troops of 17th (Northern) Division. It stood out like a squat diamond; its corners facing all four cardinal points of the compass. The villages of Longueval the adjacent Delville Wood were, and still are, located to the southeast and Bazentin-le-Petit village and Bazentin-le-Petit Wood to the west. Bazentin-le-Grand village and Wood were southwest. All three villages and their Woods were within a one-mile radius of High Wood.
(N.B. See in this same WFA Website Reference Section – Aerial photographs and Trench Map, by Howard Anderson – to gain some idea of the layout of the terrain today which, as already stated, closely mirrors that of 1916.)
At 500ft elevation, High Wood was the prime observational point for this whole sector of the battlefield. And the German defenders used this to good effect whilst stemming the advance of Fourth Army northwards in the first week of July 1916.
With the Somme battle raging all around into its second week, High Wood, and the adjacent Trones Wood, were largely sidelined by the British. Although, intense efforts were made by both sides to build up trench works in and around them, and to probe their defences. The Germans, also built many strong points, mainly to locate machine gun nests. Delville Wood, adjacent to Longueval Village, two miles south of High Wood, was destined to be forever associated with the South African Army. It was under continuous siege and attack by the British and the South Africans from the15th of July 1916, until it was finally overrun on the 25th August 1916 by the British 14th (Light) Division, after a gigantic, and costly, tussle by the South Africans.
On the morning of 14th July 1916, after a week of preparation for a general advance northward to Pozières and Bazentin Ridges and beyond, including in and around High Wood, the Commander of the British Fourth Army, General H. Rawlinson, launched his attack at 3.20 am. At around 8 am, he received a crucial report. It said that 3rd Division had crossed the German second trench line and had occupied the village of Longueval. At 7.40 am, he made the fateful decision to order the attack on High Wood, located one mile east of Bazentin-le-Petit village and one mile north of Longueval village. It was to be led by the advance elements of the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division in the van of the infantry attack by 7th Division – the first major cavalry action of the First Battle of the Somme. The cavalry received their orders at 8 am and sent out patrols to reconnoitre possible avenues of attack.
The outcome was as predictable as it was sad. Woods in general, and dense trench works in particular, do not provide ideal terrain for cavalry charges with, or without, lances. As far as the author can ascertain, there is no mention in the records that it was ever intended that the cavalrymen should dismount and act as infantrymen.
Whilst cavalry patrols ranged the vicinity of High Wood in both the west and the south, trying to find suitable lines of approach for the mass of the cavalry, the Germans reinforced their Switch Line. (As already stated, this was the still-under-construction defence trench that ran along the length of the Bazentin Ridge from the Albert to Bapaume road, across northeastern part – the apex – of High Wood at its highest point, and on to Flers). The Germans also sent out troops to counter-attack at Bazentin-le-Petit village, one mile to the west of the Wood, and to give support to their troops holding the adjacent Bezantin-le-Petit Wood. The strategic importance of High Wood was becoming increasingly evident to both sides.
These German movements effectively sealed off this route to High Wood for the British cavalry. Even so, had the cavalry, or infantry, approached High Wood at that time from the opposite direction, the east, large areas of it were unoccupied, particularly along its southwestern edge i.e. just north-east of Longueval.
After vainly milling about in the barely one square mile of open territory between the villages and Woods of Bazentin-Le-Petit and Bazentin-Le-Grand, and High Wood itself, whilst all the while the main body of the cavalry stood at the ready in the support lines farther east, near Bray-on-Somme, and even further to rear near Albert, the cavalry was finally stood down for the morning.
At noon on the 14th July, the 7th Division was authorised by Army HQ to attack High Wood with the support of 2nd Indian Cavalry. After a long trek across the fiercely contested fields and trenches, and a delayed start, the infantry attacked the western part of High Wood with part of the 2nd (Indian) Cavalry Division galloping up on their right flank from the concentration area near Bazentin-le-Grand Wood. A simultaneous attack by 33rd Division was ordered on the Switch Line. The message never reached its commander.
The cavalry rode on to attack the eastern boundary of High Wood and the area south of it towards Longueval. After some brief success with their lances in the open area below the southern tip of the Wood, and achieving entry into the fringes of the Wood itself, the cavalry were indeed forced to dismount and fight on foot and dig themselves in.
Intense machine gun and rifle fire from the reinforced German defenders, in and outside High Wood, harried the 7th Division’s approach but, after suffering many casualties, the western fringe of the Wood was breached. For the first time, British troops had set foot into the confines of High Wood.
After the entry of 7th Division into the darkening High Wood, it managed to painfully find its way to the ‘ride’ that ran diagonally through the centre of the Wood but were repelled by withering machine-gun fire from the German Switch Line at the apex of the Wood. For a brief interlude the infantry in the Wood heard the rifle fire against the lance-bearing 2nd Indian Cavalry Division as they themselves were pushed into the northeastern and southeastern part of the Wood and then were forced to dig in against increasing German counter-attacks. Both sides worked through the night of the 14th July infiltrating reinforcements.
Back at Fourth Army HQ, the occupation of High Wood had all the appearance of being a great success, and it was celebrated as such.
Outside High Wood, the 33rd Division was finally marshalling its troops along the western edge of the Wood to attack the western part of the German Switch Line and High Wood in support of 7th Division. In the absence of 7th Division’s complete control of the Wood, this placed the 33rd in a very vulnerable position. After midnight (15th July) the Germans launched a counterattack from the Switch Line, and 33rd Division, as they attempted to enter High Wood from the west, was seriously harried by the Germans firing from the Wood and the Switch Line.
Trones Wood fell to the British 18th (Eastern Division) on the 14th July, so this source of harassment for the British to the south of High Wood was eliminated.
Inside High Wood, the 7th Division also reeled from the German onslaught. By morning on the 15th July, the two British Divisions had been routed and isolated; 7th Division was now pinned into a small enclave around the eastern corner of the Wood, and 33rd were entrenching themselves in the western part of the Wood.
At 8 am on the 15th July, 33rd Division launched an attack on the German Switch Line and the western and southern sides of High Wood. Fighting all the way, in support of the 7th Division, further penetration was achieved until two-thirds of the Wood was in British hands.
Later that night the Germans counter-attacked from their Switch Line within, and outside, the Wood. Both 7th and 33rd Divisions were forced to retreat within the Wood. British reinforcements improved the situation, but the Wood was by no means clear of Germans when 33rd Division again attacked from the south behind an artillery barrage. Ravaged by machine-gun fire inside and outside High Wood, and long-range artillery fire, the troops stumbled around in the Wood and along the fringes lacking coherence, direction and an effective means of communication. The Germans slowly regained the Wood and on the 16th July, the British withdrew, having suffered a total of 2,500 casualties.
Also, on 15th July, all the cavalry withdrew westwards, leading their lamed and injured horses and carrying as many of their wounded as they could. They had suffered crippling casualties of 102 cavalrymen and 130 horses.
The British Fourth Army commanders still yearned to deploy their beloved cavalry advantageously and gloriously and had not yet grasped the reality that the day of the cavalryman at High Wood was done. In fact, there would be no more cavalry charges on the Somme, or anywhere else on the Western Front, until 1918.
The German Switch Line which dominated the northern part of High Wood, and the adjacent open country, had been the keystone to the German defences; neither the combined efforts of the British cavalry/infantry nor the artillery had been able to overcome it. The continuous threat of enfilading fire from the German machine guns situated in the adjacent Delville Wood located to the south-east, and the Bazentins from the west, was also a major destabilising factor for the British.
Disappointed by this reverse, but nothing dismayed, and urged on by the British Commander-in-Chief, General Douglas Haig, Fourth Army commander General Rawlinson ordered yet another attack on the Wood on the 16th July 1916. Almost immediately, reality imposed a postponement until the 17th July and then, in the face of more difficulties all along the Fourth Army’s front, to the night of 19th/20th July.
After another intense artillery barrage of High Wood and adjacent areas, at 3.35 am on the 20th July, 7th and 33rd Divisions began new attacks from the south and west. After the usual crescendo of murderous attacks and counter-attacks, inside and outside of the Wood, 33rd Division met strong resistance at the strongpoint in the Western corner and from the Switch Line and was held up by the intensive machine gunfire. Likewise, the 7th Division was meeting strong resistance in the south. After savage hand to hand fighting, the southern part of High Wood was in the hands of 33rd Division, but German artillery shelling was causing many casualties. A German counter-attack was launched from the western corner. More troops from 33rd Division entered High Wood from the south and made progress over-running the western strong-point and after taking the Switch Line, were within an ace of capturing the northern apex of the Wood. But without all the expected reinforcements it could not proceed. Inevitably, the Germans counter-attacked behind a furious artillery barrage. The Switch Line and the Western and Eastern corner strong points were retaken. By the next morning, the fighting had died down leaving the British in control of the southern part of the Wood and the Germans the northern part, including the now strategically vital Switch Line.
During the night of the 20th /21st July, the desperately depleted 33rd Division was relieved by 51st (Highland) Division. Whilst 33rd Division was in the process of withdrawing, it was the unfortunate recipient of a German artillery barrage which accompanied the above-mentioned counter-attack, causing yet more casualties. The 33rd Division was a mere spectre of its former self, both in numbers and fighting capability, having suffered 5,195 casualties- more than 50% of its operational strength – including an incredible toll of 263 officers.
Whilst expecting the commanders of 7th and 33rd Divisions to give a very good explanation of why the possession of High Wood was allowed to slip out of their hands when they were so near to occupying all of it, the Fourth Army commanders were still firm in their intention to deny the Germans its possession. Including the infamous Switch Line and 600 yards of its extension to the west. And first to go had to be the new German strong-point in the eastern corner. Rawlinson was convinced that the Germans defending the Wood were on their last legs. But then, neither he nor his generals had been in High Wood.
On 22nd July 4th Army HQ received even more bad news. Aerial reconnaissance had revealed that the ever-industrious Germans had dug an Intermediate Trench mid-way between the Switch Line and the forward posts of the British 19th Division. After some debate, zero-hour for a new attack on the whole front was set for the morning of the 23rd July.
After the standard pre-attack barrage at 10 pm, on the 23rd July, 51st (Highland) Division moved forward with the support of 5th Division outside the Wood. Their prime objective was the eastern corner strong point. Once again the chaos within the Wood, and the determination of the German defenders of the Switch Line, the Intermediate Trench and the strong points, defeated all efforts. The 51st (Highland) Division was forced to withdraw to its own lines in the lower part of the Wood. A similar fate befell 5th Division outside the Wood and, in fact, reflected the fortunes of Fourth Army in general; back to square one, and digging yet more trench-lines in and around High Wood and on Bazentin Ridge.
Even so, yet another order came to through to 51st (Highland) Division for a renewed attack on the western and eastern corners of the Wood. This was attempted at 9am.on the 25th July but was quickly aborted in the face of enfilading machine gunfire.
On the 30th July, at 9 pm, after a dose of the new ‘creeping artillery barrage’ tactic, and a sustained shelling of the eastern corner strong-point, 51st (Highland) Division launched a new attack, this time supported by both 5th and 19th Divisions who stormed the Switch Line and its extension from the eastern side of the Wood. But it ended in the same stalemate. Meanwhile, the frantic shelling by both sides continued unabated on the now completely shattered and shell transformed landscape of the Wood.
The German casualties in July, for the six regiments of the defenders of High Wood, totalled almost 10,000, of whom nearly 2,000 were killed.
At this point in the battle for High Wood, the British decided to forgo set-piece battles and their tactics turned to sapping, mining, and, as always, trench excavation, using new hydraulic technology (The Bartlett Forcing Jack) to deploy explosive charges, plus the new secret weapons; tanks and flame-throwers. A particular target was the German eastern strong point. It was also increasingly felt at Fourth Army HQ that only a large-scale combined operations effort could finally resolve the problem of the High Wood area in general and the Switch Line and the eastern strong-point in particular.
On the 7th August, 33rd Division relieved a totally exhausted 51st Division who had lost over 2,000 men in just two weeks of fighting in and around High Wood, including a devastating number of officers – 120. However, 33rd Division had received drafts totalling over 400 reinforcements and was rested, retrained and back up to wartime strength.
The first use of the new technology took place on the 17th of August. From the outset it was a fiasco, the huge, two-ton flame-throwers being buried by a misdirected British preparatory barrage. Nevertheless, despite also having suffered from this heavy ‘friendly fire’, some elements of 33rd Division made their infantry charge in the wood whilst 1st Division attacked the northwestern corner. Outnumbered and outgunned, 33rd Division were soon back in their own trenches with many casualties. 1st Division made some progress but was halted on the fringes of the Wood by the inaccurate British shelling and determined German resistance. With one exception, the new hydraulically pushed sapping charging had failed to explode on time.
Once again gloom descended on 33rd Division HQ. And well it might: on the night of the 19th/20th August, 33rd Division had one more aborted attack; many of the new drafts of men failed to leave their trenches.
The operational requirements across Fourth Army’s Front meant pressure had to be maintained, including that on and in High Wood. In a supportive action on the 24th August 1916 that went down in history, 10 British Vickers machine guns maintained a sustained barrage on the Germans in the eastern corner of High Wood for 12 hours, firing a million rounds; 4,000 belts of 0.303-inch ammunition. One Vickers alone fired 120,000 rounds.
On the 27th August, 1st Division (the author’s father amongst them) relieved a very tired, and again depleted, 33rd Division; 4,000 casualties in High Wood in August. Shortly after its installation in High Wood, 1st Division was subject to a violent and sustained German artillery barrage and a vigorous attack. It was repulsed.
Meanwhile, at Fourth Army HQ, there was great excitement and anticipation at the news of the imminent arrival of the first tanks. In Highwood the sappers were concluding their efforts to undermine the infamous strong-point at the eastern corner and placed 3,000lbs of ammonal (3 parts ammonium nitrate + 1 part aluminium) explosive there.
The 3,000lb ammonal mine was blown on the 3rd September, killing a large number of the German defenders. After vicious fighting by 1st Division, and later 15th (Scottish) Division, in the western part of the Wood, including the use of incendiary devices, such as flame-throwers, and the hydraulic sapping system (largely unsuccessfully), the eastern corner crater was successfully stormed by 1st Division. But overall, after costly counter-attacks, the Germans regained most of their losses including the crater.
On the 8th September, 1st Division again launched an attack on the western half and the southwestern edge of High Wood, with mixed results. Another push by 1st Division on the 9th September was preceded by exploding yet another mine on the crater in the eastern corner, but the German counter-attack prevented its seizure. The crater was now about 140 foot at its widest point and 35 feet deep. Today still exists as a deep duck pond. All around the Wood, the fighting raged on.
Back at Fourth Army HQ, plans were being drawn up to drive the four of the expected eight, new, 30-ton tanks, right across High Wood. This was decided, despite the reservations of the tank commanders that the shattered tree stumps, shell holes and trench works, made this virtually impossible. It was also decided that the 47th (1/2nd London) Division should take over the unlucky chalice that was High Wood from 1st Division on the 10th September. The first objective of the overall plan was to clear the Switch Line and all of High Wood and assault Martinpuich village one mile to the west.
On the night of the14th September, the 47th (1/2nd London) Division moved into the forward British trenches in High Wood to await zero hour – 5.50 am – and the arrival of the tanks, which would precede their advance. The four putative routes of the tanks had been plotted through the Wood. But, in the event, the ‘pilots’ were virtually blind in their steel cocoons and, distracted by noise, heat and the clamour of battle, had difficulty in following their designated routes: much of the infantry surged ahead unprotected against determined German resistance by the tanks or a protective barrage. One by one the tanks were respectively ditched, stranded, broke down or set on fire. None succeeded in traversing the Wood on its prescribed route. Foreseeably, they would have been much more usefully engaged in providing mobile covering fire from outside the shattered, impassable chaos that was High Wood.
The surviving infantry hung on in High Wood, whilst barrages of shells rained down on the remaining German positions on the northwestern corner. Soon this was followed by an unprecedented blitz of 750 Stoke Mortar rounds. The 47th (1/2nd London) Division again attacked, and the Germans began to leave their positions and surrender by the hundred. By 1 pm, on the 15th September, the German collapse was complete, and High Wood and the adjacent Switch Line was at last in British hands after two months and three days of almost incessant shelling and fighting. In the four days, it took 47th (1/2 London Division) to capture High Wood, it had suffered 4,500 casualties.
The 47th Division was relieved again by 1st Division on the 19th September 1916.
Whilst the fighting raged around High Wood for several more days, the Wood remained firmly out of German hands, secure behind the new British Front Line, though occasionally German shells fell upon the Wood from time to time, maintaining its hazardous reputation to those who had to serve there.
It is estimated that 10,000 British and Germans soldiers still lie unrecovered within the bounds of High Wood. In effect, it became, and remains, a huge anonymous mass grave
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