Between September 10th and 12th we relieved the 1st Division in the High Wood sector.
We walked into a new world of war. We passed through Albert for the first time, under the Virgin, holding out her Child, not to heaven but to the endless procession below. Fricourt, where the line had stood for so long, was now out of range of any but long-range guns, and we could see freshly devastated country without being in the battle. All round the slopes were covered with transport of all kinds, and whole divisions of cavalry waiting for their opportunity. Farther forward in Caterpillar Valley heavy howitzers stood in the open, lobbing their shells over at a target miles away. Up near the fine by Flat Iron Copse and the Bazentins the ground was alive with field-guns, many of them hidden by the roadside and startling the unwary. All these things, later the commonplace of a successful “push,” were new.
But we never saw anything quite like High Wood. It had been attacked by the 7th Division on July 14th – just two months before our arrival – and had indeed on that day been entered by a party of cavalry. But it had been an insuperable obstacle to subsequent attacks, and the trench which we took over ran through the centre of it, leaving more than half still in Boche hands. As for the wood, it was a wood only in name – ragged stumps sticking out of churned-up earth, poisoned with fumes of high explosives, the whole a mass of corruption. But there was life enough in the trenches and below ground. Outside the wood the country was a featureless wilderness. Here is a description written at the time:
“Imagine Hampstead Heath made of cocoa-powder, and the natural surface folds further complicated by countless shell-holes, each deep enough to hold a man, and everywhere meandering crevices where men live below the surface of the ground, and you will get some idea of the terrain of the attack.”
The absence of natural landmarks must always be borne in mind, for it explains what might seem to be instances of confusion and bad map-reading in the progress of the operations.
The attack of September 15th was conceived on a grand scale. It was hoped that the breaking of the German third line, which was then holding us up, would constitute a decisive victory after the costly and indecisive fighting of the previous month. Many fresh divisions, of which we were one, were brought up for the occasion, and great hopes were placed on the effect of the novelty of the Tanks.
Three corps were engaged, of which our own, III Corps, was on the left flank. The function of III Corps was to form a defensive flank on the forward side of the ridge on which Martinpuich and High Wood stand, to cover the advance northwards of XIV and XV Corps on our right. The 47th Division was on the right of III Corps, thus linking the north-easterly movement (swinging north) of III Corps with the northerly movement of XV Corps. It will be seen how the obstacle of High Wood, which delayed our advance for a time, while it went forward on both sides, made this task particularly difficult. The Division attacked on a two-brigade front. On the right was Lord Hampden’s 140th Brigade, with the 7th Battalion clear of High Wood and joining the New Zealand Division, and next on the left, attacking up the east side of the wood, with two companies clear of it, came the 15th Battalion.
The 141st Brigade, under Brigadier General McDouall, with the 17th Battalion on the right and the 18th Battalion on the left, was faced by the wood all along its front. On the left came the 50th Division. Our attack had three objectives: First, a line clear of High Wood; second, the Starfish Line, down the forward slope; third, on the right the strong Flers Line, where the 140th Brigade were to join up with the New Zealanders, falling back to join the 141st Brigade in a communication trench, Drop Alley, whence the final objective was prolonged westwards along Prue Trench in the valley. On the right the 8th Battalion were to pass through the 7th and 15th, and capture the Starfish Line, and the 6th Battalion to pass through them again to the Flers Line. On the left the 19th and 20th Battalions were to capture and consolidate the second and third objectives. The 142nd Brigade, under Brigadier-General Lewis, was in reserve about Mametz Wood, ready to move forward at zero to Bazentin-le-Grand, where it would be immediately in support of the attacking brigades.
Zero was at 6.20 am. The troops attacking High Wood were at once engaged in heavy fighting. Four Tanks accompanied the attack, but could make no headway over the broken tree-stumps and deeply-pitted ground and were stuck before they could give the help expected from them. The infantry, thus disappointed of the Tanks’ assistance, were also deprived of the support of the guns, which were afraid to fire near the Tanks. The 17th and 18th Battalions and half the 15th Battalion had a desperate fight for every foot of their advance. The enemy met them with bombs and rifle-fire from his trenches, and machine-guns from concrete emplacements, still undamaged, mowed them down.
With the second wave of attack the 19th and 20th Battalions and part of the 8th joined the fight, and during the morning five battalions were at once engaged in the wood. Casualties were very heavy. Among many others fell Lieut-Colonel AP Hamilton, of the 19th Battalion, who called all available men to follow him, and went up into the wood to try to restore order to the confused fighting. A little later Major JR Trinder, of the 18th, was killed. At eleven o’clock General McDouall arranged with Lieut-Colonel AC Lowe, RFA, for a new bombardment of the wood. At the same time the 140th Trench Mortar Battery succeeded in beating its previous record of concentrated fire. Its efforts finally demoralised the German garrison, who began to surrender in batches, and before one o’clock High Wood was reported clear of the enemy.
On the flanks, meanwhile, our progress had been faster. Tanks had been a great success with the division on our right, causing dismay to the garrison of Flers, and our own right flanks had gone forward with the New Zealanders — the 7th Battalion fighting their way to the first objective, a part of the 8th Battalion to the Starfish Line, and the 6th Battalion beyond this again. Some few got as far as the Flers Line, though this could not be held, and it was found later that their forward positions were in the Cough Drop, a group of trenches in a valley west of Flers. As these units of the 140th Brigade went forward, they suffered more heavily from the exposure of their left flank, and the 6th Battalion especially lost many men from enfilade machine-gun fire, and there were only two officers and about one hundred other ranks of the attackers left to occupy the Cough Drop. On the left, similarly the 50th Division went forward and occupied their second objective, but their right flank was exposed, and they could not hold their ground.
On the afternoon of the 15th our situation was that High Wood was captured after desperate fighting in which the 141st Brigade had become so much disorganised from loss of leaders that it was temporarily formed into a composite battalion under Lieut-Colonel Norman, of the 17th. The work of establishing a line on the first objective clear of High Wood was started by a mixed party under Captain H.S. Read, of the 20th Battalion. On both flanks, meanwhile, the attack was going ahead, but was endangered by the gap opposite High Wood. Three battalions of the 142nd Brigade had been sent forward during the morning and placed at the disposal of the attacking brigades; only one battalion, therefore — the 22nd — remained in divisional reserve, and nearly all that was engaged in the necessary work of carrying up ammunition. The capture of the Starfish Line, however, was considered essential, and at about 6 pm the 21st and 24th Battalions attacked with this object, under command of Lieut-Colonel Kennedy. On the right the 21st Battalion at great cost attacked the Starfish Line, and captured the Starfish Redoubt itself, but their attempt to get on farther to the Cough Drop did not succeed. The 24th Battalion, attacking from the wood, met such heavy fire that they did not get to the Starfish Line, but dug themselves in about 200 yards in front of the first objective of the 141st Brigade. Only perfunctory artillery preparation could be arranged for this attack, and the assaulting troops suffered fearfully, the 21st Battalion having only 2 officers and 60 other ranks left unwounded out of 17 officers and 550 other ranks who attacked. The night was spent in consolidating the ground along the divisional front.
During the afternoon some of the batteries began to move up in support, the first being the 19th London Battery, under Major Lord Gorell, who brought his battery up into the shell-hole area immediately behind High Wood.
Accompanied by Major Marshall, of the 18th Battery, Lord Gorell made a brilliant reconnaissance of the divisional front, and was able to report the line actually held that night by our troops, together with much other valuable information. For these distinguished services Lord Gorell was awarded the DSO.
With the object of securing the junction of III and XV Corps, we were ordered to make good a ridge running north-east from High Wood to a point above the villages of Flers and Eaucourt I’Abbaye. This involved the capture of the Cough Drop – a lozenge-shaped group of trenches just under this ridge — and a communication trench. Drop Alley, which ran from it north-east to the Flers Line, and the Flers Line itself, forward of its junction with Drop Alley, on to the ridge. Three companies of the 23rd Battalion, with one company of the 22nd, were detailed for this job, under command of Lieut-Colonel HH Kemble, of the 23rd. They attacked at 9.25 on the morning of September 16th. The Cough Drop presented no difficulty, for the 6th Battalion were found to be already in possession, but the trenches round it were effectually cleared of the enemy. The attack, however, went beyond its objective, misled by the discovery that this objective was already held by the 6th Battalion, and heading straight for the strongly held Flers Line. Aeroplanes reported our men in the Flers Line, and even in Eaucourt I’Abbaye, and these may have been parties of the 23rd; if so, they were cut off before they could establish connection with supporting troops, for they never returned.
It was considered imperative to get a footing in the Flers Line where it was joined by Drop Alley, and on the evening of the 17th orders were issued to the 140th Brigade to effect this. But that day steady rain had begun, making bad conditions far worse, and it was decided to postpone this operation until dawn of the 18th. A mixed force of the 8th, 15th, and 6th Battalions, under Lieut-Colonel Whitehead, of the 8th, then attacked, and succeeded in occupying both the Flers Line and Drop Alley to within 50 yards of the junction which the enemy still held. Earlier on the same morning two companies, one each from the 23rd and 24th Battalions (under Major TC Hargreaves and Captain Figg), had attacked and occupied a part of the Starfish Line west of the Starfish Redoubt, which the 141st Brigade and the 24th Battalion successively failed to take on September 15th. This night attack was guided by a lamp fixed forward of the objective by Lieutenant WG Newton, adjutant of the 23rd Battalion. The Boche counter-attacked soon after the trench was gained, and succeeded in bombing our men almost back to the Redoubt. When we attacked again we found the trench deserted — a typical instance of the enemy’s clever and bold methods. Very gallant and devoted work had been put into the consolidation of the Starfish Line on the night of the 17th-18th by a large working-party consisting of two sections of 2/3rd London Field Coy, RE, and two companies of the Pioneers. This party, suffering many casualties on their way up, worked on the trench from the Redoubt to within 100 yards of the centre of the enemy’s resistance on the left. During the work a strong patrol, under Major SG Love, RE, and Lieutenant DJ Williams, RWF, passed behind the enemy beyond this strong point. The party withdrew just before the attack mentioned above, on the morning of September 18th. With their experience, it was later planned, on Major Love’s suggestion, that a party of the 4th RWF, under his command, should again attack the enemy’s strong point. The Corps, however, ordered instead a retrenchment round this point to join up with the 50th Division on our left, which was completed by the Pioneers on the following night.
On September 19th we were relieved by the 1st Division, the 140th Brigade fighting to the last, repelling a counter-attack by which the enemy, for a while, won his way down Drop Alley, almost as far as the Cough Drop. The Divisional Artillery, Engineers, and Pioneers were left in the line under the 1st Division, and the 19th Battalion remained forward for a few days to clear the battlefield.
Such a bald account as the foregoing attempts no more than to give a general idea of the progress of the operations, to suggest to those who took part in them the significance of events which, at the time, they almost certainly did not appreciate. It cannot in any way represent the strenuousness, the wonderful heroism, the appalling discomfort and weariness of those days. Battalions went in fit and strong, full of confidence to take their part in the great British offensive. They came out, a few days later, a handful of men, muddy and tired out. Four days’ fighting cost the Division just over 4.500 officers and men in casualties, and it is notable that those battalions (the 23rd, the 21st, and 6th) lost most heavily which had been in the open, under the German machine-gun lire and artillery barrage. Every battalion went into battle magnificently — wave after wave, just as at the last rehearsal when every detail is perfected. The lines of dead later bore mute testimony to the quality of our men and their training. That the momentum of the attack was spent in High Wood is no wonder, and the difficulty of making good the delay afterwards can but emphasise the value to the enemy of the position we had won.
There are several divisional memorial crosses in High Wood. The 47th Division gained no higher honour than that its cross should stand among them, and that it should bear the latest date. The heavy losses incurred in the capture of High Wood, and the delays which occurred later in the prosecution of the attack by the 47th Division, as also by the division on its left, were mainly due to the unfortunate decision regarding the disposition of III Corps Tanks in the area of the 47th Division — a decision which was taken in opposition to the urgent representation, more than once expressed to higher authority by the Divisional Commander after personally visiting High Wood in conjunction with the Brigadier concerned, that the Tanks could not move through the wood, owing to the insurmountable nature of the obstacles inside it. Had the Tanks been placed outside the wood, as urged by Sir C Barter, they could have materially helped the attackers in the wood. As it was they were the cause of the infantry being obliged to attack the wood without artillery assistance. A whole brigade was, in the event, practically put out of action, and the whole operation, including that of the division on the left, was thrown out of gear.
The communications between Division and Brigades at Bazentin were very bad, chiefly owing to the fact that, although Fricourt Farm had been prepared as advanced headquarters, Divisional Headquarters (on the Army Commander’s advice) remained to the south-west of Albert. This necessitated very long lines, subject to severe shell-fire between Fricourt and Bazentin, and to even more persistent interruption by traffic between Albert and Fricourt. The greater part of this stretch was occupied by horse-lines, across which the telegraph-lines had to pass. If cables were laid on the ground they were soon trampled into the mud, while the airline poles were broken down by wagons. Nothing but “permanent lines” could stand, and their erection required time and heavy material. In front of Brigade Headquarters the lines held fairly well. The ground was favourable for visual signalling, but this means failed in the attack, owing to the forward station being knocked out by shell-fire.
By September 21st the Division was back in the Baisieux area — the brigades at Henencourt, Bresle, and Millencourt. The remainder of the month was spent resting, refitting, and absorbing fresh drafts, by addition of which the net loss to the Division after the High Wood operations was reduced to 111 officers and 1,471 other ranks. The new men, however, could only have the most hasty training with their units, and the deficiency of experienced officers placed a great responsibility on those that remained in our second appearance on the stage of operations.
On September 28th Major-General Sir Charles St L Barter, KCB, CVO, left us. He had commanded the Division since our early days of training at St. Albans. He brought us out to France, watched us in the first months of apprenticeship, directed us to victory at Loos, and guided us through a difficult winter and through the anxious days of Vimy. He trained the Division for the Somme, and saw it spent in a harder fight than any before, the capture of High Wood. Under the command of Sir Charles Barter the fine tradition of the 47th London Division was firmly established, a tradition which was ever enhanced, as fresh opportunities came, under our new commander, Major-General Sir George F Gorringe, KCB, CMG, DSO, who succeeded him after a few days’ interval, during which the Division was commanded by Major-General WH Greenly.
The 141st Brigade went up first to take over the line from the 1st Division. They were in by dawn on September 29th. A further advance was intended, in which our objective was the village of Eaucourt I’Abbaye, a group of houses round the old abbey buildings, reputed to have extensive cellars, lying low, at the point where a short valley, from the direction of High Wood, turns at a right angle north-west towards the Albert-Bapaume road. Eaucourt I’Abbaye, therefore, is commanded by higher ground on every side except on the north-west. Before the attack it was desirable to push forward along the Flers Line on to the high ground south-east of the village. The 18th Battalion were ordered to do this. Their first attempt on September 29th was unsuccessful, but on the next day, they gained the ground required.
The attack on Eaucourt I’Abbaye started at 3.15 pm on October 1st. The attacking battalions, from right to left, were the 19th, the 20th, and the 17th. The 18th Battalion was in support, and, farther back, the 23rd, placed under orders of the 141st Brigade. Two Tanks co-operated, but had to start from cover some distance behind the infantry, and could not reach the village till at least an hour after zero. The right two battalions entered the Flers Line without difficulty. But their further advance was held up by persistent machine-gun fire from the west corner of the abbey enclosure. The Tanks later silenced these guns, whereupon the 19th and 20th Battalions rushed through the village, and established a line to the north of it. This position was most successfully held by troops under Lieutenant LW Needham, of the 20th Battalion, who held on under most difficult conditions until our fine was established round Eaucourt I’Abbaye. On the left of the attack the 17th came up against uncut wire in front of the Flers Line; some of them got through this, but not in strong enough force to hold the line, and they were bombed out. Again, therefore, our troops on the right had gone forward and occupied their objective, but their position was menaced by an unprotected left flank, and a gap was left on the right of the 50th Division in the Flers Line. To put this right the 23rd Battalion was ordered to attack the Flers Line, and to push on through the village to join up with the 19th and 20th Battalions. This operation was planned for 5 am on the 2nd, just before dawn, but owing to the dark, wet night, the battalion was not assembled until 6.25 am, when it attacked in broad daylight. The advancing waves were cut down by machine-gun fire from the flank, and the attack achieved nothing.
On the following day, at 3.35 pm, two companies of the 18th Battalion attacked up the Flers Line successfully, got through Eaucourt I’Abbaye, and completed the circuit of our troops round the village. It was later discovered that we might have made good our line on the night of October 1st without trouble, for the German battalion which had met the 141st Brigade attack was expecting relief that night, and left before their relief arrived. The enemy quickly found this out, and rushed up a battalion from support. Two companies came up to occupy the Flers Line opposite Eaucourt I’Abbaye; one tried to go east of the village and was stopped by our barrage and the fire of the forward troops of the 141st Brigade; the other came west of the village through the gap, and occupied their trenches just in time to meet the attack of the 23rd Battalion next morning. They were helped to save the situation by a dark night of pouring rain and our ignorance of newly-gained ground which we had hardly seen by daylight.
The capture of Eaucourt I’Abbaye brought several of the batteries over the High Wood ridge into a little valley beyond the “Starfish,” where they maintained a precarious existence for the remainder of their stay on the Somme, and helped to cover the gallant but unsuccessful attacks of the 47th, and later of the 9th Division, on the Butte de Warlencourt.