Bois de Fourceaux, better known as High Wood, was lightly held in the middle of July 1916 by enemy who had been driven out of Bazentin le Petit. It was thought that here was an opportunity to occupy a key enemy position without huge loss of life. Also there was an opportunity to use l’Arme Blanche – the Cavalry – who had been kicking their heels since August 1914. Unfortunately, before the Deccan Horse and the 7th Dragoon Guards could be deployed, the Germans had reinforced the Wood. The cavalry galloping up, what would come to be known as Caterpillar Valley, were cut to pieces by machine guns. The survivors rode into High Wood killing infantry and machine gunners with their lances. They held their positions through the night. Unfortunately they were not reinforced. Eventually a Brigade of 33rd Division fought their way into the Wood, dug in and waited for the inevitable counter attack.
Orders came through that the Division would change the axis of advance to the North and, with High Wood on the right, advance towards Martinpuich. Brigadier General Baird knew that this would lay the Division open to enfilading fire from the enemy in High Wood. As a compromise he was allowed to leave a small force: three platoons of Glasgow Highlanders and ‘A’ Company of the 16th KRRC to keep the enemy in the Wood occupied. This they did most valiantly, but were eventually forced to retire. ‘A’ Company lost all its officers, all its senior NCOs, all its full corporals. It was left to L/Cpl Herbert King, the senior L/Cpl, to rally the 65 survivors of ‘A’ Company and bring them out. The fate of the Glasgow Highlanders is not recorded The date was 15th July. It would be exactly two months to the day, before High Wood would be taken.
At the end of August, Rifleman George St John of 14 Platoon, D Company 1/18th London Irish Rifles writing home said, “At present we are bivouacking and when the weather is fine, it is glorious and the country around looks lovely. I don’t think we shall be here long, as there is more serious work for us to do”. With his letter, he enclosed a photograph of 14 Platoon. Of the 40 men in the picture he said only two besides himself came out with the Battalion. His main worry was to dry the underclothes he had just washed as it had come on to rain and he didn’t have a spare set.
47th (London) Division TF moved from Albert to Mametz Wood where Major General Barter gave his Brigade Commanders their orders. They were to take High Wood and the Switch Line, move on to the second objective, Starfish Line and then to the third objective Coughdrop Alley, the attack would be on a two Brigade front. 140th Brigade commanded by Brigadier-General Viscount Hampden would be on the right and 141st Bde commanded by Brigadier- General R McDouall on the left. Brigadier-General Lewis’ 142nd Bde would be in reserve at Mametz Wood ready to move at Zero (0620) to Bazentin le Grand to support the attacking brigades. In 141st Brigade, the task of 1/18thLondon Irish and 1/17th Poplar & Stepney Rifles was to capture High Wood and the Switch Line, having achieved their objective they would consolidate and 1/19th St Pancras Rifles and 1/20th Blackheath & Woolwich Rifles would advance through their positions at Zero plus 40 minutes to take the second objective, the Starfish Line. Two hours after Zero, 1/19th and 1/20th Bns would move forward to take Coughdrop. The London Irish and 1/17th Poplar & Stepney Rifles were to ‘mop up’ any resistance in High Wood before the other Battalions arrived on their position.
The fire plan for the Artillery consisted of a barrage on 12th September and at intervals thereafter until the day of the assault. At Zero plus one minute the barrage was to creep into the wood at the rate of 50 yards a minute. Four Machine Guns were to fire from a position at Bazentin le Petit and four more from a position near the windmill at Longueval. Contact aeroplanes would drop flares to indicate the progress of the attack. It was a good plan, rather ambitious, but workable, bearing in mind the very well trained, experienced, not to mention brave men who were to carry it out. Unfortunately, no plan however good, survives contact with the enemy. The evil reputation of High Wood was well known. After almost three months of continuous assault, by September 1916 it was very different from the shady beech wood of early July. Now it was a mass of shell craters and splintered tree trunks. Forward of the Wood was a maze of trenches, surrounded by a mass of putrefying human debris – all that remained of the gallant attackers of July and August. The key to the position were the massed concrete machine gun emplacements. High Wood was considered impregnable by the enemy. It needed to be, it was the key to the Switch Line. The Germans knew that whoever held High Wood could then roll-up the Switch Line and the Starfish Line and advance through Coughdrop Alley towards Eaucourt l’Abbaye.
The machine-guns of High Wood and the German artillery had held off the most determined assaults from some of the finest divisions in the British Army. All they had to show for their appalling losses was a small foothold in the south corner of the Wood. Now it was the turn of the Territorials of 47th Division to show what they could do, and they had a ‘secret weapon’ that they were told, would neutralise the fire power of the Enemy. Tanks! Because the British and German Lines were so close together, it was not possible for our Artillery to put down an effective barrage without endangering our own troops. The High Command thought that the four Tanks they had allocated to the Division would be able to shoot their way into High Wood ahead of the assaulting brigades, suppressing the German fire with their cannons and machine guns. They would be followed by the London Irish and the Poplar and Stepney Rifles who would then clear the Wood of any surviving infantry and machine-gunners, and then consolidate.
Major General Sir Charles Barter 47th Divisional Commander didn’t think so. He thought it was a terrible idea and told GHQ so in the frankest terms. He, unlike GHQ, had seen High Wood and he knew that no tank could possibly penetrate the mass of tree stumps and craters. His plan was for the tanks to attack the wood on either flank, and in his words, “crush the wood like a walnut in a nutcracker”. He was overruled. Two tanks stuck or broke down before they reached the Wood, by a miracle one tank got into the Wood and then stuck. The crew abandoned ship to fight hand to hand with the infantry against a determined and intact enemy. The fourth tank lost its bearings and caused a considerable number of casualties when, mistaking them for the enemy, fired directly on the New Zealanders advancing with the 7th Royal Fusiliers on the Division’s right flank. On 15th September 1916 Major General Sir Charles Barter could ‘number himself among the prophets’!
Despite the failure of the tanks the attack was launched at Zero + 10, 0630 hrs. There was an artillery barrage, but for the reasons explained earlier and because it could not target the lanes allocated to the tanks, it was ineffectual. So the London Irish went over the top into a stream of lead that poured in from the undamaged German machine guns. To quote from the official history: “As soon as the men crossed the parapet they were mown down.Captain MaGinn, Lieutenant Cunningham and the bombing officer, Lieutenant Munro, gallantly lead the rushes, but were knocked out. Captain MaGinn and Lieutenant Cunningham were killed instantly and Lieutenant Munro was so severely wounded that he died when crawling around trying to bring aid to other wounded.”
The attack of the London Irish and the Poplar & Stepney Rifles ground to a halt. The casualties were appalling. The survivors took cover in shell holes and took on the enemy infantry and machine gunners with their rifles. But you cannot suppress machine guns in concrete emplacements with rifle fire alone. They needed artillery and they needed reinforcements and they were both on their way. To quote from the official history again: “Lt Colonel A P Hamilton, CO of the 1/19th and ex-Adjutant of The London Irish, immediately organised a party of men and made a gallant attempt to rush the enemy front line, but was unsuccessful. Lt Col Hamilton was killed, together with every man who went forward with him.”
It had now become obvious, even to the most optimistic, that a frontal assault on High Wood was not going to work. A new plan was needed. The CO of 1/19th, now commanded by Major Fair and 1/20th, commanded by Lt Col Parker, came up with a plan to turn the enemy position by attacking on either flank while the remnants of The London Irish and the Poplar & Stepney Rifles were to make a frontal assault. To make this work they needed artillery support. They cleared their plan with Brigadier-General McDouall who ordered 140th Trench Mortar Battery to provide support by putting down a heavy bombardment on the enemy positions in the eastern part of the Wood.
The official history says: “1/19th Battalion worked round to the left and 1/20th Battalion round to the right, in conjunction with this 1/17th and 1/18th London Irish made another frontal attack. These attacks were successful and between 0900 and 1000hrs the enemy along the London Irish front of the Wood began to surrender. Snipers in shell holes and strong points in the wood continued to harass the advance and Major J H Trinder the CO was shot through the head and killed, while supervising the removal of prisoners.” This attack could not have succeeded without the superhuman efforts of the Trench Mortar Battery.
The official history again: “The 140th Trench Mortar Battery rendered very valuable assistance by firing 750 rounds into the Wood in 15 minutes*. The Battery of eight 3” Stokes mortars, commanded by Captain GL Goodes, had stockpiled 125 rounds by each mortar during the previous night. Captain Goodes was anxious to give the attacking infantry support at Zero hour. But the emphasis was on tanks and he was told to keep his mortars silent. The feat was afterwards described as, ‘the most brilliant piece of work in the history of trench mortars.’ By 1225pm the whole of High Wood was captured and several hundred Germans were taken prisoner, together with 6 machine-guns and 2 Howitzers”. The survivors of the London Irish, who had made that final bayonet charge, into the teeth of the enemy machine guns, were now scattered among the shell holes and trenches of High Wood. Their CO, Major Trinder, was dead and most of their officers and senior NCOs were either killed or wounded.
Major B McMahon Mahon came forward to take over command, but because of the heavy casualties sustained by 141st Brigade it was decided to form the survivors into a composite battalion. Lt Colonel Norman, CO of 1/17th Poplar & Stepney Rifles, took over command. After consolidating on the captured position the battalion moved forward and spent the night of 15th/16th September digging new trenches 200 yards forward of the Switch Line. The Brigade was finally relieved in the line at 2am on 20th September by the Cameron Highlanders.
Rifleman George St John, who was left out of the battle, on writing home much later said: “our casualties were very heavy. We managed to get the bodies of Major Trinder, our Commanding Officer, Major Hamilton, our second in command and Captain Maginn, our Company Commander, out of the trenches. We dug their graves at the cross roads, where the trenches commence and placed three little wooden crosses to mark the resting place of these three men who by their courage and devotion, had done so much to inspire confidence in we the men of the Regiment.” Rifleman St John was unaware that Hamilton had been promoted to command the 1st/19th St Pancras Rifles and had died leading a party to support his old Battalion.
(thanks are due to Nigel Wilkinson for his research).