The Butte de Warlencourt from the Albert-Bapaume road.
The Butte de Warlencourt is an ancient burial mound about four miles south of Bapaume, and half a mile north of the village of Le Sars. Up close it doesn’t look much, and it’s only in the last few years that the wooden walkway that you can see to the left of this photo has been installed to aid access to the top.
It may not look much…
…and indeed a British intelligence report from 1916 stated: “The Butte is only a Roman tumulus at most fifty yards in diameter by twenty yards high. It commands nothing, being at the bottom of a hollow and cannot be seen from Le Sars owing to a line of trees along the road leading from the main road.”
The Germans disagreed: “The commanding ridge of the Butte afforded us unobstructed views as far as the Windmill Hill at Pozières, the hotly contested Hill 154, and the short stumps that were all that left of High Wood and Delville Wood. From the Butte we could see into the intervening No Man’s Land, and our artillery was able to take in enfilade the deep hollow of Martinpuich which constituted the best approach for enemy forces to the battlefront. The distance to the elevations which formed the horizon was 5 or 6 kilometres, which meant the British had to bring all but the longest-ranged of their offensive batteries forward into this ground.”
As we park the car we are reminded not only that this is a potentially dangerous place…
…but also a mass grave.
It was more than three months after the start of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 that the British finally found themselves in a position to attack the Butte.
By which time: “That ghastly hill, never free from the smoke of bursting shells, became fabulous. It shone white in the night and seemed to leer at you like an ogre in a fairy tale. It loomed up unexpectedly, peering into trenches where you thought yourself safe: it haunted your dreams. Twenty four hours in the trenches before the Butte finished a man off.”
The Battle of the Transloy Ridges, as the actions on the Somme between 7th & 20th October 1916 became known, took place along a three and a half mile front from just north of Le Sars, on the Albert-Bapaume road, to the village of Lesboeufs, the furthest southern point of the British trenches on the Western Front, where the French Army took over the line.
On 7th October 1916 the Post Office Rifles were among the first troops to attempt to force the Germans off the Butte, alongside two other London Regiment battalions, the 1/15th (Prince of Wales’s Own Civil Service Rifles), and the 1/7th (City of London). Their attack, and those following, was a complete failure. The 47th (London) Division history tells us that they met: “The full force of the enemy artillery and machine gun fire, cleverly sited in depth, so as to bring a withering cross fire to bear along the western slopes leading up to the Butte and the high ground to the south of it. From across the valley the enemy had magnificent observation of the ground leading to our objective and made full use of it…not a man turned back, and some got right up under the Butte, but they were not seen again.”
Following more failed attacks on 8th October, the Londoners were relieved by the 9th Division on 9th October. Three days later the next major attack, this time by men of the Seaforths and Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, alongside South African troops, again prove a costly failure. The Scots, attacking over the corpses of the men of the London Division who lay in long lines in front of the Butte, considered their experience here, a place ‘guarded by slime and weather’, the worst they had encountered anywhere on the Western Front, and that included the fighting at Delville Wood earlier in the summer. In the early hours of 18th October the British launched another attack, the South Africans finally taking the remains of Snag Trench, a trench in No Man’s land about three hundred yards south of the Butte. It seems that they briefly took the Butte as well before a German counterattack forced them back. More attacks followed in the evening before heavy rain brought the attempt to a halt. The Battle of the Transloy Ridges came to an end on the 20th October with small gains for the British along much of the front, although the Butte remained in German hands.
Trench map showing the Butte de Warlencourt in 1916. The German front line trenches (Gird & Gird Support) are marked in red. I have added the British front line in green in the bottom left hand corner, and Snag Trench in blue.
April on the Somme. Or Baldrick on the Somme in April, if you prefer.
Anyway, let’s go up and take a look around.
I can’t imagine that it was that easy getting to the top, particularly in inclement weather, before these new steps were installed.
Atop the Butte…
…a pavé cross…
…and the Western Front Association memorial (above & below), inaugurated and dedicated on 30th June 1990.
On 22nd October 1916, the German defenders at the Butte complained: “The masses of British dead in front of our position were giving forth such a stench of corruption that our brave defenders could not touch their food. The weather was wet, and our rifles and machine guns were rusting and covered with mud.”
Although the Battle of the Transloy Ridges had ended, the fighting at the Butte had not. On 24th & 25th October 9th Division was relieved by 50th Division, having sustained some 3200 casualties during their tenure of the line here. Although the next attack on the Butte was planned for 26th October, it was postponed, initially until 28th October, as preparations were made and trenches repaired. By then, however, incessant rain had turned the battlefield into a quagmire and it was not until 5th November that conditions were deemed suitable for the attack to take place. The weather was once again bad overnight, but by the morning had cleared, although conditions underfoot were still appalling.
On the morning of 5th November the men of the Durham Light Infantry, supported by the Northumberland Fusiliers and Australians on the flanks and with the Border Regiment in reserve, left the front line trenches, now including Snag Trench, and advanced towards the Butte and the German lines beyond. Following a creeping barrage the Durhams reached and captured the German front line, Gird Trench, on the Albert-Bapaume road, where they dug in, and succeeded in forcing the Germans off the Butte, although fierce fighting continued. In the afternoon the Germans counterattacked, driving the Durhams out of Gird Trench. Just after midnight a major German attack pushed the Durhams off the Butte, and by early afternoon the British were back where they started. Another attempt to take the Butte had ended in failure.
Fighting continued at the Butte until the middle of the month, by which time the British, and the weather, called a halt to the long bloody Battle of the Somme. Despite the numerous attempts to capture it, the Butte was still in German hands, the eerie white mound marking the eastern limit of the British advance on the Somme. Lieutenant-Colonel Roland Boys Bradford VC*, commanding officer of the Durhams who attacked the Butte on 5th November, later wrote: “The Butte itself would have been of little use to us for the purposes of observation. But the Butte de Warlencourt had become an obsession. Everybody wanted it. It loomed large in the minds of soldiers in the forward area and they attributed many of their misfortunes to it. The newspaper reporters talked about ‘that miniature Gibralter’. So it had to be taken.”
*Bradford had won his VC on 1st October during the fighting that would bring the British into a position to attack the Butte.
Me and my little book.
Above & below: The family Baldrick peruse the book. Well, two of them, anyway.
Not a book really, but a diary.
A bit like the Butte, it doesn’t look much.
It once belonged to Private Richard Frederick Bassett, who fought with the 1/7th London at the Butte in October 1916 (you will find his Casualty Form at the end of this post).
He doesn’t say much, Private Bassett, but what he does say, particularly when recited standing on top of the Butte, sends shivers down your spine. The spelling is his:
Oct 5th: Left Mill Street at night for the line at Beaucourt Abbe releiving the 22nd London.
Oct 6th: Still in the line.
Oct 7th: Still in the line and made an attack on the Butte de Warlencourt. Tanks again in action, we met great opposition, losing very heavily.
Oct 8th: Holding the line we gained.
Oct 9th: Releived at night by the 22nd London…
And now you know why, when we were planning our trip to the Somme, a visit to the Butte was top of my list.
To look out over the view from the top of the Butte, reading the words of a man who, nearly a hundred years ago, fought for his life somewhere down there in those fields, is a unique experience, and one that I can’t really put into words. Of course, the Germans couldn’t exactly stand on the top as we are, but the Butte was higher in those days. Either way, you get an idea of the excellent views towards the British lines and beyond that the Butte commanded (the Albert-Bapaume road visible through the trees in the centre). And the British initially considered it worthless.
The men of the Durham Light Infantry are not forgotten either. The Durhams lost nearly a thousand men killed, wounded or missing during the fighting on 5th & 6th November. Perhaps incidents such as the one following are hardly surprising given the circumstances: “At the Butte on 5th November 1916 a Durham Light Infantryman laid a grenade on the chest of a wounded German machine gunner and blew him to bits.”
View looking north, the main road in the dip in the valley, and Warlencourt British Cemetery visible just to the right of centre.
Not only was the Butte a superb observation post for the Germans, they had also dug and tunnelled deep beneath it.
Animal? Or human?
After the Battle of the Somme the Butte remained in German hands until 24th February 1917, when, as the Germans retreated to the Hindenburg Line, it was occupied unopposed by Australian troops.
The track past the Butte looking west towards the main road.
Before we leave…
…I wanted a few photos of the Butte and surrounding countryside from the east, the German side (see following photos). Baldrick, handily, took this shot not only of me in the distance, but of the entrance to the Butte, a picture I failed to take earlier. If you’d visited just a couple of years ago this would have been a far more unkempt place, the W.F.A. having recently done a fine job to make visiting a more pleasant experience.
The track past the Butte looking west. The Albert-Bapaume road follows the line of trees on the right.
Panning right from the previous shot, now looking north across the valley towards the village of Warlencourt-Eaucourt. The German front line trench (Gird Trench) ran alongside the track (see next photo) before running down the field to the bottom of the valley, crossing the road, and continuing up the slope in the distance to the left of Warlencourt-Eaucourt.
And now looking east, Gird Trench more or less following the track as far as you can see until it began to turn southwards over the horizon. You can view all this on the trench map; if you look carefully you will notice I have added this track in orange just to the north of the Butte.
Looking west at the Butte from the same position. In March 1917 John Masefield, later Poet Laureate, paid a visit: “I could see a marvellous panorama…the Butte de Warlencourt, which is a white Butte, a very big chalk tumulus, very plainly visible…Bapaume was plainly visible; houses in ruins, with smoke rising from them, for I fear the Bosches have fired them…looking through the strong telescope I saw into Transloy, where a German squad was marching down a road.”
William Orpen, the war artist, also visited the Butte in 1917: “The Butte de Warlencourt looked very beautiful in the afternoon light that summer. It shone out pale gold against the eastern sky, with the mangled remains of trees and houses, which was once Le Sars, on its left.”
Somme panorama. The Butte was once more captured by the Germans on 24th March 1918 as the last German assault on the Western Front attempted to break through the British lines once and for all. Finally, on 26th August 1918, it was again taken by the British during the Second Battle of Bapaume.
The Butte de Warlencourt is a peaceful place now, and, thanks to the W.F.A., who now own it, will remain so. But once it was a terrible, terrible place. Never forget.
Click here if you’d like to take a look around Amiens next.