On my recent trip to the Somme with the Friends of the Surrey Infantry Museum, as well as paying our respects at a number of cemeteries on the battlefield, most of personal interest to members of our group, we also visited some of the locations where the Surrey regiments found themselves in action.
One of these places was High Wood.
As we have seen in the last few posts, at 3.20 on the morning of 14th July 1916, the might of the British artillery opened up on the German lines from the western edge of Bazentin-le-Petit Wood (a mile to the west of the track we are following) to Delville Wood to the east (see photo below) signalling the start of phase two of the Battle of the Somme. Although there were problems with uncut wire in some areas, within hours many of the objectives of the morning had been achieved, and by early evening the first attack on High Wood was under preparation.
Looking east across the fields towards Delville Wood and the village of Longueval.
The tragedy of High Wood was that, on 14th July, the wood was almost deserted of Germans. A concerted attack that day would have driven the remaining Germans from the trees and allowed the British to capture the unfinished German trench, known to the British as the Switch Line, in the northern corner of the wood, which in turn might have allowed a breakthrough, using cavalry, into the German rear areas where defensive positions were at the time negligible. However, the chaos that ensued during and after the morning’s fighting, and the complications of command owing to the lack of dependable reports, meant that the afternoon passed without further advance. On more than one occasion contradictory reports were received – of cavalry advancing on High Wood, necessitating that artillery ceased for fear of hitting them, despite other reports of German troops massing beyond High Wood (this was true), before further reports stating that no cavalry had passed through British lines in the past half an hour, and that they were therefore unlikely to be in the wood! Shortly thereafter, British artillery recommenced its barrage.
It was during this cessation of artillery that a senior British officer, actually the G.O.C. 9th Brigade, Brigadier-General H. C. Potter, found himself looking out on the fields beyond Bazentin from the new front lines, “I had been very strictly enjoined not to push the advance beyond the final (infantry) objective laid down, which just included Bazentin-le-Grand……I walked out alone to examine the ground in front. It was a lovely day; the ground was very open and sloped gently up to a high ridge in front, so I wandered on until I found myself approaching a large wood which continued over the crest of the ridge. There was no sign whatever of the enemy, so I walked into the edge of the wood but saw no sign of a German, nor any defensive works. As I had advanced about a mile, and was quite alone, I considered it time to return.”
He later wrote, after discovering that he had, in fact, been into High Wood, “It is a great regret to me that the advance was not pressed that day and the hundreds of thousands of casualties afterwards expended in the capture of the position possibly avoided.”
In the event, the 2nd Queen’s, moving across the fields as we are, reached the edge of the wood at about 8.oo p.m., and there they waited. Soon joined by the 1st South Staffordshires, the men of both regiments began to cautiously enter the wood. As they advanced German opposition increased, but nonetheless the British managed to capture the wood up to the Switch Line. The breakthrough was close. But not close enough. Although far from completed, the Switch Line proved impossible for the weary men to take, despite the arrival of reinforcements. At midnight, the Germans counterattacked, and the British could not hold them. By morning High Wood was back in German hands, and despite further attacks on 15th July and the following days, the chance had gone.
This trench map, dated 21st July 1916, shows the Switch Line in red traversing the upper half of the map, cutting through the northern corner of the wood as it does so. The German front lines prior to 14th July cross the bottom of the map. Our route, and the route of the 2nd Queen’s on the evening of 14th July, follows the green line north from Crucifix Corner (there were many Crucifix Corners on the Western Front) towards the wood.
Over on our left, I think this was once the site of Bazentin windmill.
Throughout the rest of July, August, and early September, the British attacked, and the Germans defended, and men on both sides died. The wood become a mass of trenches (as this trench map extract, dated 15th August and marked with both British and German trenches, in blue & red respectively, shows), mud, debris, tree stumps, barbed wire and corpses. The tanks referred to on the map are, by the way, water tanks, not the other sort (although the other sort would be used in the final stages of the fight for the wood), and a small trench railway appears to have been constructed to ensure that water was close at hand for the troops in the front lines. Quite how this all worked, considering the proximity of the German lines, I am not entirely certain, but the air supremacy enjoyed by the British during the summer of 1916 must have played a part in hiding such activity from German eyes.
British soldier’s view of High Wood. Substitute tall summer grass for the rape seed and, despite the lack of shell holes and barbed wire, not too much has changed.
Our march across the fields brings us out at the southern tip of the wood. You can walk round it by following the track on the other side of the road, but that isn’t on our agenda today.
The road east leads to Longueval and Delville Wood, on the horizon, to our right. You can see how open the land is between both woods, the whole area once swept by German machine guns from the Switch Line as it crossed the fields to the north of Delville Wood (see trench map again).
On our left, I am pleased to report, our coach awaits. You can just see London Cemetery & Extension in the distance to the left of the coach.
Looking back down the track, imagining the men of the Queen’s advancing towards the unknown of the wood on the evening of 14th July.
Just beyond the signpost you will notice two small stone blocks.
They flank this memorial to the men of the 47th (London) Division,…
…who lost so heavily when the wood was finally taken on 15th September.
Following a three day artillery bombardment, the 47th (London) Division, supported on this occasion by tanks, attacked the wood, and despite terrible fighting, by early afternoon they had succeeded where the previous two months of fighting had failed. The British at last held High Wood, but at a heavy price. The 47th (London) Division alone had suffered 4,500 casualties by the time they were relieved on 19th September.
This memorial remembers their sacrifice.
The panel was, at the time of our visit, being refurbished.
On the edge of the wood a small wooden cross, placed in front of a little tree,…
…remembers the men of the 20th Bn. The Royal Fusiliers, The Public School (sic) Battalion, who were killed here on 20th July 1916. The battalion lost 22 officers and 375 men in High Wood.
Impossible to clear after the war, it is estimated that the remains of around 8,000 soldiers, British and German, still lie in High Wood today. Many consider this figure conservative.
Panoramic view looking from south east (left) to west (right) from the edge of the wood. You can see Trones & Bernafay Woods to the left of the picture, Bazentin-le-Grand Wood in the centre, and the much larger Bazentin-le-Petit Wood on the far right, the village of Bazentin in front of it. It’s amazing to think that, on 14th July, during the initial attack on the wood, cavalry were in action in these very fields, as the 20th Deccan Horse and the 7th Dragoon Guards attacked towards us in support of the infantry. It was the last time cavalry would see action during the Battle of the Somme.
As we speed away, I can’t help thinking of what might have happened if they had broken the Switch Line on the first day of fighting. Would we really have seen cavalry roaming beyond the German lines as infantry poured through the gaps? How far would the British have been able to advance, and did they have the reserves available to keep pushing the Germans east, exposing their positions to the north of the River Ancre from attack from their rear? Could the capture of High Wood have prefaced a complete collapse of the German positions on both sides of the Ancre, and what, in turn, would have been the consequences of that? By the time the wood was taken, of course, German defences to the rear had been considerably improved, the final irony being that it would be a German decision to retreat early in 1917 to the newly completed Siegfried Line, not a British attack, that would force them back.