Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, November 18, 2016

100 Years Ago: After 142 Days the Battle of the Somme Ends

The Battle of the Somme ended on 18 November 1916. The final three weeks of the Somme featured some efforts by the British Army to tidy up the front lines and pretty-up a costly venture that had actually failed to achieve any of its original strategic aims. Two actions during the period were microcosms of the full battle. These were the attacks on a man-made hill, the Butte de Warlencourt, and the village of Beaumont Hamel. 

The Butte de Warlencourt, a prehistoric burial mound on the side of the Albert to Bapaume Road, was, during the 1916 Battle of the Somme, a position of great strength for the Germans. It was fortified with barbed wire, riddled with tunnels, defended by machine guns and mortars, and stood as a sentinel in front of the major German trenches called Gird Trench and Gird Support. 

The View from Atop the Butte de Warlencourt Today

As the British Army clawed its way forward over the Somme battlefield during the summer of 1916, the Butte, towering over the surrounding countryside, was of immense value to the Germans. By late September 1916 the front line had been pushed toward the nearby village of Le Sars. 

It was not until 5 November that an all-out effort was made to take the Butte. This was undertaken by the 7th, 8th, and 9th Durham Light Infantry of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division. The attack by the Durhams was undertaken in appalling conditions. Despite heavy casualties, the 9th Durhams managed to take the Butte, only to be driven off by German counterattacks. Casualties in the three battalions amounted to 273 men killed plus many other wounded (over 80 of the fatalities are now buried in the nearby Warlencourt British Cemetery.) 

The View from Atop the Butte de Warlencourt in 1917

Other than its brief capture, the Butte remained under German control throughout 1916. It was not until the German retirement to the Hindenburg Line in February 1917 that the Butte passed into British hands. 

Beaumont Hamel had been attacked on the first day of the Somme by the 29th Division. The attack had failed comprehensively despite the detonation of the large Hawthorn mine on the ridge overlooking the village. The line did not move an inch for almost 20 weeks. 

Beaumont Hamel Was Leveled in the Battle

This failure was an embarrassing, constant reminder that the Somme offensive had never gone according to plan. As the winter approached, Sir Douglas Haig, who was scheduled to attend an Allied planning conference, needed some indicator that the situation was improving. He ordered the capture of Beaumont Hamel, committing more artillery to the sector than was available on 1 July. Also, since some of the mining tunnels were still open under Hawthorn Ridge, the big mine was reloaded. The front line over it had been re-fortified by the unsuspecting defenders. 

The attack was to be carried out by the Fifth Army with the 2nd Corps South of the Ancre River bank and the Vth Corps north of the river. The Vth Corps attack would have the 63rd Division on the right, 51st Highland Division and 2nd Division in the center, and the 3rd Division on the left with the 37th Division in reserve. 

Rebuilt Beaumont Hamel from No Man's Land of 13 November 1916

The attack had been originally planned for 24 October, but primarily because of torrential rain there were a number of delays until the attack was eventually scheduled for 13 November. The mine went off at 05:45, and the 51st Highland Division overran the German line and captured the village, Y-Ravine, and what is now known as Newfoundland Memorial Park. It was the only success of the broader assault that day. For the next five days the British divisions along the Ancre inched along the river banks, but by 18 November there was no point in proceeding as winter was on the way. The Battle of the Somme had come to its end. 

This article is just one of 15 features presented in the November 2016 issue of our free monthly newsletter, The St. Mihiel Trip-Wire.  Click HERE to read all our articles and subscribe.

No comments:

Post a Comment