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

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

14 July 1916—British and Indian Cavalry Attack High Wood

Reader Paul Albright sent this striking portrait of two Indian Army cavalry  officers that had appeared in a BBC magazine. The early-1916 painting by  Philip de László features officers Jagat Singh and Man Singh, whose unit, the 2nd Cavalry Division was deployed at the Somme later in the year.

The article indicates Man Singh was a  Ressaidar (lieutenant) with the Deccan Horse, which was one of the two cavalry regiments (the other was the British 7th Dragoon Guards) assigned to help capture High Wood on the west end of Bazentin Ridge on 14 July 1914 as part of a broad attack on the ridge launched that day.  This cavalry action regularly, but usually only briefly, gets mentioned in histories of the Battle of the Somme.  

Seeing the painting of the two stalwart Indian officers reminded me that I've never done a piece on the cavalry attack on High Wood so, here, I'm going to try to correct that.

High Wood was the last of the major woods in the Somme offensive of 1916 to be captured by the British. The struggle to secure it would last two months in July 2016 Graham Turner visited the Somme to take part in a ride commemorating the centenary of the charge at High Wood; below is an excerpt from the article he wrote for Battlefield, the magazine of the Battlefields Trust, about the charge and recounting his own experiences a century later.

In the southern sector of the British lines, advances had been made on the opening days of the battle of the Somme, and the assault planned for 14 July was intended to push further forward through the German second line trenches and take the high ground on the Bazentin Ridge and beyond. Always in the back of Sir Douglas Haig's mind was the hope that a breakthrough would be made and cavalry could then be deployed to push on through the enemy lines. Consequently, the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division was mobilised from their billets south of Albert at around midnight on the 13th/14th, passing through Bray and Carnoy, with the vanguard crossing the old front lines to take up position in a valley just south of Montauban by 7a.m.

The Infantry attack on Bazentin Ridge had started at 3.25 a.m. following a brief but intensive artillery barrage. The bitter struggle for the ridge and the village of Longueval to the east of High Wood would continue all day, and the cavalry would send out patrols and working parties to create crossing points over the trenches and shell holes until eventually, in the late afternoon, they were ordered into action, and the 7th Dragoon Guards and 20th Deccan Horse advanced towards High Wood.

A Troop of the Deccan Horse Near High Wood

As they approached the wood at around 7 p.m, they came under fire but sustained relatively few casualties, the 7th Dragoon Guards coming across German soldiers sheltering in shell holes in the crop of corn to the east of High Wood, who they charged. Sixteen Germans were speared, and thirty-two were made prisoners. Meanwhile the Deccan Horse advanced round the end of neighbouring Delville Wood, getting almost as far as the German third line trenches before returning with captives. This was described by Lieutenant Colonel Tennant, who took part: "As each squadron cleared the defile it formed a line and advanced at a gallop in the direction taken by the advanced guard, which lay through a broad belt of standing corn, in which small parties of the enemy lay concealed. Individual Germans now commenced popping up on all sides, throwing up their arms and shouting 'Kamerad' and not a few, evidently under the impression that no quarter would be given, flung their arms around the horses' necks and begged for mercy."

Because Delville Wood and Longueval remained in German hands, further advance would have been disastrous, so both regiments took up a defensive position along the High Wood to Longueval road until they were relieved by infantry and withdrawn in the early hours of the 15th.

As for the losses incurred by the cavalry, eight men were killed and around 100 were wounded. Casualties amongst the horses were higher; around 50 lost their lives and 100 more were wounded. In the context of the huge loss of life on the Somme battlefield overall, these figures seem comparatively light, suggesting that the charge at High Wood was perhaps not the massacre that is often related.

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