Back to Africa today, where the Force Publique gets well and truly stuck into Major Wintgens’s defensive positions outside Mwanza, on Lake Victoria. The battle goes all day and through the night; they’re trying to buy time for a promised British Empire force to do an end run around Wintgens and cut off his southern escape route down the Tabora road. On the plus side, they’re nearby with 2,000 men; on the other hand, most of the force is irregulars around a core of King’s African Rifles. Tomorrow, the result.
Battle of the Somme
So, here we go, then. Time for the attack usually known as the Battle of Bazentin Ridge. But, before we can delve into that, we’ve got to quickly duck out to Trones Wood, which at midnight is far from in BEF hands. General Rawlinson has sold this mildly crackpot scheme to his boss at least partly on the premise that Trones Wood will be in BEF hands by zero hour. And, by zero hour, due to sheer dumb luck, it indeed is. Chance placed one Lt-Col Frank Maxwell (VC) of the 12th Middlesex in Trones Wood at this time.
To talk of a ‘wood’ is to talk rot. It was the most dreadful tangle of dense trees and undergrowth imaginable, with deep yawning broken trenches criss-crossing about it. Every tree broken off at top or bottom and branches cut away, so that the floor of the wood was almost an impenetrable tangle of timber, branches, undergrowth etc. blown to pieces by British and German heavy guns for a week. Never was anything so perfectly dreadful to look at—at least I couldn’t dream of anything worse…
A naturally charismatic commander, through sheer force of personality, Maxwell gathers all the men he can find together and has them advance in line abreast, almost holding hands. German tactics for defending the wood have been entirely based on picking on small, isolated, scared, lost British platoons and squads. For nearly a week fresh men have trickled inside to be broken up and picked off one by one. Today is when Maxwell earns his brigade command by taking Trones Wood and then holding it all day.
Let’s go to the map now to remind ourselves of the plan.
As befits a critical day, there are all kinds of clever shenanigans going on here in support of the attack. To begin with, there will be no preliminary barrage at all, as we’ve come to understand the term. There has been some wire-cutting artillery fire over the past couple of days, but no concentrated firing for more than an hour or so at a time, what the Germans call drum-fire. Just brief blasts, then lifts, then more blasts, then a longer break, and so on. This is Behaviour Modification, as trialled over the last few months at Ypres, finally pressed into service for a major offensive. There’s another push in the wreckage of Ovillers, and a successful demonstration (without anyone leaving their trenches) at Beaumont Hamel.
The final ruse is one that relies on information gained a few days ago, that the Germans are tapping the BEF’s field-telephone system. Having already given careful verbal orders to the relevant units, shortly before zero hour 4th Army HQ telephones everyone it can think of to inform them that the attack has been postponed. (The order is of course meant for the enemy to overhear.) It’s difficult to say exactly how effective all the individual deception efforts were. All we can say is that the men sneaked out into No Man’s Land almost entirely unmolested, and when they attacked after a final bombardment of only five minutes, they achieved almost total surprise.
The whole world broke into gunfire. It was a stupendous spectacle—the darkness lit up by thousands of gun flashes—the flicker of countless bursting shells along the northern skyline, followed a few minutes later by a succession of frantic SOS rockets and the glare of burning Hun ammunition dumps.
There’s our correspondent Fraser-Tytler; after five minutes, his guns switch to an effective and generously-timetabled creeping barrage. From Bazentin to Delville Wood the defending Germans have almost no answer. Resistance is sporadic, quickly snuffed out with bombs. At 10:30am, Fraser-Tytler is watching cavalry and arse hortillery moving past Montauban and forward towards the battle. There is, for the moment, utter confusion among German high command, caught with their trousers down, right in the middle of General von Falkenhayn’s command reorganisation, literally as the generals are formally handing things over to each other.
There is a gap in the German line, maybe a mile wide, although narrower than had been hoped for. It’s right in front of High Wood, capstone of an important intermediate trench line between the Second and Third Lines (usually referred to as a “switch line”). At 500 feet above sea level, along with Pozieres, it’s the highest point for miles around, critical for observation purposes. The defenders are mostly falling back in disarray. The BEF’s 7th Division waits for orders. Is it safe for them to push on?
On either side of the gap, the Germans are still holding on by their fingernails to the Second Line’s reserve trenches, local commanders feeding in troops via Pozieres and Combles. However, there aren’t, as yet, any orders to garrison the Third Line in strength or to attempt to occupy the switch lines between them. Opportunity is knocking. And then there was a Decision, and lo! it later became a Matter of Some Debate.
Here is what happened. In the morning and the early afternoon, several patrols go out from the Second Line to High Wood, reporting it variously as completely empty or else garrisoned only by light enemy patrols. These reports all make it back to higher command. 4th Army then emits a number of extremely unhealthy grinding and crunching noises from under the bonnet, as several people all grab at the gear lever at once, and succeed only in ramming it firmly into neutral several times. The infantry gets orders to wait for the cavalry; advance; wait for the cavalry; do a little turn; and then sing “Knees Up Mother Brown”.
There is no advance towards High Wood until the evening, when the cavalry shows up, at which point machine-guns have appeared in the wood and the German artillery is beginning to recover after rapidly fleeing its positions behind Bazentin. Heavy fighting follows, and the attackers end the day with a solid foothold in High Wood, but when surely there had been a chance for far more. For once we cannot blame imperfect information. By First World War standards, communications with the rear were good enough. Division and corps commanders had about as good an idea of the situation as ever they could hope to have.
Several things got in the way. The first problem is the breakthrough itself. It’s relatively narrow, and the Germans are now hammering the left in particular with stiff counter-attacks from Pozieres. If their position at Bazentin gives way, anyone trying to exploit the breakthrough is in extreme danger of being cut off. So the 7th Division is kept waiting in front of High Wood, watching, cooling their heels until nightfall.
Here’s where we see through the apparent similarities between British “the man on the spot is king” principles and, say, the true freedoms given to subordinate commanders by General von Mackensen in the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive. If one of Mackensen’s men had been in charge, he would surely have said “stuff the orders, I’m going to get that wood” and gone after it. A British man on the spot may be king, but he is a constitutional monarch and must first and foremost work within his orders.
This all might have been okay if three cavalry divisions had swept through the gap at, say, 2pm. But at that time, two of them are still knocking around the wrong side of Albert, by now far too far from the battle to play any part today. One division, the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division, was sent forward early in the morning, but of course it’s had trouble getting forward. Not all of this is caused by trouble traversing ground broken up by artillery fire, mind you. When General Rawlinson sent it forward he attached it to XIII Corps, expecting the breakthrough to come in their portion of front. But 7th Division belongs to XV Corps, and hours are lost finding the cavalry, re-attaching them to XV Corps, and sending them forward to their new starting points.
I wish now to pause for a moment and reflect on the deep, deep irony of most of the cavalry being held too far to the rear, on Haig’s explicit orders. Commanders-in-chief have, earlier in the war, been overthrown by their senior army commanders for similar mistakes. I do wonder what Sir John French, sitting in his gossip factory on Horse Guards Parade, made of it all when someone told him what had happened.
The Charge of the Deccan Horse
So, in the early evening, we find cavalry coming into action on the Western Front for the first time in rather a while. More errors in getting orders forward sees only one cavalry brigade actually attack. But when they do, it’s a real sight to behold: they’re riding into action, ready for a charge. I’ve got two views of the attack, both from artillery spotters. The first is from Signaller Leonard Ounsworth, spotting for a heavy howitzer battery.
A Morane-Saulnier, a French aeroplane that we had at the time, kept diving down on to the corner of the field on our left front. I saw this Indian cavalry, the Deccan Horse they called them, and this plane was diving down and up again. Suddenly the officer in charge of the cavalry cottoned on. He stood up in his stirrups, waved his sword above his head and just charged across that field—like a shot out of a gun, like bats out of hell. The two outer lots split, so they made a pincer and encircled them—it was all over in a matter of seconds.
The next thing we saw was thirty-four Jerry prisoners, some with heavy machine guns. They were waiting while the Cavalry got a bit nearer—my God, they’d have slaughtered them. The plane was trying to draw their attention, just diving down on top, I suppose distracting these machine-gunners, because a plane coming down close above your head is enough to draw your attention.
And the second is from Lieutenant Beadle, spotting for the field guns. Sixteen Germans have been killed by the lance in addition to the 30 prisoners.
It was an incredible sight, they galloped up with their lances and with pennants flying. I’ve never seen anything like it! They simply galloped on through all that, and horses and men dropping on the ground. It was an absolute rout. A magnificent sight.
Brigadiers and division commanders are all sucked into a vortex of “wait, what do we do now?”, caught between common sense and orders. The cavalry dismounts with a foothold in High Wood and digs in. After a certain amount of shocked staring, a few individuals damn their orders and strike off in support. The approximate position at nightfall:
It’s a missed opportunity. How big, we really can’t say for sure. We can only speculate what might have happened if those three cavalry divisions had all got stuck in at once. They might have got lost, got over-enthusiastic, got massacred, got the VC, got to Bapaume, or all of the above.
General Haig is quite clear what he thinks of the day’s events. First in his diary.
I saw General Foch at Querrieu. He is very pleased with result of our attacks. French openly said their troops could not have carried out such an attack, not even the XX Corps! [which did particularly well on 1 July]
Foch is extremely enthused by this success, on Bastille Day, no less. He’s been worrying that the perfidious English will be content with allowing the battle to bog down once they learn that the Germans are giving up on Verdun. The two men spend a lot of time today talking over the possibilities for the coming days. There are a number of nasty German strong-points east of Trones Wood; they’re creating bottlenecks for the BEF right and the French left. Joint attacks are planned to free the bottleneck, and General Fayolle will soon get orders to make another big push for Peronne.
Back to Haig, who we now find writing to his wife.
This is indeed a very great success. The best day we have had this war and I feel what a reward it is to have been spared to see our troops so succeessful! There is no doubt that the results of today will be very far reaching. Our men showed that they have the superiority to the Germans in the fighting, and the latter are very much disorganised and rattled.
The best day we have had this war. And the sad thing is, he’s right. Think about that for a moment, if you can.
Today, JRR Tolkien is off up the line with his men for the first time. The battalion halts for a long wait in the shadow of Lochnagar Crater, and then moves on into the ruins of La Boisselle. By nightfall they’re waiting in close reserve, as yet another penny-packet push tries to throw the Germans out of their remaining positions at Ovillers. True to their general’s promise, they are fighting for every inch and look set to fight to the last man if required.
Herbert Sulzbach, the laziest German in France, continues making friends and influencing people.
I still like it best being on observation duty with the infantry. When there isn’t actually any heavy firing, you spend rewarding hours with the company commanders and the men. With time I’ve really found my feet in the infantry world and become fairly independent as well, and I often get together with the infantry leaders to discuss the artillery preparations required for a patrol operation. And afterwards I accompany these friends of mine on their night walks through the trenches, when they are inspecting their sentries.
The way these good-hearted infantrymen, some of them ex-Landwehr, stick to their work and do their duty, is the highest personal fulfilment of one’s task in life, faith incarnate in the justice of our victorious cause! Meanwhile, the second anniversary of the outbreak of war has passed, but you don’t really think any more about our entering the third year of war, and still less about whether and when there is going to be peace again.
Ah, it seems we’ve found the limits of his optimism. The Landwehr is, like the Territorial Army, supposed to be used only for the direct defence of the homeland. Unlike the Territorials, it contains no first-line forces and in an ideal world would never have to fight. But, you know, shit happens.