World War 1 History: High Wood-- The Somme's 75 Acres of Hell
The Rottenest place on the Western Front
During the Battle of the Somme in northern France-- perhaps more correctly referred to as the Somme Offensive, since it was a series of many battles and actions spanning four-and-a-half months from July 1 to November 18, 1916-- the British and Germans fought over a patch of woods measuring slightly more than one-tenth of a square mile. The battle for High Wood's 75 acres started on July 14 and raged nearly continuously for 64 days. It opened with an abortive British cavalry charge and ended after the abortive first use of tanks. During those two months, the Germans furiously repelled or counterattacked every British assault. It came to be known as “The hell of High Wood” and “The rottenest place on the Western Front”. In the end, the British finally managed to overwhelm the Germans on September 15, though the commanding British General at that time was relieved of command for “wanton waste of men”.
At the end of the Somme's disastrous first day of fighting on July 1, the British suffered 60,000 casualties, including nearly 20,000 killed. Oddly enough, no one lost their job for “wanton wastage” that day. After ten days' fighting along a 13 mile front, the French, in a supporting role, had penetrated some six miles, while the British, at best, only three. The general's regrouped and prepared a second phase.
Send in the Cavalry
Early in the morning of July 14, the British made a concerted push forward and, in only a few hours, managed to take portions of the higher ground called the Bazentin Ridge, including the village of Longueval. From Longueval, they were able to look northwest across a shallow dip in the land all the way up to a slightly higher point, capped by the small wood the French called Bois des Foureaux and the British, simply, High Wood. Any Germans in the wood would be able to view the entire sector, but no Germans were in sight. Two British generals actually walked along the grain fields, relatively undamaged by the war, nearly to the edge of the wood to reconnoiter. High Wood appeared empty and the generals requested a brigade of infantry to take control of the area. Unfortunately, the brigade was being held in reserve for other duties and it was decided to use two cavalry regiments (one an Indian cavalry regiment) instead, since the ground was deemed favorable for a cavalry attack. Also unfortunately, the cavalry did not arrive until that evening and the Germans used that time to furiously reinforce and improve their positions in High Wood. No one in charge seemed to consider that a cavalry charge against machine guns and into a wood might not be practical, but it does seem likely that one or more old cavalry hands saw this as a long-awaited opportunity.
At 7:00 p.m. the cavalry charged across the fields through artillery and machine gun fire and into the wood. An observer said: “It was an incredible sight, an unbelievable sight, they galloped up with their lances and with pennants flying, up the slope to High Wood and straight into it. ... They simply galloped on through all that and horses and men were dropping on the ground, with no hope against the machine guns, because the Germans up on the ridge were firing down into the valley where the soldiers were. It was an absolute rout. A magnificent sight. Tragic.” The dismounted cavalry held their positions in High Wood during the night, but, without reinforcements, withdrew the next morning, July 15.
An infantry company was then sent in, but by then the Germans had made High Wood their anchor for their new defensive trench line in the sector and the company was repulsed. It wasn't until July 20 that the British were able to establish a toe-hold inside the woods. Continued attacks through the end of the month were repulsed with both sides suffering heavy casualties, including many friendly fire incidents from British supporting artillery.
A Wood Without Trees
By the beginning of August, artillery from both sides had erased the trees. High Wood was 75 acres of stumps, craters and trenches. While the fighting continued during August, the British began tunneling operations in order to place explosives under the German strong-points. They also deployed two of their new gigantic flame-throwers, but friendly-fire destroyed the two-ton monsters before they could be used.
On August 24, in preparation for yet another assault, a machine gun company, with the aid of two companies of soldiers to constantly fetch and carry belts of ammunition, set up ten machine guns and laid down indirect fire on the strongest German positions. All ten machine guns fired continuously for 12 hours, expending almost one million rounds of ammunition. Despite causing the Germans much grief and following up the murderous machine gun fire with another infantry assault, the Germans held on in High Wood.
By September 3, British sappers had tunneled 300 feet under the main German strong point and detonated 3,000 pounds of explosives. British soldiers succeeded in occupying the resulting crater, only to lose it to a savage German counter-attack. More attacks followed. On September 9, another mine was exploded, expanding the crater to 140-feet wide and 35 feet deep. Again the Germans successfully counterattacked.
Send in the Tanks
Finally, on September 15, another British attack was launched, this time led by the new secret weapon, the tank. There were four of them and they were each given a carefully planned route to follow, though, because of the terrain, none got very far. One by one, they broke down, got hung up on stumps or caught fire. As the infantry of both sides hunkered down, barrages of shells rained down on the Germans. This was followed by 750 Stoke Mortar rounds, which was immediately followed by the British storming the enemy positions. This time the Germans retreated or surrendered by the hundreds. Although there would be fighting in the area for several more days, High Wood was finally and firmly in British hands. During just the last four days of fighting, British casualties were estimated at 4,500. As a result of this, Major-General Charles Barter was relieved, as mentioned above, but, oddly enough, he was later knighted for his performance.
Today, High Wood (now called Bois des Fourcaux by the French) still exists, more or less in the same boundaries drawn on Allied and German World War I maps. The trees have all grown back and there is a duck pond where the mines were exploded. The countryside is idyllic. Along the southwest boundary of the wood sits the London Cemetery and Extension. Inside the wood lie the detritus of war: buried tools, rusting equipment, steel helmets, wire and weapons, unexploded munitions, although the last rusting remains of the tanks have been removed.
Also in that 75 wooded acres are buried the remains of 8,000 to 10,000 unidentified British and German soldiers. High Wood became a huge anonymous mass grave.
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