The Last Battles of The Somme

Commander during the Battle of the Somme, Douglas Haig led some of the bloodiest battles with the highest casualties in British military history, including the Third Battle of Ypres and the Hundred Days Offensive. Haig became criticised for his leadership during World War I and some even referred to him as: ‘Butcher Haig’ for the two million British casualties under his command. However, other historians have defended him stating that he had no other alternative because warfare during 1914-1918 because the weapons of defence were much more effective than those of offence. The battles of the Somme were long and bloody, and the casualties big – so the losses are obviously most remembered. But, the 1916 Somme campaign was the first major British offensive of World War I forcing the British army to become stronger and their tactics better. In yesterday’s blog we detailed the battles of the Somme that took place during July, but the campaign actually went on until November 1916. Below is a synopsis of the remaining battles during the second and third stage of the Somme offensive: Second Phase: July - September 1916 Battle of Delville Wood The Battle of Delville Wood aimed to secure the British right flank and the higher lying areas of High Wood and Pozières. The offensive had evolved after the Battle of Albert to capture fortified villages, woods and other good terrain for artillery fire, jumping-off points for more attacks and other tactical advantages. The battle eventually secured the British right flank and marked the debut of the South African 1st Infantry Brigade on the Western Front. The Battle of Pozieres Ridge A small, fortified village, Pozieres supported the German line and the plan was to maintain the pressure and take Pozières by a slow and steady advance. Between 13 and 17 July, the Fourth Army made four, small-scale attacks against Pozières suffering high casualties and failing to take the village. The Australian 1st Division would attack from the South, while the British 48th Division would attack the German Defences to the west of the Village. More of the western edge of the village was captured with minimal effort including a bunker nicknamed “Gibraltar” which had miraculously survived the intense Artillery bombardment. As a consequence of being the sole British gain on 23 July, Pozières became a focus of attention for the Germans. Forming as it did a critical element of their defensive system, the German command ordered that it be retaken at all costs. The Germans launched the most intense bombardment yet encountered on the front by the Australians. They suffered over 5000 casualties and were not relieved until the 27th July. On the 7th August the Germans launched their final counter attack to retake Pozieres. A heroic charge by Lieutenant Albert Jacka, who had won the Victoria Cross at Gallipoli, inspired other Australians to join the action and a hand-to-hand fight developed. Jacka was badly wounded but as support arrived from the flanks, the Australians gained the advantage and most of the surviving Germans were captured. No more attempts to retake Pozières were made. The Battle of Guillemont During the Battle of Bazentin Ridge on the 14–17 July, the Fourth Army had advanced close to Guillemont and the capture of the village was the build up of British attacks, which began on 22/23 July. The main assault on Guillemont itself was made by 20th (Light) Division, two battalions of which crept forward before zero hour and took the Germans by surprise. The Battle of Guillemont was intended to distract German attention away from the Romanian front. With its maze of underground tunnels and dugouts, Guillemont was a veritable fortress and wasn’t easy to attack, as evidenced by the earlier failures of the British attacks during the previous two months. The September attack finally saw Guillemont fall to the British, but further advances beyond Guillemont were hampered by fierce German fire from Ginchy and a stronghold called the 'Quadrilateral'. The Battle of Ginchy On the 9th September 1916, the 16th Division captured the Ginchy, the German-held village. British attacks from Leuze Wood north to Ginchy had begun on 3 September, but attacks then and attempts to re-take Ginchy on 4 and 5 September were all defeated by German counter-attacks. On 9 September the British began a bombardment early in the morning and advanced in the afternoon, to deny the Germans time to counter-attack before dark. On the northern flank Ginchy was captured by the 16th Division and several German counter-attacks were defeated. The loss of Ginchy deprived the Germans of observation posts and eliminated the salient at Delville Wood, which had been costly to defend. The capture Ginchy and the success of the French Sixth Army on 12 September, in its biggest attack of the battle of the Somme, enabled both armies to make much bigger attacks, sequenced with the Tenth and Reserve armies, which captured much more ground and inflicted approximately 130,000 casualties on the German defenders in September. Third phase: September – November 1916 Battle of Flers–Courcelette The Battle of Flers–Courcelette went on for one week and was the third and final general offensive mounted by the British Army, which attacked an intermediate line and the German third line to take Morval, Lesboeufs and Gueudecourt, which was combined with a French attack on Frégicourt and Rancourt to encircle Combles. The battle is significant for its tactical gains and the first use of the tank in warfare. It also marked the debut of the Canadian and New Zealand Divisions on the Somme battlefield. Battle of Morval The Battle of Morval was an attack by the Fourth Army on Morval, and the attack was delayed to combine with attacks by the French Sixth Army on Combles, south of Morval. The combined attack aimed to deprive the German defenders further west, near Thiepval of reinforcements, before an attack by the Reserve Army, due on 26 September. Combles, Morval, Lesboeufs and Gueudecourt were captured and a small number of tanks joined in later. The Germans suffered casualties, but the French made slower progress. The Fourth Army advance on 25 September was its deepest since 14 July and left the Germans in severe difficulties, particularly in a salient near Combles. The Reserve Army attack began on 26 September in the Battle of Thiepval Ridge. Battle of the Transloy Ridges Haig was determined to carry on with the large-scale offensive operations into the autumn and the Battle of the Transloy Ridges represented Fourth Army's part in this. The Battle of Le Transloy began in good weather and Le Sars was captured on 7 October but things slowed down from 8–11 October due to rain and 13–18 October to allow time for a methodical bombardment. Haig consulted with the army commanders and on 17 October reduced the scope of operations by cancelling the Third Army plans and reducing the Reserve Army and Fourth Army attacks to limited operations in co-operation with the French Sixth Army. Another pause followed before operations resumed on 23 October on the northern flank of the Fourth Army, with a delay during more bad weather on the right flank of the Fourth Army and on the French Sixth Army front, until 5 November. Next day the Fourth Army ceased offensive operations except for small attacks intended to improve positions and divert German attention from attacks being made by the Reserve/Fifth Army. Large operations resumed in January 1917. Battle of Thiepval Ridge The Thiepval ridge was a well-fortified German position that was attacked by Lieutenant General Gough’s Reserve Army on 26 September 1916. The battle lasted until the 28th but the British did not achieve their objectives to take the ridge and German defences until the battle of Ancre Heights in October. Difficulties organising a cooperative offensive between the French and British, deteriorating weather and a revived German defence all contributed to the lack of progress in the battle for the Allies. Experiments with new technologies and strategies such as Infantry and Tank cooperation met with failure but did cause problems for the German defenders despite them being reinforced with troops, artillery and aircraft from their failed Verdun offensive. Battle of Ancre Heights The battle of Ancre heights taking place from 1 October to 11 November were a continuation of the British Reserve Army’s offensive against Thiepval Ridge. The British wanted to deny the Heights to German Observers and in turn use them to view the German reserve positions in the Ancre Valley. The Reserve Army conducted several large attacks, many of which were frustrated by difficulties with the weather, heavy rain turning the battlefields into a quagmire of mud and grounding aircraft. The Germans defending the remaining parts of the Thiepval ridge and a number of redoubts fought a costly defensive battle; counter attacking British gains and absorbing the numerous and frequent British attacks, delaying the British capture of the heights for over a month. The British were able to secure the German redoubts by Mid-October but were still unable to drive out the last of the German resistance. They had however exposed the 28th Reserve Division to observation. German commanders considered a withdrawal from the position; many of their troops and reserves had been moved North of the river Somme and the positions held were now fragile and exposed. The new Army Group commander rejected the retreat and ordered costly counter attacks despite the local units having only one fresh reserve regiment. The British pushed their meagre advantage and by late October had secured 500m more ground, the Germans continuing to stubbornly resist. The defence was finally cracked by the 4th Canadian Division taking advantage of a re-organised German defence in response to a French attack at Verdun. Battle of Ancre The battle of Ancre taking place by 13-18 November would be the last major British attack of the 1916 Somme offensive. Increasingly bad weather would force a halt to offensive operations until the New Year. The British planned to attack and take a series of German defences between them and Beaumont Hamel: Three objective lines were set, the first running from Beaucourt Station up Beaumont Hamel valley–eastern outskirts of Beaumont Hamel–Redan Ridge–west of Serre, requiring an advance of 800 yards (730 m) over three German trench lines and four trench lines in places. The second line was 600–1,000 yards further forward, running west of Beaucourt–east slope of Redan Ridge–east of Serre. The final objective line was set at Beaucourt–the Puisieux road valley–second line. The attack would be preceded by a 7 Day bombardment that would be twice as heavy as that launched to cover the opening day of the Somme offensive back in July. The attack would also be the largest offensive on the Somme since early September. The British hoped to satisfy a number of political objectives as well as military. Political discontent would be muted with a big victory to close out the 1916 campaign as well as answer the criticisms of the Allied armies about British Commitment to the cause. Beaumont Hamel, St. Pierre Divion and Beaucourt were captured, which threatened the German hold on Serre further north. Four German divisions had to be relieved due to the number of casualties suffered and over 7,000 German troops were taken prisoner. Source: Wikipedia
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