In many ways, the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, part of the second phase of the Battle of the Somme, was a thing of tactical brilliance. The plan was conceived by XIII corps commander Lieutenant General Walter Congreve VC in conjunction with Fourth Army Commander Rawlinson. They had learned from the slaughter of the Battle of Albert on 1st July 1916, when 20,000 Allied troops had perished. Not for them the week-long softening barrage, which would herald the imminent attack as clearly as a trumpet call when it finally ceased. Not for them the approach in broad daylight, for fear that green troops would be confused by low visibility, nor the slow, methodical approach on enemy lines. Never again would they make the same mistakes.
This time, the attack would be launched very early, under cover of darkness. Field Marshall Haig argued strenuously against this tactic, fearing the new soldiers would struggle, and at first over-ruled Rawlinson’s wish. However, after a second application by Rawlinson at the urging of the corps commanders, Haig reluctantly came around.
The initial barrage, it was agreed, would this time be just five minutes long. The Germans, expecting a much longer assault, would be caught on the hop. Last time they had calmly retreated to their shelters to wait out the storm of missiles, then, in the delay between it stopping and the troops launching their somewhat slow attack, climbed back out at their leisure and settled themselves behind their guns. On this occasion, the troops would sneak out into No Man’s Land while the barrage was going on and lie as close as possible to the German defences, then, as soon as the coast was clear, a bombing party would leap up and rush them, with the rest of the infantry right behind to mop up the surviving German soldiers. A ‘creeping barrage’, a lesser attack that would take place in front of the troops, halting periodically to let them advance and moving up the field with them, would add to their protection. If they were lucky, many of the defenders would be caught still in their dug-outs.
Although this attack used less guns that the Battle of Albert, it would take place over a narrower front for maximum impact. As the 21st Division 1914-18 Divisional History explains, that division and 7th Division, under the command of Sir Henry Horne’s XV corps, were tasked with attacking to the left, against Bazentin-le-Petit and Bazentin-le-Grand. Meanwhile, the VIII corps would attack to the right against Longueval (by Delville Wood). Having already captured Mametz Wood, the Allies were in a prime position to launch their plan stealthily.
At 3.20am on 14th July 1916 the plan kicked off- and it went without a hitch. At 3.25 exactly, when the artillery bombardment stopped, the bombing party and infantry rose up from No Man’s Land and rushed the Germans. By mid-morning, all objectives had been successfully achieved and the Allies were ready to launch the next stage of the plan, an attack on High Wood. It had been planned as a cavalry charge, but it soon became clear that the wood was temporarily empty. The Germans, confused by the speed and ferocity of the first attack, were still regrouping and had left this vital chink in their line un-defended.
The attack having succeeded unexpectedly quickly, nobody had realised that the cavalry to be needed this early. According to Mark Adkin’s ‘The Western Front Companion’ there were actually three Calvary Divisions on standby, the 2nd Indian Calvary Division, the 1st Calvary Division and the 3rd Calvary Division. Since the Indian Division, led by 7th Dragoon Guards and Deccan Horse, had been specifically assigned to attack High Wood, they were the only ones ordered forward from their position four miles south of Albert. The order didn’t come until 7.40am, and by the time the Division moved off it was 8.20, and there were still miles of churned battlefield to get through. Permission was sought for the infantry to attack instead; it wasn’t given. Here was where the Allies still had a lot to learn. They had not yet realised that, in a desperate war such as this one, any possible advantage had to be exploited to the full, and that the side that won would be the one to seize the moment.
The cavalry didn’t arrive until early afternoon, then confusion as to whether or not Longueval had been cleared of Germans (the town was within shooting distance of High Wood) meant that the order to proceed was delayed still longer, first until 5.15pm, then again until 7.00pm to allow extra time for the infantry to organise themselves. Nine hours after the gap in the German front line had first been identified, the cavalry bravely charged. By now the Germans had spotted the weakness, and defenders had moved slowly back into the wood and adjoining fields. As the horses plunged into the wood, the machine guns opened fire. Many horses and men perished needlessly. It would not be until the next major offensive that the Allies finally secured the wood that could have been theirs without a fight, and the Battle of Bazentin Ridge ended in a stalemate rather than in victory.