Thursday 14 July 2016

Day Fourteen on the Somme

Friday 14th July 1916 From our Correspondent in the Field

The last twenty-four hours have seen a major series of British attacks making it the most intense period since the first day of the battle, 1st July. I will begin this despatch with the continued fighting in and around Trônes Wood, which is now being carried on by 18th Division. The 7th Bedfords, part of 54th Brigade of this division, received orders just after midnight to proceed to Maricourt from their rest area where they are in reserve for the major attack by 12th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment and 6th Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment in the wood. This was because the attacks launched by 55th Brigade last night all failed and resulted in the wood being lost. Brigadier Shoubridge of 54th Brigade decided on a simple attack south to north through the wood by the Middlesex and Northamptons under the commanding officer of the 12th Middlesex, Lieutenant-Colonel F A Maxwell. At 4.30 am, an hour after the great push on the nearby Bazentin Ridge began (which I will outline below) the Northamptons began the attack. 

Colonel Maxwell

In the darkness and undergrowth the troops reaching the eastern edge of the wood believed it to be the northern edge and thought they had taken the whole wood. So, when the Middlesex Regiment entered the wood at 8 am they found many men in the south-east of the wood but no one further north. So Colonel Maxwell led his battalion north slowly, using a compass to ensure they were on the right track. In this way he cleared the middle of the wood and finally cleared all Germans from the wood by 9.30. So it fell to the men from Northamptonshire and, more importantly, from Middlesex to finally take and hold this blood-clotted tangle of splintered trees. And they hold it still, as I write this, no counter-attack having been made. The Germans must be as sick of the place as I know our own men are(1).

As I have mentioned a major offensive begun in the early hours of this morning has been against the Bazentin Ridge. The villages of Bazentin-le-Petit and Bazentin-le-Grand and their attendant woods, are around a mile or so north-west of Trônes Wood. A mile or so due west of these is the village of Ovillers a target for the attack on 1st July. This place was attacked by 25th Division but the attacks failed to make much headway, so great is the strength of the defences. During the day today Ovillers has been attacked from three sides, south, east and west but these, too, have come to nothing. Attacks were also made against the high ground south of the village of Thiepval known as the Leipzig Salient, north-west of Ovillers and these managed to take a small amount of ground.

Elsewhere much, it seems, has been achieved. 9th (Scottish) Division began their attack on Longueval, directly north of Trônes Wood in the early hours of this morning and, after heavy fighting, have taken the southern part of the village, though Delville Wood still holds out. An attack on Waterlot Farm, south-east of the village and half-way to the village of Guillemont was not successful.

3rd Division, on the left of 9th Division succeeded in capturing the village of Bazentin-le-Grand. 7th  Division, to the left of 3rd Division, have captured Bazentin-le-Grand Wood and the village of Bazentin-le-Petit, which lies north-west of Bazentin-le-Grand. 21st Division have taken by far the greatest part of Bazentin-le-Petit Wood (which is bigger than Bazentin-le-Grand Wood). We understand that these attacks have taken somewhere in the order of 1,500 prisoners.

There is a wood north of Longueval and north-east of the Bazentins which the army has christened High Wood as it stands on ground commanding a view over great parts of the battlefield. It is believed that this wood was empty in the wake of the successful attacks made early this morning(2). It is hoped that the army can seize it this evening. If so it is likely that the army has finally achieved a significant breakthrough at the end of the second week of this battle. There are rumours that the cavalry are being called up to pour through this gap and tear into the German rear areas. If this happens the breakthrough may turn into a rout and the end of the war may be in sight. I need not tell you that the prospect of this has put huge energy into all around. Everywhere I see smiles and thumbs up.

P. S. the Indian horseman of the Deccan Horse have just charged into High Wood and are reported to be slaughtering the few defenders, now the hunt is up!

(1) Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Aylmer Maxwell VC, DSO (1871-1917). He won the Victoria Cross in 1900 in the Second Boer War whilst serving with Roberts’ Horse having received the Distinguished Service Order with the Bengal Lancers in 1898. He was regarded as one of the finest commanders serving in the Great War – an aggressive, original thinker and popular with his men. He was later promoted to Brigadier and led 27th Brigade, 9th (Scottish Division) He was killed by a sniper on the Menin Road near Ypres on 21st September 1917. He is buried at Ypres Reservoir Cemetery.

(2) At the time the French name was Bois des Foureaux, now it is Bois des Fourcaux.

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