The Somme 1916 Front – British raiding



On the Somme front, the British used raiding as a means of harrying the Germans and keeping them off balance while elsewhere raiding was meant to maintain pressure on German front-line units and so dissuade the German high command from transferring forces from one sector to another. The idea was to deny the Germans quiet sectors anywhere on the front where weary divisions that had been fighting on the Somme or at Verdun might have some respite to recuperate and rebuild. In addition, the British intended that raiding should discourage the transfer of fresher units to the Somme. Thus, raiding became part of a wider strategy for the Allies.

On the night of 5 July, the 2nd Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers carried out a highly successful raid on a German salient known as the Warren, near Givenchy. In some ways, this was more than a raid as it involved the entire battalion with the intention of holding the captured German trenches for about 2 hours. Only C Company remained behind to hold the British line while the raid was in progress. The preparatory bombardment was more intense than was customary for a raid and involved artillery, Stokes mortars and rifle grenades fired in a hurricane barrage lasting 45 minutes. Here the intention was not destruction but disruption to enable the raiders to get into the enemy positions with the minimum of opposition. To have shelled the Warren for longer would have been counter-productive since major damage to the German trenches would have made the Royal Welch’s brief tenure difficult, if not impossible. Moreover, the element of surprise would have been compromised. More than 10,000 rounds were fired, most of them artillery shells. The bombardment started at 10.30 pm and included 4.5-inch and 6-inch howitzers firing on the known positions of machine-guns.

The operation was supported by the eight Stokes mortars of the Light Trench Mortar Battery belonging to the 19th Brigade, to which the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers also belonged, assisted by a half battery of four Stokes from the 98th Brigade, making twelve mortars in all. These batteries had prepared for the raid several days beforehand by digging twelve new emplacements and laying the mortars the day before the raid. The four mortars of the 98th Trench Mortar Battery fired at the slow rate1 from 10.30 pm until midnight, targeting trenches south of northern craters. Three mortars of the 19th ‘fired for 45 minutes on enemy supports behind Northern Craters,’ while the other five ‘fired for 35 minutes on enemy saps and front line behind Northern Craters’. A total of 2,345 rounds were fired. The raid was also supported by the indirect fire of nine Vickers machine-guns of the 19th Machine Gun Company, which interdicted the rear areas to prevent reinforcements being brought forward.

A Company led by Captain J.V. Higginson approached the German line from the west while D.Company led by Captain P. Moody took a north-west route. They hit the German positions in two places simultaneously. While D Company dealt with the first line of trenches, assisted by 11th Field Company Royal Engineers, who went along as demolition experts, A Company pressed on to the third line. Not to be left out, two parties of twenty from what was left of B Company were attached to A and D Companies, one party to each company. Their task was to help carry the demolition charges and hand grenades for the other two companies and the sappers. The entire raiding party amounted to about 300 men.

The raiders moved off ‘like a pack of hounds when the guns opened up. D Company used the rims of mine craters as cover as it moved over the broken ground, which was liberally spread with areas of wire. Once they reached their designated waiting area, they stopped. In the meantime, A Company went across no man’s land in single file. The first Royal Welch casualty was a scout who was shot dead almost immediately the raiders entered no man’s land. This was probably an unlucky random shot since A Company had no other casualties as it continued ‘eastwards for about 600 yards over soggy, marshy ground, through long grasses and bits of barbed wire, across abandoned trenches’ eventually reaching ‘the steep northern face of the German re-entrant, about 120 yards away’. Here, they lay down in good order and smoked and joked as the guns continued to fire. The artillery was not firing in a regular pattern but shifting targets at irregular intervals of 3–8 minutes all along the front, support and reserve lines. At 11.15 pm, the artillery set up an intense box barrage. Now, the raiders dashed for the German parapet.

When Sergeant-Major Fox of A Company stood on the parapet it collapsed under his weight and he fell into the trench in front of a dugout. He was unhurt but unable to get to his feet unaided because he was clutching a rifle with fixed bayonet in one hand and a Very pistol in the other. Helped up, he challenged the occupants of the dugout to come out but they fired at him. Two Mills grenades were thrown in and the four occupants killed. The four Germans in the next dugout surrendered without the need for Mills grenades. They were relieved of their equipment and sent back to the Royal Welch lines with an escort who ‘thought they were going to slip him, so he shot them’. They did not arrive at the British line.

While in the front trenches, resistance was weak because the occupants had been stunned by the bombardment and survivors surrendered quickly, in the support and reserve lines, the Germans fought back with determination. Thus, A Company had much more of a fight than D Company, who remained in the first line. A Company ‘fought like demons’. Indeed, even those who were not supposed to take part in the operation wanted to get involved, including D Company’s CQMS. After he had brought up rations to the British line, he went across and joined the raiders. The Germans were completely overwhelmed. Some men took coshes and clubs with them and one man, Private Buckley, who helped capture and carry back a machine-gun, armed himself with a billhook, which he apparently used in the course of the operation because ‘one of the wounded prisoners appeared to have been chased by him’.

The objectives of the raid included the destruction of German mine entrances, galleries and dugouts, which were known to exist, as well as machine-gun and trench-mortar emplacements. By spending 2 hours in the enemy position, these objectives could be achieved; to place and set demolition charges required a reasonable amount of time to accomplish. One large trench mortar was also destroyed with explosives. Very little of the three lines was untouched in the raid so that, at its conclusion, the position was quite useless to the Germans.

The raiders achieved all they set out to do. They took thirty-nine prisoners from the 241st Reserve Infantry Regiment and brought back four more dead Germans along with a large quantity of identification and intelligence material, including fourteen identity discs removed from dead Germans and various documents and papers. The number of Germans killed and wounded by the raiders was not recorded but it was evidently a large number. Many were probably killed by the bombardment. The raiders also carried back a machine-gun, a trench mortar and a quantity of rifles and other equipment. Rather bizarrely, they also brought back food they found in the dugouts. What form it took is not mentioned in the war diary but presumably it was something more interesting than just bread.

So successful was this operation that the Battalion received messages of congratulation, including one from GHQ which read:

Please convey to 2nd Bn RWFusrs the Commander-in-Chief’s congratulations on their very successful raid last night. Raids of this sort are of great material assistance to the main operations.

The battalion had a similar message in a telegram from Lieutenant General Haking, GOC XI Corps, General Monro GOC First Army, and Major General Landon GOC 33rd Division who wrote:

I was delighted to hear of the complete success of the operation last night and warmly congratulate Major Crawshay and the RWF who have got their own back well…

The brigade commander also sent a message to the raiders conveying his delight with their ‘splendid work’ and stated that ‘the attack could not have been carried out better and … all your arrangements were first rate’. High praise, indeed. Such messages as these were not commonplace and they emphasise just how successful this raid was.

The operation was retaliation for the mine blown under B Company on 21 June; the ‘got their own back well’ in Landon’s message was a reference to that disaster when two-thirds of B Company became casualties in a matter of moments. The Warren was chosen for the raid because a map taken from a German killed in a previous unsuccessful German raid suggested that it would be a prime target. The map was very detailed and included the location of every dugout as well as other features of interest. The opportunity was too good to pass up and division even considered an assault to take and hold the ground but finally agreed to the operation suggested by the Royal Welch, namely a raid.

The 2nd Battalion did not get through the operation without casualties of their own, however. As soon as the British artillery opened up, the German guns responded, striking up and down the British line, including the trenches held by C Company as well as the support and reserve lines. Inevitably, there were losses. Among the raiders themselves, the casualties included one officer killed and six other ranks killed. Most of the wounded came from A Company, not surprisingly, because they had been involved in more of the fighting than the others, but injuries were largely caused by shell and grenade fragments. Few were gunshot wounds. The German prisoners mostly suffered bayonet thrusts, emphasising the importance of the fixed bayonet in this sort of close fighting, not to mention the importance of surrendering immediately. The Germans claimed to have captured a corporal from A Company. They called across no man’s land later in the day to announce the fact but there is no mention of this in the Battalion’s war diary.

In stark contrast to the Royal Welch raid, on the previous night the 4th Grenadier Guards raided Germans occupying what had formerly been Canadian trenches near a position known as Irish Farm in the Ypres salient. The raid was a complete failure. They were relieved the next night by the 2nd Battalion. A week later, on the 13th, the 1st/5th Glosters mounted a raid near Hébuterne. Three officers and sixty other ranks reached the enemy wire at 11.00 pm and ‘two attempts to enter the trench were made but were both driven back by rifle fire and bombs’. The raiding party reached their own lines at 12.30 pm. One officer and five other ranks were wounded but there were no fatalities. The Germans had been well prepared and had had no intention of submitting.

A few nights after this raid, on 18 July, the 1st Bucks carried out what it liked to term a reconnaissance in force but it was, in reality, a raid, hitting the German line south of the Albert–Bapaume road on the Somme. The object of the operation was to reconnoitre six points along the line with the intention of establishing the disposition of the German troops in that area. A and D Companies sent out three platoons to enter the German line at specific points. The platoon under Second Lieutenant B.C. Rigden entered their objective at 2.00 am and proceeded to consolidate their position with barricades. Rigden and his men fought off several determined German bombing attacks and succeeded in holding their ground. Rigden won the Military Cross for the action. Unfortunately for Rigden and his men, the other platoons were prevented from entering the German trenches because of machine-gun fire, which caused several casualties. Consequently, Rigden’s platoon had to withdraw. Nevertheless, the objective of the raid was achieved in that the strengths and dispositions of the Germans facing the 1st/5th Bucks were established. This raid was part of the preparations for a resumption of the assault on the German line by the 48th Division on the night of 20–21 July.

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