13–19 November 1916: The Battle for the Ancre Valley




Haig and Joffre were still at loggerheads over the matter of the Somme offensive and Joffre was uncomfortable about what he perceived to be a continued lack of determination on the part of the British to pursue the offensive to its logical conclusion. Neither he nor Haig were oblivious to the tactical situation on the southern sector and the limitations the weather had placed on the movement of men and supplies. But Foch was keen the attack be continued and the pressure maintained on the Germans, who he felt would soon buckle under the strain. It was General Gough who came up with a plan that the offensive be renewed not in the south, but in the northern sector along the Ancre, from Serre, Beaumont Hamel to Grandcourt. While Haig was not enthusiastic, it was clear there was little chance of a breakthrough in the south. There had not been much activity in the north since the ill-fated attacks of July, and any fighting there would involve divisions that had not been worn-out by the heavy demands further along the front. More importantly, it was hoped the ground was still reasonably firm underfoot, which would enable both troops and tanks to be used to their best effect. The plan was to attack over a reasonably compact front, with XIII Corps in the north between Hebertune and Serre, tasked with protecting the flank of V Corps. Their area of attack was a line running southwards and slightly east, between Serre to Beaucourt, on the edge of the River Ancre. South of the Ancre, between the Schwaben Redoubt and St Pierre Divion, II Corps was to push back any remaining Germans from their trenches and advance towards Grandcourt. This would hopefully secure all the old objectives of 1 July, while enabling the troops to advance some 1,000 yards (914.4m) further forward, taking Serre and the ridge behind Beaumont Hamel, as well as the village of Beaucourt. The original plan, which called for the attack to be launched at the end of October, was postponed until 13 November because of the weather. There was to be significant artillery support, with some 282 heavy guns. Another powerful mine of 30,000 lb (13.6 tonnes) was to be blown under the Hawthorn Ridge just in front of Beaumont Hamel.

Surprisingly, the opening moves of the battle were not to take place in the planned sector but at its southern extreme, where, between 1–4 November, XV Corps had attacked with the French, to try to break German lines that were effectively strangling any movement. In the worsening conditions, they tried hard to comply with their orders, but in the mud it was proving almost impossible to achieve anything. A regimental officer of the 7th Lincolnshires wrote that:

‘Our orders to move up were hampered by the terrible conditions. We stopped constantly to help pull men from the mud, no amount of urging would get them (the infantry) to abandon a comrade who was stuck fast. As a result we were late and few in number by the time we reached our jumping off point and the men were completely exhausted. This before we even started to advance.’

In four days of fighting the divisions under XV Corps made no appreciable headway and lost in excess of 3,000 men, many to sheer exhaustion. On their flank the 1st ANZAC Division attempted to take Guedecourt, but were forced back by the defenders. This unproductive mud-slogging continued until 8 November, when even GHQ was forced to accept conditions had reached a point beyond which not even physical strength and sheer will-power could overcome them. The corps historian merely notes dryly that between 8–10 November: ‘the conditions prevented any movement.’ On the Ancre, troops had been moving up for the forthcoming attack and in a carefully prepared series of set piece bombardments the German lines had been remorselessly pounded by the Royal Artillery. Gunner J.N. Gull of the 22nd Divisional Artillery was one of hundreds who serviced the guns: ‘We had orders to fire at set times in the early morning and then again in the afternoon, regular as clockwork. We were told it was to get the Jerries used to our shelling so that when the push came, we’d stick to our routine as usual but the infantry would go over the top under cover of our guns and they’d [the Germans] get caught out.’ It was a simple ruse that was to pay dividends. Monday, 13 November, saw the attack open with 31st Division attacking north of Serre along a short frontage of some 600 yards (548.6m) to secure the flank of the Fifth Army.

Infantry tactics had been modified from the traditional advance of lines of men to a far more practical movement in sections, which moved forward in short rushes. The infantrymen were ably assisted by teams of Lewis gunners and snipers, whose primary job was to deal with enemy machine-guns. However, one enemy they couldn’t overcome was the weather and the glutinous mud. Although the attacking brigades managed to penetrate the German front line by 6am, they found they had a hard fight on their hands. On their flank the 3rd Division’s 8th Brigade, with the 76th Brigade to their left, attacked Serre. Despite the success of the artillery and the use of twelve companies of Vickers guns in support, the men were defeated by the ground conditions, which had become a vast sucking swamp. Needless to say, attacking infantry, laden with grenades and ammunition, simply sank. Some battalions, such as the 2nd Suffolk Regiment, lost so many men in trying to advance there was no point in attempting to reach the German trenches, as the few survivors were too exhausted to fight. By late afternoon all operations were cancelled and parties were sent into the gloom to help rescue survivors.

Further south, opposite Beaumont Hamel, the 2nd and 51st Divisions were under no illusions about the difficulty of the task ahead of them. Like Thiepval, Beaumont Hamel had been turned into a warren of reinforced strongpoints, overlooked by the Quadrilateral Redoubt, which had defied all attempts to take it. The 2nd Division attacked at first light, with 5th Brigade on the right and the 6th on the left. They were helped by an effective creeping barrage, and 5th Brigades’ battalions took their first few objectives. But they were stopped by the machine-guns and uncut wire of the Quadrilateral in a scenario chillingly reminiscent of 1 July. The attack began to lose momentum as troops turned to avoid the redoubt and by 7.30am the reserve, 99th Brigade, moved forward to reinforce the trenches already captured. Meanwhile, the 51st (Highland) Division, had moved into No Man’s Land in advance of the Hawthorn mine being blown, which occurred successfully, and the 1/7 Gordon Highlanders passed through the remains of the German line to the deep ravine behind it, known as ‘Y’ Ravine. Sergeant W. Stevenson DCM MM, 6th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders wrote later:

We got right into the German trenches – and there was nobody there! They were all still in their dugouts, because we shelled . . . every morning and night . . . and they just thought it was the usual thing and never even bothered to get out of their shelters. They never thought we’d attack in this weather. Then we went up to the top of this hill and “Y” Ravine was right in front of us. They had machine-gun emplacements and they had concrete emplacements and (the) tunnel was all linked up to them. No wonder our boys couldn’t get into the front-line trenches in July!’

The attack also used the Royal Marines of the 63rd Division, who were under the command of V Corps. Apart from the appalling weather they also had to contend with the difficulties of slogging up the river valley next to the Ancre, to the Beaumont Hamel spur, which jutted out in the form of a small salient. It was heavily defended and wired and they soon ran into problems as the divisional historian commented:

It [the bombardment] doesn’t destroy the wire, it builds it into a bloody heap with gaps in it here and there where the enemy’s . . . got their machine-guns trained. . . . But we got through it – some of us anyhow. We pressed forward and entered his second line . . . and there was terrible fire coming from this redoubt. It was a square of trenches lined with men manning machine-guns – and it wasn’t even touched by the artillery. It was [Colonel] Fryberg who got us together and led us on.’

Having established a foothold, the reserves – in the form of 190th Brigade – were ordered to advance, which they did at 7.40am. In view of the sort of fighting that was expected, all the men carried extra supplies of Mills grenades. Furious bombing battles erupted, with the fighting ebbing and flowing around the maze of trenches, but by 9.30pm the division had managed to make contact across the river with the left flank of II Corps Across the river, II Corps had attacked with two divisions, the 19th and the 39th. The attacking force had been split into small parties to better deal with the warren of dugouts and tunnels in the German lines, one force advancing as fast as possible, while the other dealt with the Germans in close-quarter fighting. The attack in this region was hampered by thick fog, which caused problems for officers who were unable to recognize landmarks, and many units became mixed up.

South of St Pierre Divion, the 117th and 116th Brigades attacked in full view of the Schwaben Redoubt, but there was to be assistance from three tanks, as the ground was deemed firm enough for them to operate. This, however, was not the case: one tank bogging down before it reached the lines, a second breaking down and being left behind, while the third, No. 544, commanded by Lieutenant H.W. Hitchcock, reached the enemy lines, but its tracks were unable to grip in the mud and the machine slithered to a halt. The driver, Lance Corporal Bevan, managed to reverse out of the mire and continued forward – straight onto a dugout that collapsed under the tank’s weight. It fell into the dugout at a canted angle, leaving only two guns free to fire. Immediately surrounded by Germans, the tank was subjected to a point-blank hail of bullets and grenades, badly wounding Hitchcock in the head. Dazed, the lieutenant ordered the tank abandoned. Scrambling out, followed by a comrade, both men were instantly killed. Meanwhile, despite their predicament, the remaining crew locked themselves in, fighting back with machine-guns and revolvers (fired through the gun ports) for two hours, until rescued by the 4/5th Black Watch.

Meanwhile, the 16th Sherwood Foresters had advanced, much to the surprise of the enemy, and managed to occupy positions on the perimeter of the Schwaben Redoubt, while along the line other battalions were meeting with some success in occupying enemy trenches and consolidating their positions. In particular, the 1/1st Cheshire Regiment distinguished itself by taking St Pierre Divion. By 8.30am all the objectives had been taken. To the right of the line the 19th Division was aided (for once) by the weather: for its infantry advanced in thick fog and took the Germans by surprise. By 8am they had established a line across the Grandcourt road, where they were reinforced.

At 6.20am on 14 November, across V Corps’ front, the 2nd Division attacked the heavily defended trenches north of Beaumont Hamel. The first line trenches, known as ‘Munich’, and second line, called ‘Frankfort’, were the objective of the 99th Brigade. As the infantrymen advanced, they suffered casualties from their own artillery, and then ran into hostile machine-gun fire. Yet they managed to reach the German front-line trenches. There was considerable fighting once they entered them and some German units, in particular the 12th Infantry (2nd Brandenburg Grenadiers) fought tooth and nail. And yet some German units surrendered without a fight. The 1st Royal Berkshires, with elements of the 1st Kings Royal Rifle Corps, pushed through to the second line but were repulsed. When the attack was renewed in the afternoon, the battalions involved came under accurate artillery fire and were forced to retire. Meanwhile, the 51st (Highland) Division, which was supposed to have attacked simultaneously, did not receive the order in time. When the division eventually did advance, it walked straight into the British barrage and was forced to retire.

In Beaumont Hamel itself, the 63rd Naval Division attacked at 6.20am, with the assistance of two tanks that were sent to help destroy machine-gun posts. Both became bogged in mud, but one managed to train its 6-pounder gun onto the German strongpoint. The officer in the tank thought he was suffering blurred vision when the ground in front of him started to shimmer white. His report stated:

It was seen that the German garrison, some 400 in number, appeared to have found something white to wave in a token of surrender. The situation was rather an embarrassing one for so small a number as the crews of two tanks to deal with. Fortunately however, with the assistance of the infantry it was possible to mop-up these 400 prisoners before they realized that both the tanks were stuck and out of action.’

The 190th Brigade captured Beaucourt, as well as 500 Germans, and its troops continued their advance toward the enemy trenches beyond the village. As night fell, the 13th Battalions Kings Royal Rifles, Rifle Brigade, and Royal Fusiliers, dug in and consolidated. But enemy fire did not slacken, as Sergeant C.M. Williams MM, 13th Rifle Brigade, later remembered:

Our left flank came under heavy sniper and machine-gunfire, because the battalion to our left hadn’t got forward. I was in a shell hole with three of my machine-gunners and I shouted at the men who were round about to drop down and take cover. Three riflemen made a dash for a shell hole . . . and just as they got alongside our position, they were caught in a burst of fire and they literally fell in on top of us. All dead, all killed outright.’

Next day, the 2nd Division, working with the Highlanders, renewed their attempt to take and consolidate ‘Munich’ and ‘Frankfort’ trenches, again to be assisted by two tanks, both of which sank before they reaching their starting point. One of the major problems facing the divisional commanders was the weather, which was, by now, so bad, battalions could stand no more than forty-eight hours in the line before men began to suffer from exposure. All along the line, units were pulled back to be replaced by fresh troops. Meanwhile, fighting patrols sent out along the front found much of the hotly contested front line was now deserted. The Germans had pulled back during the night. Haig had declared himself happy with progress, but General Gough argued forcefully that one more effort could secure Grandcourt and Haig agreed …

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