21st Division 1914-18...a divisional history

14th July, Battle of Bazentin Ridge

 

After the initial battles and engagements encountered by 21st division in the opening days of the battle of the Somme, they were called upon to conduct, along with 7th division, under the command of once again Sir Henry Horne’s XV Corps, another attack.

However the plan was conceived by XIII Corps commander Lt-General Walter Congreve VC, along with the Army commander, Rawlinson. Congreve envisaged his corps attacking on the right against Longueval whilst XV Corps would assault on the left against Bazentin le Petit and Bazentin le Grand. The eventual target being to clear the Bazentin Ridge. Haig had some doubts in regard to the plan but was won over by his junior commanders, though he insisted on 18th division (XIII Corps) attacking against Trones Wood on the extreme right of the attack area.

Prior to the attack on the 14th a serious of attacks had been conducted by other divisions of 4th Army that enabled the assault to take place. These on the whole were the clearing of many objectives not taken in the initial attacks on the 1st. But crucially the capture of Contalmaison and Mametz Wood gave the plan its jump off point.

With only 14 days having passed since the debacle of the initial attacks it is to the credit of Rawlinson and his staff that they had seen the errors of some of the initial artillery preparations and gone for this attack was the long drawn out bombardment. It was replaced by the hurricane bombardment of five minutes and a far greater enforces on counter battery fire to eliminate the German guns, something crucial in earlier attacks. Whilst some artillery action took place a few days prior to the attack it was apparently not of sufficient strength to indicate an imminent attack.

The 21st Divisions attack on Bazentin Le Petit on 24th July. The area captured by 9.00 am is shown by the dashed red line.

 (Courtesey of Wikipedia Encyclopedia)

Also critical was Rawlinson winning over Sir Douglas Haig to a night attack, something Haig felt New Army Divisions may struggle with, causing confusion in the opening stages and jeopardising the attack. Haig initially over ruled Rawlinson and only on a subsequent meeting after the attacking Corps commanders asked him to appeal did Rawlinson gain Haig’s consent.

The units would be brought up prior to dawn and lay in No Man's Land, ready to jump off as soon as the short bombardment had ceased. This would allow them to be in the German trenches before the enemy could recover.

21st division would be assaulting on the left of the attack, against Bazentin le Petit and Bazentin le Grand.

At 3.20am the hurricane artillery bombardment commenced and five minutes later, from their advanced positions in No Man's Land the troops of 21st division and the accompanying units of XIII and XV Corps sprang up from their positions as the bombardment moved on to the reserve trenches for a further two minutes. Bombing parties who made up the first waves of the attack went in first and pushed on to the reserve trenches, leaving the ‘normal’ infantry to mop up any troops left.

By mid morning the infantry had literally achieved all their objectives. The lessons learnt had been used well. The artillery length and the creeping barrage used had enabled the infantry to get into the German lines before they could react.

Else where the other divisions had achieved their objectives. But it was now the overall plan began to go wrong. High wood was an objective of the battle but it had been singled out for a cavalry action, this meant that the infantry who could see it was unmanned waited their time and in that pause the Germans re-occupied the wood to the detriment of the attacking cavalry units, who predictably as myth would have us believ were massacred. However the reality is somethig different. The 7th Draggon Gaurds and theDeccan Horse approached the wood and dismounted, engaging the enemy in machine gun fire they managed to cause some casualties on the Germans. Retiring later in the night they had suffered only light casualties. if they had not been left waiting in position in the early hours of the moring it is to be wondered what they could have achieved.

Some of the lessons learnt from 14th July were negative, painful ones in that it would be weeks before High Wood would eventually fall and not at a cheap cost in men. Also that junior on the ground commanders should be allowed to adapt and use their imitative, High Wood would have fell had this have happened. But all of this was part of the learning curve.

However the High Command had seen that short hurricane bombardments had value, that creeping barrages could work, coupled with the infantry jumping off from No Man's Land. Bombing parties had also shown their value.

As for 21st division, they had vanquished the ghosts of Loos, with two good accounts in early July. But they were not finished with the Somme. They were withdrawn for rest but would be back

 

1... 4th Army had a concentration of fire that amounted to 660 pounds of shell per yard of trench, equating to five times greater than that used on the first day of the battle of the Somme. Rawlinson was able to use two thirds of the total artillery used attacking 6,000 yds of line and 12,000 yds of overall trench as against 22,000 yds of front and a total trench length of 300,000 yds on 1st July.