The Battle of Flers-Courcelette - 15th September 1916

diehard57

War Hero
I make no apologies for this post, as a north Londoner, former Territorial and member of both the Queen's Regiment and the London Regiment I'd like to share this with you.

105 years ago today on 15th September 1916, the Battle of Flers-Courcelette commenced, it is also known as the Third Battle of the Somme and was planned by Field Marshal Douglas Haig.

It was a major offensive on a six-mile-wide front from the village of Courcelette on the left flank to Combles over on the right, using six infantry divisions including the untried Canadian Corps and a New Zealand Division. The famous 56th (1st London) Division was on the extreme right of the British Line charged with establishing a strong protective flank. The 56th Division contained both the 1/7th Middlesex and the 1/8th Middlesex as well as other battalions of the London Regiment.

56th Division was to attack and capture the enemy trenches in the area of Leuze and Bouleaux Woods. These were woods in name only, having been fought over many times in the preceding months and the area heavily shelled. The ground here was still littered with hundreds of dead bodies for whom it had been impossible to recover for burial. The woods were known colloquially by the Tommies as ‘Lousy’ and ‘Bollocks’ Woods.

The enemy line here was protected by thick and deep barbed wire entanglements. The main objectives for 56th Division was to capture a series of enemy trenches known as ‘Bully Trench’; ‘Beef Trench’ to the north-west of Bouleaux Wood and ’Sunken Road Trench’; Loop Trench’ and ‘Combles Trench’ to the east. A heavily fortified redoubt containing concrete pillboxes called the Quadrilateral was one of the major objectives of the 6th Division and the Guards Division over on the left. This redoubt, on slightly higher ground dominated the area of Leuze and Bouleaux Wood.

49 of the highly secret Mark 1 tanks of the Heavy Branch, Machine Gun Corps (the forerunner to the Tank Corps) were allocated to support the offensive. Three were allotted to the 56th Division. Another new innovation was the use of a ‘creeping artillery barrage’ which moved ahead of the infantry in pre-determined bounds – unfortunately in the area that 56th Division were attacking, the front lines were too narrow – only 150 yards apart in some places - for this to be used.

At 06:00 a short but intensive artillery bombardment heralded the start of the attack.

Officers issued their final instructions: “It’ll last about 20 minutes. Keep your eyes on me, remember over the top together. Keep in line with even spaces. Leave no gaps. Keep walking and listen for orders. Look out for gas. Don’t stop to help the wounded. If there are casualties the senior man takes charge. When we get to the first line we hold it until the second wave passes. Good luck”

Of the three tanks allocated to support 56th Division, one failed to start. The right-hand tank (D-11) took some time to reach Sunken Road Trench, only having a top speed of 4 miles per hour – a brisk walking pace. The tank received a hit from a stray artillery round (probably British), and fell into the trench from which it could not get out. Despite this, the tank crew remained with their vehicle and used their machine guns harass the enemy in Loop Trench. The other tank (D-14) sped along the west side of Leuze Wood following the tank lane but continued on past Bouleaux Wood for some inexplicable reason.

At Zero Hour – 06:20 all along the British line from Courcelette to Combles whistles were blown and the troops left the forward trenches to begin the attack. Without a tank for support, the 1/1st Londons (Royal Fusiliers) of 167 Brigade advanced along the west edge of Leuze Wood. However fifty yards from the enemy trenches the Fusiliers found the wire uncut in the tank lane and a withering amount of fire stopped them dead, sustaining many casualties.

Lt. Col. King of the 1/7th Middlesex received orders to push two companies into the attack immediately to support the Fusiliers. He decided that ‘C’ Company (Hornsey) would advance on the right with the composite ‘A’ Company (Highgate and Hampstead) on the left. As the two companies advanced into Leuze Wood they passed through the many walking wounded Fusiliers, eerily, there was a lull in the firing. They had not advanced much more than twenty yards beyond the Fusiliers forward troops when all hell broke loose.

A number German Maxim heavy machine guns began enfilading their right flank and rear from ‘Loop Trench’. ‘A’ Company bore the brunt of this machine gun fire and Captain Woodroffe, leading from the front was shot through the head and killed instantly. Of his three subalterns Lt. Taylor and 2 Lt. Rowe were killed and 2 Lt. Smith was mortally wounded.

Within minutes both ‘A’ and ‘C’ Company began to take fire from their left flank from the strong redoubt known as the ‘Quadrilateral’ a key objective for the neighbouring 6th Division on the left. As the enemy heavy machine guns had already found their range on the unlucky Fusiliers in the first wave, their fire was both accurate and deadly and scores of men were simply scythed down where they stood.

‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies found themselves in the middle of a triangular shaped killing zone taking fire from both flanks and their front. With little cover in the form of trenches or folds in the ground the composite company from Highgate and Hampstead were practically annihilated in minutes. ‘C’ (Hornsey) Company were slightly sheltered from the enfilade fire and suffered less severely although their OC, the much-loved Capt. Tully was mortally wounded and of his subalterns, Cooper lay dead and Jones and Tucker both badly wounded

Despite ‘C’ Company losing all their officers, CSM Brame quickly took command of and ordered the unwounded survivors to dash forward and take cover in a shallow ditch and shell holes alongside the Combles road. From here they continued to snipe and bomb the Germans to their front. On the right, ‘A’ Company were more fortunate in finding a little more shelter where the ground dipped away before entering the sunken road and as a result they suffered fewer casualties but had still lost about half their number.

At around 11:00 hours, Lt. Col. King was ordered to commit his remaining companies into what was clearly a forlorn hope. He summoned Capt. Douglas William Hurd (OC ‘D’ Company – Tottenham) and Capt. Herbert Wood Hanbury (OC ‘B’ Company – Barnet and Enfield) and quickly briefed them of their new objectives. With no time for the company commanders to issue battle orders to their men other to say - “Extended Line - Follow me!” the companies set off with the Tottenham Company on the right with and the composite Barnet and Enfield company on the left.

On reaching the survivors of ‘A’ and ‘C’ Coy, Captain Hurd realised that the heavy German machine gun fire coming from Loop Trench on the right was an impossible obstacle to further advance. He ordered all his Lewis light machine guns to be brought forward and began returning fire on Loop Trench. He was personally directing their fire when he suddenly fell backwards – shot through the head and killed. His 2iC Lt. Whyman quickly took over, but he too was shot and killed.

‘B’ Company had also been almost wiped out and now with less than 30 unwounded men, Capt. Hanbury, a former pupil of Highgate School and newly arrived in the battalion, showed the cool courage of a veteran and rallied the survivors with a shout of “Follow me the Die-Hards!”

The German riflemen in the trenches were only fifty yards away but ‘B’ Company were checked by withering fire and pinned to the ground. Capt. Hanbury realised if they remained where they were the Company would be wiped out entirely and led another desperate frontal dash. He was killed along with 2 Lt. Whitehead by his side.

The remnants of the battalion, now less than a hundred men and dispersed in small desperate groups of section size, continued to try and find a way of breaking into the German trenches. Many of these groups were commanded by the senior private soldier. Despite continuous sniping and bombing, the survivors found that the German resistance was less obstinate on the left edge of Bouleaux Wood. About a dozen surviving members of a platoon from ‘D’ Company under Sjt. Groves found a gap and managed to break into Bully Trench with a shout of “We’re in my lads!”

The platoon tumbled into the trench and quickly set about clearing it, throwing Mills bombs and rushing around the fire bays. They eventually herded about forty Germans out of the trench at bayonet point and into the open where the hapless enemy were quickly mown down by both British and German fire.

The survivors from the other companies and the remaining Fusiliers were able to take cover in a spur off Bully Trench but they were now desperately low on small arms ammunition and bombs. It was plainly obvious that any chance of success in reaching their planned objectives was now impossible. As expected, the Germans launched a strong counter attack in about company strength from the Sunken Road Trench that was repelled by ‘D’ Company using Mills bombs until they ran out and continued to snipe at anything resembling an enemy target.

With almost all of their officers dead or dying, the Battalion had done all that was humanly possible and there was nothing left but to await the arrival of the third wave. Hasty wire entanglements were erected to block the German trench in case of another counter-attack.

Up to now, poor communications at both Corps and Divisional level had been a feature of the battle. An elaborate plan that included coloured flags to show the position of the attacking troops proved to be useless. The 56th Divisional staff ordered a new artillery bombardment on Bouleaux Wood to be followed by another attack by the 1/8th Middlesex. Soon after the plans were laid, first hand aerial reconnaissance reports from the Royal Flying Corps reached Corps HQ and told the reality of the situation. Both the Guards Division and the 6th Division attacks on the left had failed and it was decided that a further attack on Bouleaux Wood would not be practicable.

The artillery bombardment and the orders to commit the 1/8th Middlesex were cancelled. Sadly for the 1/8th, they had already deployed, and its leading units were advancing to support their sister battalion and the Fusiliers. The 1/8th Middlesex attack sustained over 250 losses due to the deadly machine gun fire.

By late afternoon, the 1/7th Middlesex, the 1/1st Londons and the 1/8th Middlesex all now intermingled and numbering less than three hundred men in total, occupied a thin straggly defensive line to the east of Bouleaux Wood. Over on the west, 169 Brigade had also had little success but had finally managed to capture Sunken Lane Trench, Loop Trench and Combles Trench. As dusk began to fall, the darkness provided a little sanctuary for the attackers and made it possible to get some of the wounded back to the dressing station at the south end of Leuze Wood.

That night a small reserve of officers and men who had been ‘left out of battle’ for such a contingency were brought forward to reorganise their companies, for the line had to be held for another 24 hours. The following day – the 16th September, there was very little fighting, the Germans too had suffered heavy losses but there was still much sniping, and the 1/7th Battalion lost another 5 men killed and 11 wounded including CSM Brame.

At dusk the battalion was finally relieved by the London Scottish and was withdrawn south to Falfemont Farm where about 80 unwounded soldiers were able to rest.

Since joining the 56th Division in Jan 1916, the 1/7th Middlesex losses had been quite low, and it had earned itself the enviable nickname of the ‘Lucky Seventh’. However on the 4th September at Ginchy the 7th Battalion had lost four Officers and over ninety men. As a result it had gone into battle on the 15th September with less than 500 bayonets. In a matter of hours, the 1/7th had over 400 casualties with 141 killed. All four company commanders had perished – Captains Woodroffe; Tully; Hanbury and Hurd. Company Sergeant Majors Braeme and Pearl were also killed along with eight sergeants.

It is a great testimony to the strength and character of the battalion that despite the loss of so many commanders it stuck to its task and never faltered despite all the odds being against them.

The Third Battle of the Somme ended a week later on 22nd September. It had resulted in an advance of between one and two miles and the capture of the heavily defended villages of Courcelette, Martinpuich and Flers. It had cost the British 29,000 casualties.

The loss of so many good officers and men of his Battalion in a single day greatly affected Lt. Col. King. He would later in the war challenge an order that would have led to the needless sacrifice of many more men. Close friends of Lt. Col. King said that he was never the same man after the 15th September.

The 15th September 1916 saw the death of this fine pre-war Territorial battalion all volunteers to a man. It was quickly brought back up to strength with the cadre that was left out of battle, transfers from the 2/7th and 3/7th Battalions and men from other regiments. The slaughter of 400 men in a single day is comparable to the losses of 57th of Foot (West Middlesex) at Albuhera over a hundred years earlier. Sadly, on the Western Front in 1916 this scale of casualties was more or less a daily occurrence.

For me, as a former Queensman based at the Drill Hall in Hornsey, remembering this battle is as important to me as is remembering the Battle of Albuhera, arguably more so for these were Territorials. These were not country boys from Gloucestershire or Wiltshire or Ireland serving in the 57th of Foot but local lads from North London – from Hornsey, Highgate, Hampstead, Barnet, Tottenham and Enfield and volunteers to a man.

Sometimes I feel that the part played by the original Territorial Force battalions in 1914 - 1916 has been overshadowed by the many words written about Kitcheners New Armies and the famous 'Pals' Battalions. Please remember the Territorials were the original 'Pals' Battalions.

I will be raising a glass to their memory tonight and will toast ‘Pro Rege, Patria et Laribus’ – For King, Country and Home. This was the official motto of the 1/7th Battalion. I trust you will join me wherever you are.

Diehard57

Flers Map 15 Sep 2021.JPG
Leuze Wood Map 15 Sep 2021.jpg
Flers Map 15 Sep 2021 end.JPG
 
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I am as far from the Oh What a Wonderful War/Blackadder school of WWI history as it is possible to get but one cannot help but read this account and be absolutely horrified that anyone, two years into that war, could have possibly contemplated these sorts of assaults knowing what had gone before.

As of lunchtime on 1st July 1916 anyone with even the slightest comprehension of strategy could have seen that any chance of success on the Somme was gone. That's not to accuse them with hindsight, the plan was a decent one, given different circumstances it might just have worked, but by mid-September to still be throwing gallant men into the mincer for no conceivable gain was simply psychopathic idiocy.

Let us for one brief moment believe that the initial outcome could have been achieved, what then? You get a mile or two of enemy trench, you capture a couple of hundred prisoners but you lose thousands of your finest troops and irreplaceable junior officers and within hours the enemy will have staunched the breach and stalemate would return. Again, not hindsight, that is precisely what had happened every single previous time they had tried to pull this one off.

Like I say I don't subscribe to the cliche of the brutally callous general swigging port in a chateau dozens of miles behind the lines as he casually despatches thousands of men to their death before his afternoon nap, but reading stuff like this really does convince you that many of them were blithering fools.
 
Firstly without sounding crass, today is also the 105th Birthday of the Tank Corps.

To everyone who lost their lives that terrible day or suffered in the following years.
Lest We Forget. Fear Naught.
 
that many of them were blithering fools.
I do agree to a point, there were Senior General Staff that were in positions that certainly shouldn’t have been in there!
So many of the General Staff were, in their heads still fighting the Crimea or some action before trench warfare and industrial killing. And had no idea how to get out of it.
Passchendaele is a good example after the weather deteriorated, the offensive should have been stopped.
 

Awol

LE
On the subject of woods being won and lost, Inverness Copse at Ypres, about a mile east of Hell Fire Corner, is about fifty feet square (and incredibly still there).

In September 1917 at the beginning of the 3rd battle of Ypres, it changed hands 21 times.
 

Awol

LE
I do agree to a point, there were Senior General Staff that were in positions that certainly shouldn’t have been in there!
So many of the General Staff were, in their heads still fighting the Crimea or some action before trench warfare and industrial killing. And had no idea how to get out of it.
Passchendaele is a good example after the weather deteriorated, the offensive should have been stopped.
The dilemma the Generals faced at Passchendaele was that losses had been so very heavy from the 31st of July onwards, that to cancel the offensive say, two weeks later, would be to admit all those deaths had been in vain. The weather didn’t become a factor until later in the battle, by which time the losses had reached astronomical levels and to cancel the attack then was simply unthinkable.
 
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diehard57

War Hero
On the subject of woods being won and lost, Inverness Copse at Ypres, about a mile east of Hell Fire Corner, is about fifty feet square (and incredibly still there).

In September 1917 at the beginning of the 3rd battle of Ypres, it changed hands 21 times.
Leuze Wood and Bouleaux Wood is still there just as shown on contemporary trench maps.
3AA52AA6-8F84-4B5A-83F8-B418644A6CD0.jpeg
 
Haig was,a reluctant convert to Falkenhayn style attrition. It's not Napoleonic elan and it's not really very clever (small scale attacks on narrow frontages often poorly su pported by artillery). But it does offer one way of winning a war. Ha ig alternated between set piece attacks (1st july, 14th july, 15th' 25th/26th September) and attritonal phases on the Somme. The battlefield choreography was more complex than you post suggests. The huge expansion of the British Army and the concomitant inexperience of staff officers in 1916 must also be factored in to the equation. The lesson of attempting to break trench warfare was that the attacker was always bound to lose more casualties than the defender.

The British high command learned from experience. In the 'Black August' of 1918 it out these lessons into effect and broke the German army in the field. The implication of the German 'April 1918 campaign is that they were using the same tactics that the British had deployed on 1st July 1916.
 
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Pteranadon

LE
Book Reviewer
I am as far from the Oh What a Wonderful War/Blackadder school of WWI history as it is possible to get but one cannot help but read this account and be absolutely horrified that anyone, two years into that war, could have possibly contemplated these sorts of assaults knowing what had gone before.

As of lunchtime on 1st July 1916 anyone with even the slightest comprehension of strategy could have seen that any chance of success on the Somme was gone. That's not to accuse them with hindsight, the plan was a decent one, given different circumstances it might just have worked, but by mid-September to still be throwing gallant men into the mincer for no conceivable gain was simply psychopathic idiocy.

Let us for one brief moment believe that the initial outcome could have been achieved, what then? You get a mile or two of enemy trench, you capture a couple of hundred prisoners but you lose thousands of your finest troops and irreplaceable junior officers and within hours the enemy will have staunched the breach and stalemate would return. Again, not hindsight, that is precisely what had happened every single previous time they had tried to pull this one off.

Like I say I don't subscribe to the cliche of the brutally callous general swigging port in a chateau dozens of miles behind the lines as he casually despatches thousands of men to their death before his afternoon nap, but reading stuff like this really does convince you that many of them were blithering fools.

Sorry, but there was little alternative in 1916. The allied Grand Strategy of simultaneous attacks by the British French Italians and Russians was a sensible plan. THe Somme hurt the Germans as much oif not more than it hurt the British - it was the "Muddy grave" of German hopes that they could beat the French and British through technical and tactical superiority

C20th total war would go on until the will of one side collapsed - and maybe too in the 21st. The British avoided repeating the battles of the Somme, Ypres and Arras in WW2 by losing the battle of France. The equivalent of these battles in WW2 were on the Eastern Front - Moskow, Stalingrad, Kursk, Beylorussia and Berlin. 80% of German losses were on the Eastern Front The Red Army lost over 10 million men dead. Even for the British casualties rates per unit were as heavy in Normandy in 1944 as on the Somme in 1916.

No one knew how pressure the German army could take before it broke. 15th September was one of the "Big Battle Days" on the Somme. Not just the British. The French used innovatinve tactics evoking mission command a few days earlier. This was about as close as the Franco British offensive git to breaking the German front in 1916.

Firstly without sounding crass, today is also the 105th Birthday of the Tank Corps.

To everyone who lost their lives that terrible day or suffered in the following years.
Lest We Forget. Fear Naught.

The late lamented Charles Messenger and I did a double handed stand on this battle on a staff ride in 2015. With great passion and pride Charles talked about the experience of the first tank crews. Quite right too. It was a difficult and dangerous job, but set in course the story of british Tanks.

My bit was to talk about innovation and the need to have technology, procedures and training to make a big idea work. The first tanks were Tank Mk1.0 - or even the "Beta release" if tank because they had never been tested under operational conditions. So a lot of the problems that emerged were the technical, procedural and training issues that would nt be identified until someone tested them. By then the offensive fireplan was on about release 3.4. There were parts of the offensive on 15ht September where the tanks totally failed, but the barrage was good enough to allow the 50th and IRRC 15th Divisions to take their objectives with aceptable casualties.
 
Sorry, but there was little alternative in 1916. The allied Grand Strategy of simultaneous attacks by the British French Italians and Russians was a sensible plan. THe Somme hurt the Germans as much oif not more than it hurt the British - it was the "Muddy grave" of German hopes that they could beat the French and British through technical and tactical superiority

C20th total war would go on until the will of one side collapsed - and maybe too in the 21st. The British avoided repeating the battles of the Somme, Ypres and Arras in WW2 by losing the battle of France. The equivalent of these battles in WW2 were on the Eastern Front - Moskow, Stalingrad, Kursk, Beylorussia and Berlin. 80% of German losses were on the Eastern Front The Red Army lost over 10 million men dead. Even for the British casualties rates per unit were as heavy in Normandy in 1944 as on the Somme in 1916.

No one knew how pressure the German army could take before it broke. 15th September was one of the "Big Battle Days" on the Somme. Not just the British. The French used innovatinve tactics evoking mission command a few days earlier. This was about as close as the Franco British offensive git to breaking the German front in 1916.



The late lamented Charles Messenger and I did a double handed stand on this battle on a staff ride in 2015. With great passion and pride Charles talked about the experience of the first tank crews. Quite right too. It was a difficult and dangerous job, but set in course the story of british Tanks.

My bit was to talk about innovation and the need to have technology, procedures and training to make a big idea work. The first tanks were Tank Mk1.0 - or even the "Beta release" if tank because they had never been tested under operational conditions. So a lot of the problems that emerged were the technical, procedural and training issues that would nt be identified until someone tested them. By then the offensive fireplan was on about release 3.4. There were parts of the offensive on 15ht September where the tanks totally failed, but the barrage was good enough to allow the 50th and IRRC 15th Divisions to take their objectives with aceptable casualties.
I disagree, by September 1916 any idea that the Germans could have been defeated by massed assaults in which the attackers lost more, or even the same number of troops, as the defenders had been tested to destruction.

It simply did not work. There is no gainsaying that fact, it's not spoken with the benefit of hindsight, it had already been proven multiple times. For it to have been a successful strategy you would need to present a single advantage that the British gained by the attack on September 15, 1916 but to save you the time I can give you a hint, there aren't any.

It is post-rationalisation to say it worked because it wore the Germans down, no it didn't. As March 1918 proved there were still plenty of fighting Germans left behind those trenches, plenty of them. Meanwhile the British and to a greater extent the French, were combing through hospitals, convalescent homes and schools to get mutinous, lame and sick men and boys up to the line.

What March 1918 also proved was how the Germans could be beaten and indeed were beaten. The naval blockade was starving Germany, they were eating bread made from sawdust and drinking coffee made from hazelnuts. March 1918 was their last desperate gamble before hunger and revolution took hold back home and petered out because the famished troops slowed down to feast on the food left behind by the retreating Allies.

Imagine that? The way for Britain to win a war was by using its huge, world beating navy to effect instead of throwing half-trained and increasingly reluctant conscript soldiers at entrenched enemy positions.

A better analyst than me put it very succinctly when discussing the situation as early as 1915. "If only the Generals had not been content to fight machine-gun bullets with the breasts of gallant men, and think that that was waging war." Winston S. Churchill.
 
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