Butte de Warlencourt

History



THE BUTTE & SURROUNDING AREA FROM WORLD WAR ONE ONWARDS

THE ATTACK MADE BY THE 5OTH DIVISION ON THE BUTTE-DE-WARLENCOURT AND THE GIRD LINE ON NOVEMBER 5TH 1916

By ROLAND BRADFORD

In the first week of November 1916 there had been very heavy rain in the SOMME Area and the surface of the ground was thick with mud.It was impossible to use any of the communication trenches, and movement across the open, even right behind our lines where you were unmolested by enemy fire, was attended with great difficulty and was most exhausting.

The front line held by the 50th Division in that first week of November was MAXWELL TRENCH which lay immediately east of the ALBERT-BAPAUME road and ran just behind the Southern crest of the small ridge on which the BUTTE-DE­WARLENCOURT was situated. This trench opposite the BUTTE was separated by a distance of 250 yards, and throughout its length was an average distance of 300 yards from the German front line.

On November 5th, the 151st Infantry Brigade was to attack in conjunction with the Australians on the right. The 46th Division on the left was not going to attack but was to co-operate with fire.The Objectives of the Brigade were the capture of the BUTTE,the QUARRY and the GIRD Front Line on the left, and to capture and consolidate the GIRD front and support lines on the right.Three Battalions of the 151st Infantry Brigade were to assault - each Battalion being on a frontage of three Companies with one Company in reserve which was to remain in Maxwell Trench. The 9th D.L.I. was on the left, the 6th D.L.I. in the centre,and the 8th D.L .I. on the right. The 5th Border Regt. was in Brigade Reserve and was in readiness in the trenches north of EAUCOURT L'ABBAYE. The 6th Battalion N.F. was attached to the Brigade as a further reserve and was situated in the FLERS Support Line just west of EAUCOURT L'ABBAYE. At 9 a.m. the assaulting Infantry moved forward. These troops were in four lines with a distance of 15 yards between each line.

The 6th D.L.I. and 8th D.L.I. when they had gone forward about 50 yards came under very heavy machine gun fire which caused them many casualties and prevented them from reaching their objectives although many heroic efforts to get forward were made. The Australians on the right were met by intense machine gun fire and they too were unable to make any progress.On the left the 9th D.L.I. met with less opposition and succeeded in gaining all its objectives without suffering heavy casualties. The German Barrages came down at about four minutes after nine-o-clock. There were three barrages, one was a few yards in advance of MAXWELL TRENCH, the other was on HEXHAM ROAD where Battalion Headquarters was situated in a dugout at the entrance to SNAG TRENCH, and the third was between HEXHAM ROAD and the FLERS LINE. All were particularly intense.

At 10 a.m. the 9th D.L.I. was disposed as follows:-

  • Four Posts were established in the GIRD Front Line the left one being on the ALBERT-BAPAUME Road.
  • There were four Posts in the space between the BUTTE and the GIRD Front line.
  • The front edge of the QUARRY was strongly held and two Company Headquarters' were situated in the QUARRY in telephonic communication with Battalion Headquarters.
  • Each of the assaulting Platoons had a reserve Platoon in BUTTE ALLEY the trench running immediately South of the BUTTE.
  • Two Machine Guns were sited in BUTTE ALLEY and a 2" Stokes Mortar in the Quarry. Two Battalion observers were on the BUTTE.
  • The Reserve Company of the Battalion was in MAXWELL TRENCH.
  • Eight Bavarian prisoners had been sent back to Battalion Headquarters. Some other Prisoners who were on their way back had together with their escorts been annihilated by the German artillery fire.
  • The Germans were still holding a dugout on the north east side of the BUTTE.

The Parties who should have "mopped up" the BUTTE dugouts had either gone forward without completing their work, carried away in the enthusiasm of the assault, or had been shot by German snipers while at their work.The ground had been so pulverised by our Bombardments and was so muddy that it was not possible to do much in the way of consolidation. But the men were ready with their rifles.

The Germans had now realised the Scope of our attack and many of their Batteries concentrated their fire on our new positions. Snipers from WARLENCOURT-EAUCOURT were subjecting our men to a deadly fire and it was almost impossible for them to move.The Germans in the dugout on the northeast edge of the BUTTE had brought a machine gun into position and were worrying us from behind. Many gallant attempts were made throughout the day to capture this dugout but without success. All our Parties who tried to rush it were destroyed by the German machine gun fire from the direction of HOOK SAP and by the fire of the large number of snipers in WARLENCOURT. However a Party did succeed in throwing some Mills Grenades into the dugout and this made the Boches more cautious. The first German counter-attack was made about 12 noon. It was a half-hearted one and was easily stopped. During the afternoon the enemy launched several bombing attacks but these too were repulsed. About 6 p.m. the Germans made a determined counter-attack preceded by a terrific bombardment and were able to get to close quarters. A tough struggle ensued. But our men who had now been reinforced by the reserve Company and who showed the traditional superiority of the British in hand to hand fighting, succeeded in driving out the enemy.

The 9th D.L.I. was getting weak, but it was hoped that the Boche had now made his last counterattack for that day. It had happened that the Bavarian Division which was holding the line when we attacked was to have been relieved on the night of the 5th/6th November by the Prussian Guards Division.At about 11 p.m. Battalions of the Prussians delivered a fresh counter-attack. They came in great force from our front and also worked round from both flanks. Our men were overwhelmed. Many died fighting. Others were compelled to surrender. It was only a handful of men who found their way back to MAXWELL TRENCH and they were completely exhausted by their great efforts and the strain of the fighting.

There were many reasons why the 9th D.L .I. was unable to hold its ground.The failure of the troops on the right to reach their objectives and the fact that the Division on our left was not attacking caused both flanks of the Battalion to be in the air. The positions to be held were very much exposed and the Germans could see all our trenches and control their fire accordingly. It was a local attack and the enemy was able to concentrate his guns on to a small portion of our line. The ground was a sea of mud and it was almost impossible to consolidate our Posts. The terribly intense German barrages and the difficult nature of the ground prevented reinforcements from being sent up to help the 9th D.L.I.

Four hundred yards north of the Butte the enemy had a steep bank behind which they were able to assemble without being molested. In the hope of being able to exploit success we had arranged for our barrage to be placed just beyond this bank. The terrain was very favourable to a German counter-attack. Besides the splendid observation points in their possession the ground provided great facilities for the forming up of their troops under cover. At first sight it might appear as if the conditions were somewhat reciprocal for we had the MAXWELL Trench ridge which gave us some cover. But it was not really so. The ground between the FLERS LINES and HEXHAM ROAD before getting under cover of the MAXWELL TRENCH RIDGE were very exposed , and the ground concealed by the Ridge was intensely shelled by the enemy throughout the day and night. It is wonderful, when one considers the difficulties under which our men were working and the fearful fire to which they were exposed, that they held on for so long as they did. And it makes you proud to be an Englishman.

On looking back at the attack of the 5th of November it seems that the results which would have been gained in the event of success were of doubtful value, and would hardly have been worth the loss which we would suffer. It would have been awkward for us to hold the objectives which would have been badly sited for our defence. The possession of the BUTTE by the Germans was not an asset to them. From our existing trenches we were trying to prevent them from using it as an Observation point

The BUTTE itself would have been of little use to us for purposes of observation. But the BUTTE-DE-WARLENCOURT had become an obsession. Everybody wanted it. It loomed large in the minds of the Soldiers in the forward area and they attributed many of their misfortunes to it. The newspaper correspondents talked about that Miniature Gibraltar. So it had to be taken. It seems that the attack was one of those tempting, and unfortunately at one period frequent, local operations which are so costly and which are rarely worthwhile. But perhaps that is only the narrow view of the Regimental Officer.

This is a printed presentation of R. Bradford’s report, the original of which is in the DLI Museum in Durham. ‘The SOMME and the BUTTE de WARLENCOURT’ Booklet MEMORIAL DEDICATION ISSUE-1990. (Capitalisation etc. as per original document)

The South African Brigade 18 - 31 October 1916

abridged extract from Buchan's 'History of the South African Forces in France'

On the night of the 18th (October), a company of the 3rd regiment sent out a patrol to look for A and B companies. The patrol returned at 2.00pm in the afternoon having obtained no information. The situation was that C company had failed in the attack with heavy losses and that A and B company had just disappeared. The key to the enemy position being The Nose.

The quest to take The Nose began again at 5.45 that afternoon. D company from the 1st Regiment should attack from the Pimple. Captain Lansdale’s company of the 3rd would attack from Pearse’s Trench. If The Nose was to be taken it must be attacked along Snag Trench from the east. Snag Trench was entered without opposition, however at a point approximately 25 yards from the Nose, three German machine guns saw a withdrawal to the original front line. A bombing attack from the Pimple also failed. Snag Trench was occupied early morning on the 19th, however a 5.00am German attack by bombs and flammerwerfer against the men there drove the men out. Amongst the killed was Lieutenant Young VC. The position at this point saw the South African troops back in their old front line except on the extreme right.

Never to give in, a further attempt to clear Snag Trench was planned on the morning of the 19th. This was to be carried out by a company from the 3rd regiment under Lieutenant Elliot. All that morning two machine guns at the Pimple had enfiladed the trench. By the afternoon, few of the enemy were left in the trench but the German machine guns still held The Nose – the artillery seemed unable to touch them. When The Nose was to be finally occupied over 250 Germans were found lying dead around it.

The afternoon however was to bring the end of the action when an action to drive the enemy out of the Nose failed apparently due to insufficient bombs. The situation had become hopeless, the South Africans were running out of men, the mud was so thick that rifles, machine guns and Lewis guns were constantly jamming. Those left on the Pimple had not one rifle that could be fired. In many of the trenches, the mud was three feet deep. Every man was utterly exhausted. That night the remnants were relieved and early in the morning on the 20th all were back in High Wood.

So ended the tale of the South Africans share in the most dismal of all the chapters of the Somme. The fighting did not have the swift pace of earlier battles. We were striving for minor objectives often the action resolved itself into isolated struggles, a handful of men in a mud hole holding on until their post was linked up to the front line. Rain, cold, slow reliefs, lack of hot food, lack of any food had made these episodes a severe test of endurance and devotion. So bad was the mud that each stretcher required eight bearers and runners carrying no heavy equipment were taking up to six hours to cover a thousand yards.

The front was never at any moment clearly defined leading to a perpetual and inevitable confusion of mind. Officers led and men followed in a cruel fog of uncertainty. In the ten days from the 9th to 19th of October, the South African casualties were approximately 1150 including 45 officers, 16 of whom were killed. The Butte de Warlencourt was never taken during the battle of the Somme. At the end of October, the Brigade moved north to an area near Arras.

This extract is taken from The Story of the South African Brigade. (T. Maskew Miller, Cape Town. Introduction by Haig F.M. dated 1 June 1921)

The night the Butte caught fire in January 1917!

Extracted from the 15th Scottish Division 1914-1919 Lt Col J.Stewart and John Buchan

Christmas and New Year passed without incident, as also did January 1917. On the whole, the weather was fairly good, and a great deal of work was done to better the trench system. Towards the end of the month rumours of a move elsewhere commenced to circulate throughout the Division, but before it took place a raid on the Butte was organised by the 44th Brigade, and carried out most successfully by " B " and " D " Companies of the 8/10th Gordon Highlanders (Lieut.-Colonel Thom)

This raid was so well planned and executed that no excuse is necessary for reproducing the Brigade Orders issued in connection with it. The famous Butte de Warlencourt, against which the operation was directed, requires a few words of description.The opposing lines at this point ran along each side of a shallow valley. On the British side the ground sloped gently down from the ruins of Le Sars village, the front line being about half -way down the slope. On the opposite side of the valley were the German trenches in a somewhat similar position, and immediately behind their front line rose the Butte, an artificial mound of chalk, the material for which had been taken from the Quarry immediately north-west of it. About 100 feet in height and the same in diameter, this mound dominated not only No Man's Land but the British trenches on the opposite slope. It had been tunnelled into by the enemy, and was suspected of containing a number of dug-outs and machine-guns. The Quarry to the north-west was also known to contain dug-outs, shelters, and trench-mortar emplacements; this was also to form part of the raiders' objective.

On account of the numberless shell-holes and the condition of the intervening ground, it was decided that the raiding party should form up in No Man's Land, and, as there was deep snow on the ground at the time, the men wore white smocks over their equipment and had their steel helmets whitewashed. Some of these smocks were ladies nightgowns bought in Amiens by two Highland officers, who caused much amusement in the shops when they informed the fair assistants what they wanted.To eliminate further any chance of confusion, black tapes were laid out beforehand, on which the lines formed up prior to the attack. As was the custom on all raids, the enemy wire was previously cut by artillery fire, and in this instance the work was exceedingly well done. There was no preliminary bombardment, the strictest injunctions being given that the enemy were to be left undisturbed until the raid started. At zero hour things were to liven up. The Divisions on the right {the 2nd) and on the left {the 1st Australians) were to simulate attacks, in order to deceive the enemy as to the real point of attack, and the Fifteenth Divisional Artillery, assisted by the III. Corps Heavy Artillery, were to open an intense barrage on the German front line. This barrage was after one minute to lift at the rate of 50 yards a minute until it reached a point well behind the Butte and Quarry. At the conclusion of the raid, twenty­ five minutes after zero, the barrage was to return to the German front­line trenches, by which time the raiders were to be back in their own lines.

The 44th Brigade was the one chosen to carry out the operation, and General Marshall selected the 8/10th Gordon Highlanders for the work. From his battalion Lieut.-Colonel Thom detailed "B” and “D “Companies, putting them through a thorough preparation and rehearsal behind the lines. Every imaginable contingency was provided for, and this care and forethought was largely responsible for the success of the raid. At 11 P.M. on the night of January 29 the two companies left their shelters just behind the support line. Although they had barely 700 yards to travel, it took them two hours to reach the positions of attack in No Man's Land. The utmost care had to be taken to avoid arousing suspicion in the minds of the enemy, and the raiders crawled out in small parties through gaps cut in the wire, and formed up on the black tapes without trouble and without opposition from the enemy. Due credit should be given to Captain Martin for the way in which the tapes were laid out, barely 100 yards from the foremost line of German sentries. By 1.15 A.M. On the 30th the attackers were in position. They were formed up in two waves, each wave consisting of two platoons from each company. On the right Captain Match was in command of “B “Company, having with him 2nd Lieutenants Kemp, Wallace, and Hofford. On the left Lieutenant Kenyon commanded “D “company, with 2nd Lieutenants Knowles and Forster. " B “Company’s objective was the Butte itself, whilst that of “D” was the Quarry. The task of both parties was to take prisoners, do as much damage as possible, and be back in their lines within twenty-five minutes of zero hour, a short enough time for any but well-trained troops.

Sharp to the second, at 1.30 A.M., the barrage fell on the German lines, and one minute afterwards the two companies went forward. Practically no opposition was met with except on the left flank, which was held up for a short time by a machine-gun in the Quarry. On the right, just as the barrage lifted from the front line, two enemy machine-guns opened fire, and the line hesitated. With a shout of “Come on, Gordons! “Captain Match dashed forward, followed by his company, and the guns were at once silenced. On crossing the German front line "B” Company discovered a trench-mortar, which they demolished by dropping a Stokes' bomb down the barrel, and then ramming a tuft of earth and grass into the muzzle. Once past the front line, parties went forward north of the Butte to act as a screen for those detailed to deal with the Butte and its dug outs.On the left "D" company had discovered an enemy strong point garrisoned by six men. These, half dazed by the sudden attack, surrendered without a struggle, and the line swept on to the Quarry, where many dug-outs were bombed and destroyed. On the right "B" Company was investigating the Butte itself. Discovering several entrances on its northern side, the garrison was summoned to surrender. A few wisely obeyed, but at two entrances, as no reply was received, Stokes' shells and Mills' bombs were thrown down, which demolished the passages and bottled up the inmates. Here the "bag” in prisoners amounted to 12, who were sent back at once, and the work of destruction continued. By a stroke of good-fortune a Stokes' shell exploded at the bottom of one entrance, and set alight some tins of petrol, and the fire spread to the recesses of the Butte itself.

By this time the party had done all the damage they could, and it was time to get back to their lines. Twenty minutes after the raid started the covering parties withdrew, and five minutes later, as the two companies reached the safety of their lines, the Divisional artillery barrage fell once more on the German front line. Looking back on the scene of their exploit, what they saw must have given the raiders great satisfaction. Flames were shooting out of the Butte, the German lines were being pounded into fragments by the gunners, many of the enemy had been killed in hand-to-hand fighting, 17 prisoners were on their way to the cage, and not one single rifle-shot or machine­gun stutter was heard from the area they had just left-a truly remarkable performance. A prisoner, who spoke a certain amount of English, told one of his captors that the dug-outs in the Butte contained 150 men.Of these, 12 had surrendered; the remainder were well, “accounted for," by the fire, which was still burning two days later. At 3.15am the butte exploded, flames rising thirty feet in the air, the noise of bursting bombs and SAA telling its own tale.

Both during and after the raid the enemy's artillery fire was feeble. Apparently he was taken completely by surprise, and made no attempt whatever to drive back the invaders. Whilst they had inflicted severe casualties on the enemy, the party got off comparatively lightly. 2nd Lieutenant Knowles was missing, and it is thought that he was killed whilst dealing with the machine gun near the quarry. Lieutenants Forster and Walker were slightly wounded, 4 other ranks were killed and 10 wounded, the number of prisoners thus exceeding the total casualties suffered by the party. Thus concluded one of the most successful raids undertaken by the Division. Well thought out, well-rehearsed, and exceedingly well carried out, it reflects the highest credit on Lieut.-Colonel Thom and every officer, N.C.O., and man who took part in it; also unstinted praise is due to the gunners, whose barrage was so accurate and destructive. The operation called forth well-merited praise from many sources, including the 1st Australian Division. The following awards were given for work in connection with this raid - Captain Mutch received the D.S.O. Captain J. Martin received the M.C. Three other ranks received the D.C.M. and Sergeant Donelley received the M.M.

Extracted from the 15th Scottish Division 1914-1919 Lt Col J.Stewart and John Buchan