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History

THE BUTTE & SURROUNDING AREA FROM WORLD WAR ONE ONWARDS

Firstly - The main attacks on the Butte de Warlencourt in October and November 1916

1: The attack of 7 October 1916 made by the 47th (London) Division. The picture below shows the fields over which the attacks were made heading in the direction of the camera which was located relatively close to the top of the Butte

The killing fields in front of the Butte.

The 47th (London) Division who were part of III Corps were the first to attack on 7 October 1916. This division were hoping to progress in the centre of a three divisional attack with the 41st Division being on their right and the 23rd facing the village of Le Sars on their left. The main German defences in front of the 47th (London) Division was the Gird Line running from the villages of Gueudecourt to Warlencourt which took in the Butte de Warlencourt. Expecting an attack on these defences the German dug a new trench north of Eaucourt l’Abbaye running westward into the valley in front on the Butte. Diagonal Trench was the first objective of the 140th Brigade with the Gird Line and the Butte planned to be taken thereafter. The attacking troops came from three battalions being the 7th, 8th, and 15th.

On 7 October, the attack took place at 1.45pm. Instantly the attacking troops came under fire from the newly dug Diagonal Trench. Some progress was made on the right around the road leading to Le Barque from Eaucourt l’Abbaye however on the left apart from the fierce firing from Diagonal Trench the attacking troops were subjected to horrendous cross fire onto the slopes leading up to the Butte. The Germans were making full use of their positions which gave perfect observation of the ground being attacked. The Londoners pressed on with a few men actually reaching the Butte however poignantly the 47th (London) Division history states that these men were never seen again. The attack had failed with very little progress. 142 Brigade took over part of the line held by 140 Brigade and never to be seen to give in troops of this brigade attacked again the following day with the objectives being the same as the previous. Some troops entered Diagonal Trench however they could not hold the position and the only gains being over the two-day attack being some strong points being established short of Diagonal Trench.

2: The attack by the South African Brigade made on 12 October 1916

The 47th (London) Division were replaced by the 9th (Scottish) Division after their failed attack detailed as above. The next attack therefore to include the planned taking the Butte was to take place on 12 October 1916, the assault being led by the 2nd and 4th Regiments of the South African Brigade. There were two objectives; two trenches leading up to the Butte called Snag and The tail respectively and thereafter the German defences which including the Butte. At 2.05pm in misty weather, the attacked commenced with troops of both battalions crossing the parapet. Within seconds a huge German barrage took place with the attackers also coming under serious fire from long range perfectly placed machine guns. Any impetus for the attack was gone long before any first objective could be taken. By night time the brigade had nowhere near reached its objectives and as a result as the attackers had suffered badly the 3rd Regiment relived those left. Due to the congested state of the communications trenches and not being able to get reliable guides it was dawn the next day before the remaining men of the 2nd and 4th Brigade reached the safety of High Wood. A party of about 60 men had dug themselves in during the doomed attack close to the enemy line, they however were brought back successfully and safely during the evening of the 13 October.

3: The attack made by the South African Brigade made on 18 October 1916.

This attack was led by the 1st regiment of the Brigade with the objectives being the same as those six days earlier on the 12th. The landscape however was growing to be more and more featureless and to the eye was only a sea of mud. The attack was to start at 3.40am, the weather being horrendous due to more heavy rain. Three companies of the South Africans (A, B and C) advanced immediately disappearing into the rain and for hours there was no news of anything including progress or otherwise. When the news did come however it was one of failure. C Company had to retire to the original line with casualties being 69 out of 100. A and B companies after valiant efforts suffered badly but with the exception of a few stragglers all the men of the companies were killed. The situation was summed up as C company had failed in the attack with heavy losses , A and B company had simply disappeared. By the morning of the 20 October all the South Africans were also back in the safety of High Wood. In the ten days of fighting 9 to 19 October their casualties were a staggering 1150 men. The South African history states: “ so ended the tale of the South Africans share in the mist dismal of all the chapters of the Somme … the front was never clearly defined and officers led and men followed in a cruel fog of uncertainty”.

4: The attack made by the 50th Division made on 5 November 1916.

The 50th Division took over the sector east and south east of Le Sars on 24 October 1916. The next big attack was actually planned for two days later on 26 October however it was postponed on numerous occasions before it actually took place on 5 November at 9.10am. The Germans defences to be attacked were yet again Gird Trench and Gird Support immediately behind it, both including the Butte de Warlencourt. These trenches ran diagonally across the divisional front with the Butte being described by the Divisional history as a shapeless pock marked mass of chalk. Divisional orders for the attack were issued on 3 November in which three battalions already in line of 151 Brigade were to attack, these being the 6th, 8th, and 9th Battalions of the Durham Light Infantry with the 9th Battalion being given the orders to capture the Butte and the nearby Quarry. Various supports as one would imagine were to be in place. The night of 4 November saw yet again horrendous rain and howling wind and in parts of the line the mud was waist high, the enemy guns not ceasing from sunset to sunrise. At zero hour, the troops literally crawled out their trenches and from both flanks were immediately subject to machine gun fire. Men started falling instantaneously as it was impossible to advance at little more than walking pace. The attack of the 6th and 8th Battalion was to be unsuccessful. As can be seen in the following article below the attack of the 9th battalion succeeded whereby they advanced magnificently and carried all their objectives. Men of the battalion were seen on the Butte advancing to the Gird line where they remained until around 3.30pm before being driven out, the Quarry had been taken and a post established on the nearby Bapaume road. The well organised enemy was great in strength however and after holding ground taken for a day the 9th Battalion was however back in Maxwell trench by 1.00pm on 6 November, this being the same position as the position prior to the assault. Those remaining of the attacking troops of the 50th Division were all back in its front-line Snag, Maxwell, and Tail Trenches on 6 November with total casualties being 967 over a day. For fuller details of the exploits of the 9th Battalion please read the Report By Roland Boys Bradford which follows this article.

These extracts have been taken from various books including the The History of the 47th (London) Division, The story of the South African Brigade adapted from John Buchan's History of the South African Forces in France and the History of the 50th Division by Everard Wyrell

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

Abbreviated version of the report made by ROLAND BRADFORD

The trenches around the Butte late in 1916.

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 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. 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 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 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 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.

The Butte seen from above looking down the trackway leading to the D929 Albert to Bapaume road. This is the approximate location of where the two German held Gird trenches crossed this road.

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.

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)

And Thirdly: THE SECOND ENEMY IN THE AUTUMN OF 1916 - THE WEATHER AND THE ATROCIOUS UNDERFOOT CONDITIONS

The British were not only fighting the Germans late in 1916. An equally extremely difficult enemy was the WW1 Somme mud and underfoot conditions. Following are a few extracts trying to highlight the extent of the weather problems which of course affected the fighting capacities of both sides. Other fascinating comments/views are made below also such as 'orders that should never have been issued' and 'vaguely defined objectives'. It is also noted that many veterans who survived the war felt that the conditions on the Somme in the autumn of 1916 were equally as bad if not worse that as at Passchendaele the following year. Welcome to the autumn of 1916!

The horrendous weather and underfoot conditions can clearly be seen.

TWELVE DAYS THE SOMME NOVEMBER 1916 BY SIDNEY ROGERSON

The front was certainly was quiet, save for the occasional sharp whip crack of an enemy sniper and the drone of aircraft high up in a sky which was very bright and blue for November but I had not gone twenty yards before I encountered the mud, mud which was unique even for the Somme. It was like walking through caramel. At every step, the foot stuck fast and was only wrenched out by a determined effort, bringing away with it several pounds of earth till legs ached in every muscle. No one could struggle through that mud for more than a few yards without a rest.... terrible in its clinging consistency, it was the arbiter of destiny, the supreme enemy, paralysing and mocking English and German alike. Distances were not measured in yards but in mud.One of the wars greatest tragedies was that the High Command so seldom saw for themselves the state of the battle zone. What could the men at GHQ who ordered the terrible attacks on the Somme know of the mud from their maps? If they had known, they could never have brought themselves to belief that human flesh and blood could so nearly achieve the impossible and often succeed in carrying out orders which should never have been issued.

THE STORY OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN BRIGADE - ADAPTED FROM JOHN BUCHAN'S HISTORY OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN FORCES IN FRANCE.

October on the Somme was one succession of tempestuous gails and drenching rains. Now appeared the supreme difficulty of trench warfare. For three months the allies had been slowly advancing blasting their way forward with their great guns before each infantry arrack. And the result was that the fifty square miles of old battleground which lay behind their front lines had been tortured out of recognition.The little country roads has been wholly extorted and since they never had much of a bottom, the road menders had nothing to build upon. New roads were hard to make for the chalky soil that had been so churned up the chalk had lost all its cohesion. In all the area there was but two good highways and by the third month of the battle even these showed signs of wear and tear. The consequence was there was two no man’s Lands – one between the front lines and one between the old enemy front and the front that we had won. The second was the bigger problem, for across it must be brought the supplies of a great army. It was a war of motor transport and we were running the equivalent of steam engines not on prepared tracks but on high roads running them in endless relays day and night. Every road became a water course and in the hollows the mud was as deep as a man’s thighs. Off the roads, the ground was one big vast bog, dug outs crumbled in and communication trenches ceased to be. Being the British front line lay six miles of sponge, varied by mud torrents. It was into such miserable warfare, under persisting rain in a decomposing land, that the South Africa Brigade was now flung.

THE HISTORY OF THE 50TH DIVISION BY EVERARD WYRELL

In some partially flooded battery positions, sinking platforms had to be restored with any battle debris which was available. The ground was so deep in mud that to move one 18 pound gun, ten or twelve horses were often required. And, to supplement the supplies brought by light railway and pack horse, ammunition had to be dragged on sledges improvised of sheets of corrugated iron. The infantry, sometimes wet to the skin and almost exhausted before zero hour were often condemned to to struggle painfully forward through the mud under heavy fire against difficult to find vaguely defined objectives.

These extracts have been taken from various sources as highlighted before each section