David Tattersfield of the Western Front Association assesses a failed attack on a crucial German salient during the Battle of the Somme.
Virtually every town and village in the UK lost men during the First World War. The Battle of the Somme, July-November 1916 was, for many communities, the battle which caused the greatest number of names to be added to local war memorials. The village of Ravensthorpe, near Dewsbury, in the industrial heart of the West Riding of Yorkshire, was one such community that suffered many casualties during this period.
The British and Commonwealth forces had continually attacked the German lines since the opening attack on 1 July and, despite the unprecedented casualties incurred on the first day, managed to make some significant progress during July and August. This success, although costly, was mainly at the southern end of the battlefield.
In the north, comparatively little progress had been made. Thiepval, which stood on a prominent ridge, had been surrounded on three sides by the end of August but was still holding out. It had become an annoying salient jutting into the British lines. By holding onto the village, the Germans were able to prevent the British from occupying the whole of the ridge from Thiepval down to Pozières. A renewed attempt at taking Thiepval was therefore planned for 3 September, this attack was to take place using three divisions, one of which was to be the the 49th (West Riding) Division.
The 49th Division was to have two brigades making the attack: 146 Brigade on the left and 147 Brigade on the right. 146 Brigade had the 1/8th West Yorkshire Regiment on the left of the assault and the 1/6th West Yorkshires on the right. 147 Brigade attacked with the 1/5th Duke of Wellington’s Regiment on the left, and the 1/4th Duke of Wellington’s on the right.
The 1/5th Dukes, which contained many men from Ravensthorpe, were to go over the top from new trenches which had been dug in front of the original trenches on 1 July. These were named the First, Second, and Third Parallels and were described as rough, but deep and narrow trenches. Two trenches ran from the Second and Third Parallels, heading straight towards the German front line; these were Koyli West Trench (just inside the 1/6th West Yorkshires’ area) and Koyli East Trench.
At 5.30pm on Saturday 2 September the 1/5th Dukes left the village of Forceville and commenced the march to the front line; after crossing the River Ancre at Authuille they assembled ready for the assault in the Second and Third Parallels at 3.45am.
The Battalion’s plan, prepared by the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel H A J Stanton, was for ‘D’ and ‘A’ Companies (on the left and right of the Battalion’s front respectively) to capture the German front line between Points 16 and 54 on the map. The German defences here were particularly strong; a German salient called the Pope’s Nose was located at the top of Koyli East Trench, the apex of which was at Point 25. The German support line was to be captured by ‘B’ Company between Points 38 and 66. ‘C’ Company was in reserve.
Meanwhile, the 1/6th West Yorkshires on the left had to tackle a strong trench system called ‘The Triangle’, between Points 16, 09, and 67. The 1/4th Dukes on the right had to take the front line from Points 54 to 84 and the support line from Points 66 to 95.
The British hurricane bombardment commenced at 5.10am on 3 September, dawn having broken at about 5am. A survivor said ‘The whole sky seemed to light up suddenly.’ At 5.13am the battalion, after hours of nervous waiting, went over the top along with the rest of the West Riding Division, for the first time in the war.
The war diary of the 1/5th Dukes describes in two sentences the result of the attack: ‘The whole attack failed. The 146 Brigade did not reach its objective and although the 147 Brigade reached their objective, they were unable to hold it.’ The details of what actually occurred are more difficult to establish, especially as each battalion blamed its neighbour.
‘D’ Company of the 1/5th Dukes was to attack astride Koyli East Trench. Unfortunately one platoon, instead of assaulting on both sides of the trench, managed to end up entirely on the eastern side. This left a gap in the middle of the company which was due to attack at Point 25 – the Pope’s Nose. The war diary states, ‘This would not have mattered if the battalion on our left [1/6th West Yorkshires] had reached its objective. As it was ‘D’ Company had to withstand bombing attacks on its left, from its centre, and later on, from its right.’
Although half of ‘D’ Company did manage to occupy the front line trench between Points 16 and 25, it was impossible to bring ammunition up to them, due, according to the war diary, to the German block at the top of Koyli East Trench. This resulted in everything having to go over No Man’s Land, in the face of the ferocious enemy barrage. This inability to cross No Man’s Land was to prove a source of many casualties. It also prevented orders being brought up, messages getting back, casualty evacuation, and reinforcements of both men and ammunition.
The other half of ‘D’ Company, to the right (east of Point 25) did receive ammunition at about 7.30am. Even further to the right, ‘A’ Company of the 1/5th Dukes became mixed up with the left Company of the 1/4th Dukes. This caused a lot of bunching between Points 25 and 54. A machine gun was turned on these men, causing the company to split in two, leaving a gap near where the communication trench joins the front line approximately mid-way between these points.
‘B’ Company assaulted the German support line but only one third of the men – and probably no officers – seem to have reached it. Because of the casualties incurred and a lack of ammunition, they were unable to hold onto this position. After recapturing their support line the Germans were able to come down the communication trench and, exploiting the gap the machine gun had created, turn left and right to attack the men of ‘A’ and ‘D’ Companies in the German front line.
The Battalion’s war diary reports that, “’‘D’ Company only retired when they had no more bombs, having previously seen the troops on the right [1/4th Dukes and ‘A’ Company of the 1/5th Dukes] retire to our front parallels. They retired from the German front line about 9.30am’.
The History of the Sixth Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, Volume One: 1/6th Battalion by Captain EV Tempest, DSO, MC gives details of how, during the preparations for the attack, which would not have gone unnoticed by the Germans, platoons became exhausted in a matter of days. The men had to carry stores and ammunition up the steep sides of the Ancre valley to the front line nightly from 27 August. This lack of rest would have seriously impaired their fighting capabilities.
The book goes on to report that the Pope’s Nose remained un-captured, and that machine guns from this position were able to pour fire into the flank of the 1/6th West Yorkshires. Although the first wave of this battalion managed to cross No Man’s Land, following waves were unable to do so, and this battalion’s attack failed early on.
What went wrong?
Clearly the Pope’s Nose was the key to the whole attack. It seems that until it was temporarily abandoned, machine- gun fire from the area of the Pope’s Nose enfiladed the 1/6th West Yorkshires, stopping their assault in its tracks. If ‘D’ Company of the 1/5th Dukes had advanced correctly up Koyli East Trench, it is possible that the Pope’s Nose may have been subdued earlier. Unfortunately the 1/6th West Yorkshires were unable to restart their attack.
The deepest areas of penetration soon began to be counter-attacked, with the Germans being reinforced from the garrison in the Schwaben Redoubt – a series of tunnels situated in the high ground a few hundred yards east of the Pope’s Nose. The 1/4th and the 1/5th Dukes, running out of ammunition and down to a fraction of their original strength were unable to resist and fell back. The Pope’s Nose was reoccupied by the Germans and machine-guns were brought to bear on the retreating troops. Many were killed as they tried to return to the comparative safety of the parallels.
All the gains were abandoned. Virtually the only British that remained in the German lines were either dead or injured. Only seven unwounded prisoners were captured by the Germans from the 1/4th and 1/5th Battalions of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment.
The battlefield today is one of the most visited areas of the Western Front. The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing is close by, and on the other side of the valley are the preserved trenches of the Newfoundland Memorial Park. There are two cemeteries nearby. The Connaught Cemetery now contains 1,278 burials, half of whom are ‘unknown’. Only 36 of the 113 officers and men killed on 3 September in the 1/5th Duke of Wellington’s have known graves. 28, including all three officers with known graves, are buried at Mill Road Cemetery which is on the edge of the Schwaben Redoubt. Because of the unstable nature of the ground many of the headstones have had to be laid flat. The cemetery contains 1,304 graves. 815 of them are unknown.
Precisely over the 1/5th Dukes line of attack has been built a tall memorial tower to the Ulster Division. This is one of the most famous landmarks on the Somme, and the front walls of the grounds are on the approximate site of Koyli East Trench. Just to the left of the tower is a fork in the road, one branch being a rough track that leads down to St. Pierre Divion. By walking along the track you will be parallel, and slightly west of Koyli East Trench. After 130 yards on your right, a few feet into the field are the remains of a machine-gun post. While this is probably not the apex of the Pope’s Nose, it is likely to have been part of this position, possibly the post at Point 16. The head of Koyli East Trench is about halfway between the remains of the post and fork in the road.
None of the original front and support lines that the 1/4th and the 1/5th Dukes attacked can now be seen, however by walking up the left-hand side of the Memorial Tower grounds, at the rear of the tower is a patch of uncultivated ground. The high ground of the Schwaben Redoubt and the Mill Road Cemetery is away to the right. To the left the ground drops away towards the German support line, but straight ahead is the approximate site of Point 54.
In front of the Tower is a small electricity substation. At this point the Third Parallel cut across the road. By standing in the road, looking towards the fork in the road, you will be facing the direction of the attack which commenced at 5.13am on 3 September 1916, from which many men never returned.