Attack Made by the 50th Division on the BUTTE-DE-WARLENCOURT and the GIRD LINE on November 5th 1916.
Report 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-DE-WARLENCOURT 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 ona 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, another 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 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 counter-attack 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 starin 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 with out 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 LINE and HEXHAM ROAD before getting under cover of the MAXWELL TRENCH RIDGE is very exposed, and all 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 able to prevent them from using it as an Observation point.
The BUTTE 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 Gibralter”. 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”.
On 1 October 1916, Bradford, a Lt. Colonel (temporary) commanding the 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (‘Blaydon’s Own’), had been awarded the VC for his earlier actions at Eaucourt l’Abbe a short distance from the Butte. This is the citation
‘For most conspicuous bravery and good leadership in attack, whereby he saved the situation on the right flank of his Brigade and of the Division. Lieutenant-Colonel Bradford’s Battalion was in support. A leading Battalion having suffered very severe casualties, and the Commander wounded, its flank became dangerously exposed at close quarters to the enemy. Raked by machine-gun fire, the situation of the Battalion was critical. At the request of the wounded Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Bradford asked permission to command the exposed Battalion in addition to his own. Permission granted, he at once proceeded to the foremost lines. By his fearless energy under fire of all description, and his skilled leadership of the two Battalions, regardless of all danger, he succeeded in rallying the attack, captured and defended the objective, and so secured the flank’.