Butte de Warlencourt 

Butte de Warlencourt

The Butte de Warlencourt is an ancient burial mound about four miles south of Bapaume, and half a mile north of the village of Le Sars.  Up close it doesn’t look much, and it’s only in recent years that the wooden walkway up the ‘Butte’ has been installed to aid access to the top.It may not look much……and indeed a British intelligence report from 1916 stated: “The Butte is only a Roman tumulus at most fifty yards in diameter by twenty yards high. It commands nothing, being at the bottom of a hollow and cannot be seen from Le Sars, owing to a line of trees along the road leading from the main road.”The Germans disagreed: “The commanding ridge of the Butte afforded us unobstructed views as far as the Windmill Hill at Pozières, the hotly contested Hill 154, and the short stumps that were all that left of High Wood and Delville Wood. From the Butte we could see into the intervening No Man’s Land, and our artillery was able to take in enfilade the deep hollow of Martinpuich which constituted the best approach for enemy forces to the battlefront. The distance to the elevations which formed the horizon was 5 or 6 kilometres, which meant the British had to bring all but the longest-ranged of their offensive batteries forward into this ground.”It was more than three months after the start of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 that the British finally found themselves in a position to attack the Butte.By which time: “That ghastly hill, never free from the smoke of bursting shells, became fabulous. It shone white in the night and seemed to leer at you like an ogre in a fairy tale. It loomed up unexpectedly, peering into trenches where you thought yourself safe: it haunted your dreams. Twenty four hours in the trenches before the Butte finished a man off.”The Battle of the Transloy Ridges, as the actions on the Somme between 7th & 20th October 1916 became known, took place along a three and a half mile front from just north of Le Sars, on the Albert-Bapaume road, to the village of Lesboeufs, the furthest southern point of the British trenches on the Western Front, where the French Army took over the line.

On 7th October 1916 the Post Office Rifles were among the first troops to attempt to force the Germans off the Butte, alongside two other London Regiment battalions, the 1/15th (Prince of Wales’s Own Civil Service Rifles), and the 1/7th (City of London).  Their attack, and those following, was a complete failure.  The 47th (London) Division history tells us that they met: “The full force of the enemy artillery and machine gun fire, cleverly sited in depth, so as to bring a withering cross fire to bear along the western slopes leading up to the Butte and the high ground to the south of it. From across the valley the enemy had magnificent observation of the ground leading to our objective and made full use of it…not a man turned back, and some got right up under the Butte, but they were not seen again.”

Following more failed attacks on 8th October, the Londoners were relieved by the 9th Division on 9th October.  Three days later the next major attack, this time by men of the Seaforths and Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, alongside South African troops, again prove a costly failure.  The Scots, attacking over the corpses of the men of the London Division who lay in long lines in front of the Butte, considered their experience here, a place ‘guarded by slime and weather’, the worst they had encountered anywhere on the Western Front, and that included the fighting at Delville Wood earlier in the summer.  In the early hours of 18th October, the British launched another attack, the South Africans finally taking the remains of Snag Trench, a trench in No Man’s land about three hundred yards south of the Butte.  It seems that they briefly took the Butte as well before a German counterattack forced them back.  More attacks followed in the evening before heavy rain brought the attempt to a halt.  The Battle of the Transloy Ridges came to an end on the 20th October with small gains for the British along much of the front, although the Butte remained in German hands.

The German front line trenches (Gird front line & Gird Support) are marked in red and Snag Trench in blue.

       

On 22nd October 1916, the German defenders at the Butte complained: “The masses of British dead in front of our position were giving forth such a stench of corruption that our brave defenders could not touch their food. The weather was wet, and our rifles and machine guns were rusting and covered with mud.”

Although the Battle of the Transloy Ridges had ended, the fighting at the Butte had not.  On 24th & 25th October 9th Division was relieved by 50th Division, having sustained some 3200 casualties during their tenure of the line here.  Although the next attack on the Butte was planned for 26th October, it was postponed, initially until 28th October, as preparations were made and trenches repaired.  By then, however, incessant rain had turned the battlefield into a quagmire and it was not until 5th November that conditions were deemed suitable for the attack to take place.  The weather was once again bad overnight, but by the morning had cleared, although conditions underfoot were still appalling.

On the morning of 5th November, the men of the Durham Light Infantry, supported by the Northumberland Fusiliers and Australians on the flanks and with the Border Regiment in reserve, left the front line trenches, now including Snag Trench, and advanced towards the Butte and the German lines beyond.  Following a creeping barrage, the Durhams reached and captured the German front line, Gird Trench, on the Albert-Bapaume road, where they dug in, and succeeded in forcing the Germans off the Butte, although fierce fighting continued.  In the afternoon the Germans counterattacked, driving the Durhams out of Gird Trench.  Just after midnight a major German attack pushed the Durhams off the Butte, and by early afternoon the British were back where they started.  Another attempt to take the Butte had ended in failure.

Fighting continued at the Butte until the middle of the month, by which time the British, and the weather, called a halt to the long bloody Battle of the Somme.  Despite the numerous attempts to capture it, the Butte was still in German hands, the eerie white mound marking the eastern limit of the British advance on the Somme.  Lieutenant-Colonel Roland Boys Bradford VC*, commanding officer of the Durhams who attacked the Butte on 5th November, later wrote: “The Butte itself would have been of little use to us for the purposes of observation. But the Butte de Warlencourt had become an obsession. Everybody wanted it. It loomed large in the minds of soldiers in the forward area and they attributed many of their misfortunes to it. The newspaper reporters talked about ‘that miniature Gibralter’. So, it had to be taken.”

 The men of the Durham Light Infantry are not forgotten either.  The Durhams lost nearly a thousand men killed, wounded or missing during the fighting on 5th & 6th November.  Perhaps incidents such as the one following are hardly surprising given the circumstances: “At the Butte on 5th November 1916 a Durham Light Infantryman laid a grenade on the chest of a wounded German machine gunner and blew him to bits.”

© Magicfingers @ thebignote.com.

In January 1917, the 44th Brigade of the 15th Division organised a raid on the butte by two companies of the 8/10th Gordon Highlanders. The front lines ran along opposite sides of the shallow Warlencourt valley, which sloped down from Le Sars, the butte being just behind the German outpost line. German wire in the area had been cut by previous bombardments and the attack was made without a preliminary bombardment. Demonstrations were made by the 1st Australian Division on the right and the 2nd Division on the left flank. As the attack began a bombardment was fired at the German front line for one minute and then crept forward at 50 yd (46 m) per minute until beyond the butte and the quarry nearby. After 25 minutes, the barrage was to return to the German front line as the raiders retired. The raiders had rehearsed behind the lines and moved forward from the Scottish support line at 11:00 p.m. on 29 January but needed two hours to cross 700 yd (640 m) of ground. The party moved into no man's land along black tapes to a forming-up point, dressed in white smocks and white painted helmets, to blend in with the snow, forming two waves of two platoons each.

The bombardment began at 1:30 a.m. (30 January) and the raid commenced. Little opposition was met, apart from the fire of three machine-guns from the flanks, which were quickly silenced. Screening parties advanced beyond the butte, as the main force attacked the butte and the quarry, taking several prisoners and destroying dugouts. At the butte, twelve Germans surrendered but when others refused, mortar bombs and hand grenades were thrown into tunnel entrances. A fire was started, which spread inside the butte; after twenty minutes, the covering parties began to retire and five minutes later the raiding party had returned to the British lines. The Scottish lost 17 casualties, one of the twelve prisoners disclosed that the garrison of the butte had been 150 men, suggesting that c. 138 German troops had been trapped, when the tunnel entrances were blocked. At 3:15 a.m. a large explosion was seen in the butte, flames rose above the mound and the sound of exploding small-arms ammunition and hand grenades was heard

 

The 2nd Australian Division occupied the Butte de Warlencourt on 24 February 1917, during the German retirements on the Somme front, preparatory to Operation Alberich the retreat to the Hindenburg Line.

The Butte de Warlencourt was recaptured by the German 2nd Army on 24 March 1918, during the retreat of the 2nd Division in Operation Michael, the German spring offensive. The Butte was recaptured for the last time on 26 August, by the 21st Division, during the Second Battle of Bapaume.

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