Trench lines at Guillemont 3rd Sept 1916. The battle of Guillemont, 3-6 September 1916, was the official name given to the fighting that captured the village of Guillemont during the first battle of the Somme. The dates of the battle are rather misleading. Guillemont had been on the right flank of the British line since the middle of July, and had been attacked without success during August. The official name also covers the fighting further north in Delville Wood and around Ginchy.
Progress on this eastern flank of the British line was essential if the French and British were to cooperate properly north of the Somme. By the start of September the capture of Guillemont was becoming more urgent, as the plans for an attack north toward Flers and Courcelette began to take shape.
The successful attack on Guillemont was made by XIV corps, and was led by the 20th Division, with the 5th Division to their right. Their target was Leuze Wood, 1,500 yards beyond the village, on a ridge overlooking the village of Combles.
The southern part of the attack on 3 September suffered the most heavily. There the 13th Brigade had been relying on the French for a final bombardment of their objective, Falfemont Farm, but the French became stuck in Combles Ravine, and were unable to make and progress. The leading waves of the first battalion to attack were wiped out by German fire. To their left the 95th Brigade (5th Division) captured its first three objectives, and reached a line east of Guillemont.
The 20th Division attack on Guillemont began from a series of trenches very close to the German front line. The village itself had been destroyed by repeated artillery bombardments, but underneath it was a maze of German strong points. Despite this the 20th Division attack succeeded, captured its three objectives and reaching the Ginchy-Wedge Wood road, east of Guillemont. Elsewhere British attacks on Ginchy and further west around the front met with little or no success on 3 September.
The advance east of Guillemont continued over the next three days. By the end of 6 September the British had reached their target line, around Leuze Wood, and were ready to turn north to deal with Ginchy. Everything would soon be in place for the next big attack, at Flers-Courcelette...
The 167th, 168th and 169th Brigades at Leuze Wood and Bouleaux Wood Sept 1916.
On the 8th September the 169th Brigade relived the right flank of the 168th. The remainder of the 168th Brigade took over the road running West from Guillemont to Leuze Wood. At 11.30am the Rifle Brigade bombed its way down Combles trench, which runs SE from the Easter edge of Leuze Wood. Some gain was made but a strong German Counter attack forced a retreat.
Zero hour on the 9th September was 4.45pm, when the LRB advanced against Loop Trench which runs South from the Combles Road adjacent to the eastern side of Leuze Wood. The Londoners were checked bu machine gun and artillery fire. At the same time the 9th Londons had entered and secured the Southern section of Bouleaux Wood. The 168th Brigade to the West of Leuze Wood advanced almost due North, the 4th Londons (Royal Fusiliers) on the right quickly reaching the Leuze Wood/ Guillemont Road. The 12th Londons (Rangers) encountered machine gun fire on their approach tp the Leuze Wood/Ginchy Road, only one company actually reaching the road. The Fusiliers reached their objective, ‘Bully Trench’ running SE from the Quadrilateral to the Southern edge of Bouleaux Wood. They lost heavily but dug in once they had linked up with the 9th Londons. Patrols were sent out towards Morval and any Germans encountered were dispersed with Lewis gun fire.
At 7.00am the next misty morning, the 16th Londons (Westminsters) made their attack down Combles Trench but again fire from the untaken Loop Trench brought the advance to an end. The Westminsters tried again following a Stoke mortar barrage and aided by the 2nd Londons made little gain, approx. 100 yards and were repulsed by MG fire.
The next 4 days saw preparations for another attack on the 15th September. The 169th Brigade were to capture Loop Trench. Forward trenches had been dug during the night South of Leuze Wood and Combles trench. A tank was also to assist in this attack. At 6.00am the tank lumbered forward followed by the 2nd Londons 20 minutes later advancing close to a creeping barrage. Any uncut wire had been destroyed by the tank and Combles Trench was secured with little loss. The Germans recoiled from the tank advance which gave the men some boosted moral. Loop trench branched off from Combles trench, the Londoners now with support attacked North but enfilade MG fire checked any further progress. The 5th and 2nd Londons assisted by Bombers made an attack down Combles Trench and up Loop Trench, the tank now Immobilised did well to hold off the enemy with Vickers MG fire but later received a direct hit with the crew successfully abandoning it. Steady progress was made up Loop trench but it was still very well defended by the 28th RIR. The Londoners were still 80 metres from the T junction with the sunken Road.
167th Brigade were to clear Bouleaux Wood, 2 tanks assisted and again 20 minutes after their advance the infantry moved forward. One broke down and the other reached Middle Copse drawing heavy fire as it went. The 1st Londons advanced but were immediately held up by uncut wire. A section of German trench within the wood weas fully manned, untouched by the British barrage. Enemy fire form here caused heavy losses in the ranks. The left flank of the 1st Londons managed to enter the trench and move North towards Middle Copse. The tank ditched and was bombed by very curious Germans. The 7th Middlesex were sent forward met by the same fire as the diverted 1st Londons and Bouleaux Wood remained in German hands. The Londons and Middlesex linked up in the vicinity of Middle Copse which they later occupied.
On the 18th September the the 169th Brigade on the extreme right launched an attack on the sunken Road to the West of Combles, held up by MG fire advancing towards Loop trench. The LRB Bombers gained some ground. The now atrocious ground conditions prevented the 167th Brigade from making its attack to secure the remainder of Leuze Wood.
Further rain over the next few days made conditions worse and the next attack was planned for the 25th September. After an 18 hour barrage the 4th Londons (Fusiliers) and 14 London Scottish of the 168th Brigade began their advance. The Londons clearing the enemy from shell craters in front of Bouleaux Wood and then taking the Northern section of the wood. The London Scottish seized the 1st trench in the wood but then came under fire as did the east Surreys of the 95th Brigade, however both battalions rushed the last of the enemy resistance in the trenches and dugouts, taking prisoners and MG’s. The3 advance continued taking further trenches over-looking the Combles/Morval valley.
It was heard that the Germans were to evacuate Combles. Parties of the London Scottish advanced within 500m of the village. The 1st and 4th Londons patrolled through Bouleaux Wood confirming the withdrawal of all Germans.
Part of a much larger combined attack on the 12thOctober 1916, the 2nd York and Lancaster Battalion of the 16thBrigade, were tasked with attacking the German trenches in front of them and obtaining a better position for an attack on the Le Transloy Line. On the 11ththe Y&L’s formed up in the Assembly Trench (just dug by themselves) between Misty Trench and Rainbow Trench with 5 Vickers Guns of the 16th MGC and 2 Stokes Mortars. The 1st KSLI were in support. Bombardment of the objectives continued from 7.00am – 5.00pm on the 11th Oct, and then from 7.00am – Zero on the 12th.
Zero was 2.05pm, with the 4th Division moving forward on the right, but the advance of the 2nd Y&L’s was to be Zero + 20 under a creeping barrage. Within 45 seconds of commencement a tense machine gun barrage was laid by the enemy on the 16th Brigade front line targeting the top of the Y&L’s parapets as they climbed over. The fire was so murderous that nothing could stand up against it. The 1st wave advanced from 50 to 80 yards, suffering exceedingly heavy casualties: The remainder of the Btn, that were not casualties found shelter in shell holes and returned to the original front line after dark. Around 5pm the enemy put a heavy barrage of shrapnel and HE on the support and communication trenches, with constant bursts of MG and rifle fire into the night making it increasingly difficult in clearing the wounded. Casualties were 3 Officers killed, 4 wounded, 47 OR killed, 109 wounded and 33 missing. Fighting strength previous to assault was 350. The result of the days operation was that the Brigade was in exactly the same position as it was in the morning.
“The Men fought splendidly but they have had a very hard time and been fighting for two months now with four direct attacks over the parapet. It is quite time they were given a rest as this time particularly the shell fire is extremely heavy and machine gun fire and sniping very bad”.
The Final Attacks at Guillemont
The final attacks on the village of Guillemont…
With its maze of underground tunnels, dugouts and concrete bunkers, Guillemont was for some time an impenetrable fortress, with very costly failed attacks during the previous couple of months. It was a ‘tough nut to crack’ as they say. Major-General Douglas Smiths 20th Division had not been in the line long after relieving the 24th Division, when they came under a heavy barrage and German attacks with losses!
Come the 3rd September the newly diminished 20th Division was still faced with the final capture of Guillemont. During the lull in fighting, the British had spasmodically bombarded the village and extended trenches for the next attack. The village itself was just a pile of rubble, a mass of craters, but as with many French villages, properties had deep cellars, and these were still in tact and would hold many German Troops. The 59th Brigade were strengthened and were to attack from the South, the remaining strength of the 60th Brigade, due to attack, was replaced by the Irish 47th Brigade, whom would attack the Northern end of the village.
A complex barrage began at 8.15am to assist the Infantry Units in taking their objectives in several stages. The initial attack did take the Germans by surprise, the 10th KRRC of the 59th Brigade led in the North of their section, with the 6th Connaught Rangers, of the 47th Bde in typical Irish style, dashing towards the quarry. Private Hughes, although wounded, single-handed captured a machine gun, and despite receiving more wounds during this, also captured and brought in Prisoners. At noon, further Battalions of the 59th Brigade joined in the attack, reaching the Hardecourt Road, then turning North towards Mount Street, but detachments had to be left to clear pockets of German resistance left by the dashing Irishmen whose sole objective was just to push forever forward clearing what they could. On the left flank of the 47th Brigade the 7th Leinsters attacked in a South Easterly direction, from the East side of the Guillemont/Longueval Road. One of the Bombers, Lieut. Holland, too impatient to wait for the creeping barrage, dashed through and bombed the ‘very’ surprised enemy in their dugouts. With a few pockets of resistance, the 1st objective had been taken.
The second phase of the attack at 12.50pm, met with stiff resistance, but the newly reinforced leading Battalions of the 59thBrigade swept through the Connaught Rangers gradually taking what was left of the weakening German resistance within the village. At 2.50pm, the final phase began with the 59th Brigade pushing forward to the Ginchy/Maurepas Road with little opposition. To the North, the Munster Fusiliers and the 6th Royal Irish advanced with their Pipers inspiring them to do great things! It is recorded that the intense zest and zeal of some of the Munsters could not be restrained.
Consolidation work began, as you would expect after a successful attack. Guillemont was secure, but the cost on the 3rd September 1916, was almost 2500 All ranks, including 4 Lieut. Colonels. Over 700 Germans had been taken prisoner and their Dead lay as thick as a carpet on the Battleground.
The capture of Guillemont facilitated an assault on Ginchy from the South and also clearing the way for a general advance towards Leuze Wood, Bouleaux Wood and Combles.