The Union - Fish Forum

High Wood - historical background

I posted this on the ‘old site’ - may be worth having on here in case folk want to know more?


A few folk have asked for a bit more detail on the fighting for High Wood and asked for book recommendations etc:

I thought it a good idea to produce this for those who want to know a bit more:-

The High Wood Story.


The Somme offensive began on 1st July 1916.

The area was specifically chosen so that it could be a joint offensive between the British and their French allies who were south of the river Somme.

The location of this major offensive was not of the choosing of the British High Command who preferred the more familiar territory around Flanders. (the offensive could have had more specific objectives too).

The preferred timing would have been much later in 1916 having given more time for the newly raised volunteer (Kitchener’s) army to become more experienced in the field.

However the Germans had plans of their own and launched the huge offensive against the French at Verdun. They knew the French would defend Verdun to the last man and consequently set out to ‘bleed them white’ and effectively knock them out of the war.
Kid yourselves not that the allies without the French army would not have been able to win the war.

In response the offensive at the Somme was brought forward to June – deferred due to poor weather until 1st July 1916. The offensive was aimed to ease the pressure on the French at Verdun by opening up a new ‘front’ causing the Germans to divert resources to prevent an allied breakthrough.
The fact this succeeded is often overlooked as being one of the major influences of this battle.
France remained a viable fighting force.

The advance to High Wood.

The opening day of the Somme battle (1st July 1916) is without doubt the worst day in British Military history with 60,000 casualties.
There are a rich variety of reasons why this occurred sadly all too often obscured by myth.

On the first day success was gained to the south of the pivotal ‘Albert to Bapaume Road’ where objectives were taken and the plans succeeded. The capture of Mametz village and Montauban were achieved.

From Day 2 of the offensive the direction of attack changed to take advantage of the newly gained positions. The area north of the Albert/Bapaume Road became less significant for a while.

In order to push through towards the German held town of Bapaume the allied forces were now faced with an ‘upside down horse-shoe’ of woods facing them.
To avoid a ‘Charge or The Light Brigade’ scenario it was realised that the woods needed to be taken one at a time in order to secure the flanks of the attack.

Mametz Wood was to the left, Trones & Bernafay Wood to the right, with High Wood and Delville Wood forming the crest of the horse-shoe.

The fighting for Mametz Wood (38th (Welsh) Div) and Trones/Bernafay Wood (30th Division (Liverpool/Manchester)) was horrific but both were taken after 2 weeks.

With their flanks now protected the Allies could push forward to the crest of the horseshoe of woods, High Wood on the left, Delville Wood on the right.

In front of these woods stood the ‘Bazentin Ridge’, between the woods stood the road through to Flers and Bapaume in the distance.

14th July 1916 was one of the most incredibly successful actions during the Somme offensive when lessons learnt from ‘day one’ were applied thoroughly and all objectives were taken in the Battle of Bazentin Ridge.

Once troops reached the crest of the ridge the ground opened up before them leading up to both High Wood and Delville Wood.

It had always been the plan that once a breakthrough had been established that the infantry would step-aside so that cavalry units could charge through, it sounds archaic but the reality remained that it was very difficult for a fleeing army to defend against being charged down.

Once Bazentin Ridge had been captured the cavalry (20th Deccan Horse and 7th Dragoon Guards) were called forward from their reserve positions to charge to High Wood and deploy Dragoons to hold the position.

A few remnants of infantry had indeed reached the edge of High Wood (07:30am) and reported the wood empty of enemy. They were told to hold back and await the Cavalry.

A crucial road junction between Montauban, Longueval and Bazentin became the focal point for troops forming up. The junction was (as is often the case in France) marked by a Crucifix. The position was out of view from High Wood so was relatively ‘safe’.
The site was christened ‘Crucifix Corner’.
A poignant spot as it was the last vestige of safety for troops going up the line, and the first glimpse of safety for those returning from the slaughter pits.
The Crucifix standing there today is the same one, it survived the war despite being riddled with shell fragment damage which is still clearly visible.

In one of history’s biggest ‘what ifs’ the Cavalry arrived relatively late before they could charge towards High Wood, by which time the fleeing Germans had re-assessed the situation and re-occupied High Wood – sending machine guns out to the fields between it and Delville Wood sheltering in the waist high crops of a summers day.

As the cavalry charged towards the wood both they and the German machine gunners took heavy casualties. The delay in the capture of the left flank of Delville Wood had delayed the charge to avoid enfilade fire.

The Cavalry had taken 101 casualties 43 horses killed and 120 disabled. Cavalry was not used again until late 1918.

The Fighting for High Wood

The fighting for the wood raged from 14th July through to 15th September with numerous Divisions being involved. It is important to note that it held high ground and was therefore essential to occupy and it was impossible to ‘go around’ without enormous casualties from enfilade fire and the deep and imposing German trench system.

Allied offensives took place within High Wood on 15th July, 16th & 17th, 20th & 21st July, 23rd July, 26th, 30th 7th August, 17th, 21st, 24th, 27th , 3rd Sept, 8th, 9th and finally captured on 15th Sept 1916.

Fighting through a wood is particularly horrific. The trees and roots make it virtually impossible to ‘dig-in’ and create shelter from artillery. The trees themselves become lethal as shell bursts cause huge shards of wood to fly around and enormous speeds.
The close proximity of troops intensifies the effectiveness of artillery and machine gun fire.
It was recorded that even bone fragments of soldiers caught in explosions proved lethal to those around them.

A quote from 22nd July 1916 “The result was that, owing to the scorching summer weather, the troops in the line lived in an atmosphere of pollution and in a positive torment of blue-bottle flies. In one sap in particular, as one moved along it, the flies rose in such clouds that their buzzing sounded as the noise of a threshing-machine. In this sap, sentries could only tolerate the conditions by standing with their handkerchiefs tied over their mouths and nostrils”.

When troops fought to capture a wood they could not rely on artillery support. Restricted observation and accuracy meant that it was too risky for ‘blue-on’blue’. It was hand to hand and every man for himself.
Once a section of wood was taken – then the enemy could zero in with artillery knowing full well none of it’s men were there – the use of gas could also be deployed. Therefore holding onto any gains was virtually impossible.

“Ghastly by day, ghostly by night, the rottenest place on the Somme” High Wood earned its reputation as an horrific place on one of the most dreadful battlefields of the First World War.

From the end of July through to early August the 8th Royal Scots were given the job of constructing new communication trenches towards High Wood. They completed High Alley and Thistle Alley.

These trenches were dug through fields strewn with dead including the bloated horses from weeks before.

Despite being away from the front line the Regiment took casualties from shell-fire.

In preparation for the August attacks it was decided to blow a mine underneath a stubborn German machine gun position in the south east corner of the wood. An incident referred to in the song Thistle Alley. The resulting crater is still there today over 30ft deep and filled with water.

A quote from 7th August 1916:
“our trench ran from just inside the wood to the centre of it…some parts of the parapet had been built up with dead men and, here and there, arms and legs were protruding. In one bay only the heads of two men could be seen; their teeth were showing so that they seemed to be grinning horribly down at us…the rain and shells had exposed bodies in many different ways.

The nearby Delville Wood had an equally notorious reputation becoming referred to as ‘Devil’s Wood’, once this had finally fallen on 3rd Sept 1916 it opened up more options for an all-out assault on High Wood.

On 15th Sept 1916 the attack on High Wood formed part of a true combined offensive known as the Battle of Flers – Courcelette. A new secret weapon would be used for the very first time in warfare – the tank.

Four tanks were assigned to the attack on High Wood – some got lost en-route!
One ditched in a British trench and took no further part in the attack, another broke it’s axle in the wood but could still fire it’s gun, a third was hit and burnt out (but it had crossed German lines) and the fourth ‘bellied’ on the stumps of trees at the edge of the wood.

“Dragons crawl the ridges towards the spires on new horizons, ploughing through the charnel pits and gore,
The spawn of death’s invention, a victory their burden, the promise stalls and wallows in the mire,”

Quote from 15th Sept 1916:
“That day I saw sights which were passing strange to a man of peace. I saw men in their madness bayonet each other without mercy, without thought…I saw men torn to fragments by the near explosion of bombs, and worse than any sight – I heard the agonised cries and shrieks of men in mortal pain who were giving up their souls to their maker. The mental picture painted through the medium of the eye may fade, but the cries I can never forget”.

By the end of the day the 47th (London) Division had taken the wood and tanks rolled on towards Flers.

The capture of the woods meant the battle could now move on towards Bapaume.

The total number of casualties from the fighting for High Wood will never be known, but there are many sources that estimate that in the region of 8000 men remain unaccounted for lost within the devastation of the wood never to be found whole or ‘known’. Their names are inscribed upon Memorials to the Missing.

The battle of the Somme came to an end in the clawing mud of November 1916.

The wood re-grew, is now privately owned and access is strictly forbidden.
It remains one of the most dangerous places on the western front with the detritus of war rusting away and hidden.

“Half buried in the forest floor decay
Broken rusting weaponry beneath the fallen leaves
The shells that failed still hold their deadly load
Dormant in the undergrowth their promise only stalled”

The Hell They Called High Wood – Terry Norman
Feast Of Consequences (High Wood Suite) – Fish aka copyright Derek Dick 2013.

Recommended further reading:-
Lyn MacDonald – ‘Somme’
Peter Hart – ‘Somme’
Martin Middlebrook ‘ First Day on The Somme’ – (the book that inspired me).
For High Wood:-
“The Hell they called High Wood” by Terry Norman.