The Remains of Gommecourt Church
Photograph courtesy of Paul Reed
"Gommecourt… a small modern fortress"
Military Operations, France and
|An Insignificant Hamlet||The Terrain|
|Nothing depended on the capture of Gommecourt||Foncquevillers|
|"They know we are coming alright!"||Hebuterne|
|The Impact at Serre||Behind the Lines|
|Not a single German was 'diverted'||Narrowing No Man's Land|
ommecourt is just one of the many insignificant hamlets which dot the rolling farmland between Arras and the River Somme. Apart from the two military cemeteries which bear its name there is little apparent about it to detain a passer-by. It is not even in the Department of the Somme, being just across the border in the Pas de Calais. And yet it was here that Sir Douglas Haig, C-in-C of the BEF, determined that two divisions should create a diversion to the main Somme offensive starting just to the south at the equally insignificant village of Serre. [Back]
From the very beginning it was clear that the attack on Gommecourt was a pure diversion, on which nothing depended other than that it should:
"... assist in the operations of the Fourth Army by diverting against itself the fire of artillery and infantry which might otherwise be directed against the left flank of the main attack near Serre".
The Official History of the War elaborated:
"It must, however, be distinctly borne in mind that in Sir Douglas Haig's plan nothing depended on the capture of Gommecourt…. There was no intention of exploiting the capture of Gommecourt by sending a force southwards from the village to roll up the German line or clear the ridge leading south-east behind it. No troops were provided or available for such a purpose. A success at Gommecourt would merely shorten the British line by cutting off an enemy salient." [Back]
To further ensure that a diversion of German effort should be directed against the men attacking Gommecourt their Generals were told to make the infantry's preparations as obvious as possible. This order was so assiduously followed by senior officers of VII Corps, which had been allotted the task of attacking Gommecourt, that its commander, Lt Gen Sir Thomas D'Oyly Snow, was able to tell Haig, four days before the attack that:
"They know we are coming alright!"
The result of their efforts to 'divert' enemy units to defend Gommecourt was that it became the only part of the whole British line on 1st July 1916 to which both infantry and artillery were sent by the German High Command (OHL). The 2nd Guard Reserve Division plus several Field and Foot artillery regiments were sent there. This is not to say that this weakened in any way the front line defences opposite the main offensive as this division came from a rest area near Tournai after being withdrawn from the line near La Bassee and not from the German front line or close support further south. [Back]
Indeed, the impact of the significant infantry and artillery reinforcement to the area was that the 52nd Infantry Division, which had previously defended an area stretching from north of Gommecourt to Serre, now had its line shortened by half, allowing for a greater concentration of both machine guns, field and medium artillery around Serre, a village crucial to Haig's intended plan. The result of this concentration of fire power was that, according to the Official History, the German artillery barrage opposite Serre on 1st July 1916:
"...has been described as so consistent and severe that the cones of the explosions gave the impression of a thick belt of poplar trees." [Back]
So, whatever else happened at Gommecourt, it did not materially assist the conduct of the main offensive and, because it was so near to Serre, it actually helped the Germans to concentrate their forces in the defence of what was planned to be the 'hinge' of the opening door that Haig believed would be the result of the Somme battle. Furthermore, it did not divert a single man or gun away from the German defences from Serre to Maricourt. A fact confirmed by no less a Haig supporter than John Terraine:
"A forlorn endeavour… it is not clear that a single German was 'diverted'"
Haig: The Educated Soldier
Gommecourt sits at the focal point of four low ridges which, together, make a St Andrew's Cross or saltire. On the NW arm of the saltire lies the village of Foncquevillers in front of which were the front line trenches occupied by the 46th (North Midland) Division). Along the front and rear of the NE arm were the German trenches defending the western edges of Gommecourt Park and Gommecourt Wood. The SE arm ran from the centre of the village through Rossignol Wood before falling away in the direction of Puisieux. The SW arm ran away towards the village of St Amand but, on a projection running SE and parallel to the Gommecourt-Rossignol Wood ridge, sat the orchard fringed village of Hebuterne.
Map of terrain around Gommecourt showing German front line
Source: Official History of the War, France and Flanders 1916 Maps
The reverse slopes of the NE and SE arms concealed a number of woods and farms which were used by the defenders as forward headquarters, observation posts and to conceal some of the more than fifty artillery positions prepared for the defence of Gommecourt. The German lines were riddled with deep bunkers chiselled out of the chalk and inter-linked so as to allow access even if one entrance was blocked; and the trenches were deep and well-revetted and protected by thick bands of barbed wire in front of the first, second and third lines. It was a formidable defensive position described by John Masefield as:
" ...one of the very strongest points in the enemy's fortified lines on the Western Front."
Introduction to Edward Liveing's 'Attack'
Between Foncquevillers and Gommecourt the land was essentially flat but with a slight rise behind the German front line. To get to the British forward trenches, long and tortuous journeys had to be made along interminable communication trenches stretching back through the village. Originally dug by the French, they were in poor condition, often blocked by debris and prone to easy flooding. Since the summer of 1915 the front had been occupied by the 48th (South Midland) Division. Short on manpower, they had filled in many trenches with barbed wire and set up a series of defensive posts. During the wet winter, the sides of the trenches had then collapsed, filling them in and leaving the 46th Division an enormous task of repairing and digging when they arrived in May. In front of the trenches was a No Man's Land on average 450 yards and more wide but, with the work needed on the existing trenches it proved impossible to do anything to narrow this gap until it was nearly too late and the results, a shallow trench 150 yards into No Man's Land, proved almost useless when the time came.
Hebuterne stood on a slight rise which fell away to the NE and SE and, again, in a shallow valley which contained the road towards St Amand and the SW. The St Amand road gave the 56th Division an advantage not enjoyed by the 46th, i.e. a road along which troops and supplies could approach the front line trenches concealed from all enemy observation except from the air.
In front of Hebuterne the land sloped gently to the NE into the valley that ran in front of the Gommecourt-Rossignol Wood and, when the 56th Division arrived in early May, the front line trenches were not far from the orchard fringe of the village and No Man's Land in this sector was some 800 yards wide. Too wide, the Generals determined, for the proposed attack.
Another advantage enjoyed by the 56th Division was that all three German front line trenches and their communication trenches were visible and even the trenches running along the ridge from Rossignol into Gommecourt were partly visible to observation posts on the edge of the village. [Back]
Behind front lines was a network of roads and villages each allocated to a particular division. The villages were used as billets for men, positions for the heavy guns and howitzers of VII Corps, dumps for stores and equipment and sites for Dressing Stations (Couin hosted the Main Dressing Station (MDS) for the 56th Division whilst there were Advanced Dressing Stations (ADS) at St Amand, Sailly-au-Bois and, in a farm on the road to Sailly, on the edge of Hebuterne).
56th Division's headquarters were in a small chateau on the western edge of Henu and VII Corps were based in a somewhat larger one on the road into Pas-en-Artois. Further back came the fields between Halloy and Hurtebise which were used for training; a copy of the German lines laid out with white tape rather ruining the French farmers' attempts to grow their crops.
The main railhead was at the small village of Authieule just SE of the main town of Doullens. It was to Authieule, for example, that the majority of the new heavy batteries dismounted from their trains, fresh from England. Doullens, a town much fought over for many centuries, was at the western end of the railway and road that ran, straight as a die, to Arras. About a third of the way between Doullens and Arras was the base of No. 8 Squadron, RFC at La Bellevue and, slightly further on were two Casualty Clearing Stations at Warlincourt Halte located convenient to the railway line and the evacuation routes to the Channel ports. [Back]
Extending the trenches on the 56th Division's front 25th-27th May 1916
- - - - indicates new trenches
With shallow outlines dug on the first night and protected during the day and evening by isolated detachments the work was deepened and extended on the nights of the 26th and 27th May. The results, in full view of the enemy, attracted remarkably little retaliation and, after three nights digging involving over 3,000 men standing out in the middle of No Man's Land, 2,900 yards of fire trench and 1,500 yards of communication trench had been dug at the expense of just 8 men killed and 55 wounded.
For the next four weeks great efforts were made to strengthen and extend the new trench system but they were undermined by continuous heavy rain in June which filled the trenches with mud and water, causing many men to be sent to the battalion Medical Officer suffering from Trench Foot. When it came to the time for the attack, these new trenches were little more than slit trenches liable to subside and giving little protection from heavy shells dropping nearby.
The width of No Man's land on the 56th Division's front was now between 400 and 250 yards. Maj Gen Hull's concerns about the gap between the two front lines proved prescient and it would be this space that proved the final undoing of his men's attack.
The 46th Division had to wait until barely a week before the attack before their new trench was dug. On the nights of the 23rd and 24th June a shallow, sodden, mud-filled trench was dug about 150 yards out into No Man's Land and at the end of four Russian saps that had been painstakingly excavated by the 46th Division's pioneers, the 1st Monmouths. A Russian sap was a tunnel with a thin crust of soil which was dug as close as possible to the enemy's lines before it was opened up to provide cover for attacking troops. Much time and effort was spent on these saps but, as with the new advanced trench, they proved worse than useless come the day of the attack. In spite of all these efforts, parts of the new trenches were so bad that, on the right of the attack in the area over which the 137th Brigade was to advance, they went unused. This meant that the Division's attacking battalions started from staggered positions, some battalions jumping off 150 yards behind the others. This would have a disastrous impact on the 137th Brigade's assault on 1st July. [Back]
Alan MacDonald's books about Gommecourt
'PRO PATRIA MORI'
'Pro Patria Mori', the account of the 56th Division's involvement at Gommecourt, was first published in 2006. A revised edition was published in August 2008
For more about the book please go HERE.
LACK OF OFFENSIVE SPIRIT?'
© Alan MacDonald 2008. All rights reserved. No publication without permission.
Trench foot had first been identified during Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812. Standing ankle deep in cold water in a muddy trench were the perfect circumstances in which to contract 'trench foot'. The feet would swell, become red, blistered and severely painful. Untreated, the nerves would be damaged and the foot would go numb. Then, the only option was evacuation. Treatment was elevation, moderate warmth… and time. In serious cases, where nerve damage was severe, gangrene could set in and then amputation was the only course of action.
The main problem facing the 56th Division, other than the strength of the position to be taken, was the extreme width of No Man's Land. Maj Gen Charles Philip Amyatt Hull, GOC 56th Division, believed No Man's Land, at 800 yards, to be more than twice the width his men could sensibly be asked to cross. Ideally, he would have narrowed the gap between the lines to something like 200 yards but he had neither the time not the manpower to achieve this aim. A compromise of 400 yards was reached, instead, and, at the end of May, a remarkable and daring feat of digging was achieved achieving this end.
On the night of the 25th May small parties of officers and men from the 167th Brigade and the Royal Engineers marked out the lines of new front, support and communication trenches (they are marked with dashed lines in the map opposite). Sometime later, large parties from the four battalions of the 167th Brigade, quietly entered No Man's Land and started to dig. Lying out in the grass in front of them were covering parties from the other brigades and, along the roads of Hebuterne, charged wagons loaded with empty biscuit boxes to drown out any noise.
The German Defences of Gommecourt (click on thumbnail to see bigger picture