Flers: AIF Divisions

imageBackground

By the time the Australian forces returned to the Somme in the autumn of 1916, General Haig, Commanding Officer of the BEF, had been persevering with his strategy of keeping the Germans under pressure and from time-to-time striking heavily to try and force the breakthrough. While the AIF was in Belgium recuperating and re-organising since its costly baptism of fire to the fighting Battle_of_the_Somme_1916_map.pngon the Somme at Pozieres and Mouquet Farm, major British offensives had occurred at Flers-Courcelette (15th-22nd September), Morval (25th-28th September), Thiepval (26th-28th September) and Le Transloy (1st-18th October). Further large scale attacks would also take place around the Ancre, but it was to the Le Transloy area and around Flers that the AIF would be re-introduced to continue these small scale probing attacks.

Under normal weather conditions General Haig believed that he would be able to press on with the offensive through the winter but events were starting to conspire against him. The continuous pressing of the attack had made it impossible to devote adequate labour or precautions against rainy conditions, and when the weather broke the British Fourth Army found itself with seven miles of unorganised crater fields behind its frontline troops. This area had been churned by the advancing battle into wild moorland, bare of buildings, trees, or hedges and its drainage almost everywhere blocked by innumerable craters. With just a light rain the trenches were converted into a muddy ditch and rendered the cross-country tracks very difficult for men and horses and impassable by wheeled vehicles. All thoughts of the transport being used to bring forward materials to floor and improve the trenches had to be abandoned as the focus had to be on feeding the men and keeping the munitions going forward, and the supply of shells for the heavy artillery was becoming a problem.

Flers - E00563.JPGThe extremely wet conditions also hindered the effectiveness of a bombardment prior to and during an attack, when the high explosive shells would bury themselves deep into the ground before exploding and just throw up clods of earth, as was demonstrated in a bombardment of the 7th October. In addition the German divisions particularly around Flers continued to stand their ground, with little sign that their morale was deteriorating as hoped. Furthermore, the introduction of the new weapon on the battlefield in September around Flers, the tank, was not as successful as originally hoped with it frequently breaking down and crews being asphyxiated by exhaust fumes.

With the deterioration in the weather, except for certain limited attacks, Haig’s immediate attention was that his two armies on the Somme should go into winter mode of fighting and training. British Corps Commanders kept up the protests against pressing further during the winter months, but General Fochs whose own French troops were still attacking kept the pressure on Haig, and in the end modified plans of attack were made through the latter weeks of the offensive.

Combat

For the Australian commanders it came as a bitter shock when they received orders on 9th October to prepare for a return to the Somme. The three Somme veteran Divisions of I Anzac Corps would this time be joined by the Fromelles blooded AIF 5th Division that would indeed lead the journey back south, reaching Ailly-le-Haut-Clocher in the Fourth Army’s back area on the 18th October 1916. The first stage in the journey to the front was the easiest, as the French had lain on motorised buses, but then it got worse with either poor billeting in overcrowded and verminous leaky barns, or out in the open, then followed by mud, and more mud. Three days later and after passing the village of Flers, the Australian 14th Brigade saw their first tanks, derelicts of the September fighting, in some cases with their crew still lying dead amongst the machinery. On 25th October General McCay received orders that his Division would attack, but with rain falling constantly day after day it kept being postponed. By the end of the month I Anzac Corps, now comprising four AIF Divisions took over from British XV Corps outside of Flers. On the 3rd November the AIF 5th Division was relieved in the forward position by the AIF 2nd Division newly arrived from Ypres.

Flers 1.pngTwo days later, on the 5th November and despite the rain and thoughts of postponement, the 7th Brigade of the AIF 2nd Division and the 1st Battalion of the 1st Brigade mounted separate attacks. For the attacking battalions of the 7th Brigade, short of rations due to the bad conditions, just getting to the front-line was exhausting. The 28th Battalion when advancing and crossing No Man’s Land noticed that many Germans appeared in the trenches in front on account of the trench being wrongly marked and the barrage already moved past, plus the slow time it took to traverse No-Man’s Land on account of the mud. As a result they were met with heavy rifle and machine gun fire. The 27th Battalion to their right at first fared better, but they too were forced to withdraw. With the gale force winds preventing aeroplanes from flying for reconnaissance and belief that the attack was succeeding, two platoons of the 28th were also sent forward to reinforce, but met a similar fate to the first waves. Except for a tiny foothold in The Maze Trench, which was lost two days later, no ground had been won and with the 7th Brigade suffering 819 casualties. The British 50th Division which had simultaneously attacked towards the Butte de Warlencourt to the left also failed with 700 casualties. Meanwhile the smaller attack by the 1st Brigade in the area of Gueudecourt failed and in the difficult conditions resulted in 170 casualties for the 1st Battalion and 38 in the supporting 3rd Battalion.

Stretcher-bearers - E00049.JPGThe 7th November was a day of drenching rain and gale force winds. The conditions were now so appalling that the next attempt to break the German line scheduled for the 9th was postponed to the 14th. As Bean (photographed below wading through a mud filled trench) wrote in his Official History, the attacks of the 4th/5th and the 14th November, and the interval between them, formed the most trying period ever experienced by the AIF on any front as can be seen from his account below. On his journey into the trenches each infantryman carried his greatcoat, waterproof sheet, one blanket, 220 rounds of ammunition, and when fighting was in prospect two bombs, two sandbags and two days reserve rations. With this burden the troops dragged their way along the sledge-tracks besides the communication trenches, the latter being pretty much impassable and not used except in the actual front system. In the dark those men that stepped away from the road fell again and again into shell holes and had to be continually pulled out, sometimes with the aid of a mule. A 2nd Division officer had his back broken in one such attempt. Many of the pack-animals became stuck fast in the mud and had to be shot.  When sleighs were available, horses were often unable to pull them. After each fight therefore, the carriage of the wounded was performed by teams of six or eight men per stretcher and working in four or five relays back to the dressing station (photograph above). These stretcher-bearers were quickly worn out, and at the forward aid-posts men would often lie in the open without blankets for twelve hours waiting for men to be available to carry them.

Pioneers - E00210.JPGIn the trenches men at first tried to shelter from the rain by digging niches into the trench-walls, but this practice was forbidden as several soldiers had been smothered through the slipping in of the sodden earth-roof and the trenches would collapse. To keep themselves warm, if men stamped or moved about, the floor of the trench turned to mud. At night the officers sometimes walked up and down in the open and encouraged their men to do the same, chancing the snipers, but for many there was no alternative but to stand almost still, freezing both night and day, sinking slowly up to their knees. No fires were allowed in the front-line and at this stage no food could arrive there hot, except occasionally tea which was carried in petrol tins and reeked so strongly of gasoline that men declared after drinking it they dared not light a cigarette!

In all the British divisions that had endured these conditions since mid-October the condition of ‘trench feet’ had become common, which resulted in the local stoppage of circulation and could lead to gangrene and the actual loss of a foot. Trench foot could be prevented by discarding the tightly-wound puttees and wrapping loose sandbags instead around the shins, wearing loose boots unlaced at the top and regularly taking them off and rubbing the feet with whale-oil, drying the feet and boots in specially provided drying Bean, mud - E00572.JPGareas, putting on dry socks and maintaining the body with one hot meal daily and an occasional drink of hot coffee or tea. Most of these precautions, however, were utterly impossible in the conditions then pertaining on the Somme. In the week ending 4th November the AIF 5th Division reported 167 cases of trench feet, and the AIF 1st Division 112; in the following week the 1st Division reported 231 cases and the AIF 2nd Division 205. However, after a tour in the line during the continual wet-weather offensive, practically all the men were suffering trench feet to a degree, for example when the 27th Battalion was relieved it was said that 90% of its men had been affected. Some sections within Fourth Army command expressed their belief that trench feet was down to poor discipline, but the medical officers were insistent that it was impossible to alleviate it while fighting was going on in these conditions. The one alleviating action that was taken was reducing the time of each battalion in the front line to four days, the companies spending two days in the firing line and two in support, but the reserve areas in Switch and Gap Trenches where another three days would be spent were not much better and not more than a muddy drain.

The conditions were so bad that some of the 6th Brigade had to be dug out of their trench before they could be relieved. On the German side however the conditions were much better. As a result of being in retreat, the muddy strip was confined to the narrow section of their front line behind which green slopes led to it. Furthermore the town of Bapaume lay only two and a half miles behind the front-line and the cellars of the buildings afforded much better quarters for the troops despite air-raids and long distance shelling.

Light railway - E00075.JPGTo the British rear the roads were deteriorating fast under the heavy weight of traffic, chiefly ammunition lorries, in this muddy terrain. At one stage the Mametz-Fricourt road broke down and had to be closed for a few hours resulting in mile long queues either side. Fortunately the German aircraft, that was now much more active than in the summer, missed the opportunity to attack this massed target. Thus the improvement of the roads took precedence and priority over the front-line trenches. There was also the concern of the large distances between the front-line troops, their support, HQ and supply depots, not only dangerous in case of an attack, but the large distances meant that the men were exhausted by the time they had completed their journeys. Thus efforts were started to extend the light railway to Longueval (photograph right) and the building of new hutments closer to the front.

For the next attack in the Flers sector the 2nd Pioneers had completed a convenient ‘jumping off trench’ for the 2nd Division’s 19th Battalion along with the 25th and 26th Battalions from the 7th Brigade operating under the orders of the 5th Brigade. Zero hour Flers 2.pngwas at 6.45am on the 14th November with the 26th Battalion attacking the right, at first succeeding in entering the first and second trenches but it was quickly repulsed. In the centre and left, the 25th and 19th Battalions had success and taken their objectives, but they too were counter-attacked over the next two days, and the attack resulted in failure. During this attack the Australian forces suffered 901 casualties, along with over 500 from the supporting British Divisions on their flank. As with previous attacks in this sector, the Germans had been expecting it through observations and particularly the digging of the new JOT. No ground was gained and with the worsening of the winter conditions, thus ended a series of operations conducted by the British and Australian Divisions in the Flers sector in the most difficult of circumstances.

Outcome

The attacks by the British and Australian Divisions around Flers were a continuation of Haig’s strategy of keeping the pressure on the German defenders and probing to see if they might break. These attacks were conducted all the time in the most trying of conditions. Little ground was gained, however when looking from Haig’s perspective it did play some part in tying down German troops and putting them under constant stresses and strain. At this time the British Fifth Army launched its delayed offensive on the Ancre on the 13th November and met with a high degree of success from Beaumont-Hamel to Courcelette therefore removing the German salient to the north of Bapaume road as far as Serre, which as on 1st July, remained in German hands. Following on from their defeat at the Ancre Heights the German troop’s resolution was fading and by the time the advance was stopped on the 18th November 1916 the British had taken some 7,500 prisoners. However with every success and advance meant that the British forces were now inheriting mud infested barren crater fields for their support and supply lines, let alone badly destroyed enemy trenches and dug-outs for their front-line troops. With the wintry conditions now set in for the next few months, any further thoughts of pushing on were futile.

Thus with this action the 1916 First Battle of the Somme ended with the Allies having advanced only 8km (five miles) during the past four and a half months. During this period it is estimated that the British suffered around 420,000 casualties, the French 195,000 and the Germans around 650,000. Only in the sense of relieving the French at Verdun can the British have claimed any measure of success. However the battle did take a toll on the Germans. Falkenhayn was sacked and replaced by General Erich Ludendorff at the end of August 1916, and at a conference at Cambrai on 5th September, a decision was taken to build a new defensive line – the Hindenburg Line – well behind the Somme front to which the Germans, conscious of a dangerous lack of men and resources should a new Spring attack come in the new year, retreated to in February 1917.

AIF Burial Ground.jpgThe close of the Somme battle left the four divisions of I Anzac Corps facing the winter of 1916-1917 in the worst sector of the sodden front. Just outside the village of Flers is the A.I.F. Burial Ground (photograph right) containing many of the soldiers that died during this phase of the Somme. The cemetery was begun by Australian medical units, posted in the neighbouring caves, in November 1916-February 1917. It was very greatly enlarged after the Armistice when almost 4,000 Commonwealth and French graves were brought in from the battlefields of the Somme, and later from a wider area.

 

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