High Wood is the name given to a significant battle during the Somme campaign of 1916 in the First World War. The First Surrey Rifles, 21st Battalion of The County of London Regiment, which recruited largely from Dulwich, Camberwell and Peckham suffered heavy losses in the battle. The High Wood Cadet Force headquarters in Lordship Lane is named in its memory.

The British Fourth Army of Lt-Gen Rawlinson had first attempted to capture the strategic position of High Wood on 14th July 1916. It had been abandoned by the Germans but because of confusion and delays the British did not attempt to occupy it until the evening of that day when two cavalry regiments, 7th Dragoons and 2nd Deccan Horse, made the only cavalry charge of the battle. Though the cavalry gained a foothold and held out until the morning of the 15th July, they were unsupported and forced to withdraw.

On 15th September a further attempt was made to take High Wood, which had now become the anchor point of the German Switch Line trench system (see map opposite page). Three Allied Infantry divisions, comprising the British 47th in the centre with the 50th on the left flank and the New Zealanders on the right would begin their advance at 06.20am and fall on the enemy trenches in and around High Wood. To reach it, the rifle battalions of the 47th [2 London] Division would have to cross a wasteland of battle debris, blasted tree stumps and shell craters swept by enemy artillery, machine-gun and rifle fire. Controversially, those battalions, forming the 140th and the 141st Infantry Brigades had been ordered by the Commanding Officer 111 Corps, Lt-Gen Sir William Pulteney, into the assault without covering artillery fire but instead to use tanks, four in number, in close support of infantry. In the event, the tanks, which were tasked to reach the German trenches one minute before zero hour, had trouble finding the start line and arrived late. All of the tanks were soon out of action.

It would be the first battle where the tank was to be used and their tactical use that day was the subject of a bitter controversy. Although the 4 tanks supporting the 47th Division had failed, those used on their left and right flanks had proved their worth. At 08.40hrs a Royal Flying Corps aircraft had sent the celebrated message, ‘there is a tank walking down the main street of Flers with half the British Army cheering behind’. This would have been the 41st Division, which was placed on the right flank of the New Zealanders.

The allied artillery covering the High Wood sector found itself unable to shoot over Bazentin Ridge without the risk of friendly fire casualties and the Londoner’s Divisional Commander, Maj-Gen Charles Barter, wanted to temporarily to withdraw his troops from the front line to allow a bombardment of the German positions before the attack. It was a request 111 Corps HQ refused.

Without the capture of High Wood the 50th Division and the New Zealanders would be exposed to enfilade fire on reaching their first objectives of Hook Trench and Crest Trench.

The First Surreys, 142nd [6 London] were not part of the initial attack plans and placed in reserve. According to the War Diary,

‘06.20am Battn moved & bivouacked SE corner of Bois de Mametz - 140th & 141st attacked at 06.20am’.

At zero hour, 06.20am, those troops went ‘over the top’. Every man would have been in ‘fighting order’ and carrying a day’s rations, 300 rounds of small arms ammunition and five sandbags. Battalion bombers would have been issued with 10 Mills bombs each.

Both the 50th and the New Zealand Division advanced in line abreast with bayonets fixed behind a screen of artillery fire, over the hummocks and battlefield debris and quickly gained their first objectives. However, no sooner had the 4th and 7th Northumberland Fusiliers gained Hook Trench, than devastating machine-gun and rifle fire came from High Wood on their right.

On the left, the 2nd Otago was taking serious casualties from German machine-guns firing in enfilade from the northeast corner of High Wood. Despite this, the New Zealand’s Division’s assaulting battalions swept on to the Switch Line trench and by 06.50hrs this was in their hands.

What had happened to the 47th Division?

Although the greater part of High Wood was still held by the Germans, the 47th Division initial objective was to capture the remainder of the wood and its section of the Switch Line trench. After heavy losses had been suffered, by mid-morning those battalions desperately fighting for possession of High Wood had called for and finally received sanction for an artillery bombardment on the west and northwest part of the wood. Additionally, a hurricane bombardment of Stokes trench mortars, in which 750 shells were fired in 15 minutes, was made on the eastern part.

The Civil Service Rifles attacked once more after this and the Germans started to surrender and by 1pm the British finally held High Wood. However, although heavy fighting had died down by mid-day it was found that remnants of the 140th and 141st were only holding isolated portions of the German support line. These Brigades were not in touch with one another, and between them lay 300 to 400 yards of trench, strongly held by the enemy. The First Surrey Rifles were ordered to form a link with these two Brigades.

The First Surreys War Diary states,

12 noon - Battn was put at disposal of B.G.C. 140th Bde - a gap having occurred between 140th and 141st Infantry Bdes and the former having failed to reach its final objective. The Battn is ordered to advance from behind High Wood and to attack from the Eastern corner of same in a North Easterly direction - 4.45pm Battn advanced in artillery formation with a fighting strength of 19 officers and 550 other ranks….’

Arrangements could not be made for artillery support or adequate covering fire and as the leading platoons came under observation they were subjected to an intense enemy artillery bombardment and later to heavy rifle and machine gun fire. Within an hour and having advanced less than a mile The First Surreys would lose 134 killed and 373 wounded.

High Wood is now known as Bois des Fourcaux.

by Jeffery James

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