The capture and defence of Montauban, 1 - 13 July 1916

This article is about the attack and capture of Montauban on 1 July 1916 and the tough fight for Trones Wood that followed. It principally concentrates on the area assaulted by the 30th and 18th (Eastern) Divisions.

The Montauban - Bernafay Wood - Trones Wood position

The village of Montauban lay behind the first German defensive system, which in this area consisted of two principal fighting trench lines connected by many communication trenches. The second of these lines, which had only recently been completed, included three strongpoints: Dublin Redoubt, Glatz Redoubt and Pommiers Redoubt. This line was known (right to left) as Dublin Trench - Train Alley - Pommiers Trench. The village of Montauban had been fortified and another trench line ran in front of it. To the east of Montauban lay two woods, Bernafay and Trones, both largely undamaged and with very thick undergrowth after two years of war.

Map

The assaulting and defending forces

The area fell within the boundary of the British XIII Corps, under Lieutenant General Walter Congreve VC. His force consisted of the 30th and 18th (Eastern) Divisions in the front lines, with 9th (Scottish) Division in reserve some 2 miles behind at Billon Wood. The field artillery of the Divisions was supplemented by the Corps Heavies of 29th, 31st and 33rd Heavy Artillery Groups (18 heavy batteries in all). Facing them were just 9 battalions of the German 12th, 28th Reserve and 10th Bavarian Divisions. Including the 32 French heavy batteries some of which also covered this front, the German artillery was outnumbered by about 4:1 in this sector.

Orders and expectations

Congreve ordered the attacking divisions to consider the attack in three phases. In the first, Montauban would be captured, with a flank being secured along Nord Alley and Dublin Trench, connecting with General Balfourier's French 39th Division on the right. To the west Montauban Alley would also be secured.

The next two phases depended on how successful the initial assault had been, but it was intended to wheel to the right to advance through Bernafay and Trones Woods, and on to the second German line. But these phases would wait until artillery preparation had been made, for in this sector up to 1 July all efforts were concentrated on breaking the first enemy defence line.

In the initial attack, the two leading Brigades of 30th Division were expected to capture the Dublin Trench-Glatz Redoubt line in the first hour. The reserve brigade was then to come up and take Montauban by 9.30am. To their left, 18th (Eastern) Division would attack with all three brigades and capture Pommiers Redoubt, some 2000 yards from their start point. Having achieved all this, both divisions would push out detachments to seize the Briqueterie and points from which enemy field artillery in Caterpillar Valley could be observed.

Bombardment and other preparations for the assault

30th Division chose to dig a new jumping-off trench 150-200 yards nearer the enemy in order to shorten the distance to be covered by the assaulting infantry (see how the attack plan was developed). It was connected to the original front line by six communication trenches.

The preliminary bombardment in this sector was highly successful, the enemy artillery having been practically obliterated. Local commanders chose not to use smoke to cover the advance, it being believed that the advantages of good observation outweighed the risks.

At 7.22am, batteries of Stokes mortars opened fire from the end of "Russian saps" that had been pushed out into no man's land.

On the front of 18th (Eastern) Division, two mines were blown by 183 Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers. The larger was at Kasino (or Casino) Point in the centre of the Divisional sector, the other to the west near the junction with 7th Division. Exploded successfully at 7.27am, they were the signals for the lead units to advance from the British front trenches to tapes laid out the previous night, ready to move forward three minutes later.

The assault of 1 July 1916

The assault on 1 July 1916 proved highly successful. There was virtually no barbed wire defence left after the bombardment and the German troops did not in all places man their parapets when the British shellfire lifted. The advance of the lead units was so quick it actually ran into the British barrage and had to wait for the planned "lift" at 7.45am before they could press on.

30th Division

On the 30th Division front the attack was made by 90th and 21st Brigades. The 18th King's (Liverpool) suffered heavy casualties from machine-gun fire coming from Railway Valley, but otherwise the advance moved on to Glatz Redoubt, reaching it by 8.35am. The first objectives of the division had thus been achieved in an hour; the division pressed on and was in Montauban by just after 10.00am. At 11.30am, the divisional artillery opened a barrage on the Briqueterie (east of the village), which the 20th King's (Liverpool) advanced to capture by 12.34pm.

The division, especially the units in Montauban and at Glatz Redoubt, came under heavy shellfire during the afternoon as they consolidated the position won. By this time the division had been ordered to hold fast to give assistance to the 18th Division to their left. Meanwhile, patrols reported Bernafay Wood empty, although Royal Flying Corps observers reported on enemy infantry moving up through Trones Wood in the direction of Bernafay.

18th (Eastern) Division

18th (Eastern) Division did not have things their own way, although they used all three of their brigades in the attack. Units in the centre were held up by fire from a crater field in no man's land, the results of mine warfare here in May. The enemy had occupied the craters and had built some strong points which survived the bombardment. Undamaged machine guns fired eastwards from these strong points down no man's land when the 7th Queen's began to advance at 7.30am. The battalion following the Queen's, the 7th Royal West Kents, was also hit by this fire. To the right of the Queen's, the 8th East Surreys, being followed up by the 7th Buffs, was also affected: although they had crossed the enemy front line easily enough, they were held up by fire from the area where the Queen's should now be (Breslau Support Trench) and from the Warren. Both battalions watched the British artillery lifting onto more distant targets, unable to take advantage of it and to continue their advance across the German support trenches. However, as the left of the division pushed into the enemy trench complex with bombing parties and the enemy was pushed back on the right by 30th Division, gradually the position in the middle of the divisional front was eased. It was not however until 5.15pm that Montauban Alley was taken. A small enemy counterattack coming from Caterpillar Valley was beaten off at 9.30pm.

Eyewitness

From the war diary of the 17th Manchesters:
"10.20am. The first waves entered Montauban under Captain Madden who had pushed forward from C Company after most of the officers of the leading Company had fallen. There was no opposition to the entry. Bombing parties proceeded to clear Nord and Train Alley and CT [communication trench] in orchard NE of B strong point, the enemy met with in these places surrendered without opposition and the lading waves pushed on through the town. The rear waves consisting partly of carrying parties arrived in rather an exhausted state, due chiefly to their desire to be “in at the finish”. The town was practically deserted and was completely in ruins. It was almost impossible to trace even the run of the streets. All enemy met with surrendered immediately. The Companies then proceeded to their allotted places in the previously arranged defence scheme. A Company to NE; B Company to SE, C Company to strong point C and D Company to strong point B. About 100 of the enemy wee seen streaming northwards along the road to Bazentin-le-Grand. A party of about 40 endeavoured to rally and organised a small counter attack but this attempt was broken up by rapid fire. A small party from A Company was pushed out to Triangle Point. This point was found to be non-existent and the party cleared a portion of Montauban Alley and proceeded to establish themselves there. Hostile MG fire was opened on the village immediately on our entry and about 2pm a heavy [enemy] bombardment of 15cm and 77mm was opened on the town, which continued almost without cessation until the battalion was relieved 40 hours later".


The losses of the two divisions on the day amounted to just over 6,100 officers and men. In percentage terms, this is 10.6% of the total loss on the day, for 14% of the total forces deployed. The enemy artillery, having been badly damaged in this area, did not greatly interfere with the work of evacuation of wounded, bringing up of supplies and consolidation of the ground won, which now began in earnest. However, enemy shellfire falling on Montauban Alley, the village and the defences and on the old no man's land intensified and stayed heavy, causing many casualties and making relief and re-supply very problematic for the tired units now holding the new positions.

2 July 1916: German counter attack; Haig and Rawlinson hurriedly re-plan

At 3am and 4am, troops of the German 12th Reserve Division and 16th Bavarian Regiment launched counter attacks as shown on the map below. They were beaten off by a shrapnel barrage fired by the 30th Divisional artillery. A small party got near to the village but all were killed by hand grenade fighting in the trenches. German attacks against the French troops in Hardecourt were more successful. This activity did not stop the British field and heavy artillery, now moving up to begin the bombardment of the second enemy position at Guillemont and Longueval. In the morning, 30th Division attempted to set Bernafay Wood on fire, firing thermite shells for the first time.

Map

Despite this successful resistance a great chance was lost on 2 July, for the success of the previous day was not exploited. No guidance or suggestions came from Joffre or Foch, and the area of Maricourt was becoming very congested as both British and French tried to use it as the main line of communication to the forward troops. Haig was concerned with the Thiepval ridge (the attack against this key position having failed on 1 July) and decided that he must attack from the Mametz - Montauban area in that direction. He urged Rawlinson to push patrols into Bernafay Wood, but otherwise prepare for action to the west and north. Meanwhile, the two assault divisions consolidated and much work was done on roads and water supplies to the area newly won. 29th Brigade of 9th (Scottish) Division relieved 90th Brigade during the night.

Eyewitness

From the war diary of the 17th Manchesters:

"Practically no dugout shelters were available for the men and casualties were heavy from the commencement of the bombardment.The enemy was making accurate observation of the village during the whole of our tenure of it and his shooting was extraordinarily good. No sooner did a working party commence to work on a new bit of trench than shells rained upon them.Battalion HQ was established in a well constructed dug out just south of strong point B, and a dressing station in a good cellar just in rear. Fortunately both these shelters withstood the bombardment.Throughout the operations our own artillery support was all that could be desired. Retaliation was almost invariably prompt. At the same time they failed to silence the enemy batteries, which were causing such heavy losses.

Counter attack. At 3.15am on 2 July the detached post in Montauban Alley near Triangle Point was attacked and bombed out. They held out until their supply of bombs was exhausted, and then endeavoured to retire. Only 3 got back, 2 of whom were wounded. Germans to the number of 100 then massed on the W side of the Montauban – Bazentin-le-Grand road just N of Montauban Alley. 1 Platoon of C Company advanced up N1 under Capt Madden and took up position on the road just E of Valley Trench. Artillery was informed and the enemy suffered heavy casualties from shrapnel and rapid rifle fire. They dashed into Montauban Alley and the enemy became demoralised and dashed back across the road to the dead ground towards Longueval. They also suffered casualties from the platoon across the road N1. Some of them remained in Montauban Alley and a bombing party was sent up N1 to bomb them out. This party could not get near enough owing to the barrage of the heavies. The relief of the 16th Manchesters on our left interrupted the operations and the Company of the Wiltshires undertook the clearance of Montauban Alley.

Communications. It was found impossible to establish any system of communication N of Battalion HQ except by runner. Communication with the rear was obtained sometimes by wire, sometimes by visual means and it was practically uninterrupted.Attached parties. Nothing was seen of the attached RE [Royal Engineers] parties who were detailed to assist in consolidation of strong points.MG Company. Communication with this unit was not entirely satisfactory. 2 guns were placed in position on northern perimeter of E orchard under the orders of OC MG Company. Of the other 2 guns detailed, nothing was seen.Stokes Mortars. The Sergeant of the Stokes Mortar Battery reported at Battalion HQ about mid-day on the 1st, and was shown the position (strong point C) to which to take his guns. He returned to Keep A to bring up his guns but nothing further was seen of the party".


On 2 July, German high command withdrew 15 batteries of heavy artillery from the Verdun front with orders to move to the Somme to cover the Montauban area. Next day, Commander in Chief Erich Falkenhayn fired General Grunert (Chief of Staff of Second Army, holding the Somme front) and replaced him with Colonel von Lossberg. This was rather disingenuous, for Grunert had warned Falkenhayn of the impending British attack and asked for reinforcements. Falkenhayn had not sent any, still believing the attack would fall on the Sixth Army holding Arras.

 

3 July 1916: Germans worried; Joffre urges action on Thiepval; Bernafay Wood taken

Patrols continued to report Bernafay Wood quite empty of enemy troops. Haig was now coming under pressure from the French, not to exploit the success and go on through Trines Wood toward the second line at Guillemont, but to push on towards Thiepval. Joffre even gave him a direct order to do so, but Haig declined, explaining - no doubt with some exasperation - that he reported to the British Government, not to French high command.

At 3.15pm, Walter Congreve could wait no more. It was evident to him that the enemy was in trouble on this front and an opportunity was slipping away. He gave orders to occupy Bernafay Wood and Caterpillar Wood. At 9pm, after a 20 minute bombardment, two battalions of 27th Brigade moved into Bernafay with the loss of only six men. 18th (Eastern) Division occupied Caterpillar without fuss at 4am next day.

 

4 July 1916: Rawlinson dithers

By now, Haig was pressing Rawlinson to take Trones Wood, key to an attack on the enemy second line. Congreve and Horne (XV Corps, at Mametz) were also keen to move on, believing the enemy beaten. Rawlinson, however, demurred, for without French support an attack would be dangerous - and none was at yet forthcoming. Instead, an attack on Hardecourt and Trones was planned for 7 July.

 

5 July 1916: ammunition supplies cause concern; German counter attack delays planned actions

GHQ reported ammunition state to Fourth Army: it was not good. There was only enough 18-pounder gun shells to maintain fire of 56,000 rounds per day; and only 5,000 6-inch shells per day. This had to be spread across the entire Fourth Army front, and represented a severe reduction in volume of fire in comparison with the opening bombardments. To the immediate right of the British sector, enemy counterattacks against the French holding Bois Faviere caused Rawlinson to agree with General Fayolle that the attack should be delayed until 8th July. The opportunity to exploit the success of 1 July was slipping inexorably away.

 

6-7 July 1916: no progress

30th Division, now back up to strength, relieved 9th (Scottish) Division, to carry on the attack on 8 July. GHQ Intelligence report sent to Fourth Army says that German confusion on Montauban front is great, and serious collapse through demoralisation would happen "possibly tomorrow". In retrospect, this was ridiculously optimistic. It was known that Trones Wood would be difficult to hold when captured, for it was overlooked by the enemy's second position: from the east at Guillemont and from the north at Longueval.

 

8-10 July 1916: bitter fighting for Trones Wood


British artillery opened up a bombardment on Trones Wood in the rainy early hours of 8 July. The infantry began their attack at
8am, having passed through Bernafay by this time. The 2nd Yorkshires suffered heavy casualties as they crossed the gap; they were followed by the Wiltshires (see diary, below). By noon it was clear that things were not going well and Congreve pushed O'Shea (GOC 30th Division) to press on and take Trones. However, the wood proved virtually impassible, so deep was the undergrowth, and it was very difficult to maintain direction. O'Shea called a halt and ordered another attempt on the morning of the 9 July.The infantry started again on the morning of 9 July after a 40 minute bombardment and this time got as far as Maltz Horn Farm and the eastern edge of Trones. However, enemy counterattacks and heavy shelling of the woods caused a general retirement to Bernafay in the afternoon. Attack and counter attack, in the Maltz Horn - Trones area continued without a break through 9 and 10 July.

Eyewitness

From the war diary of the 2nd Wiltshire for 8 July 1916:

"In the early morning we move - B and C Companies to BERNAFAY WOOD, A and D to BRICQUETERIE and assemble for the attack, our part being to follow the Yorks through BERNAFAY and TRONES WOODS and spring from the SE corner of the latter and attack MALTZ HORN TRENCH with two companies and gain connection with the French who are attacking on our right (A and D Companies remaining at BRICQUETERIE in reserve).

On reaching the SE corner of BERNAFAY WOOD however, B and C coys find the Yorks checked and driven back into the wood. Meanwhile the French attack has succeeded and their left flank is in the air badly needing protection and the French ask for support. The following was therefore ordered and carried out: A Coy at once advanced across the open from BRICQUETERIE, making for a point S of MALTZ HORN FARM, and succeeded in taking trenches between this farm and the left flank of the French thus protecting the French left. Meanwhile a re-bombardment of TRONES WOOD followed at 1pm by the assault by C and D Companies led by LT COL GILLSON succeeded in taking the southern half of the wood, clearing it of Germans, taking many prisoners and establishing a line on the south half of the eastern face of the wood. COL GILLSON became wounded and handed over command to LT SHEPHERD.

During the evening many counter attacks by small parties of Germans are made from the north. These are all beaten off by our very thin line of men holding the ground taken. Reinforcements are called for and troops of the 19th and 18th Manchesters arrive before dark and reinforce. CAPT MACNAMARA who had been in reserve, now came up to TRONES WOOD and assumed command. About midnight the Germans make a strong counter attack from the north, their only success being to capture a Lewis gun and throw two grenades into our line".

 

11-12 July 1916: Trones Wood still not captured


By the end of 10 July, Rawlinson and Haig were becoming anxious, for the second step of the offensive - the assault on the German second position - was set for 14 July. But without Trones Wood, it would not be possible to move on Guillemont and Longueval.

At 2.40am on 11 July, the fiercest British bombardment yet was fired on Trones Wood. At 3.27am, 20th King's (Liverpool) and 2nd Bedfords advanced into the maelstrom at the southern end of the wood. There was much fighting as they went, but without decisive result. The enemy was rushing reinforcements into Trones. By great fortune, German orders for a counterattack were found. Consequently at 6pm, an intensive barrage was fired on their planned forming-up area between Trones and Guillemont, which effectively destroyed the attack. At 10.30pm, 17th King's (Liverpool) entered Trones without opposition, and took up a line along the south eastern edge.

On 12 July, a line was dug to link up with the Bedfords, and that evening an enemy attack on Maltz Horn Trench and the wood was repulsed from this line, assisted by British and French shellfire. But some of Trones Wood remained yet in enemy hands, and it was not until the much greater attack made by the British on 14 July 1916 that it finally fell.

Notable casualties in this area at this time

Lieutenant-Colonels Edward Trotter DSO (aged 44, a Grenadier Guards officer commanding 18th King's (Liverpool)) and William Smith (36, a former policeman commanding 18th Manchesters) were killed by the same shell that fell on 21st Brigade HQ, 500 yards west of the Briqueterie, on 8 July 1916. Trotter is buried at nearby Peronne Road Cemetery, Maricourt; Smith died soon afterwards and is buried at Corbie Communal Cemetery Extension.

Major George Higgins, second in command, 17th King's Liverpools. Killed in action 10th July 1916. No known grave; commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.


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