The capture of Mametz, 1 - 5 July 1916

This article is about the attack and capture of Mametz on 1 July 1916 and the fight for the next ground up toward Mametz Wood that followed over the next few days. It principally concentrates on the area assaulted by the 7th Division.

The Mametz position

The village of Mametz lay in and behind the first German defensive position on the Somme, which in this area consisted of three principal fighting trench systems connected by many communication trenches. It was an exceptionally strong position to have to attack. The German front line ran approximately in parallel with the British, and was called (left to right) Bulgar Trench, Mametz Trench, Danube Trench and Kiel Trench; behind it and in front of Mametz was a second line that incorporated Cemetery Trench and a key machine gun post (at "the Shrine") at the village cemetery. Well behind the village on higher ground ran the third line incorporating Fritz Trench and Railway Alley.

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The assaulting and defending forces

The area fell within the boundary of the British XV Corps under Lieutenant General Henry Horne. His force consisted of the 7th and 21st Divisions in the front lines, with 17th (Northern) Division in corps reserve some two miles behind. The field artillery of the divisions was supplemented by the Corps Heavies of 3rd, 14th, 18th, 21st and 23rd Heavy Artillery Groups together with the French 6th Field Artillery Groupe. Facing them were just sox battalions of the German 28th Reserve Division. The German artillery was also strongly outnumbered in this sector.

Orders and expectations

Horne ordered 7th Division to clear the high ground along Willow Stream (which meant capturing the enemy's first and second trench lines and Mametz village in order to do so) and 21st Division to do the same on the west bank of the stream. However, Fricourt being considered much too strong a position to take by frontal assault, it would not be attacked at first but would be be "pinched out" once the attack of 7th Division (east of village) and 21st Division (west) had succeeded in pushing around its flanks. It was not believed that this would occur on the first day but arrangements were made to do so if things did go well. Should all develop in accordance with plan, the attacking force was to press on with 17th Division through Mametz Wood and on to take Bazentin le Petit, Longueval and Ginchy in the main German second position.

Bombardment and other preparations for the assault

The preliminary bombardment in this sector was successful, the enemy artillery having been practically obliterated. At 7.22am on 1 July, batteries of Stokes mortars opened fire and local commanders ordered the release of gas on the centre of the front facing Fricourt that was not initially being attacked. Four minutes later No 5 Battalion of the Special Brigade of Royal Engineers launched a discharge of smoke on the flanks of both 7th and 21st Divisions.

At 7.28am a number of mines were blown under enemy positions: 178 Tunnelling Company RE blew three large mines under the Tambour at Fricourt (again, in the area where no attack was to go in), and one at Bulgar Point, a strong work facing 91st Brigade of 7th Division. The latter position was completely destroyed. Four mines were blown in an already cratered area between Mametz and Fricourt.

The artillery bombardment here did not consist of prearranged and timed "lifts" onto distant targets, but was closer in style to a creeping barrage.

The infantry of 91st Brigade assembled not in their own front line but in the support trenches, to avoid casualties from enemy shellfire falling on the front line. A number of Russian saps had been dug or blown in across no man's land and gave extra cover to the attacking troops.

The assault of 1 July 1916

The assault on 1 July 1916 proved successful, although the fighting was hard.

91st Brigade of 7th Division

The job of 91st Brigade was to advance across the German front line (Bulgar Trench), past the second line (Cemetery Trench), then capture the strongpoints in Mametz itself and push on past the deep Dantzig Alley communication trench and to take the third enemy line, Fritz Trench. 22nd Manchesters were assembled astride the Mametz-Montauban track and 1st South Staffords opposite the Bulgar Point strongpoint which was destroyed in the mine explosion just before zero. 2nd Queen's and 21st Manchesters were in close support behind the attacking battalions.

The 22nd Manchesters and 1st South Staffords quickly crossed the narrow no man's land but came under fire from German machine guns in Dantzig Alley communication trench as they approached Cemetery Trench and the edge of the village. By 8am, the Staffords were well into the village ruins and the Manchesters were pressing on to Bucket Trench, having almost gained their objectives. However, German resistance began to stiffen, and the leading men were forced back on Cemetery Trench. At 9.30am the support battalions were ordered up to reinforce - with little effect. Divisional CO Major-General Herbert Watts ordered the artillery to re-bombard the area of Dantzig Alley and Fritz Trench, but it was not effective and did not even stop some German counter-attacks from Mametz itself. The effort was repeated at 12.25pm - the Corps having heard that Pommiers Redoubt had fallen in the attack on Montauban, and 91st Brigade having reported sight of enemy troops massing to counter attack from Dantzig Alley. This time the bombardment did the trick, although one enemy field gun firing at close range continued to cause trouble until its detachment were killed. Parties now bombed along Dantzig Alley and Bright Alley by 1.40pm. Parties of the South Staffords and 21st Manchesters were also able to reinforce those Staffords still on the edge of Mametz.

20th Brigade of 7th Division

The job of 20th Brigade was to advance across the German front line (Mametz, Danube and Kiel Trench) and form a defensive flank facing Fricourt. The latter village itself was not being attacked; 21st Division was on the far side of it. 2nd Gordon Highlanders were to advance alongside the South Staffords of 91st Brigade and through the western half of Mametz. 9th Devons, across the Albert to Peronne road, were to advance in parallel with the road towards and through Hidden Wood.

The 2nd Gordons moved off towards the enemy front line but their left company ran into uncut barbed wire, hidden in a dip. Surrounded by unexploded British shells, many men fell to German machine gun fire from "The Shrine", a machine gun post at Mametz cemetery, as the wire was negotiated. Even so, the Gordons got as far as the second enemy position at Shrine Alley by 7.55am and maintained touch with the Staffords further along in Cemetery Trench. They were unable to progress from there and spent much effort in clearing dug outs of enemy. Across the road, the 9th Devons advanced from a line some 250 yards behind their own front trench, so badly had this been damaged by shellfire. They were hit by heavy machine gun fire from Fricourt Wood, the German support trenches and from Mametz. At least half of their losses for the day were incurred before they had even reached Mansel Copse, just ahead of the front line. The survivors pressed on into the German front and support trenches, but by now all the battalion's officers had become casualties. As early as 7.40am the final company was ordered to advance but lost all its officers in crossing no man's land. The same thing happened to two companies of the 8th Devons when they were ordered to reinforce.

7th Division completes the capture of Mametz

At 2.30pm, an attack was made by 21st Division on Fricourt. 7th Division organised a fresh attack to take advantage of it and assist the battalions now held up in Cemetery Trench, Shrine Alley and in the outskirts of Mametz. Two companies of 2nd Royal Warwicks and two of 8th Devons attacked at 3.30pm, after 30 minutes artillery support. It was enough for the German garrison of Mametz: 200 of them emerged with hands up before the new attack had even reached the old German front line. By just after 4pm, the whole of Mametz had fallen and within another hour the situation was quiet. 2nd Queens were consolidating Fritz Trench and South Staffords were in Bunny Alley by 7.30pm. 91st Brigade had suceeded in all its objectives. By that time, the roads up to the old German front line had been put in a reasonable state, and communication trenches were also being worked on. 7th Division reported that things were very quiet and that further advances towards Mametz Wood could be made if fresh troops could come up. But none did, and the moment - tragically - was lost. The whole of the new 7th Divisional front was wired that night, by parties from all three RE Companies and the pioneers of 24th Manchesters.

The losses of 7th Division on the day amounted to 3,380 officers and men, the vast majority from machine gun fire. To the left, 21st Division suffered heavier losses in the attacks at Fricourt.

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2-4 July 1916: Fricourt captured; 7th Division inches forward; time is wasted

On these days the 7th Division pushed forward in the enemy trench complex and materially assisted in the eventually successful attack of 17th (Northern) Division that captured Fricourt on 2 July. Two batteries of XIV Brigade RHA under command of 7th Division moved up into Queen's Nullah and began firing to cut the barbed wire defences in front of Mametz Wood. At 3pm on 3rd July, patrols were reporting that Mametz Wood was empty of German troops. This was not entirely true. 2nd Royal Irish Regiment and 1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers of 7th Division's 22nd Brigade were ordered up to occupy a line on the southern edge of the wood, but it was not until dawn on 4 July that they were fully in position. During the night, a detachment of 55th Landwehr was discovered in the wood by a patrol of the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment and driven off.

At 9.45pm on 3 July, Fourth Army issued orders to prepare for an attack on the second German position, Longueval to Bazentin le Petit. "Preparations" meant capturing enough ground to bring artillery up to be able to bombard the second position. And that meant, for XV Corps, the capture of Mametz Wood. The tired 7th Division was relieved by the 38th (Welsh) Division at night.

5 July 1916: delay and costly piecemeal effort

A rain-delayed attack to capture Mametz Wood, Wood Trench and Quadrangle Trench took place at 12.45am. 2nd Royal Irish Regiment and 1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers of 7th Division's 22nd Brigade, together with 9th Northumberland Fusiliers and 10th Lancashire Fusiliers of 52nd Brigade of 17th (Northern) Division, formed the assaulting force. Quadrangle Trench and Shelter Alley were gained but the Irish were held up by uncut wire and enemy counter attack. Mametz Wood and Trench remained in German hands. Meanwhile, ground conditions were deteriorating due to heavy rain and the British right was waiting for the French, who could not be ready for the next phase until 8 July.

Notable casualties in this area at this time

TBC.


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