The Bedfordshire Regiment in the Great War
15 July 1916; the St Swithen's Day assault on Pozières
On 14 July 1916, the Battle of Bazentin Ridge was launched, with the Fourth Army assaulting the German Second Line (Braune Stellung) between the notorious Delville Wood and Bazentin le Petit Wood. Following a day of heavy fighting - which included the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division's famous cavalry charge on High Wood - the offensive was to be renewed on 15 July; St Swithen's Day. Along the main battle lines, infamous places like High Wood, Delville Wood, Trônes Wood and Longeuval saw ferocious fighting, with the 112th Brigade (including the 6th Bedfordshires) being engaged in a flank assault, in support of the main battle.
In the Bedfordshires' immediate area, the 1st Division were to attack the second German line east of Pozières, with the 34th Division providing a supporting brigade by advancing towards Pozières itself. The Bedfordshires' Brigade - the 112th Brigade - were attached to the 34th Division for the battle, who had suffered enormous losses during the opening day of the Battle of the Somme and were still in the process of rebuilding.
This would be the 112th Brigade's first taste of battle, having been in the trenches since their arrival the previous summer.
The brigade had established posts in front of Pozières village in readiness for the assault but at 10 p.m. on 14 July 1916, news arrived that German troops had retaken the posts south of Pozières and mounted machine guns on either flank, making the brigade's task even more challenging.
Overnight XV Corps were positioned in Mametz Wood, with the 1st Division continuing the line along the road to The Cutting, and along the northern edge of Contalmaison. Next in the line was the 112th Brigade who held the section of the British line to a point west of Contalmaison, from which point the 25th Division took over.
Overnight the 112th Brigade moved into the line west of Contalmaison, with a chain of posts out in front, including north of Bailiff's Wood. The plan for the morning was for the Brigade to advance from the south into Pozières village, with the 111th Brigade in support, which would carry the advance forward to a line around the Windmill. Initially, the 25th Division were to attack simultaneously from the West but these orders were later amended to merely patrolling actions.
At 8.30 a.m. on 15 July 1916, British artillery opened a lighting bombardment and the staggered British infantry advance started. The 1st Division to the right of the Bedfordshires' brigade left their trenches at 9 a.m., with the 112th Brigade starting their advance at 9.20 a.m.
The brigade advanced in artillery formation, with the 8th East Lancashires forming the first line, the 6th Bedfordshires forming the second line and the 11th Royal Warwickshires in the third line. The 10th Loyal North Lancashires followed in a fourth line, carrying bombs and ammunition, the intention being to create a dump in the Chalk Pit, where all Battalion H.Q.'s were to set up for business.
Faced with what was an ambitious objective at best, the 112th Brigade advanced across 1,300 yards of open, rising ground. Initially, the advance went well until around 400 yards from the outskirts of the village, when machine gun and artillery fire became so intense and the casualties so heavy that the leading waves could go no further and went to ground, with some survivors and groups of wounded men heading for the perceived shelter of the hollow road on the left flank of the attack, 200 yards from the village entrance.
The 10th Royal Fusiliers from the supporting 111th Brigade advanced through the road block of wounded men in the hollow and the attack gained a new impetus, advancing into the orchard along the Albert-Pozières road, some 200 yards from the village perimeter. The mixed group of men from several battalions launched a final bayonet charge and made it into the outskirts of the village itself but suffered heavily at the hands of German machine gunners and were thrown out by a local counter attack, retiring to the trench in the orchard
Against all odds, the Brigade line had made it to within 200 yards of the German trench system defending Pozières but had to go to ground as their losses were so heavy that they had insufficient manpower to carry the objective, and the wire to their front was mostly uncut other than a few murderous gaps amply covered by machine gun cross-fire and the defenders south of the village.
At around 2 p.m., the 34th Division's commander, Major-General Edward Charles Ingouville-Williams (known as 'Inky Bill'), arrived in the Chalk Pit to meet with the H.Q. Staff of the 112th Brigade and 10th Royal Fusiliers. Undaunted by the check to their advance and heavy casualties, he ordered a renewed artillery bombardment for later that afternoon, with the infantry ordered to prepare for a new advance.
A Battery Commander involved in the second phase of the bombardment recorded how "this was the biggest bombardment of it, by all of our heavies, I have ever seen. The whole place [Pozières] went up in brick dust, and when it was over, no trace of a building could be seen anywhere."
Regardless of the severity of the destruction wrought on the buildings, the deep German dugouts survived unharmed and the machine gun teams emerged in ample time to set up for their grisly business. When the 112th Brigade renewed their assault, the defensive fire was even more destructive and intense than during the morning's fighting and although small groups of British troops got into the village they were unable to hold on and those who could retired back to their trenches in front of Pozières, where they remained until night fell.
As night fell, flank units of the 3rd Brigade managed to link up with the survivors of the 112th Brigade and a continuous line was established. The exhausted survivors dug in until they were relieved and retired to the Tara Usna line
By the end of the day's fighting, the casualty list was extremely long.
The 6th Bedfordshire lost 330 officers and men
The 11th Royal Warwickshires lost 326
The 8th East Lancashires lost 321
The 10th Loyal North Lancashires lost 53
In supporting the brigade, the 10th Royal Fusiliers lost 249
The brigade's total losses for their first day of battle was 1,034 officers and men and although the line had been advanced considerably, the village itself would not fall until 7 August.
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