Serre was never taken by the BEF during the Somme campaign, unlike places like Thiepval, La Boiselle & Ovillers which were eventually taken after hard fighting before the battle closed down in November. 1 July 1916 was not the only battle fought at Serre: the French Army tried to take Serre in 1914; Gough tried to take Serre in November 1916 during the last days of the Battle of the Somme; and Serre was fought over again in 1918.
Serre is a hamlet on the western end of a plateau which extends 4km to the east (to Miraumont). It overlooked the British lines which were along the line of the 'Gospel' copses in a valley 200 yards wide and 500 yards from the Serre. Behind the copses were two farms, La Signy and Toutvent, which saw fighting in 1918 and 1914 respectively.
Serre fell into German hands during the 1914 offensive. The first French attempt to retake it occurred in June 1915 when troops under the command of General de Castenau attacked Toutvent Farm. Fighting went on for a week; de Castelnau's troops did manage to take part of the German lines on the first day but subsequent attacks were failure (with high casualties). Attempts by the Germans to retake their lines were defeated. Eventually the French took the German second line and the farm fell into French hands. By the time this section of the front line was passed to the British, the Germans had retreated to the high ground at Serre.
The Germans turned Serre into a fortified village: it was surrounded by a four deep trench system, the dugouts were 30 feet deep and the cellars were used as barracks. Steel was used in these constructions (where the BEF would typically have used wood). The barbed wire was arranged in such a way that 'false' V-shaped entrances were created which would draw attacking troops into the killing grounds for the German machine guns. South of Serre another formidable obstruction was created, the Heidenkopf, known to the BEF as the Quadrilateral. As Edward Corbett recorded in his history of the 8th Worcesters (who held the line opposite Serre before the Somme battle):
'And all the time his fortifications were growing - not in our haphazard undirected way, when one regiment destroyed what its predecessor had done, to have its own work altered by the next - but on a definite able plan, admirably planned and sedulously carried out. We watched Serre grow to a stronghold with terrible Gommecourt as a bastion on the right and the Quadrilateral to the German left. It looked to be impregnable and proved to be so, for it was never taken.'
On 31 April 1916, the 31st Division (commanded by Major-General Wanless O'Gowan) arrived. This was a Kitchener division and was made up of 'Pals' battalions. 92 Brigade was comprised of the four Hull 'Pals' battalions (Commercials, Tradesmen, Sportsmen and t'Others), 93 Brigade of the Leeds, Bradford and Durham 'Pals', and 94 Brigade which was comprised of the Sheffield, Barnsley and Accrington 'Pals'. The Pioneer battalion was the 12th Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (Leeds Miners) and two extra battalions had been included for the attack on Serre, the 1/6 and 1/8 Royal Warwicks.
Serre was the most northern point of the 15 mile Somme offensive. The plan required that the 31st Division was to pivot on John Copse and perform a 90 degree left hand turn while crossing four lines of German trenches - and take Serre - so as to form a defensive shield (from German counter-offensives) for the Divisions attacking further south. A smoke screen was to be laid down during this attack to protect the Division against German strongholds and machine guns further north. To complete this, the right hand flank of the Division would have to cross 3,000 yards while under fire from machine guns and artillery. To help them in this endeavour, saps had been driven into No Man's Land so that troops could move forward unobserved. Half companies moved out up to the German wire to give them an advantage and the Royal Warwicks were to advance along the 31st/4th Division boundary and attack the Heidenkopf.
Prior to the attack, the BEF had orchestrated a seven day artillery bombardment of the German lines. Unfortunately, in the Serre sector, bad weather had impaired the artillery observation, so very little of the wire had been cut. The German guns had kept quiet during this bombardment, as their silence ensured no counter battery fire. The actual day of the attack had been postponed from 29 June to 1 July because of the weather. There was still some concern about the uncut German wire. Colonel Howard (93 Brigade Major) voiced his concern:
'The Corps Commander was extremely optimistic, telling everybody that the wire had been blown away (we could see it standing strong and well), there were no German trenches and all we had to do was walk into Serre.'
Between 0630 and 0720 the British artillery barrage increased in intensity. At 0720 the Hawthorn mine was blown (two miles to the south) and the half companies emerged from their trenches and moved out into No Man's Land to reach their position laying down in front of the German wire. The saps in No Man's Land opened and the KOYLI released their Stokes Mortars into the German front line. 48th Division released their smoke screen which failed utterly to protect and hide the troops as they advanced from their trenches. At 0725 he British artillery barrage moved to the German second line and the other half companies moved out 50 yards into No Man's Land. At this point the German artillery opened up - a triple barrage on the English front line, No Man's Land and the reserve trenches.
When the whistles blew at 0730 for the advance, the troops emerged into machine gun fire and shrapnel (94 Brigade in the copse area, 93 Brigade to their right and 92 Brigade being held in reserve). As the smoke screen had not worked, the troops were enfiladed by machine gun fire from Pusieux in the north as well. This led to troops veering to their right and bunching in the centre of No Man's Land. There were at least 2,000 casualties before 0800 - very few reached the German front line as there were too few gaps in the German wire and many troops entered the false gaps and were led into a killing ground. The majority of the 15th West Yorkshires (Leeds Pals) were killed in their trenches without going over the top. D Company of the 18th Durham Light Infantry (Durham Pals) had advanced with the 16th West Yorkshires (1st Bradford Pals) and several of these men had not only passed through the German lines but were seen later in the morning advancing on Pendant Copse (on the ridge above Serre) which had been one of their objectives. Unfortunately no one from this advance survived the battle.
A German officer, Unteroffizer Otto Lais of 169 Regiment, said:
'Wild firing slammed into the masses of the enemy . All around us was the rushing, whistling and roaring of a storm. Throughout all this racket could be heard the regular tack tack of the machine guns. Belt after belt was fired... "Pass up the spare barrels" shouts the gun commander ....The barrel must be changed again, it is red hot and the cooling water is boiling ....The enemy closes up nearer, we fire on endlessly, the British keep charging forward. Despite the fact that hundreds are already lying dead, fresh waves keep emerging from the assault trenches... The British have closed to grenade throwing range and grenades fly backwards and forwards ...'
The 31st Division attack was now finished (92 Brigade did not advance for fear of attracting another German artillery barrage) and there were fears of a German counter attack. From 93 Brigade, the 18th DLI formed a defensive line 400 yards behind the British front line.
Casualties: 93 Brigade just over 1,950, 94 Brigade just under 2,000.
Over to the Division's right, the Royal Warwicks had been in action. At 0730, the two battalions (6th and 8th) had fought their way into the Heidenkopf across German trench lines. As the fighting in Serre faded, German reinforcements were rushed across. When the Warwicks reached the German third line, they found themselves isolated. After bitter fighting all day, with ammunition and water running low and no chance of reinforcement, the Warwicks pulled back at 1730. They took just over 1,050 casualties. The 31st Division suffered 4,500 casualties out of the 7,000 who took part in the first day of the battle.
The battle moved away from Serre after 1 July, and did not return until General Gough's offensive in November 1916. In October the 3rd Division had been sent to the Serre sector as part of V Corps (along with the 2nd, 51st and 63rd Divisions) and was to attack along the front from Serre to Beaucort, north of the river Ancre. There had been little change to the old battlefield - the lines of trenches were now shell holes and the bodies of dead soldiers still hung from the wire. The British repaired the roads and trenches and put up new wire.
In this November 1916 attack, 3rd Division were aided by 92 Brigade from 31st Division just to the north of John Copse. In the 3rd Division attack, 76 Brigade would be on the left, 8 Brigade on the right and 9 Brigade would be in reserve. The artillery barrage opened up on 11 November for 48 hours. Artillery tactics had improved since July and the heavier guns caused more damage to the German lines. At 0200 on the morning of the attack (13 November) a bell in Pusieux church rang a warning toll. At 0500 the first platoons of the attacking companies moved out into No Man's Land and found fog so thick visibility was down to 1-2 yards. At 0530, Zero Hour, the attack started and the leading troops found their way into the German lines despite the thick, almost knee deep mud. Soon it was chaos, there was hand-to-hand fighting between British and Germans in the trenches. Germans were in front of and behind these leading companies. As the German artillery opened up on No Man's Land, troops trapped there were annihilated. By 0900 the fog had lifted and it slowly became obvious the attack had failed, and a withdrawal was ordered. A defensive flank from the battalions in 92 Brigade was formed at 1000. Two battalions (12th and 13th East Yorkshire) were sent forward and, despite being hit by British artillery, they managed to occupy the German front line and advance to the German third line. As the 3rd Division attack had failed, the East Yorkshire troops were isolated with open flanks. German counter-attacks pounded away at them all day while the German artillery barrage of No Man's Land cut them off from support. When night fell, the East Yorkshires withdrew.
92 Brigade suffered 815 casualties, 76 Brigade suffered 1,074 casualties (10th Royal Welsh Fusiliers had reached the German fourth line but, without support, they withdrew at 1900) and 8 Brigade suffered 927 casualties (1st Royal Scots Fusiliers had reached the German second line but, finding the wire uncut, had withdrawn).
The main reasons for 3rd Division's failure to take Serre must be the artillery - too much wire (especially on the 8 Brigade front) was uncut - and the deep mud which impeded any progress.
In early 1917 the German army withdrew from the Somme battlefields (Operation Alberich) and Serre finally fell into British hands. The German Spring Offensive of March 1918 resulted in Serre changing hands again.
In June 1918, the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division was posted to Hebuterne and probed the German lines in front of Serre. In late July 127 Brigade took La Signy Farm and on 10 August troops found Toutvent Farm unoccupied. That evening the first of many German counter-offensives were fought off. The German assaults went on until 13 August but they were held at the Copse line each time. On 19 August 1918 the Germans withdrew and Serre fell to the 42nd Division which continued its advance following the Germans.
This article is based on a talk given by Sean Godfrey to the Yorkshire Branch of the Western Front Association.
Top image of German Officer's dugout and map of Somme Battlefield courtesy Wikimedia.
Article and Serre maps contributed by: Peter J Palmer.
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