When III Corps of the Fourth Army attacked the German line at Ovillers and La Boisselle on 1 July 1916, they were facing formidable opposition. The Germans had dug themselves into the spurs which protruded, like fingers, from the Pozieres ridge.
III Corps was comprised of three divisions: 8th Division, a regular division (this attacked north of the Pozieres ridge towards Nab Valley, Ovillers Spur & Mash Valley), 34th Division (which attacked the La Boisselle Spur, Sausage Valley and Fricourt Spur), and 19th Division which was held in reserve. The attack was aided by two mines which were exploded under the German strongholds, Y-Sap in Mash Valley and Lochnagar in Sausage Valley. Each was intended to create huge lips in order to disrupt the line of fire of the German machine guns.
34th Division's objectives were to advance towards Contalmaison by ‘nipping out' La Boisselle by the use of two flanking attacks, one in Mash Valley by two battalions of the Tyneside Scottish of 102 Brigade, and the other in Sausage Valley by the remaining Tyneside Scottish. This was to be followed by taking the Schwaben Hohe Redoubt, badly damaged by the Lochnagar mine, using the remaining 101 brigade (15th Royal Scots and 10th Lincolnshire Regiment, known as the Grimsby Chums) which would attack through Sausage Valley and take Sausage Redoubt. The follow up attack would involve the Tyneside Irish (103 Brigade), there was to be no reserve. The Divisional commander (Major-General E.C. Ingouville-Williams) planned to put all his battalions into the battle so as to force their way onto the Pozieres ridge.
Within minutes of the start, most of the men were cut down by concentrated criss-cross machine gun fire, from in front and from both flanks, and by the artillery which had not been damaged by the British bombardment (the British attackers had to cross 800 yards of open ground to reach the German trenches). On the right of La Boisselle in Sausage Valley, the 15th Royal Scots, coming under severe enfilading fire from their left, lost the line of attack and forced their way towards Fricourt (which was an objective of XV Corps just to the south of La Boisselle). Although they took the German line, lack of support and ammunition forced their withdrawal. The men in the Lincolnshire Regiment had left five minutes after the detonation of the Lochnagar mine before moving forward. This was too long and devastating fire from the German lines meant few advanced more than 400 yards into No Man's land. Most of the survivors sought refuge in the newly-formed Lochnagar crater (which was huge - 270 feet across and 70 feet deep).
102 Brigade had similar problems in their attack on the flanks of the La Boisselle salient. The two battalions of the Tyneside Scottish attacked, accompanied by their pipers, through Mash Valley, between Y-sap and the village. They had 500 yards to cover before they reached the German lines. They did not make it as the machine gun fire was too intense. The Tyneside Scottish attacking the Schwaben Hohe Redoubt had less distance to travel but the fire from La Boisselle village itself meant few reached their objectives.
The Tyneside Irish (103 Brigade) had nearly a mile to advance from their positions along the Tara-Usna line before they reached the original starting British front line. Artillery fire and machine gun fire cut these men down as soon as they came within range. Most of the casualties in the Tyneside Irish were taken before they reached their own front line. The survivors did not stop but continued their advance across 500 yards of No Man's Land. Eventually a small group did set off until they were isolated 700 yards deep into the German trench system
In all 34th Division took 6,500 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
The attacks on La Boisselle did not finish with the first day of the Battle. 19th Division, which had been held in reserve, was put into the attack on 2 July. First they had to make contact with surviving units of the Tyneside Scottish who had not withdrawn. 57 & 58 Brigade attacked south of La Boisselle, using a ruse of bombarding Ovillers in order to confuse the Germans. By 15.30 some of the men had bombed their way into the village; this led to some severe house-to-house fighting with the German defenders, and the village was eventually taken the following day. Counter-attacks from the Germans had to be fought off and only by 5 July could the village be said to be safely in Allied hands.
It was during this action that Lt Colonel Adrian Carton di Wiart (CO 8th Gloucesters, part of 57 Brigade) won his VC. Carton di Wiart, who had lost an eye during his service with the Somaliland Camel Corps earlier in the war, and who had lost his left hand in Flanders a year before the Somme, is thought to be the inspiration behind the character of Brigadier Ben Ritchie Hook in Evelyn Waugh's trilogy Sword of Honour.
Attempts to take Ovillers, to the north of La Boiselle, were doomed to failure until 16 July when a consolidated attack led to the ruins of the village falling into British hands.
Reference: this article is based on a talk given by Sean Godfrey to the Yorkshire branch of the WFA.
Contributed by: Peter J. Palmer.
Top Image: A British trench near the Albert-Bapaume road at Ovillers-la-Boisselle, July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. The men are from A Company, 11th Battalion, The Cheshire Regiment
Map: La Boisselle Sector 1916: the British 34th Division's attack on the Ovillers-La Boisselle sector of the Somme front, astride the Albert-Bapaume road, on 1 July 1916. The British front line is shown in red, the German trenches are shown in blue.
The German defences north of the road as far as Beaumont Hamel were held by the 26th Reserve Division (north to south, the 121st Reserve, 119th Reserve, 99th Reserve and 180th Regiments). South of the road, from La Boisselle to Mametz, the defences were held by the 28th Reserve Division (north to south, 110th Reserve, 111th Reserve and 109th Reserve Regiments).
The three brigades of the British 34th Division are shown. The 102 (Tyneside Scottish) and 101 Brigades attacked from the front line. The 103 (Tyneside Irish) Brigade attacked from the reserve position on the Tara-Usna Line and had to cross the exposed Avoca Valley before reaching the British front line. The path of the small party from the 103 Brigade towards Contalmaison is shown.