The battle of Bazentine Ridge was the start of the second phase of the battle of the Somme. The first phase (the battle of Albert, 1-13 July 1916), had seen the British comprehensively fail to achieve their targets for the attack, but they had made some progress, eventually reaching the German second line, on Bazentine Ridge.
The attack on Bazentine Ridge was made by the Fourth Army (Rawlinson). He devised a plan for an attack at dawn, a rarity during Douglas Haig’s time as commander in chief, as he did not believe that it was possible for the inexperience troops of the New Army to carry out the complex manoeuvres required in advance of a dawn attack. General Rawlinson persisted with his plan, which required XIII corps to advance up to half a mile into no-mans-land on the night of 13/14 July. This was necessary because no-mans-land was particularly wide at this part of the line. XV corps, on the left of the line, didn’t have to make such a dramatic advance, although its right hand division did have to move forward during the night.
The attack was preceded by an artillery bombardment which began on 11 July. The attack itself began at 3.25am, after a five minute bombardment. The short bombardment and the unexpected dawn attack caught the Germans by surprise, and along most of the line the initial attack was successful.
From right to left, the 9th Division successfully captured most of the village of Longueval, but was unable to clear the Germans out of the northern part of the village. To their left the 8th Brigade of the 3rd Division was briefly help up by uncut wire, but was able to advance after the German position was outflanked. The 9th Brigade captured Bazentin le Grand despite encountering machinegun fire. Next in line the 7th Division attack captured the German front line at 3.25 a.m., mostly because it had been effectively destroyed by the artillery, and then captured Bazentin le Grand Wood. During this period a number of Germans were seen retreating towards High Wood, on the next defensive line (the Switch) but were killed before they could reach it. By 7.30 am the division had captured Bazentin le Petit. Finally, on the left the 21st Division captured Bazentin le Petit wood and helped clear the village. The initial attack had captured the German second position along a 6,000 yard front.
To the right of the main attack, the 18th division spent the morning clearing Trônes wood, to prevent the Germans using it to fire into the side of the main attack.
By 10 a.m. there was no German resistance around High Wood – several British officers advanced towards the wood without coming under fire. Major-General Watts, commander of the 7th Division, wanted to advance into the woods, a move that may well have broken the Switch line before it was fully formed. Instead, he was ordered to wait for the cavalry to come forward, as had originally been planned.
The cavalry did not arrive until the evening, and the attack did not begin until 7 p.m. The cavalry reached the woods, but had trouble advancing through the trees. They were able to capture the southern part of the woods, but the Germans held on to a line at the northern edge of the wood. That night the German high command rushed its reserves to the area, and the best chance for a breakthrough was gone.
The relative ease with which the British captured their objectives on 14 July was not reflected in the casualty figures for the day – 9,194 casualties were suffered on the day.
On 15 July the fighting developed into two separate battles. The fighting on the right became designated as the battle of Delville Wood (15 July-3 September), while the battle of Bazentine Ridge continued for another three days. The last serious British offensive came on 15 July, when the 91st brigade replaced the cavalry in High Wood, and made a determined but unsuccessful attempt to clear the woods. That evening the brigade was ordered to retreat back to Bazentin le Grand. Further attacks were hampered by a German counter-bombardment, which filled the old no-mans-land with poisoned gas, making it difficult and dangerous to move to the new front line. High Wood would remain a British target for the next two months, through the battle of Pozieres Ridge (23 July-3 September 1916).