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Victory at Thiepval

The advances during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette had further encroached into the rear of the Thiepval defences that had stood unconquerable since 1st July. In the intervening time the Germans had made this key lynchpin of their defensive system above the Somme even more formidable, adding new trenches with deep protective bunkers behind their front line. Now, with Thiepval and its attendant redoubts becoming outflanked to the east, the Reserve Army of General Gough was readied to capture this thorn in the Allies side once and for all.

Given the task was Lieutenant-General Jacob's II Corps consisting of the 18th (Eastern) Division and the 11th Division, supported on their right by the Canadian 1st and 2nd Divisions. One of only two British divisions to attain their objectives on 1st July, the 18th under Major-General Sir Ivor Maxse, had spent the previous three weeks rehearsing for this great battle. Maxse would use a meticulously planned creeping barrage to protect his assault formations who mainly hailed from the Home Counties of England as they moved up the Thiepval spur supported by six tanks. Once through the village, subsequent operations would be undertaken to capture the ring of redoubts that dominated the area.

A three-day preparatory bombardment saw Thiepval village and spur hit by the field artillery of several divisions together with corps medium artillery firing high explosive and gas shells. At 12:35pm on 26th September, the attack went in. On the right the 8th Suffolks and 10th Essex of 53rd Brigade, sticking closely behind their protective barrage, swept through four of the most heavily defended German trench lines on the western front taking many traumatised prisoners of the defending 180th Regiment of the Wurttemburgers. Meanwhile on the left the men of the 11th Royal Fusiliers and 12th Middlesex, the assault formations of 54th Brigade, with supreme gallantry and tank assistance, took Thiepval chateau and village in some of the bitterest fighting of the entire campaign. Three Victoria Crosses were awarded to the men of 54th Brigade during the battle. By nightfall, one of the strongest German positions on the Western Front had fallen. Casualties were heavy the 18th Division lost nearly 1,500 casualties during the operation.

Battle of Thiepval Ridge
Stretcher bearers recovering wounded during the Battle of Thiepval Ridge, September 1916. From Wikipedia. Click on image for full size.

Whilst 11th Division worked its way beyond Mouquet Farm to attack Stuff Redoubt on the right, the 53rd Brigade was given its next stern test to finally take the Schwaben Redoubt which dominated observation of the German lines to the north around Beacourt, Beaumont-Hamel and Serre. The key to the entire German defensive system north of the Albert-Bapaume Road looked to be within reach. The Germans though, were well aware of the danger that possession of the redoubts posed to their positions to the north of the River Ancre and they threw everything they had to try and stem the advance of II Corps.

From the beginning of the attack at 1:00pm on 28th September, the 18th Division and 11th Division (subsequently relieved by the 39th and 25th Divisions) became locked in a deadly struggle to enter and capture the redoubts. The battle lasted with barely a respite for eight days during which time the Germans used gas shells, mine and flame-throwers to deny the British. By the end of it the British had captured the majority of the redoubts but not until further operations between 9th and 14th October was the entire area secured. During the fighting for the redoubts 18th Division took a further 2,000 casualties with 11th Division suffering a total of 3,600 since the start of the offensive.

Battle of the Somme
The development of the Somme Offensive. From Wikipedia. Click on image for full size (129 KB).