21st Division 1914-18...a divisional history

3rd July, Action at Shelter Wood

Action at Shelter Wood.

3rd July 1916

Background to the action

As the second day of the opening of the Somme offensive came to a close orders were already in hand for another attack on the morrow. 62nd brigade had been tasked as we have seen on day one of the battle of carrying supplies and ammunition to the forward brigades, but on the night of the 2nd and the early hours of the morning of the 3rd they had taken over the positions vacated by 64th brigade.

The 10th Yorkshire regiment was on the right of the brigade position in Crucifix trench, the 1st Lincolns were on the left in the same trench. The 12th and 13th Northumberland fusiliers were in support, the 12th in the Sunken Road and the 13th in Brandy trench and South Sausage trench. Of the brigade troops the machine gun companies were distributed as two section size formations, one in the Sunken road and the other in Queens redoubt. The mortar units were also in the Sunken road with the brigade headquarters itself located at the junction of Shuttle and Balmoral lane.

During the day the 10th Yorks had pushed out patrols to Fricourt farm and the Poodles, gaining touch with the 17th division on the 21st divisions right hand side. Whilst the enemy were still in control of Railway copse and the maize of trenches west of 28 central, the Yorks had at least captured two machine guns and 75 prisoners.

In the afternoon of the 2nd the Royal Scots of 34th division handed over 300 yards of the eastern end of Railway alley to 62nd brigade. The position was thus that all trenches running north from Sausage support, Soda trench and Round wood alley were blocked by bombing posts. So Round and Lozenge woods were made into strong posts.

Around 7.30pm on the 2nd July, Major-General David Campbell paid a personal visit to 62nd brigades headquarters to issue the orders personally to Brigadier General C G Rawling. He may also have come to see how well the land lay in front and to access the conditions for a further attack on the 3rd. Given that the attacks had sustained severe losses, something he felt keenly, he’d had reservations previously, accurately deducting that they did not have enough guns falling on the enemy to wipe them out for the first day of the Somme offensive, regardless he gave the order for an attack against Birch tree and Shelter woods. A position just to the front of the brigades lines.

 

3rd July

The dispositions of the battalions had changed slightly in the preceding hours since they had taken up the ground from the 64th brigade and it was from this with slight alterations that the brigade began the attack. 1st Lincolns were Round wood to the bend in Crucifix trench with the 10th Yorks still next to them holding a map grid of 27.b.g.6.5 to 27.b.10.1033. The 12th Northumberlands still occupied the Sunken road but had also moved some troops to Lozenge trench, the 13th moved all its troops to Sausage support. The trench mortar battery was still in the Sunken road and the machine gun company was moved to Dart lane.

The only alterations to this were that the trench mortar battery had split up and had 4 tubes in Round wood and 2 tubes in the east end of Crucifix trench. Also the machine gun company had been split down, with one section in the west of Sunken road, two sections in Crucifix trench and one in reserve in the Sunken road, displaced so as to flank Birch tree wood and the east side of Shelter wood.

Brigadier-General Rawling moved his forward command post, referred to in the brigade war diary as the ‘advd battle hq’, to the junction of Patch alley and Sunken road at 5.30am, keeping in touch with his brigade headquarters, in the British lines, via telephone and runner communication.

The main attack was to be carries out by the 1st Lincolns, they had been given orders during the night. As discussed the battalion was to attack the woods of Birch Tree and Shelter at a moments notice. Both the shell splintered copses were in front of their frontage. The battalion as part of 62nd had spent most of 1st July moving small arms ammunition, Mills grenades and Stokes mortar shells up from their position in brigade reserve to the north of the eastern end of Patch Alley on the Sunken road.

According to the battalion diary the original attack had been cancelled and instead they sent out men to bring in the wounded, from other units in the division, still in the field at the same time patrols reported that all was quiet in the German lines. The 2nd of July had seen fine weather and small casualties, especially in relation to those suffered on the 1st of July by other units of the division but as the 3rd morning of the month dawned the battalion once again received orders, at 5.30am, to prepare to attack.

It was to be a two company, two platoon, front attack, with ‘A’ company going in on the left , assaulting the area of the right of Birch Tree wood and the forward line of trees in Shelter Wood. ‘B’ company would then link up with the right flank of ‘A’ company who would assault through the rest of Shelter wood. Behind them ’C’ and ‘D’ companies were to follow in support with the battalion reserve who were to offer carrying party support. The furthest most right flank of the Lincolns was to link up with the 10th Yorkshire battalion.

The objective of the attack was the trench that ran along the northern edge of Birch tree and Shelter woods, which had a light railway on its right, this railway would be intuitively used later to evacuate wounded. The Lincolns would be supported by the 12th battalion the Northumberland Fusiliers if required, with the 13th of the same regiment in brigade reserve.

A bombardment of the area began at 8.40am and this was argument by the brigades mortar battery at 8.55am who began a slow fire. At 9am the artillery lifted to the communication trenches and Quadrangle trench and the mortars intensified their salvos. Taking this as the pre-arranged signal the Lincolns leading platoons rushed from their positions to assault the enemy lines, covered by the 62nd machine gun company and the 10th Yorks.

(This is Deville wood but the effects of shelling show how Shelter Wood would have looked to the attacking troops of 62nd brigade on the 3rd of July 1916 and shows a good example of the entangles trees that obstructed the 1st Lincolns in the centre of the wood.)

'A’ company suffered heavily from enemy machine guns, as did its support unit, ‘C’ company, which was rushed up to help, but on the right of the attack the initial attack by ‘B’ company had better luck and ’D’ company came up and helped with consolidation of the position. Though when the Lincolns managed to reach the edge of the woods in the centre it was ’B’ company who were then were now engaged heavily in the tangle of trees and heavy fire from the Germans left in the wood which caused the attack to falter. Again the battalion bombers were used to good effect.

The Lincolns had already lost its commander, Lt-Colonel Grant DSO to a headshot and command had dissolved on to Captain T G Newbury. Many Germans had been safe in their deep dugouts in the wood and these now came out to argument the machine gun troops already engaging the British troops. As a consequence the situation was critical and one company of the 12th Northumberland fusiliers were sent up to support and vicious hand to hand fighting ensued.

At the same time the 10th Yorks were being pressed hard by German bombing parties that had attacked against Crucifix trench, this enabled a flank attack to be made against the edge of Birch tree wood. This caused some considerable pressure to the Lincolns ‘A’ company’ flank and they employed there own bombing parties to help stop the attacks. As a consequence the remainder of the 12th Northumberlands were committed to the battle in shelter wood and Crucifix trench. This helped somewhat and progress was made, albeit slowly.

By 11am the resistance was strong and the advance had become bogged down. Rawling decided to bring up the last reserve unit, the 13th Northumberland Fusiliers to the Sunken road. He then despatched them as, two companies to Shelter wood and one company to help the 10th Yorks. This left him with one company still in reserve.

An account from the 13th Northumberland Fusiliers war diary recounts an incident of the conditions for the bombers that were engaged in battle this day. It is in regard to a couple of bombing sections from ‘A’ company.

“At 9.30am on July 3rd this party under company commander moved up to Sunken road and was used for escorting prisoners and more especially for carrying up ammunition and bombs, food and water to front line in Shelter wood. Two squads of company bombers were sent as reinforcements to ‘D’ company in Shelter wood. Of these squads Corporal Skinner volunteered to go out single handed over the open and endeavour to silence a machine gun that was holding up the advance of ‘D’ company. He was with difficulty restrained and subsequently led his bombers round on the flank and silenced the gun.

By 11.30am the enemy was still hanging on in the edges of shelter wood and ten minutes later a report from was received from division that an spotter from the RFC had seen massive German movement from Contalmaison, the intention was believed to be a counter attack against Shelter wood.

It was now that Brigadier-General Rawling took the decision to finished the capture of the wood and it is probably this movement, using initiative not often seen at this stage of the war by a brigade commander that saved the day. Knowing that the wood needed to be captured in its entirety before the counter attack force arrived and knowing also that an artillery fire mission was being prepared he elected that time was short and elected to attack with the remainder of the reserve, one company of the 13th, and use his trench mortars as local artillery.

Major-General Campbell also saw the situation becoming dangerous and not being fully aware of the 34th division on his left committed the 63rd brigade to the flank. The strongest battalion was sent to Round wood alley with the remainder of the brigade being committed to a flanking position along Patch alley to its junction with sausage support trench (G.B.24 and 26). 64th brigade were also sent up and occupied the line from here at Pt X 20 d 7.2 (G.C.24 and 26). The result of this was that the left of 62nd brigade gained contact with 34th division around noon at position X 21 d 3.7. It would be some time before they had fully occupied these positions, in fact 62nd brigade diary indicates that 63rd brigade did not fully occupy Round wood alley until 4.30pm, they had also extended their position into Lozenge trench

The approach of the last company turned the tide and the German defenders began to surrender. Rawling then had his mortars brought up and they laid down fire on Shelter lane which stopped any further immediate reinforcement by German troops in the area. The close hand to hand fighting had lasted for almost two and a half hours .

The lack of German artillery bombardment and counter attack until 2pm almost two hours after the woods had been finally secured, left the defenders of the wood time to consolidate their positions and prepare for the German counter attack.

When it did come in the attack was relatively easily repulsed by the troops in the woods and by the brigades machine guns who had been brought up into position during the previously mentioned time. The brigade had word around 3.30pm that units of 17th division had taken Bottom wood. The yorks were able to established a better hold on a section of trench running SE from the NE corner of Shelter wood and the battalion was able to capture more machine guns, 4 in total.

Between 5pm and 5.30pm the brigade came under intense fire from German 15cm Howitzers for a short while but this seemed to be a short lived affair and caused little damage in the way of position. Brigade patrols sent out were able to report that both Quadrangle trench and Mametz wood were unoccupied but orders and strengths stopped any further advances by the brigade, though later at 6.30pm they were able to send out patrols who linked up finally with the 17th division and a consolidation of the position was able.

Consolidation and relief

After this the brigade began to re-organise itself and the Lincolns were withdrawn to the Sunken road and their forward positions were taken by the 12th Northumberland fusiliers. The Lincolns took up the role of a local reserve.