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The Butte de Warlencourt in the autumn of 1916 by Jack Sheldon.

The Butte de Warlencourt in the autumn of 1916 from a German perspective. An article by renowned historian Jack Sheldon.

Jack Sheldon.

Jack Sheldon

When at the beginning of October 1916 the British Fourth Army began to flounder forward through the mud once more in what was later dignified by the title ‘The Battle of the Transloy Ridges’, 6th Bavarian Reserve Division was in the line defending the Warlencourt - Le Sars - Eaucourt l’Abbaye sector. The Butte de Warlencourt, the battered remains of an ancient prehistoric burial mound, known to the Germans as Die Kuppe von Warlencourt, was the responsibility of Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment 17. Engaged on and around the Butte almost incessantly until it was relieved by elements of the Saxon XIX Corps, it headed back into reserve having lost eight officers and 302 other ranks killed, twenty eight officers and 1,156 other ranks wounded, together with no fewer than 211 missing These were appalling figures for a regiment below war establishment when it entered the line, but it had yielded no ground and, together with the rest of the division, had beaten back serious attacks on 1, 7 and 12 October, not to mention numerous other minor thrusts on other days.

The then Lieutenant Colonel RB Bradford, who was awarded the VC on 1 October, was later dismissive of the importance of this mud streaked white mass that reared up twenty metres above the surrounding sea of mud, writing, ‘The Butte itself would have been of little use to us for the purposes of observation. But the Butte had become an obsession. Everybody wanted it.’ It must be noted, however, that this view was not shared by the British Official Historian: ‘The Butte afforded excellent observation of the low ground to the southwest and also in the opposite direction … its importance was fully appreciated by both British and Germans.’ As far as the Germans were concerned there can be no doubt about this. The orders to Infantry Regiment 104, 40th Infantry Division specifically stated, ‘The Butte de Warlencourt, located in the sector to be taken over, is the key point in our positions. If the enemy captures this place, they will have observation over great swathes of the ground in the direction of Bapaume. A very large portion of our artillery can be seen from there ... ’

From the point of view of the defenders, the value of what was dubbed a ‘Second Gibraltar’ was its elevation. From its summit they could see as far as Windmill Hill northeast of Pozières and also the smashed remains of Delville and High Woods. In addition, their artillery observers had views down into many of the folds in the ground where the British had sighted their batteries and so could fire accurately at them, especially now that the recent change of command had made guns and shells more plentiful. Improved visibility was, however, the only advantage conferred on the defence. The problems of coping with the appalling battlefield conditions were extremely difficult, being described by 1st Battalion Infantry Regiment 179, occupying a neighbouring sector just west of the Butte, in this way:

'Everything possible is being done to maintain the collapsed and unconnected trench system. But the term ‘trench’ is illusory. A line can barely be detected. The entire garrison, down to the last man, is fully occupied in ceaseless work to dig out what little remains. Those involved are literally stuck fast in the mud, so the useful work obtained, in proportion to the energy expended, is only slight. The gluey mud sticks to the shovels and is difficult to shake off…The streaming rain has left the trenches in an appalling condition. Everyone is up to their knees in mud and water. Even the best and most willing men can barely be motivated to hang on in the trenches. The companies have no grenades. Those in the front line are coated with mud and unusable. The men can barely stay on their feet… [We] request that the field kitchen sends no more hot food; its transport forward is out of the question in the bottomless mud…’

Despite all the problems, despite the incessant shelling which was so intense that the top of the Butte was gradually blown away, Infantry Regiment 104, plagued by thirst, hunger and every kind of privation, managed by superhuman effort to cling on to its positions for the rest of October. They subsequently compared the landscape to the craters of the moon: no trees, no bushes, total desolation. Yet it was a scene constantly shifting, like a windswept ocean, as shells rubbed out existing craters and created new ones that the defenders linked up by virtue of incessant labour. A further serious thrust was made on 15 October following shelling, building up to drumfire, by late afternoon and directed by thirty aerial observers and twenty balloon crews. Muck and debris were thrown up everywhere but, luckily for the defenders, ‘huge quantities of British shells were smothered by the softness of the ground’. Nevertheless, the shelling took a large toll of casualties and the forward companies were forced to deploy their fourth platoons forward as reinforcements. Meanwhile the British continued to sap forward towards the Butte, but these preparations were observed, as was the movement forward of fresh troops. As a result when the attack was launched on 17 October, it was shot more or less to a standstill by German artillery supported by numerous machine guns, then minor incursions were dealt with hasty counter-attacks and a few prisoners were taken. However, parts of the forward Lüneschloss Riegel were captured so it was deemed necessary to launch a full scale counter-attack at dawn on 19 October. Two main assault groups were involved, both equipped with flamethrowers and led by members of the divisional assault troop. One succeeded in wresting back a 250 metre length of the Riegel and capturing a handful of prisoners, but the other never got off the ground. A chance bullet hit the flamethrower which exploded. Surprise was lost and heavy British machine gun fire prevented any movement forward.

Shelling and repeated hand grenade battles continued throughout the day and the following night, whilst attempts were made to dig fresh positions forward of the Butte. This pattern of minor gains and losses continued for the next few days then, on 21 October, it poured with rain. Everyone was soaked to the skin, the ground was reduced to a filthy sludge with the consistency of porridge, weapons became blocked with mud and the damp ruined the machine gun belts, leading to endless jams. No sooner had the weather cleared somewhat, however, than British aircraft were up overhead directing more shells on the Butte. German fighter aircraft attempted to counter them, but suffered a serious setback on 28 October when Hauptmann Oswald Boelcke, with forty victories to his name, crashed fatally northeast of the Butte following a mid air collision with one of his own pilots. His fate was observed by many members of Infantry Regiment 104 and it did nothing for their morale, especially when his identity became known.

By the beginning of November relief of the Saxons became pressing. In two weeks they had suffered total casualties, killed wounded and missing, of twenty six officers and 1,100 other ranks and the survivors were utterly exhausted from the strain. In the nick of time 4th Guards Infantry Division arrived to take over responsibility and the Saxons moved back into reserve near Cambrai; in many cases and lucky for them, they were moved in trucks returning from the front empty. Once this relief was complete Reserve Infantry Regiment 93, which took over the Butte, remained in the line unchanged apart from internal reliefs in the line, right through until preparations for the withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line began in late February 1917.

However, no sooner had these fresh troops arrived to defend the Gallwitz Riegel than the build up to the final autumn assault on the Butte began. At 9.00 am [Allied time] on 5 November the preliminary bombardment reached drumfire intensity, cloaking the whole area with dense clouds of smoke and filthy mud. All links to the rear were destroyed, though carrier pigeons did get through to divisional headquarters then, between 10.00 and 11.00 am, the assault began. By this time the jumping off trenches had been pushed to within eighty to one hundred metres of the Gallwitz Riegel. Picking their way slowly through the deep, clinging mud, the British infantry moved forward. German machine guns, which had been sheltered in deep dugouts came into action, scattering many of the attackers, though some fired back from a kneeling position at a range of only forty metres. Some, a few, penetrated the German front line and British soldiers were seen on the slopes of the Butte itself, but they were driven off again, first by elements of 3rd Battalion Reserve Infantry Regiment 93 and later by the adjacent Infantry Regiment 179.

Thus ended in the foul swamp of the late autumn battlefield, the attempts by Fourth Army to seize and hold the Butte de Warlencourt. It had been fought over for a solid month, costing many casualties on either side. On 6 November the companies of 3rd Battalion Reserve Infantry Regiment 93 were each down to about fifty all ranks. During the two days the final battle lasted, it lost no fewer than one officer and thirty nine other ranks killed, with three and 138 men wounded and four and 183 missing. So on the German side alone and not counting those sick and medically evacuated, in five weeks the defence of the Butte de Warlencourt had cost over 3,000 casualties – a sobering thought and one to bear in mind when you visit this iconic site.

Article courtesy of Jack Sheldon