Peter Hart, oral historian at the Imperial War Museum, made a welcome return as guest speaker at last month’s meeting of the Western Front Association to deliver his talk on actions at the Butte de Warlencourt, in November 1916.
The place held a special meaning for the Durham Light Infantry Regiment with three of its battalions involved in the actions.
The feature dominated the surrounding area and the attack by 151st Brigade with support from an Australian unit was the last of several ultimately unsuccessful attempts to secure the position. 1/9th DLI was tasked to take the Butte on November 5, while 1/6th DLI, 1/8th DLI and Australian troops were charged to take nearby trenches.
Unknown to the British, the Germans opposite were in the process of being relieved, so the DLI units faced overwhelming odds and two full divisions of enemy troops. Perhaps even worse, the weather was absolutely atrocious, so much so that several men drowned in the glutinous mud and all struggled physically to get out of the trenches and across no man’s land.
Nevertheless, most of the Butte de Warlencourt was secured with relative ease - but the supporting artillery and mortar barrages were poor with many shells falling short. Heavy opposition limited the number of men who reached the German trenches, so the attacking formations soon retired to their starting line.
This left men of the 1/9th Battalion on the Butte and those of 1/6th Battalion who had secured a foothold in nearby German trenches exposed to even greater enemy forces determined to dislodge them.
Many counter-attacks were repelled but those attacks became progressively more determined until, at 11pm, the Prussian Guards Division delivered the decisive attack which drove the DLI off the tumulus and out of adjoining trenches.
In all, DLI casualties numbered 926 officers and men – 144 were killed in action; 434 wounded; and 348 were recorded as missing, many of whom would have been killed, others captured by the Germans.
Peter went on to highlight the reservations expressed even at the time, especially by Lieutenant-Colonel Roland Bradford, VC, MC, 1/9th DLI’s commanding officer, who felt the objective was of limited military value and did not justify the losses suffered and the sacrifices made.
In his concluding remarks, Peter reflected that the attack was always doomed to failure as it was, in effect, only a local attack which allowed the Germans to concentrate their response on a small part of the line.
The WFA’s next meeting, on July 23, will see Tom McClements relating the story of the Tyneside Irish and the First World War.
WFA meetings are held at Alnmouth Ex-Servicemen’s Club and start at 7.30 pm for 8pm. Visitors and new members will be made most welcome. The suggested minimum donation is £1, to include a light buffet supper.