Royal Marines Light Infantry - The Battle of the Ancre (Battles of the Somme 1916)
Unit/ Formation: RMLI
Period/ Conflict: World War I
Date/s: 13th to 15th November 1916
(1RM: 127 killed; 2RM 105 killed)
The British Army was still recovering from the huge losses incurred during the summer of 1916 on the Somme and the British High Command was keen to achieve success in the field to recover their reputation. They planned a final major action on the Somme before winter brought a halt to large scale attacks.
Senior officers had debated the merits of yet another major attack and great concern had been expressed about the potential loss of even more lives. A major factor in these discussions was the state of the ground. Due to the lack of proper roads, constant shelling from both sides throughout the summer campaigns and now the persistent heavy rain, the whole area had become a quagmire.
The planned attack had been postponed several times in the hope that as winter approached the ground might freeze over making it easier to negotiate.
During October 1916 the 1st Battalion Royal Marine Light Infantry (1RMLI) rest of the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division (RND) moved into the front line just North of the Ancre River, in preparation for the attack.
The weather was appalling and many trenches had been destroyed by artillery fire. The front line was no more than a series of joined up shell holes. There was little shelter from either the weather or the enemy and the supply trenches ran across open ground under constant German fire.
But working parties were constantly being sent to the front carrying stores and ammunition being stored for the coming attack.
The severe weather had reduced the RND’s 12 battalions’ numbers from an average of 700 men down to barely 500 each, when on the 10th November they received their final orders for the attack.
The RND’s 63rd Division’s front line was about 1,200m wide running at right angles to the Ancre river (see map).
About 250m ahead of the assembly trenches on higher ground, was the German front consisting of three lines of trenches (marked in blue on the map).
The third German trench, code named the Dotted Green Line was the first objective.
Beyond this was a small valley with Station Road running along it between Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt Station.
On a ridge just beyond Station Road was the 2nd objective, a strongly fortified German position code named the Green Line (marked green).
Beyond this fortified position was a hill running up to the village of Beaucourt sur Ancre and in front of the village was the 3rd objective, the Beaucourt Trench code named the Yellow Line (yellow on the map).
The final objective was the red line (marked red) which was the position to be taken up following the successful capture of the village.
The front line unit of RND was the 188th Infantry Brigade - 1RMLI, Howe, Hawk and Hood Battalion, who were to attack the 1st objective advancing in four waves, one platoon of each Company in each wave. Having secured their first objective (the Dotted Green Line) they were to pause whilst the next assault group, 189th Infantry Brigade (2RMLI, Anson, Nelson and Drake) passed through their position to attack the 2nd objective (Green Line).
Once the 2nd objective had been taken, the first assault group were to pass through to attack the 3rd objective (Yellow Line / Beaucourt Trench)
The preliminary British bombardments began on the 6th November 1916 concentrating on the area between Beaumont Hamel and St. Pie
rre Divion. These barrages were repeated every morning in the hope that the Germans became used to them and would be less prepared for the actual attack.
The assault troops moved in to the assembly areas during the evening of 12th November (‘Y’ Day) and at 0300am the 1,000 men of 1RMLI and 2RMLI crawled through the mud into No Man’s Land, and waited in the rain in front of the German lines.
At 0545am on the 13th November the British barrage opened up once again on the German lines and the assault troops began to move forward through the very thick mist.
1RMLI met with disaster from the start; the German artillery and machine guns reacted immediately to the British barrage and brought intense fire onto the advancing marines. As a result more than half of them were killed or wounded in No Man’s Land, including all four company commanders of 1RMLI (Capt Loxley, Hoare, Browne and Sullivan).
But some marines managed to fight their way through the all three German trenches engaging in hand to hand combat to reach and capture their objective on the Dotted Green Line.
1RMLI were closely followed by 2RMLI who also suffered heavy casualties in No Man’s Land. Eventually they joined the 1RMLI survivors in taking the third German trench. Despite intermittent shelling all day and into the night, these Marines maintained their position making use of a partially constructed trench west of Station Road.
The survivors of RMLI regrouped during the morning of 14th November and some Marines were able to join Lt Cmdr Gilliland who combined the remnants of Howe, Anson and RMLI to assault the 2nd and 3rd objectives.
At the start of the battle 1RMLI had a strength of 490 men; after the battle just 138 were still fit for duty. And of 22 officers only 2 were fit for duty.
Meanwhile on the right of the 118th Brigade’s sector, Hood Battalion fought their way through the German front and captured all three trench lines in their sector. The Honourable Artillery Company (1HAC) captured the ‘Mound’ a key point which formed the southernmost point of the German trench system on the north bank of the Ancre. They also cleared the German dug-outs along the railway embankment.
Having taken their first objective (Dotted Green Line) Hood Battalion should have halted and waited for Drake to pass through to attack the Ridge beyond Station Road (Green line).
But Drake had already come under heavy fire from the German trenches to their left and had been engaged in fierce fighting at the cost of many lives. They had lost Lt Col Tetley their commanding officer and only 75 out of 500 men were still fit to fight.
So Lt Col Freyberg commanding officer of Hood decided to continue the advance towards the 2nd objective using his remaining 300 men plus the 75 men from Drake.
This attack was successful and they over ran the dug outs in their part of Station Road and reached the 2nd objective capturing 400 prisoners.
Hawke and Nelson Battalions had attacked in the mist at 0545am and as the first wave approached the German trenches, devastating German machine-gun fire broke out from a Redoubt between the first and second enemy trenches, opposite Hawke Battalion front.
It appears the mist concealed the precise location of the Redoubt and no British troops managed to get within striking distance; the artillery barrage had missed the Redoubt entirely.
Nearly 400 officers and men became casualties, mainly falling round the Redoubt.
Only about 20 men managed to get past the Redoubt but they had lost all their officers and became isolated. They then managed to join Lt Col Freyberg’s command and reached the Green Line 2nd objective.
A Lewis Gun team also managed to keep with the barrage as far as Station Road keeping the gun in action until the conclusion of Lt Col Freyberg’s attack.
Whilst the garrison of the Redoubt was engaging the troops of Hawke Battalion, the first two waves of the Nelson Battalion succeeded in forcing their way past the 1st objective, and attacked the German positions on the Green Line.
But here the fighting was again very heavy and they lost half of their men whilst assaulting the German positions on Station Road.
The third and fourth waves of Nelson suffered the same fate as the majority of the Hawke Battalion, falling in the front of the German trenches.
Further to the left of the sector Howe had kept up with the creeping barrage and had entered the first two rows of German trenches. Lt Cmdr Sprange and 20 men reached the third line but were unable to hold it. The enemy were able to move from the Redoubt and re-occupy this position.
However a detachment of about 180 men from Anson had been able to pass through the Howe Battalion and crossed the Station Road valley under the leadership of Lt Cmdr Gilliland to reach their objective, the green line on the Ridge.
So the only units to break through to the 2nd objective (the Green Line) were Lt Col Freyberg’s reaching high ground of tactical importance on the right, and Lt Cmdr Gilliland’s on the left of the sector in an area overlooked by the enemy.
From here they were to lead independent assaults on the 3rd objective (The Yellow Line) with both groups reaching it by about 5pm.
Fierce fighting continued throughout the night. At day break on the 14th November Col Freyberg although wounded several times, led the assault himself with a mixed detachment from the Howe, Drake, Hawke and Nelson battalions, and the H.A.C. and the 7/Royal Fusiliers, straight into Beaucourt.
The capture of Beaucourt was reported at 1030am and by that time 13/Royal Fusiliers and 13/Rifle Brigade, with a fresh barrage for their renewed assault, were in possession of most of Beaucourt Trench.
That afternoon the hold on Beaucourt was consolidated. Fears of a German counter-attack from the area of Baillescourt Farm, a mile to the East of the village, came to nothing after a heavy artillery bombardment of the area East of the village.
In the afternoon of the 15th November the 188th and 189th Brigades were withdrawn from the front line and marched back to Engelbelmer village.
Text above from Battle of Ancre (The Somme) Nov 1916 by Colin McKenzie