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World War I History: High Wood, the Somme's 75 Acres of Hell

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

World War I: Map of Somme battlefield, 1916, showing High Wood circled in green.

World War I: Map of Somme battlefield, 1916, showing High Wood circled in green.

The Rottenest Place on the Western Front

During the Battle of the Somme in Northern France – perhaps more correctly referred to as the Somme Offensive, since it was a series of many battles and actions spanning four-and-a-half months from July 1 to November 18, 1916 – the British and Germans fought over a patch of woods measuring slightly more than one-tenth of a square mile. The battle for High Wood's 75 acres started on July 14 and raged nearly continuously for 64 days. It opened with a disastrous British cavalry charge and ended after the abortive first use of tanks. During those two months, the Germans furiously repelled or counterattacked every British assault. It came to be known as "the hell of High Wood" and "the rottenest place on the Western Front." In the end, the British finally managed to overwhelm the Germans on September 15, though the commanding British General at that time was relieved of command for "wanton waste of men."

At the end of the Somme's disastrous first day of fighting on July 1, the British suffered 60,000 casualties, including nearly 20,000 killed. Oddly enough, no one lost their job for wanton wastage that day. After ten days' fighting along a 13-mile front, the French, in a supporting role, had penetrated some six miles, while the British, at best, only three. The generals regrouped and prepared a second phase.

WWI: Decan Horse Cavalry of the British Indian Army forming up. These, or others of the Deccan Horse, participated in the cavalry charge against High Wood.

WWI: Decan Horse Cavalry of the British Indian Army forming up. These, or others of the Deccan Horse, participated in the cavalry charge against High Wood.

Send in the Cavalry

Early in the morning of July 14, the British made a concerted push forward and, in only a few hours, managed to take portions of the higher ground called the Bazentin Ridge, including the village of Longueval. From Longueval, they were able to look northwest across a shallow dip in the land all the way up to a slightly higher point, capped by the small wood the French called Bois des Foureaux and the British, simply, High Wood. Any Germans in the wood would be able to view the entire sector, but no Germans were in sight. Two British generals actually walked along the grain fields, relatively undamaged by the war, and nearly to the edge of the wood to reconnoiter. High Wood appeared empty, and the generals requested a brigade of infantry to take control of the area. Unfortunately, the brigade was being held in reserve for other duties, and it was decided to use two cavalry regiments (one an Indian cavalry regiment) instead, since the ground was deemed favorable for a cavalry attack. Also, unfortunately, the cavalry did not arrive until that evening, and the Germans used that time to furiously reinforce and improve their positions in High Wood. No one in charge seemed to consider that a cavalry charge against machine guns and into a wood might not be practical, but it does seem likely that one or more old cavalry hands saw this as a long-awaited opportunity.

At 7:00 p.m., the cavalry charged across the fields through artillery and machine-gun fire and into the wood. An observer said:

"It was an incredible sight, an unbelievable sight, they galloped up with their lances and with pennants flying, up the slope to High Wood and straight into it [. . . .] They simply galloped on through all that and horses and men were dropping on the ground, with no hope against the machine guns, because the Germans up on the ridge were firing down into the valley where the soldiers were. It was an absolute rout. A magnificent sight. Tragic."

The dismounted cavalry held their positions in High Wood during the night, but without reinforcements, they withdrew the next morning on July 15.

An infantry company was then sent in, but by then, the Germans had made High Wood their anchor for their new defensive trench line in the sector, and the company was repulsed. It wasn't until July 20 that the British were able to establish a toe-hold inside the woods. Continued attacks through the end of the month were repulsed, with both sides suffering heavy casualties, including many friendly fire incidents from British supporting artillery.

A British Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector (weighing 2.5 tons, 17 m long and requiring 300 men to assemble) shooting flaming oil 30 to 40 meters.

A British Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector (weighing 2.5 tons, 17 m long and requiring 300 men to assemble) shooting flaming oil 30 to 40 meters.

A Wood Without Trees

By the beginning of August, artillery from both sides had erased the trees. High Wood was 75 acres of stumps, craters and trenches. While the fighting continued during August, the British began tunneling operations in order to place explosives under the German strong points. They also deployed two of their new gigantic flame-throwers, but friendly fire destroyed the two-ton monsters before they could be used.

On August 24, in preparation for yet another assault, a machine gun company, with the aid of two companies of soldiers to constantly fetch and carry belts of ammunition, set up ten machine guns and laid down indirect fire on the strongest German positions. All ten machine guns fired continuously for 12 hours, expending almost one million rounds of ammunition. Despite causing the Germans much grief and following up the murderous machine gun fire with another infantry assault, the Germans held on in High Wood.

By September 3, British sappers had tunneled 300 feet under the main German strong point and detonated 3,000 pounds of explosives. British soldiers succeeded in occupying the resulting crater, only to lose it to a savage German counter-attack. More attacks followed. On September 9, another mine was destroyed, expanding the crater to 140 feet wide and 35 feet deep. Again, the Germans successfully counterattacked.

WWI: Painting of wrecked tanks in a wood. Actual title: "Wrecked Tanks near Sanctuary Wood" by David Brown Milne (1882-1953)

WWI: Painting of wrecked tanks in a wood. Actual title: "Wrecked Tanks near Sanctuary Wood" by David Brown Milne (1882-1953)

Send in the Tanks

Finally, on September 15, another British attack was launched, this time led by the new secret weapon, the tank. There were four of them, and they were each given a carefully planned route to follow, though, because of the terrain, none got very far. One by one, they broke down, got hung up on stumps or caught fire. As the infantry of both sides hunkered down, barrages of shells rained down on the Germans. This was followed by 750 Stoke Mortar rounds, which were immediately followed by the British storming the enemy positions. This time the Germans retreated or surrendered by the hundreds. Although there would be fighting in the area for several more days, High Wood was finally and firmly in British hands. During just the last four days of fighting, British casualties were estimated at 4,500. As a result of this, Major-General Charles Barter was relieved, as mentioned above, but, oddly enough, he was later knighted for his performance.

High Wood Today


Today, High Wood (now called Bois des Fourcaux by the French) still exists, more or less in the same boundaries drawn on Allied and German World War I maps. The trees have all grown back, and there is a duck pond where the mines were exploded. The countryside is idyllic. Along the southwest boundary of the wood sits the London Cemetery and Extension. Inside the wood lie the detritus of war: buried tools, rusting equipment, steel helmets, wire and weapons, and unexploded munitions, although the last rusting remains of the tanks have been removed.

Also, in that 75 wooded acres are buried the remains of 8,000 to 10,000 unidentified British and German soldiers. High Wood became a huge, anonymous mass grave.

WWI: A red poppy in London Cemetery next to High Wood.

WWI: A red poppy in London Cemetery next to High Wood.

Questions & Answers

Question: My Grandfather was in the East Surrey Regiment 1st Battalion. I think his regiment was in the battle of High Wood, do you know whether this regiment took part? He was wounded on the 15th of September 1916, he received a gunshot wound to his leg, but luckily he survived the war. He was sent back to England and was treated at St Herberts Hospital in London. He transferred to the 3rd Battalion as a signaller at the end of the war.

Answer: I don't know if the East Surrey Regiment 1st Battalion specifically fought at High Wood, but I do know it fought in multiple battles during the Somme campaign. Although 10 days after your grandfather was wounded, the 1st Battalion distinguished itself at the Battle of Morvel (25-28 September) which was only four miles east of High Wood, so it is reasonable to assume the battalion was in the High Wood area earlier in September.

Question: My uncle served in the First Cameronians and was killed leading an attack on High Wood on July 16, 1916. If I visit the area, am I likely to be able to work out specifically where he was involved ?

Answer: High Wood is only 1/8 of a square mile, but I don't know if you can get more detail than that. Perhaps there are Cameronian (Scottish Rifles) sites that have more information. Adjacent to High Wood on its southwest side is the London Cemetery and Extension containing the remains of many who fell in the woods.

© 2012 David Hunt


Lloyd Wilson on November 11, 2018:

My Gt. Uncle - Sgt Walter Tindall C1027, C.Coy ,16th KRRC, survived "the hell they called High Wood", and was cited for gallant action - whether a particular act or his general conduct during that battle we do not now know [citation records destroyed by German Bombing in WW2, and our copy of the 16th KRRC's the War Diary doesn't mention his name specifically], and awarded the MM as a result. He survived until being wounded in the trenches below Locre Chateau around April14th, 1918, fighting as a member of a "composite battalion" under the commander of a major of the 9th HLI, made up of stragglers from the 100th Brigade's battle around Neuve Eglise across the valley to the East of Locre; during Haig's desperate "backs-to-the-wall" Ordered defence, - and was cas'evac'd to the 62nd CCS 16 kms away, - and DoW a few days later. He's buried in Harnghe's CWGC cemetery just outside the Village. And I'm thinking of him today - 11-11-1918 - as I think of all the members of my family who have Served, at this day every year.

Anthony Farrar on November 08, 2017:

I visited High Wood and Delville Wood and Trones wood a few weeks ago. I go there as often as I can. Not fare from the UK.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on January 10, 2015:

Thanks for commenting, Lal. It's amazing what you can find "tucked away" off-the-beaten-path in England (and I assume other European countries), isn't it? A long time ago I remember stopping at a small restaurant-pub and round back was an old Spitfire and Hurricane. Here in Iowa, that would be a major tourist attraction!

Lal on January 10, 2015:

I was driving thurogh Southern England and saw a small sign advertising a tank museum just off the road. I didn't have much else to do so thought I'd do a quick check. Well........spent the whole day there. They had pretty much every tank ever built in the place. Lots of dioramas and cut outs of the insides and armor. Best museum I've ever been to. Can't remember the name but a Google check would find it. Definitely worth it if you're over there.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on September 02, 2014:

Thank you for commenting, Kenneth. So many battles-- some battles within battles; so many strange names and some plain like "High Wood", almost Winnie-the-Pooh-like. And each one a horror in its own way.

Kenneth Catchpole on September 02, 2014:

My Gt.Uncle James died of wounds received in High Wood,he served with the Royal West Kent Regt.(The Queens)he is buried at Heilly Station Cemetery,I found his grave about three years ago,what a terrible waste of young lives.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on September 03, 2012:

Hi Graham, always great to hear from you. Thanks for commenting. This one was somewhat difficult for me to put together because there were so many different divisions, battalions, regiments, generals, etc involved and so many assaults. I found myself getting confused by all this (plus the context of the High Wood in the scheme of things). I didn't want to confuse the reader with all the names and units-- I just wanted to get across the extraordinary heroism, horror and waste for both sides who fought over this 1/10 square mile of trees.

Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on September 03, 2012:

Hi UH. Your usual first class presentation. Full of information that I am sure was hard to find. As for the cavalry charge; I was there.

Voted up and all.


David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on September 02, 2012:

Hello Pavlo. You are so right-- especially when you consider so many other sites around the world and from other wars that have even more. Would people today put up with such casualties? That is the question, isn't it? Thanks for your great comments.

Pavlo Badovskyi from Kyiv, Ukraine on September 02, 2012:

What can I say... Any war is a horror. But several thousands of unknown buried in one place - is more than horror. It can not be even understood ... Great hub!

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on September 02, 2012:

Hi Judi Bee. I believe the Somme was the first use of the "Pals" where men from towns joined up and fought together... and died together, wiping out nearly entire villages of male youths. Thanks for your great comment.

Judi Brown from UK on September 02, 2012:

It's just jaw dropping that the generals continued for so long when the cost in men's lives was so huge. I know they were desperate by this time, but what madness. Some of the men from my town were at High Wood with the 1st DCLI - they had particularly heavy losses, inflicted by machine-gun fire, around the middle of July.

Great hub - sharing it.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on September 02, 2012:

Thanks for commenting, Nesbyte. I felt the same way myself as I was researching it.

Nesbyte from UK on September 02, 2012:

This was a really interesting hub. A story that's fascinating and horrifying at the same.