The battlefield on the Somme is divided by the Albert – Bapaume Road running roughly north eastwards, and it was astride this road that III Corps was required to attack on the morning of 1st July 1916.
Many visitors to the battlefield arrive via the D 929 from Albert, and the village of La Boisselle with its small panel declaring it to be the front line on that fateful day, is often their first contact with the reality of the landscape.
As you come over the final hill before dropping down to La Boisselle you are passing Usna Hill on your left and Tara Hill on your right and it would be nice to be able to think of the road being a neat dividing line, but this wasn’t the case.
On the right of the main road was the 34th Division made up for the most part of men from the Tyneside. However their boundary stretched across the main road from the crossroads (near their monument) and up along the road that leads towards Ovillers Military Cemetery on the left.
If you take that small road the next junction to the right and down to the cemetery would have been just inside the boundary of 8th Division who were detailed off to assault and take Ovillers.
The Tyneside Monument marks the front line and this would also have been the point where the two opposing lines were at their closest on the III Corps front.
Just to the right of the Memorial and in the field to the right is a field still bearing the scars of battle and this was known as the Glory Hole.
Over the hill to your right (beyond the Lochnagar crater – La Grande Mine) was a valley known as Sausage Valley, owing to the presence of German observation balloons.
The valley you can see immediately on your left running in front of Ovillers was known as Mash Valley, owing to the presence of a British Soldiers sense of humour (You can’t have sausages without mashed potato).
As you can see quite clearly when driving along this arrow straight section of road, the road dips into La Boisselle before climbing up towards Pozières (and its modern day radio masts) the highest point on the battlefield.
Both Ovillers and La Boisselle had been well fortified by the Germans and they had further fortified their line with strong points at two critical positions. The Schwaben Höhe (Not be confused with the Redoubt at the Ulster Tower) was situated on what is now the site of the Lochnagar crater. On the right hand ridge of Sausage Valley beyond the mine was the Sausage Redoubt.
With the two slopes facing each other both armies had a good view of the other.
34th Division’s task was to advance towards Contalmaison – the next village – taking La Boisselle, the Schwaben Höhe, Sausage Valley and the Sausage Redoubt.
On the left, 8th Division would advance taking the village of Ovillers and Mash Valley.
The two Divisions would then stop just short of Pozières. A tidy distance of about 4 km on a front of about 3 km.
Behind these two Divisions was 19th Division in reserve and ready to take on the final assault as the 34th and 8th consolidated and reorganised.
As part of the week long bombardment of the German positions the entire Corps’ artillery had been used together with a supplement of French Field artillery firing gas shells.
As elsewhere along the front, the artillery bombardment had been carefully coordinated to an exact timetable. This meant that from the moment that the British soldiers left their jumping off positions they had to try and keep up with the bombardment which would slowly move ahead of them in defined stages.
An important part of the initial assault was to be the firing of two huge mines placed under the German front lines by the 179th Tunnelling Company RE. These would be blown two minutes before the infantry assaulted.
The first of these was at Lochnagar which can be visited today. Two charges of 16,425 and 10,885 kilos had been placed about 20 metres apart and 16 metres under the German line at the Schwaben Höhe.
The second mine was called Y Sap and has since been filled in. This was located just on the Ovillers side of the main road near the Tyneside Monument. It was made up of 18,500 kilos of explosive and had been placed by means of the longest tunnel ever dug in chalk throughout the war – -320 metres long.
34th Division had been raised as part of Kitchener’s New Army and the Somme was to be their first battle. Formed for the most part by men from Tyneside it also had two battalions of Royal Scots from Edinburgh (One of which, the 16th was the footballers’ battalion).
With the harder section of the line in front of it, the Division decided to use all of its strength immediately by means of four columns of infantry, each of them three battalions deep.
As La Boisselle formed a salient (A term simply meaning that it jutted out towards the opposing lines) the decision was taken to pass either side of the village in strength, cut it off and then detail off a small number of men to mop up.
The Official History makes the comment that:
…the Fourth Army had said that the village would have been rendered untenable and the Germans in it wiped out by the preliminary bombardment…
However, fears that too many of the rounds fired by the British artillery had proven to be duds were going to be proved to be all too accurate. Some of the deep German dug outs had hardly been touched at all.
In the early hours of the morning a German listening post picked up a telephone conversation repeating the text from Fourth Army’s HQ wishing the men well. The long awaited offensive was obviously on the verge of commencing.
On the right of the Division the 101st Brigade made up the first two columns of attacking infantry with the 15th Bn Royal Scots and 10th Bn Lincolnshire Regiment leading the assault on Sausage Valley.
The next two columns were made up by the 102nd Brigade — The Tyneside Scottish.
Opposite The Schwaben Höhe was the 21st Bn Northumberland Fusiliers and on the left of the village and opposite the Y Sap mine emplacement was the 20th Bn Northumberland Fusiliers.
To add the third battalions, the 103rd Brigade (Tyneside Irish) were spread out, a battalion to each column.
The 101st and 102nd Brigades would pass through the German front line systems and halt before Contalmaison, reform and allow the 103rd to take up the assault. This was to be done by 0858 hours.