Five kilometres to the north of the Indian Corps, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s IV Corps had the task of attacking astride the Sailly-Fromelles Road. He had voiced some concerns about the reported German engineering works but was as confident as his commander, General Haig that with surprise on their side a breakthrough was there for the taking.
In fact the Germans were caught by surprise. Only the day before the attack had they finally noted movements within the opposing lines.
Rawlinson’s plan was to use his 8th Division on a frontage of about 1300 metres with its initial objective being the area known as the Rouge Bancs. This would have him opposed by 16 Bavarian Reserve Regiment (In which was serving Corporal Adolph Hitler).
The theory was, that the Germans (in effect Bavarians) would have about ten companies (1600 soldiers) defending their front against two brigades from the 8th Division (About 7,000 soldiers). As the 8th Division advanced on Fromelles the 7th Division would come through from behind and advance south-eastwards towards Aubers.
This manoeuvre would allow the two battlefield sectors to join up.
The artillery was to play just as an important role in the northern sector but the 173rd Tunnelling Company had also driven two short galleries under the German line; one of 90 metres and the other of 105. Notwithstanding the residue of blue clay that was quite visible from digging the mines the Germans remained blissfully unaware that anything was amiss.
The night before the attack the two brigades were moved up into position. The 24th Brigade under Brigadier General Oxley and the 25th Brigade commanded by Brigadier General Lowry-Cole on the left flank.
At 0500 hours and coordinated with the southern attack, the artillery barrage was begun. Seventy two 18 pounder field guns were tasked with destroying the German wire whilst there were thirty howitzers available to demolish the German parapet.
During the forty minute bombardment British observers noted that many of the shells were falling short (the guns were obsolete and worn out) some of them not even reaching the British front line ! In the final ten minutes of the bombardment the rate of fire increased and the first waves of the assaulting troops moved out into no man’s land. They could already see the glint of the enemy bayonets and realised that they were being awaited.
The 24th Brigade advanced with the 2nd Bn Northamptonshires on the right of a German salient and the 2nd Bn East Lancashires on its left. The Lancashiremen had already taken heavy casualties before the bombardment lifted with the German riflemen standing up on the parapet to get an easier aim.
The Northamptonshires had further to cross and lagged a few minutes behind but when they reached the German line one of the companies found that a hole had been made by the shelling and rushed it. In a repeat of events to the south there was no support because elsewhere the men were sent to ground by machine gun fire and uncut barbed wire.
The 25th Brigade had much better luck. Their leading battalions: 2nd Bn Rifle Brigade and the 1st Bn Royal Irish Rifles had found that the wire had been well cut and made swift progress to the German parapet. It was undamaged but that didn’t stop the Riflemen.
Having taken some prisoners from 16 Bavarian RIR they moved on and seized their first objective — the bend in the Fromelles Road.
On the left, the 1/13th Bn London (Kensington) Regiment had to wait on their two mines to be detonated at 0540 hours before charging forward. They reached Delangre Farm and began forming a protective left flank.
Forty minutes into the assault all forward movement stopped. Some gains had been made but where they hadn’t, no man’s land was being swept by constant machine gun fire preventing reinforcements from getting across. The initial surprise had worn off.
Brigadier General Lowry-Cole was at the front and could see for himself that his men were now being forced back despite his efforts to push his reserves forward to consolidate the captured positions.
Standing on the parapet the General was brought down, mortally wounded (he is buried in Le Trou Aid Post Cemetery).
By 0830 hours the British trenches were a jumble of broken climbing ladders and wooden bridges; the wounded; the dead and leaderless units that had lost cohesion and were blocking the way for the reserves trying to come up the communication trenches.
Movement out on the battlefield was instantly spotted and invited an immediate response from the German machine gunners. It seemed inevitable that those units that had managed to lodge themselves in the German lines had been lost.
With reports coming in of French successes at Vimy (The Foreign Legion had reached its summit) General Haig ordered Rawlinson to try again. The problem was that a further barrage was out of the question; nobody knew for certain just how many of the forward troops were still alive and just exactly where they were.
The only place where it could be delivered was between where the Northamptons had got their foothold and the Fromelles Road. The attack was geared for 1330 hours but the troops involved were so heavily shelled whilst forming up and then brought down as soon as they tried to advance that the word assault could be considered contradictory. There was little assaulting carried out, the men were scythed down as they stood.
Haig wanted to try again but was informed by Major General Hubert Gough of the 7th Division, in reserve, that further attacks would be futile (Haig seemed more prepared to listen to his cavalry friend Gough than the infantryman Rawlinson).
The offensive had failed.