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Webmatters : The Ancre and Beaucourt: November 1916
Rough Map of Area

The Ancre

Monday 13th November 1916

63rd (Royal Naval) Division

At 0545 hours under the cover of the artillery barrage the leading battalions made good progress but at the cost of severe casualties from enfilading fire.

Lt Colonel Tetley, commanding the Drake Battalion was mortally wounded and the CO of the Hood Battalion: Lt Colonel Freyberg found himself leading not only his own men but those of Tetley’s Battalion as well.

By 0645 hours Freyberg had managed to take his first objective along with hundreds of prisoners. On his left though the Hawke and Nelson Battalions had encountered very stiff opposition with the CO of the Hawke Battalion wounded and that of the Nelson killed (Lt Colonels Wilson and Burge).

To their left the 188th Brigade were having an equally difficult time with 1st RMLI on the extreme left losing every Company Commander in the opening charge.

The Germans had been far from idle during their long stay in the area and they had constructed a well connected system of defence incorporating the local medieval tunnels and catacombs.

 

Looking across the Ancre Valley from the Ulster Tower

Looking across the Ancre Valley from the Ulster Tower at the terrain covered by the Division
The Newfoundland Park on the horizon and Beaumont-Hamel village on the right
The Ancre British Cemetery is in the centre of the photo

 

This meant that in places machine gun posts were well concealed and specially adapted to provide enfilading fire against any attackers. Three in particular, which had escaped discovery and were not shown on any of the British maps, had caused terrible damage to the attacks made by the 188th Brigade and the left of the 189th.

Following General Shute’s decision to use the 190th Brigade to press forward, the intermingling of units on the hillside became even greater and the confusion no less so. In the valley Freyberg advanced again at 0745 hours with his two battalions and part of the 1st HAC. Within an hour and a half he was confident enough that he could take the village of Beaucourt.

However; with the left flank of the Division still hanging in the air, General Shute told Freyberg to hold fast whilst the artillery continued with the bombardment and the 188th Brigade attempted further attacks across its front.

By early evening darkness had fallen and the position remained as much as it had for the afternoon with Freyberg and his assortment of troops in a line from the railway at the southern edge of Beaucourt stretching across the front of the village and into the second German communication trench — Redoubt Alley.

The rest of the advance had been badly held up in the front line but they were in contact with the 51st (Highland) Division on their left who had taken the infamous Y Ravine. In the 190th Brigade it was only 1st HAC who were still recognisable as a single unit, the remainder had become intermixed with other units.

 

The fall of Beaucourt: 14th November 1916

63rd RN Division memorial, Beaucourt

63rd (RN) Division memorial, Beaucourt

On Freyberg’s right, II Corps had taken St Pierre Divion on the afternoon of the 13th and men from the 1st Cambridgeshire Regiment had been ferrying ammunition and grenades across the Ancre to replenish spent supplies.

During the night the 111th Brigade from the 37th Division had been brought up to assist the 63rd in their assault on the untaken section of the Beaucourt Trench to the left of Freyberg’s group.

The 13th Royal Fusiliers and 13th Rifle Brigade started their advance at 0620 hours but despite some gains it soon became apparent that nothing further was going to be achieved until Beaucourt had been taken.

For the assault on the village, the 190th Brigade had assembled as many men as it could in the vicinity of Beaucourt Station, including 400 men from 1st HAC and about 80 of the 7th Royal Fusiliers. At 0745 hours they moved forward to make contact with Freyberg, who then led the men immediately into the attack.

Despite the strong resistance in the trenches to the west of the village, Beaucourt fell remarkably easily with the gain of 500 prisoners. By 1030 hours Freyberg could report that he was in control of Beaucourt.

 

Tanks

The original planning for the attack had utilised a number of tanks, but it had soon been realised that with the ground so well churned by the bombardment that they would be more of a hindrance than an asset and they had been sent back to the rear.

Now, on the second day, two were brought forward in an attempt to deal with the stronghold machine gun nest which continued to hold up the Division’s advance to the west of Beaucourt.

Both tanks soon became bogged down in mud but not before one of them had advanced far enough to be able to use its 6 pounder guns to good effect, forcing the German garrison of over 400 to surrender.

That evening the line of advance was pushed further forward around Beaucourt and the left was brought up to the Beaucourt Trench. It would take another few days of fighting to finally secure all that had been envisaged a few days beforehand.

On the night of the 17th November it started to snow and the final assaults of the battle of the Somme were launched the following morning.

…the assault was delivered in whirling sleet which afterwards changed to rain. More abominable conditions for active warfare are hardly to be imagined…

Official History

 

Lt Colonel Bernard Freyberg VC

For his skill and leadership whilst wounded more than once Lt Colonel Freyberg was awarded the Victoria Cross.

London Gazette No. 29866, dated 15th December 1916

By his splendid personal gallantry he carried the initial attack straight through the enemy’s front system of trenches. Owing to mist and heavy fire of all descriptions, Lieutenant Colonel Freyberg’s command was much disorganised after the capture of the first objective. He personally rallied and reformed his men, including men from other units who had become intermixed.

He inspired all with his own contempt of danger. At the appointed time he led his men to the successful assault of the second objective-many prisoners being captured.

During this advance he was twice wounded. He again rallied and reformed all who were with him, and although unsupported in a very advanced position, he held his ground for the remainder of the day, and throughout the night, under heavy artillery and machine-gun fire. When reinforced on the following morning he organized the attack on a strongly fortified village and showed a fine example of dash in personally leading the assault, capturing the village and five hundred prisoners. In this operation he was again wounded.

Later in the afternoon he was again severely wounded, but refused to leave the line until he had issued his final instructions.

The personality, valour and utter contempt of danger on the part of this single officer enabled the lodgement in the most advanced object of the Corps to be permanently held, and on this point d’appui was eventually formed.

Although born in Richmond, Surrey, Freyberg’s family had moved to Wellington in New Zealand when he was two. He joined the NZ Army before returning to England where, on the outbreak of war, he joined the Queen’s Royal (West Surrey) Regiment.

Rising through the ranks by his natural leadership and ability he was to become the Commander of the NZEF in 1939. By the finish of that war he was in line to become the Governor of New Zealand – a post he took up in 1946. He later became the Deputy Constable and Lieutenant-Governor of Windsor Castle (Back in England) and was made a Lord: Baron Freyberg of Wellington (NZ) and Munstead (Surrey) VC, GCMG, DSO two bars, LLD, DLL.

 


Sub Lieutenant Edwin Dyett

In sharp contrast to Freyberg’s leadership and gallantry another young officer from the Division was to become almost equally well known to the public but for sadly different reasons.