1/Royal Marines at Miraumont
17 February 1917
As I sit here writing this article or a cold November evening, I can’t help but turn my mind back eighty-three years to the RND’s trial at Beaucourt. The Battle of the Somme officially finished six days later that success and history draws a line under the affair. History mainly picks the story up at Ypres bypassing a whole section of many Divisions histories. In this respect the RND is no different, people who knew me, know that I have often promoted Gavrelle as one of these lost battles which often gets ignored, then there is one other which is equally ignored and was virtually as costly-Miraumont. Although the Battle of the somme drew to a close officallv at the end of November 1916, the slaughter continued in the New Year as the higher command demanded that the line he advanced In the Battles around Miraumont, the newly rested and replenished RND suffered severely to take more mud. Ironically the Germans ceded much land a few weeks later without a fight in their March withdrawal, which raises the issue of whether the costly battles on the Ancre were really needed at all.
The RND moved into the line around Grandcourt at the end January 1917 with preparation for offensive action towards Miraumont. An attack was planned for February and was to be conducted by units of 189 Brigade, with mainly Hood and Hawke assaulting and Nelson in close reserve. The attack went ahead in the evening of 3 February and into the early hours of the 4th. The Brigade succeeded in capturing River trench and settled on its gains but suffered casualties of 24 Officers and 647 other ranks. figures which were significant, especially in the light of the losses three months prior to this.
On 7th February it was the turn of l90 Brigade to attack. This went well with 1/HAC taking Baillescourt Farm which was in the river valley 600yds ahead of the line taken and established on the 4th. The position now was that the line was advanced into the river valley, but the high ground to the north and south was still in German hands. It was this high ground that was to be the subject of attacks of 3 Divisions on the 17th
Plan and Battle:
The plan was to take the sunken lane opposite Baillescourt farm. The lower part of this lane approximately 100yards was in British hands. What was needed was to take the rest of this lane and link with troops to the north. Once this lane had been taken strongpoints were to be formed 50 yards in front of the sunken lane. On the southern flank, the 18 Division was attacking northwards, at 90 degrees to the RND. On their right flank. 2nd division was also attacking Boom ravine northwards towards Pys and Petite Miraumont. The purpose of all of these attacks was to take this high ground and remove a bulge in the British line west of Courcelette/ Pozieres.
188 Brigade was allotted the task of taking this line. Howe battalion was to attack the sunken lane just north of Baillescourt Farm. On their left 1/RM was to attack the rest of the sunken lane, 2/RM were to provide consolidation
parties and form a flank guard on the left flank Anson were holding the Baillescourt farm and lower sunken Lane sector. 1/RM moved into the line on the night of 14/15th February, Howe moved into the line on the night of the 16thFeb, in fact only just making it to the assembly area before the attack commenced.
Conditions generally were bad. The ground bad been frozen, but now was thawing out, leaving the battlefield muddy. There were no trenches as such, they had been blown away, at best there was a line of shell holes. The result was that there were no landmarks, making it difficult to orientate units- It must be remembered that there was only map and compass to find your way around, not the modern Magellan system aided by satellites. Carrying parties and people attempting to get to the front line were becoming disorientated and frequently lost.
ABOVE:- THE PLAN OF ATTACK
Zero hour was 5.45 am, the attack commenced with a terrific artillery support. The Germans retaliated with artillery, but it was not strong, especially to the North. Despite these conditions there appeared to be the usual confusion of HQ not receiving any news and this lead to confusion over where the artillery should be directing its fire. It was decided to keep to the fire plan until something was heard from Howe or 1/RM. The RND’s artillery was being asked to assist on the 18th Divisions front where big problems were occurring. Solid information was received by 7.15. Howe had taken their portion of the Sunken lane, l/RM had also taken their part and had pushed out 20yds beyond to form strongpoints. 2/RM had secured the left flank. During l/RM’s attack, their two northernmost companies had veered right due to the lack landmarks. This turned out to he providential as the wire in front of their intended target was found to be uncut, but the part of the sunken lane they attacked by accident had no wire at all. It was during this attack that Captain Pearson, OC of A company 1/RM noticed some Germans trying to bring a machine gun into action to the north. This would have meant that the Germans would have been able to fire the gun straight down the sunken lane, in which the best part of two battalions were occupying. Carnage would have resulted- Pearson personally shot two of the Germans, and was joined by Lt Sanderson who between them shot five more. The Germans gave up at this point. It’s small acts like this that can turn a battle. If this gun had been bought into action, the road would have been lost along with many men. Pearson was awarded the MC for this work. By 7.30 it was confirmed that the whole objective had been taken. The Marines and Howe dug in and consolidated, Anson sent out battle patrols and the artillery switched to assist 18th Division who were now making some progress.
Confusion still reigned though partly through lack of visibility and also lack of solid information. General Prentice wasn’t quite satisfied that l/RM had gone north enough and ordered them to extend northwards. Also he was concerned that an enemy strongpoint in that area hadn’t been dealt with and ordered /RM to sort it out. Accordingly 1/RM extended northwards and linked with 2/RM’s consolidation parties. The strongpoint was assaulted with the capture of 1 machinegun and 40 prisoners. Patrols were pushed out to dominate the area in front. By this time 1 RM had taken many casualties as they had suffered quite badly before the attack when the enemy shelled the assembly trenches. A company of Hood was dispatched to bolster their numbers. Thus ended the Battle of Miraumont. 188th Brigade had taken the last part of the Miraumont spur and was now strongly holding a line with a brilliant view down the Ancre valley with excellent fields of fire.
The following day at 7.30am the Germans put down a heavy bombardment on the sunken lane, This was not followed up though with assault as the visibility was poor due to mist. At 10.30 the mist lifted revealing that a German counter attack of about two battalions strength was only approximately 300 yards away. Fortunately at this moment the line back to HQ was repaired and an SOS message was sent. Within two minutes a perfect barrage fell on the Germans. The Germans turned and ran, their counter attack had been crushed. That was the last attempt to retake the ground. The Germans contented themselves by barraging the ground instead. 188th Brigade units were relieved on the 19th February.
The starting strength of 1/RM was quoted as being around 500. At the end of the days fighting it was said that only 100 were fit for duty and published casualty figures and retrospective examination confirms this. In actual terms the losses of 1/RM were 7 officers and 71 men killed, the wounded being approximately 300. These casualties were virtually all caused by the bombardment of l/RM whilst waiting to attack and after taking the objective. Very few men were killed in the assault itself
Howe also suffered few losses with 2 officers and 20 men killed and around 200 wounded. 2/RM lost 1 officer and 5 men killed.
Above:-THE SUNKEN LANE 1999
Below:- Ansons stretch of Sunken lane 1999
This attack was an unqualified success on the RND front. The ground taken was valuable. If you go there today, you will see the view is amazing, you can see for miles, certainly view to kill for. At the start of this account I asked the question as to whether it was worth it in view of the retreat a month later. In my opinion the answer is yes for several reasons.
Firstly there was no knowledge of the retreat, in fact when it was well under way it was a while before it was believed, after all the Germans were in a prime defensive position and had always made a fight of it, so offensive action to remove them was worth while. Secondly, even if a withdrawal was known about, an offensive would make life very difficult for a unit trying to disengage and retreat. The withdrawal was probably underway, arid this attack probably made life very difficult. The observation position gained as a result of this attack would have certainly made the Germans very uneasy.
Interestingly the events of this day are often remembered for the allegations of treachery, which circulated afterwards. This mainly applies to the attack of 2nd and 18th Divisions, but as the RND was involved in the same attack, and were drawn into the discussion. Just before the attacks of these units the assembly trenches were badly shelled and many casualties resulted. Captured Germans stated that they knew the attack was coming and had planned for it and that the information came from a deserter. General Gough ordered an immediate enquiry, the results of which are not known as records cannot be found. But there is a transcript of the interrogation of senior RND officers in the RND war diary. They were asked about men missing days before the attack, some names of men from other units were mentioned as being missing but all of these are subsequently accounted for. This treachery allegation certainly rattled a few cages and a culprit was never found. My own theory is as follows. I think that there wasn’t any treachery. It was obvious for all to see that an offensive was in the offing. The barrage that caught the assembling troops I feel was a lucky hit, a similar thing happened on the Broodsiende Ridge where the Australians and Germans both conspired to attack at the same place at virtually the same time. Knowing that an offensive was in the offing, most started at the first light so a speculative barrage at sunrise would always be worth attempting. The report of a traitor I feel was a red herring. Saying something like that is sure to wind up the opposition, it certainly did that and resulted in a great deal of time and effort by senior officers to investigate it, when they should have been doing something better. This theory isn’t as far fetched as the conventional one of a man deliberately going across to the enemy and giving away information that would kill many of his mates, especially as all the units involved were sound ones.
ABOVE: MIRAUMONT 1917
BELOW: MIRAUMONT 2000
The Miraumont Battlefield Today
As with the Ancre Battlefield, The Miraumont battlefield is easy to visit and walk over. There are several strong morphological features which have not changed which will allow you to orientate yourself. For those of you with an interest in the RND, it would be possible for you to walk the Ancre battlefield and then follow the line of advance up the road from Beaucourt towards Miraumont. I would suggest investing in two of the Blue series IGN maps, 2407 ouest and 2407 est, because as usual the area of interest is spread over two maps!!!!. If you drive towards Miraumont from Beaucourt you come across the new Baillescourt farm built on the site of the old one. Opposite the farm is the sunken lane. We parked at bottom of it, careful to leave a space for a tractor to pass. If you walk up the lane you can really get a feel for things. Firstly the depth of the lane, you could hide a battalion in there. Getting up onto the top of the lane, the view is down the Ancre valley into Miraumont. Looking backwards you can see why the Germans wanted that position as you can see back to Beaucourt with Bois Hollande and the area of River trench clearly visible.
ABOVE:- The view from the edge of the Sunken lane towards German lines. You can see the view afforded- A view to kill for