Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ovillers-la-Boisselle

Ovillers Before British Artillery Obliterated it
The village of Ovillers was known to be a key German defense point on high ground in the centre of the Somme sector. It had been under German control since 1914 and had been heavily fortified, even more than the British army suspected as its cellars had been expanded, connected, tied in with the trench lines running through and around the village. In many basements, pillboxes with machine guns had been established with long lines of fire. 

The July 1 Attack on Ovillers by 8th Division
With the village of La Boisselle (directly to the south), this village on the heights of the Ovillers Spur above the British trenches was a key objective on July 1. It overlooked the depression nicknamed "Mash Valley" by the 4th Army troops and on July 1, the 23rd Brigade was tasked to attack up Mash Valley. Several battalions managed to get into the German front lines but were soon ejected, losing many men.The British artillery pounded the village constantly both before the July 1 attack and afterward. Ovillers was defended by several German infantry units including the elite Garde Fusilier Regiment. Defending the town of Ovillers were approximately 6 Companies of German Infantry, 3 of which were from the Prussian Garde-F├╝siliers. 

German Trench - Ovillers

A British officer described the fighting in the village:  

“Beyond La Boisselle, on the left of the Albert-Bapaume road, there had been a village called Ovillers. It was no longer there. Our guns had removed every trace of it, except as it lay in heaps of pounded brick. The Germans had a network of trenches about it, and in their ditches and their dugouts they fought like wolves. Our 12th Division was ordered to drive them out -- a division of English county troops, including the Sussex, Essex, Bedfords, and Middlesex -- all those country boys of ours fought their way among communication trenches, burrowed into tunnels, crouched below hummocks of earth and brick, and with bombs and bayonets and broken rifles, and boulders of stone, and German stick-bombs, and any weapon that would kill, gained yard by yard over the dead bodies of the enemy, or by the capture of small batches of cornered men, until after seventeen days of this one hundred and forty men of the Prussian Guard, the last of their garrison, without food or water, raised a signal of surrender, and came out with their hands up. Ovillers was a shambles, in a fight of primitive earth-men like human beasts. Yet our men were not beast-like. They came out from those places -- if they had the luck to come out -- apparently unchanged, without any mark of the beast on them, and when they cleansed themselves of mud and filth, boiled the lice out of their shirts, and assembled in a village street behind the lines, they whistled, laughed, gossiped, as though nothing had happened to their souls -- though something had really happened, as now we know.” 

Ovillers became a world famous place name where infantry on both sides fought a brutal yard-by-yard and hand-to-hand struggle with any weapon available. The battle foreshadowed the brutal urban combat to come in a later conflict at place called Stalingrad. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described the period where George's 19th Lancashire Fusiliers moved into Ovillers in his monumental history of the Great War:

"When upon Sunday, July 9, the Thirty-second Division had entirely taken over from the Twelfth on the west of Ovillers, the 14th Brigade were in the post of honour on the edge of the village. The 2nd Manchesters on the left and the 15th Highland Light Infantry on the right, formed the advanced line with the 1st Dorsets in support, while the 19th Lancashire Fusiliers were chiefly occupied in the necessary and dangerous work of carrying forward munitions and supplies.

Ovillers Cemetary from the ChurchTrench
On July 10 at noon the 14th Brigade advanced upon Ovillers from the west, carrying on the task which had been so well begun by the 36th Brigade. The assailants could change their ranks, but this advantage was denied to the defenders, for a persistent day and night barrage cut them off from their companions in the north. None the less, there was no perceptible weakening of the defence, and the Prussian Guard lived up to their own high traditions. A number of them had already been captured in the trenches, mature soldiers of exceptional physique. Their fire was as murderous as ever, and the 2nd Manchesters on the north or left of the line suffered severely. The 15th Highlanders were more fortunate made good progress.

The British were now well into the village, both on the south and on the west, but the fighting was closer and more sanguinary than ever. Bombardments alternated with attacks, during which the British won the outlying ruins, and fought on from one stone heap to another, or down into the cellars below, where the desperate German Guardsmen fought to the last until overwhelmed with bombs from above, or stabbed by the bayonets of the furious stormers. The depleted 74th Brigade of the Twenty-fifth Division had been brought back to its work upon July 10, and on the 12th the 14th Brigade was relieved by the 96th of the same Thirty-second Division."





One of the Most Famous Photos Taken in the War 
- A Chesire Private in a Reversed German Trench at Ovillers
But there was no relief for the 19th Lancashire Fusiliers. They were cross attached to 96th Brigade and briefed for an attack.



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