The battle of the Bazentin Ridge, which took place between 14 and 16 July 1916 during the Somme offensive, is arguably the biggest battle ever fought by the Royal Leicestershire Regiment. Four battalions, making up the 110th (Leicestershire) Brigade went into action over three thousand strong. They were the pride of Kitchener’s New Army and the flower of the young men of Leicestershire. Their objective was to clear the Germans from their positions in front of Bazentin le Petit Wood, and to capture the village of the same name behind it.
The 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th battalions had been raised in Leicestershire in 1914. Arriving in France in 1915, their first major offensive action was to come on the Somme the following year. The peacefull rolling Picardie countryside had been turned by the Germans into a network of defensive lines and fortresses. Crucial to this were the woods, which offered cover from air observation and which they had strongly fortified.
De Lisle recorded that as the 9th battalion moved off toward the front line, they were addressed by their commanding officer who reminded them that “they were Leicesters who had always won and conquered, and did not know what defeat meant.”
Jack Horner was a young soldier of the 8th battalion from Leicester. As he advanced across the open ground between Mametz Wood and Bazentin le Petit Wood, his battalion came under murderous flanking fire from Contalmaison Villa. He remembered: “I got a bullet through my right forearm. If you are hit by a high velocity bullet, its like a red hot poker going through your flesh, and the force with which it travelled knocked me back, and flung my rifle yards away. There wasn’t a great deal of blood, but my right hand went dead and immoveable.”
Meanwhile, De Lisle and his men had entered Bazentin le Petit Wood, where the trees echoed to the explosion of grenades and the crackle of machinegun fire. The trees were now mostly smashed by shellfire and amongst them lay the bodies of Tigers mown down by German machine guns in the wood. De Lisle came upon “a most vivid picture of war … a machine gun still pointing towards our lines with the Hun gunner still grasping, in the rigors of death, the traversing handle of the gun when a well aimed British bullet had laid him stark and stiff,”
By late morning all but the northernmost corner of the wood had been taken, with over 300 prisoners taken by the 9th battalion alone. By late afternoon resistance here too was finally broken, and as night fell the exhausted survivors took what sleep they could. Captain C.A.B.Elliott (right) of the 8th battalion recording “spent the night 14/15th in a shallow communication trench running E & W across Bazentin-le-Petit wood … at about 3.30am our CQMS arrived with his ration party and plenty of water, which was much wanted, though tasting strongly of petrol.”
At the end of that day, Dick Read of the 8th battalion (left) and his pal Jackie Johnson sat in a shellhole on the battlefield, dirty and tired, and ran through the names of those they already knew to have been killed. Read remembered:
“Eventually Jackie broke the silence … “Christ, there’ll be hell to pay in Leicester and Loughborough… and Coalville…and Melton…and Uppingham…when they know about this. The Leicester Brigade, eh? Bloody well wiped out!” and he trailed off into silence again, immersed in his thoughts.”