By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
In the south porch of the Royal Garrison Church of All Saints is a large wooden cross, about nine feet high and blackened with age. Inscribed into the cross are the words: “In memory of the Officers, SNCO's and Men of 1st Division killed in action near High Wood during September 1916 - RIP”. This poignant memorial is a direct and tangible link to the terrible fighting at the Battle of the Somme, one hundred years ago.
On the outbreak of the First World War there were two infantry divisions resident in Aldershot, 1st Division in South Camp and 2nd Division in North Camp, so Aldershot Command Headquarters was the only de facto standing corps headquarters in the country. The mobilisation order was received on 4 August 1914, the day war was declared, and the first units moved out from Aldershot on 12 August. By 15 August all regular Aldershot units had left for the front.
Within weeks both 1st and 2nd Divisions were in action at the battle of Mons, which was the first of many ferociously fought battles for the Aldershot divisions. Later in 1914 both Divisions fought at the battle of the Aisne and the first battle of Ypres, and in 1915 at Aubers Ridge (1st Division), Festubert (2nd Division), Loos and Hohenzollern Redoubt (both Divisions). By 1916 these were experienced and battle-hardened formations. The high casualty rates meant that a large proportion of the men were not those who had first deployed, but in the ranks were still some of soldiers who had left from Aldershot in August 1914.
The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916, now recognised as the most disastrous day in British Army history for the horrific number of casualties in the initial attacks. Although the first day on the Somme is the most well known, the battle lasted for over four months until its official end on 18 November. Within the overall Battle of the Somme were a number of sharply fought individual battles and the Aldershot divisions were involved in much hard fighting. The 1st Division went into action during the Battle of Bazentin Ridge (14-17 July), where it operated on the west flank in support of 21st Division. Then at the Battle of Pozieres Ridge (23-26 July) the 1st Division attacked the German second line of defence, known as the Old German or OG Lines, in support of the main offensive by the Australian forces.
The 2nd Division launched an assault on Delville Wood on 25 July, and held off German counter-attacks throughout the next day. The battle continued until 31 July, by which time the Division had lost 108 officers and 2,957 other ranks killed, wounded or missing. On 8 and 9 August, 2nd Division attacked Guillemont. The attacks failed, in the face of intense enemy machine gun fire, and when the assault was broken off the 2nd Division had lost a further 24 officers and 688 other ranks killed, wounded or missing. The Division was relieved on 11 August and moved to the Ancre sector, north of the Somme battlefield. Later that month they returned to the Somme and were engaged in trench warfare, including numerous raids, until the beginning of November.
Some of the hardest fighting during the Battle of the Somme was for High Wood, near the village of Bazentin le Petit, which the British had been trying to take since 6 July. A major assault on the wood was launched on 14 July at the start of the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, but this was driven back, and in the following weeks were many more attacks and counter-attacks. The 1st Division went into action at High Wood on Sunday 3 September, when the attack began with the blowing of a huge 3,000lb mine 30 seconds before zero hour. The 1st Cameron Highlanders (1st Brigade, 1st Division), following an effective creeping barrage, drove the Germans out of their trenches in vicious hand-to-hand fighting, but were driven back by heavy machine-gun fire. Private John Jackson of the Camerons wrote that High Wood “had been reduced to a tangled mass of broken trees and smashed wire fences, through which, in various directions, ran lines of trenches … The trenches were full of bodies both British and German. They lay in grotesque shapes, some indeed stood propped against the parapet, and more than once in the inky darkness we spoke to men who were beyond the power of answering our questions.”
On 8 September the 1st Gloucestershire and 2nd Welsh Regiments from 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, attacked the western part of High Wood, supported by 1st South Wales Borderers and 9th Black Watch. Once again the fighting in the trenches was at bayonet point. The 1st Gloucestershire were cut off from the other battalions and, reduced to only three officers and 96 men, were forced to withdraw. Although the Welsh and Black Watch had reached their objectives they could not hold them against heavy shelling and machine gun fire, and also had to fall back.
A second mine was blown on 9 September, resulting in a crater 135 feet wide and 35 feet deep. The 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps and 2nd Royal Sussex, of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, led another attempt to take High Wood. Private Walter Grover of 2nd Royal Sussex remembered that “the barrage from our own artillery and that of the Germans on that afternoon was indescribable. The ground over which we attacked was swept by machine gun and field gun fire … Seeing my friends shot down on each side of me gave me a feeling of dread.” Despite suffering severe casualties this attack made some progress, and by 11 September just under half the wood was in British hands.
The exhausted 1st Division was now withdrawn, relieved by the 47th (London) Division. Supported by the 50th and 15th Divisions, the 47th Division launched its offensive on 15 September and managed to take the rest of High Wood after four days of bloody fighting.
During the 1916 battles over 8,000 British and German soldiers died in High Wood. After the battle a number units who had fought there erected memorials to their fallen comrades. The men of 23 Field Company Royal Engineers, the divisional engineers for 1st Division, constructed the 1st Division memorial cross using wood taken from the ruins of Bazentin village. Other wooden crosses were erected at High Wood by the 47th Division, 51st Division, 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, Cameron Highlanders, 1st South Wales Borderers, 10th Glosters and 20th Royal Fusiliers.
After the end of the First World War, the veterans of 1st Division wanted to erect a permanent stone memorial at Le Cateau. However, they were told by the French Government that no unit could have two memorials in France, so the cross at High Wood must either be removed or left to decay. Being made of wood, it was likely to rot away in a relatively short period of time. The men of 1st Division could not leave their memorial to go derelict, so decided to bring it back to the UK.
The cross was re-erected in 1927 outside the 1st Division Headquarters in Pennefather’s Road, Aldershot. At a ceremony on 3 May, Lieutenant General Sir Peter Strickland, who had commanded 1st Division in the War, formally handed over the cross to his successor, Major General Sir Cecil Romer. General Strickland remembered the bitter fighting in High Wood, and said that the cross was “of great significance to us of the old 1st Division and it gives us great satisfaction that the present 1st Division have allowed us to have it here. It will be great joy to us that it will remain here for all time, or at least as long as it lasts.” In accepting the memorial, General Romer said how much they honoured the cross and promised to keep it in good order. Echoing General Strickland’s comment that the cross would remain “as long as it lasts”, he also warned “that the wood was not likely to last but they would do their very best to preserve it”. This was a major concern, as a wooden cross being out in the open would inevitably decay through exposure to the elements.
In January 1939, 23 Field Company Royal Engineers, then stationed in Gibraltar Barracks, Aldershot, were undertaking some reconstruction work to the south porch of the Royal Garrison Church. As successors to the men who constructed the cross, they moved the 1st Division memorial from Pennefather’s Road into the south porch, which then became the 1st Division Porchway. Now out of the wind and rain the cross was preserved and it still stands by the entrance to the church, a lasting memorial to the men who died at the Somme.
Of the other crosses at High Wood, a memorial to the Cameron Highlanders, in the shape of a St Andrew’s cross, was destroyed in the German offensive of 1917. The 47th Division cross was brought back to the UK and erected at the Duke of York’s Headquarters in Chelsea. When this HQ was given up by the Army (the building is now the Saatchi Gallery), the cross was moved to the London Irish Rifles HQ in Camberwell. To prevent decay, the cross is covered in red preservative paint and the lettering is now on modern panels fixed onto the face of the memorial. The cross for the Black Watch was replaced with a granite memorial to the Black Watch and Cameron Highlanders in December 1924. The 51st Division cross was transferred to Beaumont Hamel and incorporated into the Division’s memorial there. The 20th Royal Fusiliers’ cross was brought back to England and taken to Hounslow Barracks, but it contracted woodworm and was destroyed in 1955.
The Aldershot Somme Cross is a rare survivor, still in its original state, which does great honour to the men who died during this dreadful battle.
Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 008, June 2016/July 2016
Copyright © Paul H. Vickers. This article, including the accompanying pictures, may not be reproduced or republished, in whole or in part, either in print or electronically, including on any websites or social media sites, without the prior permission of the author.