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The Charge at High Wood Centenary Commemorative Ride

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In July 2016 Graham Turner visited the Somme to take part in a ride commemorating the centenary of the charge at High Wood; below is an article he has written for 'Battlefield', the magazine of the Battlefields Trust, about the charge and recounting his own experiences a century later.
On 14th July 1916, two weeks into the Somme campaign, British and Indian cavalry advanced across the battlefield and charged German positions at High Wood, the only occasion that cavalry would be deployed during the battle of the Somme.

Exactly one hundred years later, I was honoured to be taking part in a commemorative ride that retraced their route, culminating in a wreath laying at High Wood itself.

The thoughts and emotions I felt as we rode past so many cemeteries and memorials will stay with me forever, across the now tranquil rolling landscape that was such a churned up hellish nightmare a century ago.

The contemporary press reported the cavalry charge at High Wood as a great triumph, but subsequently it has often become recounted as a futile, pointless sacrifice, the heroic but poetically tragic pitting of men and horses against the firepower of modern industrial warfare. As is often the case, the reality isn't so straightforward...

In the southern sector of the British lines, advances had been made on the opening days of the battle of the Somme, and the assault planned for the 14th July was intended to push further forward through the German second line trenches and take the high ground on the Bazentin Ridge and beyond. Always in the back of Sir Douglas Haig's mind was the hope that a breakthrough would be made and cavalry could then be deployed to push on through the enemy lines. Consequently, the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division was mobilised from their billets south of Albert at around midnight on the 13th/14th, passing through Bray and Carnoy, with the vanguard crossing the old front lines to take up position in a valley just south of Montauban by 7am.

Shah Merza of the Deccan Horse described the advance: 'What I saw in the course of the advance I shall never forget. We had to pass amongst the dead bodies of the men who had fallen during the morning's attack, and the trenches were full of German dead. The ground was torn and rent to pieces by the shell fire and there were holes five and six feet deep.' I recalled his words one hundred years later as we crossed what would have been the front line, now peaceful countryside - one of many particularly poignant moments on the ride.

The Infantry attack on Bazentin Ridge had started at 3.25am following a brief but intensive artillery barrage. The bitter struggle for the ridge and the village of Longueval to the east of High Wood would continue all day, and the cavalry would send out patrols and working parties to create crossing points over the trenches and shell holes until eventually, in the late afternoon, they were ordered into action, and the 7th Dragoon Guards and 20th Deccan Horse advanced towards High Wood.

As they approached the wood at around 7pm they came under fire but sustained relatively few casualties, the 7th Dragoon Guards coming across German soldiers sheltering in shell holes in the crop of corn to the east of High Wood, who they charged. Sixteen Germans were speared, and thirty-two were made prisoner. Meanwhile the Deccan Horse advanced round the end of neighbouring Delville Wood, getting almost as far as the German third line trenches before returning with captives. This was described by Lieutenant Colonel Tennant, who took part: 'As each squadron cleared the defile it formed line and advanced at a gallop in the direction taken by the advanced guard, which lay through a broad belt of standing corn, in which small parties of enemy lay concealed. Individual Germans now commenced popping up on all sides, throwing up their arms and shouting 'Kamerad' and not a few, evidently under the impression that no quarter would be given, flung their arms around the horses' necks and begged for mercy'.

Because Delville Wood and Longueval remained in German hands, further advance would have been disastrous, so both regiments took up a defensive position along the High Wood to Longueval road until they were relieved by infantry and withdrawn in the early hours of the 15th.

Was the cavalry action at High Wood a futile act or a missed opportunity? Should the cavalry have been deployed earlier and in greater numbers, or did they have no place on the Somme battlefield? If they had succeeded in helping secure High Wood on the 14th July then the casualties incurred over the following weeks until it was finally captured would have undoubtedly been considerably reduced. As for the losses incurred by the cavalry, eight men were killed and around one hundred were wounded. Casualties amongst the horses were higher; around fifty lost their lives and a hundred more were wounded. In the context of the huge loss of life on the Somme battlefield overall, these figures seem comparatively light, suggesting that the charge at High Wood was perhaps not the massacre that is often related.

It can be difficult to assess the events of the past without resorting to hindsight, benefitting from a clear view of what was going on that wasn't available to those involved. I prefer to consider events like these from an individual, personal level and this is what I try to convey in my paintings. These were men doing something they had trained for and were expected to do, but how they coped in such extreme surroundings we can only try to imagine. When discussing the casualties of the First World War, the huge numbers are sometimes so difficult to comprehend that it is easy to forget that each represents an individual life lost, a person with family and friends, something that a visit to the cemeteries and memorials vividly brings home.

High Wood would continue to be fought over for several more weeks, before the Germans were eventually pushed back beyond the village of Flers on the 15th September, the first time the Tank had appeared on the battlefield.
HIGH WOOD CENTENARY COMMEMORATIVE RIDE

When I first heard about the proposed High Wood Commemorative ride I knew immediately that it was something I wanted to be part of. The Great War holds a terrible fascination for me, and my own personal love of horses inevitably makes their involvement in this horrific conflict particularly poignant. This would be an opportunity to pay tribute to those whose lives were lost, both human and equine.

While some horses were transported from England, most would be hired locally, and we wouldn't get to meet our mounts until the first day of the ride - well before dawn - it was a very early start! While I would have loved to ride my own horse on the event (Magic, with whom I shared many jousting adventures), he is now getting on a bit and it would have been expecting too much of him, so I was teamed up with Thally, a charming grey mare who would carry me for many hours and cover many miles without complaint.

The route on the first day covered at least fifteen miles - eight hours in the saddle - and visited sites such as Hawthorn Ridge, Hamel, Pozieres, La Boiselle, Thiepval - where we lined up in front of the imposing memorial for the midday remembrance service - and the Lochnagar crater, site of one of the massive mine explosions that heralded the start of the attack on the 1st July. Here we met a group of school children who were delighted to see us and the horses, and who will, I feel sure, have taken home an unexpected memory and perhaps a little more understanding from their trip to the Somme.

Early on the 14th, we mounted up in the charming village of Chippily and formed up in front of the memorial. The Mayor said a few words, a wreath was laid, and a large crowd of local well-wishers saw us set off towards the front.

Through to Bray-sur-Somme we rode, our route following in the footsteps of the cavalry a century before. A small detour allowed us to water the horses in a ford across a tributary of the river Somme itself, then on we continued, passing through Carnoy, scene of several famous photographs of the Deccan Horse taken at the time by official war photographer Lieutenant Ernest Brooks. Each of the villages we passed through resonated with the events that happened there, and the woods we could see as we rode on - Mametz, Bernafay, Trones, Delville - all had been bitterly fought over at a cost of countless lives. Our final resting and watering point gave us the opportunity to change caps for helmets and take up lances - the leading squadrons of the cavalry would have been lance armed - before the final push on to our objective.

We caught our first glimpse of High Wood as we crested a ridge some way off, then it vanished from sight again as we moved down into another valley. Those waiting for us at the wood commented on how we kept coming into view before vanishing, then reappearing, as we approached, illustrating how well the rolling landscape could be used to hide troop movements, but equally how exposed you could be in certain positions, especially on the final stretch uphill to the wood.
This final approach to High Wood was an incredible experience; I had followed the narrative of the advance in my mind as we had physically retraced it on the ground, now here we were, riding through a landscape that had seen so much carnage, but which had managed to recover to hide most of the traces of the horrors it had witnessed, on what was a beautiful July evening. We passed through a large number of people gathered there to see us, rode around the perimeter of the wood, now green and dense, before advancing down the road towards Longueval and wheeling to face the memorial in the trees. There a wreath was laid by one of the two currently serving soldiers who rode with us to represent their Regiment, the Royal Dragoon Guards, successors to the 7th Dragoon Guards.

Taking part in the High Wood Commemorative ride has given me memories that will stay with me forever, uniquely combining the challenge of riding a comparatively long distance (for me anyhow) with the emotional and historical aspects of the area we were riding in. As an artist/historian, riding the route has helped me understand and reconstruct the events of 1916, and I now know more about the cavalryman, his kit and equipment, along with appreciating some of the practicalities and challenges he faced. On a more fundamental human level, the experience has given me a greater appreciation of the magnitude of the First World War, the huge cost in lives and the sacrifice of my grandparents' generation.

Needless to say my artist's mind has been thoroughly awakened and inspired, so once I've managed to focus some of the countless thoughts and mental images currently filling my head, you should expect to see something emerging from my easel in due course.

Further reading:

'Horseman in No Man's Land' by David Kenyon, Pen & Sword

'The Hell They Called High Wood' by Terry Norman, Pen & Sword

All photographs of the 2016 commemorative ride taken by Alexander Turner (c)
The 'Charge at High Wood' event has a Facebook page - http://facebook.com/chargeatHighwood

...and Graham has posted photos of the event on his own Facebook page - http://facebook.com/GrahamTurner.Studio88

A Just Giving page has also been set up to raise funds for the Royal British Legion - https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Thechargeathighwood
Links
A LONG WAY FROM HOME

Graham's painting shows a column of Indian Cavalry advancing through the town of Albert, which was central to the Allied activities on the Somme.

The original sold straight away, but high quality, artist signed giclée prints are available CLICK HERE FOR DETAILS

The Indian Army provided a large number of troops to help the Allied war effort, and they fought in many different theatres, including the Western Front; it was units from the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division who took part in the action at High Wood on 14th July 1916.
Indian Cavalry painting
Steady Boy and Somme Contact Patrol"STEADY BOY"

Graham Turner's award winning painting "Steady Boy" (left) is available as a print, reproduced on paper or canvas - CLICK HERE for full details.

SOMME CONTACT PATROL (below)

British troops signal their position to a BE2c flying overhead as they struggle to advance across no-mans land on July 1st 1916, the first day of the battle of the Somme.

Like "Steady Boy", this original painting has sold, but it is available as a print, reproduced on paper or canvas - CLICK HERE for further information and detail images.
Inspiration for Future Paintings...

'I have no doubt that I will be inspired to create more paintings after the High Wood ride - I already have a number of ideas...'

Pictured is Graham's preliminary sketch for a possible painting showing a long line of cavalry passing a Mk.1 tank during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. This was fought in September 1916, part of the Battle of the Somme, and the first occasion that tanks had been used. 'I love the contrast between men on horseback and these massive, cumbersome machines - it should make an interesting painting...'

Keep an eye on our Latest News section or follow Graham Turner's Facebook page for further news - http://facebook.com/GrahamTurner.Studio88
Future WW1 paintings
Graham Turner has painted many different periods of history - CLICK HERE to go to the main Historical Art menu for details of all available paintings, prints and cards (prints from £15, cards £1.50)Other eras, prints etc

Studio 88 Ltd., PO Box 568, Aylesbury, Bucks. HP17 8ZX - email: info@studio88.co.uk - phone: 01296 338504

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