Battle of the Ancre

Battle of the Ancre

The Battle of the Ancre was the final act of the 1916 Battle of the Somme. Launched on 13 November, 1916 by the British Fifth Army (formerly the "Reserve Army") of Lieutenant General Hubert Gough, the objective of the battle was as much political as military. The Allied commanders were due to meet at Chantilly on 15 November and the British commander-in-chief, General Sir Douglas Haig, wanted to be able to report favourable progress to his French counterparts.

Gough planned an attack on either side of the Ancre River, a small tributary of the Somme River which flowed through the northern sector of the battlefield. South of the Ancre was the village of Thiepval, which had been recently captured by the British during the Battle of Thiepval Ridge, and St Pierre Divion, which was still in German hands. North of the Ancre were the villages of Beaumont-Hamel and Beaucourt-sur-l'Ancre; this sector has not seen major operations since the opening of the Somme offensive on 1 July.

By November the British had learnt many lessons about planning, preparing and executing an attack in trench warfare. Supported by tanks, artillery and a machine gun barrage, the 51st (Highland) Division captured Beaumont Hamel while on their left, the British 2nd Division advanced along Redan Ridge. On the right, attacking across the low ground between Beaumont Hamel and the river, was the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division which reached Beaucourt and the first day and secured the village on 14 November. During this engagement, Lieutenant Commander Bernard Freyberg, who would later become Governor-General of New Zealand, won the Victoria Cross despite being wounded three times.

South of the Ancre, British II Corps took its objectives with relative ease. The results on the northern flank were not so positive; here the 3rd Division and the 31st Division were expected to form a defensive flank and take the village of Serre but their attack failed. For the 31st Division it was "déjà vu" — they had tried to advance across the same ground on the first day on the Somme with the same result.

At this point, the battle of the Ancre could be considered a success for the British and Haig was satisfied with the result however Gough was, as ever, keen to continue further, a characteristic of his command that was loathed by the men who had to serve under him. On 18 November, II Corps was expected to drive north towards the village of Grandcourt and the river. North of the river, V Corps was meant to secure the remainder of Redan Ridge. Neither attack was successful.

When Gough called off the battle of the Ancre, the battle of the Somme had effectively ceased. In the southern sector, the British Fourth Army had finished operations on 16 November and on the French sector the final action took place on 14–15 November in St Pierre Vaast Wood. Both sides now settled down to endure winter on the Somme in which the weather was a common enemy.

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