The Battle for the Schwaben Redoubt

Bombardment of the Schwaben Redoubt, July 1916. A heavy bombardment did not necessarily mean firing many shells all at once. The Schwaben Redoubt was a strongpoint facing VIII Corps during the battle of the Somme, and its chalk lines show clearly; positions in chalk made it relatively easy for observers to direct fire since they showed up so clearly.

 

Source: IWM photo Q8.

Taken from The Schwaben Redoubt in March 2007

On October 14th, 1916, the Cambridgeshire Regiment, known as “The Territorial Fen Tigers”, after months of military failure and heavy loss of life, captured the formidable German stronghold known as the Schwaben Redoubt. After many failed attempts had been made to take this strategic position, on October 14th the regiment, under the command of Lt Col Edward Riddell, successfully re-took the Redoubt and managed to dig in and hold it.

 

General Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief for the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium, described it as "one of the finest feats of arms in the history of the British Army.

 

It was the battle that guaranteed the soldiers from the Cambridgeshire’s would be decorated for their skill and bravery by securing such an important stronghold that, in previous attempts, had resulted in failure and considerable loss of life.

 

This battle was part of the British Army's costly Somme offensive, and is a uniquely special achievement for the Cambridgeshire Regiment and by First World War standards the loss of life in this historic battle was small, with 32 killed and a further 186 wounded. The Redoubt was a series of trenches and dugouts, defended by many machine gun emplacements, situated on a high point overlooking the British lines and was of great strategic importance. For this attempt Lt Col Edward Riddle planned and led the Cambridgeshire’s assault on October 14th 1916 under a creeping, heavy artillery barrage that focused in front of the advancing soldiers. They managed to set up positions within the redoubt with support from the Royal Flying Corps, without loss of life. The fighting that followed developed into a fierce struggle, commanded by corporals and junior commanders with bayonets and hand grenades.

 

Bewildered by the Cambridgeshire’s bravery and determination the German occupants were overwhelmingly defeated and surrendered. The Cambridgeshire’s went on to hold the Redoubt for a further 24 hours before being relieved, having beaten back several determined counter attacks and fierce artillery bombardment.

 

The Western Front in the First Word War, particularly the Somme battles, has very often suffered bad press. The media has always concentrated on the thousands of soldiers going 'over the top' to be slaughtered by machine guns on the first day of the offensive, July 1st 1916. This along with the oppressive, muddy battles that ran on into November, with neither side gaining much ground but still resulting in thousands of casualties.

 

Yet in the midst of this living hell, examples of extraordinary military achievement emerged such as the Cambridgeshire Regiment's storming of the Schwaben Redoubt. This Redoubt was central to the German defense in the Somme and was taken briefly by the 36th Ulster Division in July, being immediately recaptured in a German counter-attack. Between July and October it was attacked no fewer than six times without success as the position always succumbed to the dreaded German counter attacks. But Lt Col Riddell won the case for massive artillery and air support based on lessons learned from the mistakes of other failed assaults.

 

The Cambridgeshire attack commenced at 2.45pm on the 14th October 1916. Closely following the creeping barrage which enabled them to get into the Schwaben trenches with very few casualties, followed by four hours of hand-to-hand fighting with bayonet and grenade against a tough and aggressive German opposition. Despite several setbacks each dugout was cleared in turn and they bombed along the trenches until the whole site was in their hands. Both sides ran out of grenades. Then instead of consolidating in the old German trenches, they moved forward 100 yards and, under cover of darkness, dug a new defensive line by joining up shell holes, even placing barbed wire in front of this new line. When the counter attack came at 4am next morning the German barrage was concentrated on their original trenches, which were now behind the Cambridgeshire’s new defensive position. This enabled the Cambridgeshire’s to stop the following counter attacks dead in their tracks with rifle and machine gun fire. The German hold on the Schwaben Redoubt was broken at last and held by “The Territorial Fen Tigers” for 24 hours until finally relieved.

 

This success was subsequently mentioned in a following press report:

 

"The splendid achievement in which the men so greatly distinguished themselves will earn for them the pride and admiration of the county whose name they bear”.

 

The Somme Trenches

The Somme Trenches

© 2013 David Latham. All rights reserved.

© 2013 David Latham. All rights reserved.

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