Zero Hour 21st
Division (XV CORPS)

While 7th Division attacked north, capturing Mametz and pushing beyond the village towards Bottom Wood, 21st Division with 50th Brigade attached attacked in an easterly direction across Fricourt Spur. The plan called for the lead battalions to drop down over the high ground and link with 7th Division in the upper reaches of Willow Stream near Bottom Wood. This first phase of Lt. Gen. Horne’s XV Corps strategy would see the bastion of Fricourt and the wood of the same name cut off and encircled. To achieve this goal, 21st Division would attack with elements of three brigades: 64th and 63rd as assault and 50th as right flank protection. A fourth brigade, 62nd would be in support/reserve. The manoeuvre would be no walkover. It would require 63rd Brigade, in the centre, to punch a hole through the German first line system, comprising four lines of trenches before taking an intermediate line and linking with 91st Brigade. On the left, 64th Brigade was required to attack abreast 63rd Brigade and stay in touch with 34th Division on the divisional left boundary. Their role was to form a protective flank to the north, preventing enemy counter attacks from the direction of Contalmaison. On the right, 50th Brigade would attack, with one battalion north of the Tambour, capturing four lines of trenches and establishing a protective right flank facing Fricourt. With this done, phase one of the Corps’ strategy would be followed by a subsidiary operation, at a time to be directed by Lt. Gen. Horne. The second phase would see a direct assault by 50th and 22nd Brigade against the encircled Fricourt and the western slope of Bois Francais Ridge.


The Brigade was required to attack on the right of 21st Division, assault with an open flank, break into the German lines on the northern edge of Fricourt, capture three or four lines of trenches and form a defensive flank. During a second phase they would attack and capture the northern half of Fricourt. It was one of the most challenging tasks of all XV Corps’ tactical schemes, yet inexplicably it was given to a Brigade lacking crucial knowledge of the ground and with no time to conduct rehearsals over the Corps replica training area.

On 22 June, Brig. Gen. Glasgow issued orders informing the Brigade of his intentions. The opening phase would see only the 10th West Yorks committed to battle, attacking between the northern limit of the Tambour to the tip of Purfleet salient. To the south, 7th Yorkshire Reg would hold firm in the first trench system from the Tambour in the north to Fricourt civilian cemetery. In support, 7th East Yorkshire Reg would advance to occupy the trenches vacated by the attacking battalion and act as a support to 10th West Yorks. Lastly, 6th Dorsets would be held back in reserve. The initial assault would be supported by a concentrated bombardment on the enemy’s front system, including Corps heavies who would pound Fricourt. Two field artillery Brigades were designated to support operations. At Zero Hour the artillery would creep forward in short 50-yard lifts to the ‘Red’ line just beyond 10th West Yorks’ objective, where it would remain, while three batteries of 18-pounders were tasked with keeping the German Tambour and Fricourt under constant bombardment, opening on the first trench before Zero Hour and then sweeping through the village, saturating it with shrapnel and high-explosive.

At 7.15 am, any gas which remained in cylinders from an earlier attack would be released, followed by a hurricane bombardment delivered by 3-inch Stokes. At 7.26 am Special Brigade would launch a 4-inch Stokes smoke attack over Fricourt and the front trenches to screen it out. Finally, at 7.28 am, on the attacking battalion’s right flank, three large mines would be detonated in the Tambour crater-field. The mines were intended to create confusion, destroy a forward sap and more importantly, form a barrier to impede enemy enfilade fire. On paper, the supporting components were impressive. However, during planning, concerns were aired around Lt. Gen Horne’s strategy. He proposed a plan to subdue or screen enemy machine-guns hidden in Fricourt, Fricourt Wood and those located on the western slopes of Hill 110 from enfilading the eastern flank of 21st Division’s assault, chiefly the 10th West Yorks on the extreme right flank. Brig. Gen. Glasgow held significant reservations, as did Maj. Gen. David Campbell GOC 21st Division. Glasgow and Campbell every right to be concerned. Although Lt. Gen. Horne had gone to great lengths to reduce the threat, his plan to ‘screen-out’ enemy machine-guns would be thwarted with bad luck, technical and mechanical issues. One of the mines, the largest, would fail to detonate, the gas drifted high into the air and the specialist smoke screen started well but soon petered out and faulty ammunition caused multiple stoppages. The result was the destruction of one and the decimation of several other assaulting battalions.


The Brigade plan, drawn up by 47-year-old Brig. Gen. Edward Roden Hill, was simple in concept. However, like all military operations, it relied upon a sequence of phases with each individual stage required to be successful before the next stage could be executed effectively. Hill would attack with two assault battalions, 4th Middlesex on the right and 8th Somersets on the left. These would capture the first objective which extended from a trench junction 200-yards east of Fricourt Farm to a second trench junction in Crucifix Trench, 200-yards east of The Poodles. The 10th York and Lancs and 8th Lincolns would follow, passing through the first two battalions and continuing the assault to the second objective. The second objective was drawn along a line from a road and narrow-gauge track 200-yards east of Bottom Wood, extending over the northern edge of Bottom Wood to a newly dug German trench (Bottom Alley) and then north along the latter trench to its junction with Quadrangle Trench. It was at the southern end of the second objective that 63rd Brigade would link with 91st Brigade, 7th Division. To protect their left (northern) flank, 63rd Brigade would advance in line with 64th Brigade.

Departing at 7.25 am, 5-minutes before Zero Hour, the first two of four waves of the two vanguard battalions would crawl out into No-Man’s-Land. Under the cover of the final hurricane bombardment they were to gain a position as close to the enemy positions as possible. At Zero Hour, as the barrage lifted, the lead wave would rush forward to capture the German first line, Empress Trench. All four waves would then advance, with the lead wave staying close to the short lift barrage. The York and Lancs and Lincolns following behind would carry additional ammunition, water and consolidation stores. Once the lead battalions reached the first objective, the York and Lancs and Lincolns would sweep through, dropping off the additional stores then moving on and capturing the second objective. Consolidation would include the construction of ten strongpoints within the enemy lines. Shadowing behind the infantry, two consolidation groups would also follow. Overall success would depend on artillery cutting enemy wire, destroying defences and suppressing Fricourt and areas not under direct infantry attack. Right flank protection was essential.

Although on paper 63rd Brigade’s plan of attack appeared straightforward, it would almost fail in its opening phase. Fricourt Spur was never going to be an easy nut to crack and with Fricourt itself not directly attacked, enemy troops there would be a thorn in the side of the Brigade throughout the day’s fighting. Multiple enemy machine-guns belonging to RIR 111 on the right flank would put down a hail of fire from the outset, decimating both vanguard battalions. The following support units would suffer a similar fate, reducing their capability to advance and capture their objectives. The creeping barrage was thin and soon moved forward, leaving the infantry behind. As the day progressed German counterattacks from Fricourt and Fricourt Farm came close to evicting the Brigade from the first two trenches and pushing them back from their furthest gains. However, small parties, mostly a mix of different regiments, held their ground, while other small groups fought towards the first objective. By evening, the reserve (62nd Brigade) had reinforced the remnants of the Brigade. Soon after, the German garrison of Fricourt withdrew to the north, escaping between a gap that existed between 21st and 7th Divisions. The day ended with the Brigade’s objectives still not reached. However, they were close, and the Germans had abandoned Fricourt. It was a victory, albeit one at a high cost.


The 64th Brigade was given the task of capturing a line 2,300-yards deep into enemy territory. Like 63rd Brigade, the operation was divided into two objective lines. Two lead battalions would capture the first objective, followed by the remaining two battalions who would leapfrog through to seize the final objective. Once both objectives were in their possession, the entire Brigade (supported by Pioneers and Royal Engineers) would consolidate, facing generally northward between Contalmaison and Mametz Wood. This approach was intended to protect 63rd Brigade’s left flank while they completed the encirclement of Fricourt and linked with 7th Division.

The plan appeared straightforward; however, in execution, it was nothing of the sort. Like 63rd Brigade, the initial crossing of No-Man’s-Land and capture of the enemy first trench system proved costly. It was only owing to a lateral Russian Sap reducing the length of No-Man’s-Land and a 150-metre gap between two German units that enough men survived to continue the advance.

Topography and the direction of German defensive lines complicated the tactical plan. However, within an hour, elements of the Brigade had established themselves along the Fricourt – Contalmaison Road, with parties in Crucifix Trench. Further advances were thwarted by stubborn German resistance and uncertainty as to the situation on both flanks. Only upon the arrival of the Brigadier in the sunken road was the situation re-evaluated. Defensive flanks were soon established. Except for the success of some small parties, 34th Division’s attack had failed. To the north, men were pushed into Round Wood to defend the latter division's responsibility, as they feared a counterattack from the direction of Contalmaison. Other parties were deployed to protect the south, which was weakly held by 63rd Brigade. A further advance was attempted but, due to heavy machine-gun fire, it was shot down before it even got underway. By this time, only one of the four battalion commanding officers was unscathed, and he would be severely wounded later in the day. During late morning, afternoon and early evening RIR 111 attempted to counterattack, but 64th Brigade put up a determined defence.

It would take hours of vicious fighting, during which the entire brigade and two further battalions from the divisional reserve were engaged, before it was possible to consolidate the gains. It was only a determined effort under the command of junior leaders that succeeded in breaking the will of the Germans. During the hours of darkness, the remnants of RIR 111 withdrew from Fricourt. And so, although the second objective was never attained, the overall XV Corps’ goal was achieved. But once again, this came at a high price.