The overall XV Corps strategy for the opening day comprised two separate operational phases. Phase one called for two of 7th Division’s infantry brigades, 91st and 20th, to attack in a northerly and northwest direction capturing Mametz and half of Bois Francais Ridge to Apple Alley. Once 20th Brigade on the left captured the ridge they were to consolidate, forming a flank protection while 91st Brigade on the right pushed on beyond Mametz into Willow Stream Valley to a link with 21st Division troops at Bottom Wood. Once Fricourt and Fricourt Wood were encircled the second Corps battle phase would commence. Phase two required fresh brigades to continue the attack with 22nd Brigade, 7th Division and 50th Brigade attached to 21st Division assaulting the west of Bois Francais Ridge and Fricourt respectively, closing the gap on the trapped German forces of 28 Reserve Division.
Newly promoted, Brig. Gen. Minshull-Ford’s task would be no walkover. Objectives included the bastion of Mametz and the lower slopes of Montauban Ridge. His battalions, a mixture of regular and New Army would have to fight up hill on the right against a grandstand of trenches and on the left over three lines of trenches before passing through the ruins of Mametz, a labyrinth riddled with shell-proof cellars, tunnels, concealed machine-gun emplacements and snipers. Minshull-Ford’s plan relied on mutual support and an ‘in-line’ level advance by flanking formations of 20th and 54th Brigades to succeed. Should one flank fail or be held up, topography of the ground, Bois Francais Ridge on the left and Montauban Ridge on the right, would allow enemy garrisons overlooking 91st Brigade’s advance to cut it to pieces. Z Day would prove to be a long day of hard fighting, one which would see 91st Brigade capture its objectives hours later than planned and only after junior commanders displayed excellent battle leadership, making key ‘on the spot’ tactical decisions. The opposition, Reserve Infantry Regiment 109 and a Kompagnie of Infantry Regiment 23 put up determined resistance. The 91st Brigade’s frontage fell on the extreme right of XV Corps bordering XIII Corps. Attacking from a Brigade frontage of 500-yards width the task allotted to 91st Brigade was divided into three consecutive objectives. Each objective was timed to coincide with lifts of Corps heavy artillery. Field artillery would move ahead of the assault in short lifts as infantry waves advanced.
Infantry of 91st Brigade were distributed with two vanguard battalions, 22nd Manchesters on the right and 1st South Staffords on the left. Both would attack and capture the first and second objectives. 2nd Queen’s would follow in support and leapfrog forward to capture the third objective. The 21st Manchesters were held in reserve and supplied 180 men for carrying parties. Orders specified that at Zero Hour 22nd Manchesters would advance to and capture the first objective, Bucket Trench – Dantzig Alley. The 1st South Staffords first objective was the eastern portion of Mametz, establishing themselves on a line which included Bunny Trench.
At 8.25 am (Zero+55 mins) 22nd Manchesters would assault their second objective, capturing Fritz Trench from its junction with Dantzig Alley to Bright Alley then north along Bright Alley. Simultaneously, one company of 1st South Staffords would bomb from the edge of Mametz along Bright Alley to link with the Manchester Pals who would then push on to capture Valley Trench and 200-yards of Bunny Alley.
At 9.30 am (Zero+120 mins) 2nd Queen’s orders decreed they should advance from the British trenches to the junction of Fritz Trench and Beetle Alley from where they were to advance over the open in a northeast direction on the northern slope of Montauban Ridge to the third objective close to the southern edge of Bottom Wood.
The Brigade was then to consolidate, constructing twelve strong-points, three per battalion, supported by the Durham Field Company RE and a pioneer company of 24th Manchesters who would establish strong-points along the final objective in Fritz Trench and Bunny Wood. The 95th Field Company RE and second company of pioneers would place Mametz in a state of defence, while a half company of pioneers opened communication tunnels across No-Man’s-Land to Bulgar Point and Mametz Trench. An additional reserve was available from the divisional reserve comprised of 2nd Warwickshire Regiment and 2nd Royal Irish Regiment, six platoons of 24th Manchesters and 54th Field Company RE.
The 20th Brigade was given the task of capturing a line 1,100-yards deep into enemy territory, from which they could provide protection to 91st Brigade’s left flank. The two brigades were to advance side by side. The 20th Brigade would assault with three battalions, line abreast with one in reserve. On the right, one battalion would advance into the western half of Mametz to the northern limit of the village, extending left, down the slope into the Carnoy – Fricourt Valley. From here, they would look over Willow Stream and Fricourt Wood, protecting the flank while 91st Brigade advanced to two further objectives. On the brigade left and centre, two battalions would assault the eastern slope of Bois Francais Ridge. One formation in the middle ground would drop into the valley, clearing left and right of the Albert – Peronne Road. Simultaneously, the left battalion would attack along the summit of Bois Francais Ridge, rolling up the German front line from the flank protecting 7th Division’s flank from the direction of Fricourt.
What sounded like a simple ‘flank protection’ task was, in fact, the opposite. Topography and the direction of German defensive lines complicated the tactical plan. With high ground to the left and right and a valley between, enemy formations dominated the ground, with either slope of Mametz Spur and Bois Francais Ridge able to mutually support the other. The right of the Brigade also had to contend with the bastion of Mametz, while the left had to clear along 700-yards of mine craters, interconnecting trenches and several miles of subterranean tunnels. For 20th Brigade to achieve its mission as divisional left flank protection, 42-year-old, future Field-Marshal, Brig. Gen. Cyril John Deverell had no option other than to attack with the unconventional formation of three assault battalions, 2nd Gordons on the right, 9th Devons in the centre and 2nd Borders on the left, leaving only 8th Devons in a support / reserve role. If the situation called for it, he could request reinforcement from 2nd Royal Warwicks or 2nd Royal Irish Reg, both 22nd Brigade, positioned to the rear of 20th and 91st Brigades, who were in divisional reserve. The frontage for the attack stretched over 1,000-yards but would extend out to a width of 1,500-yards on its final objective, equating to a front of 500-yards per battalion. The method of attack was ‘straight through,’ with each of the three assault battalions fighting the entire distance to the objective. The first wave was to move, where possible, just before Zero Hour, closing on the covering barrage. As the barrage lifted, they would follow close on its heels, shadowed by subsequent waves at no less than 100-yards and no more than 150-yards between waves. Artillery orders stated that lifts for 18-pounders would be at 50-yard intervals. Heavy artillery would lift from each fixed line to the next, four lines in total. Other supporting arms included tunnellers of 183 TC RE, who covertly dug shallow galleries to within a short distance of four points near Mametz West craters, each containing a charge of between 500-660 lbs. The largest supporting scheme was a smoke attack along the length of Bois Francais Ridge. This was to be fired by twenty 4-inch mortars of No.3 Company, 5th Battalion, Special Brigade RE and was supported by infantry with smoke candles and ‘P’ Bombs. Consolidation would take place along the objective line and an additional ten strong-points would be constructed with the assistance of 95th Field Company RE and one company of 24th Manchesters (Pioneers). Like 91st Brigade’s attack, the right and left of the assault started well. Only the centre was ‘checked’ in the enemy first-line system. However, the flanking battalions soon ran into difficulties, as the German reserve line put up a stubborn defence. It would take hours of vicious fighting, during which the entire brigade and several companies from the divisional reserve were in action. Only a determined effort to edge forward succeeded in breaking the will of Reserve Infantry Regiment 109, as junior commanders employed bombing tactics, supported by machine guns and light mortars.