Archive for 2011
Last Wednesday (19 October) I spoke at my local branch of the Western Front Association. The subject was one dear to my heart – “The Battle of Arras: April-May 1917”. It was the same talk that I gave to the Berkshire branch of the WFA back in April – see this BLOG article. This time I was allowed a bit longer and so spoke for 45 minutes which took us through the reasons for battle, political intrigues, German retreat to the Hindenburg Line, preparations, work of the RE and artillery and then a detailed look, division by division, working down the line on 9 April 1917 – the first day of battle. After a pleasant ten minute break I continued for a further half hour with details of the fighting for Monchy-le-Preux, Infantry Hill, Roeux and the Chemical Works and Gavrelle before culminating in a description of the disastrous 3 May attack – an attack on a 21km frontage in which 5,900 men were killed in a single day.
It was lovely to speak on ‘home’ turf; the branch in Kingswood being a mere ten minute drive from my house. I do my utmost to attend the monthly lectures but work and family life normally get in the way so it was nice to actually make it this time. It was good to see people had driven from Devon and Newport and I thank them for their interest and support. This morning I received a letter from Dr Barry Maule on behalf of the Avon branch.
“I am writing on behalf of the Bristol branch of the WFA to thank you most sincerely for the excellent talk you gave us on Wednesday evening on the Battle of Arras. You probably gathered from the buzz in the room after your talk that it was particularly well received and very much appreciated by those of our members who share your view that the Arras battles deserve to be much better known.
From experience I can always tell when a talk has been well received by our members because they are reluctant to clear off home afterwards, something that was particularly noticeable on Wednesday evening.
I am sure our chairman spoke for everyone in the room when he described your talk as absolutely tremendous.”
I raffled a copy of our Arras panorama volume and raised a nice sum for the La Boisselle Study Group. Many thanks to all who attended for their generosity. Should anyone be interested in hearing this or other talks then please contact me.
A few weeks ago I took a couple, Mac & Marian from New Zealand, around the battlefields. They had asked me to show them around the Western front for three days before catching a train to Paris for the next leg of their trip. What made this trip so special was that we were following Corporal Andrew McDonald, 6th Seaforth Highlanders. Andrew McDonald died of wounds on 13 April 1917 and is buried at Etaples Military Cemetery. His battalion was involved in the opening stages of the Battle of Arras. It is highly probable that he was wounded when the battalion ‘went over the top’ in front of Roclincourt at 5.30am on 9 April 1917. I had previously written about the area in a piece entitled 6th Seaforth Highlanders at Roclincourt – The Battle of Arras, 9 April 1917.
After picking up Mac & Marian at Folkestone we took the tunnel over and then headed along the coast to Etaples. They told me that they had visited Second World War cemeteries before but I could see how moved they were when we pulled up at Etaples. The cemetery, the largest Commission cemetery in France, was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. The scale of the place defies belief and really deserves to have more visitors. After visiting Andrew’s grave and laying a small cross – something that Mac had been wanting to do for years – we spent a couple of hours just walking around this vast and sobering cemetery – the final resting place for 11,500 men and women.
Retracing our steps back up the motorway we headed to Ypres where I took them to various spots around the salient including Pilckem Ridge, Polygon Wood, Robertson’s Bridge at Reutel, The New Zealand Division Memorial at Gravenstafel, Tyne Cot Cemetery and finally the German Cemetery at Langemarck. We headed back to our excellent B&B and then back out to Ypres so we could attend the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. We ate in the square before heading back to the B&B for a good sleep after a long day.
The next day was to be spent around the Arras battlefields. After a mammoth breakfast we set off south, firstly stopping at Nine Elms Cemetery at Poperinghe to pay our respects at the grave of David Gallaher, captain of the All Blacks.
We had a quick stop at Peckham and Spanbroekmolen, two of the huge craters formed by the Messines mine explosions on 7 June 1917 before heading south via Ploegsteert and into France to our next stop at La Chapelle-d’Armentières. It was here, at the site of the Railway Salient that Andrew McDonald’s brave actions during a trench raid on 15 September 1916 earned him the Military Medal. I was able to stand Mac at a spot looking down the railway line to where the German salient jutted out into No Man’s Land and explain the events of that night. We then continued south, stopping at Noeux-les-Mines Communal Cemetery & Extension to pay our respects at Marian’s great uncle, David Watson’s grave. He had been killed during the Battle of Loos whilst serving with the 1st Battalion, Cameron Highlanders. Leaving the coalfields of Gohelle behind us we began our look at the Arras battlefields.
I started with a stop at the village of La Targette with its staggering French and German cemeteries. If ever there is a place to fully appreciate the extent of losses suffered by our French allies and German foe then this is it. Neuville St Vaast Soldatenfriedhof has over 44,000 German buried within its grounds – a truly sobering place. We then headed to Vimy Ridge where, after a tour of the trenches, we headed to Walter Allward’s magnificent Vimy Memorial.
Next up was a special visit to the exact spot outside Roclincourt where ‘C’ Company, 6th Seaforths attacked on 9 April 1917. It was in the fields between the British front line and second German line (the area now contains the beautiful Highland Cemetery) that Andrew McDonald most likely received his fatal wound.
After an emotional stop at Highland Cemetery to visit other 6th Seaforth men we continued our tour through St Laurent Blangy and Athies to the Seaforths Cross at Fampoux. We then headed to the infamous village of Roeux (heavily fought over by the 51st Division in April and May 1917) and crossed the Scarpe to Monchy-le-Preux, Infantry Hill and then back down the Arras-Cambrai road to the superb Carrière Wellington tunnels. Our final stop of the day was at the Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery & Arras Memorial to the Missing where, bathed in evening sunlight, we wandered at our leisure. After a meal in the Grande Place we headed off for a much-needed sleep.
The following morning saw us continue south down to the hallowed ground of the Somme battlefields. Mac & Marian had asked for unusual stops so, en route, we stopped at the quiet Ayette Indian & Chinese Cemetery.
Continuing south we visited Sheffield Memorial Park at Serre where I explained about the destruction of the Pals battalions of the 31st Division on 1 July 1916, the First Day of the Somme. We then headed over the Redan Ridge to Beaumont Hamel where, as well as looking at the disastrous attack by 29th Division troops on 1 July I gave a detailed explanation of the 6th Seaforth’s role in 51st Division’s successful attack on the village bastion on 13 November. We then visited Mailly Wood Cemetery to visit the graves of 6th Seaforths men killed in that attack. Most notably I had wanted them to visit the grave of 2/Lt Donald Jenkins MC. He had won his Military Cross in the same raid that earned Andrew his Military Medal – in fact, both men had crossed No Man’s Land three times bringing back wounded men on each occasion. Undoubtedly, despite the officer/other rank divide there would have been some connection between Andrew and this officer now lying at peace in Mailly Wood Cemetery.
Other stops that afternoon included a good stroll around Newfoundland Memorial Park, the Ulster Tower and Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. Having stopped at Mash Valley I took Mac & Marian on a private tour of the Glory Hole at La Boisselle (http://www.laboisselleproject.com/) before our final stops of the day at the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery for the New Zealand Memorial to Missing from September/October 1916 and the New Zealand Division Memorial at Longueval.
Passing High Wood I was able to point out the position of Seaforth Trench, dug by 6th Seaforths in July 1916 before heading off to our B&B at Flers for a well deserved beer, meal and chat.
The final day dawned with beautiful sunshine and so, rather than dropping Mac & Marian off in Amiens as had been agreed, I took them just down the road to Delville Wood and the South African Memorial. We were the first ones to visit that day and the atmosphere and light were quite superb.
After a circuitous tour to Ginchy, Guillemont and Montauban I stopped at the site of the Carnoy craters to tell them about the successful use of the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projectors employed there on 1 July 1916. Moving on to Amiens, we visited the splendid cathedral before I bade them a fond farewell at the railway station. It was another trip to be remembered with lovely people – thanks Mac & Marian for making it such a great time for me too.
More photographs from this trip can be seen on my dedicated Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/67774984@N03/sets/72157627598624551/
“Thank you for a fantastic trip in September 2011. We were lucky enough to travel with you for three and a half (far too short) days and experience your enthusiasm and passion for WW1 and the Somme first hand. We needed a lot longer. On your website you mention Corporal Andrew McDonald. He is my husband’s Great Uncle lost in 1917. During our time with you he came back to life and it was marvellous to be able to tread the same ground that he walked and to see similar sights. The report that you provided to us will hopefully inspire some other family members to travel to France and Belgium and to utilise your knowledge and enthusiasm for the Western Front and the Somme. You were willing to take us out of our comfort zone and show us areas, memorials and cemeteries that we had no idea could exist from the smallest to the largest including German, Indian, Chinese, Kiwi, Aussie, French, British, South African, Canadian etc. More than we had hoped for or realised that we would have ever seen. Thank you for your ability to generate interest and create great memories.
We would suggest that anyone who contemplates visiting Gallipoli and the Somme, visit Gallipoli first as the memories of France and Belgium will be stronger than those of Gallipoli. Jeremy was a fantastic guide who took care of us and took us to places we could never hope to see or find on our own. His contacts, his advice, the accommodation he organised and all aspects of the trip were 110%. Thank you for your time and efforts and we both wish you well for the future. Keep guiding.” Marian & Mac Macdonald, Pukekohe, New Zealand
Earlier this month I spent an enjoyable time on the Somme with a client, Roland Parr, who was following in the footsteps of his great uncle, John Thomas Davies VC, 11th South Lancashire Regiment.
Roland had commissioned me to produce a detailed report on his great uncle in order that other family members could know more about this man, his war and the actions that led to the award of his Victoria Cross. Over the past few months Roland had accompanied me to the National Archives to look at war diaries from Division, Brigade and Battalion level. We also visited the Imperial War Museum to work in the Department of Documents and to have a good look at the new(ish) Lord Ashcroft Gallery which holds the original VC of Jack Davies. It must have been a somewhat surreal experience for Roland to be looking at the actual VC in its hermetically sealed case when he remembers holding the medal as a young boy.
All of this was the precursor to our visit to the battlefields to follow ‘Uncle Jack’ around the western front.
We set out from Peronne and began our pilgrimage at Maricourt, a village that Jack Davies and the rest of the 11th South Lancs would have known well from their time here in 1916. The battalion were the Pioneers to the 30th Division. I had found a map showing the trenches in this sector dug by the battalion during the month of July 1916. I also noted that they had opened out some of the Russian saps dug by men of 183 Tunnelling Company RE. All of these sites could be viewed in the fields in front of us.
We stood at the site of the British front line on the quiet road to Montauban with Machine Gun Wood on our left and Germans’ Wood to our front right and imagined what this scene looked like on 1 July and the subsequent days and weeks as battle moved on in this area.
After Montauban we stopped at the 18th (Eastern) Division memorial at Trones Wood. The 11th South Lancs had been working in the wood in the latter half of July 1916.
We then spent a pleasant few hours on a tour of the battlefields – all south of the Ancre. Stops included High Wood, Ulster Tower and the Pope’s Nose and the Thiepval Memorial. I was also able to give Roland a good look around the Glory Hole at La Boisselle.
After stocking up on a picnic lunch at the Old Blighty Tea Room at La Boisselle we headed back to Peronne and then down to St Quentin, focussing on the period from the German attack on 21 March 1918 through to the action for which Jack Davies was awarded his VC on the morning of 24 March. We visited the villages of Savy, Roupy and the small site of Epine de Ballon. Jack’s company (unknown) was in one of these locations prior to the German offensive. We then made our way to Fluquieres and from there to the high ground between Aviation Wood and Mill Wood. On the evening of 21 March 1918 the battalion dug and wired a defensive line through here, remaining for nearly 24 hours until on the evening of 22 March the order was given for all troops to withdraw in orderly fashion to Ham. Upon reaching Ham the battalion was told to billet in nearby Eppeville. We had a good look around Ham, visiting the bridge over the Somme Canal blown up by a detachment of Royal Engineers on the morning of the 23rd before driving west to Eppeville itself.
This was the village, really no more than one street, intrinsically tied to Jack Davies’s VC story. After stopping at the Sucrerie (ironically now owned by a German company called Südzucker, the largest sugar producer in Europe) we continued west and crossed the railway line, noting the positions held along the line by the battalion.
Finally, we reached the field where two companies of the battalion were almost entirely surrounded on the morning of 24 March 1918. As is the way with so many sights of unimaginable bravery in the Great War there is nothing to mark the site as anywhere special – just a couple of grassy fields next to the road with a man-made lake behind them barring the way to the stream over which the survivors escaped.
According to the after-action report compiled in the war diary it was in these two innocuous fields that Jack Davies mounted the parapet and kept his Lewis Gun firing until overwhelmed by the advancing Germans.
For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty under heavy rifle and machinegun fire. When his company – outflanked on both sides – received orders to withdraw, Corporal Davies knew that the only line of withdrawal lay through a deep stream lined with a belt of barbed wire, and that it was imperative to hold up the enemy as long as possible.
He mounted the parapet, fully exposing himself, in order to get a more effective field of fire, and kept his Lewis gun in action to the last, causing the enemy many casualties and checking their advance. By his very great devotion to duty he enabled part of his company to get across the river, which they would otherwise have been unable to do, thus undoubtedly saving the lives of many of his comrades. When last seen this gallant N.C.O. was still firing his gun, with the enemy close on the top of him, and was in all probability killed at his gun.
Quite how and why he wasn’t killed remains unknown but it was only two months later, after his VC citation had been published in the London Gazette that word reached home that he was a POW in Germany. It was safely assumed that Jack was killed in the action and so the citation (above) is written as a posthumous record of his bravery.
Roland laid a small cross in the field and we then paid our respects at Ham British Cemetery where other men of the 11th South Lancs who hadn’t the same luck as Jack are buried. It was a spot I hadn’t visited before and I was taken by the two cemeteries – the British and Commonwealth cemetery directly next to the Muille-Villette German Cemetery.
Before leaving I laid a cross at the grave of Lieutenant John Cuthbert Lidgett, 11th South Lancs in memory of all the men of the battalion who made the ultimate sacrifice. It had been a real trip to remember….
“What a wonderful day you provided for me, far exceeding my expectations for our time together. I mentioned the words ‘bringing alive’ and certainly you did that both for the 1 July 1916 action on the Somme and also Jack’s story from 21-24 March 1918. I have no idea how many similar stories you have so far put together, but I cannot think that anyone trying to trace the steps of a long lost relative would regret having made contact with you. If this is the source of your livelihood, then I can see nothing but success ahead.” Roland Parr, Cambridge
Last week I spent an enjoyable two days on the battlefields with four clients. For all but one of them it was their first visit to the western front. We met bright and early on Monday morning at the Channel Tunnel terminal and travelled over in convoy down to Arras.
Our first stop was in the superb Carriere Wellington. Our guide, the irrepressible Pascal, was as keen as ever and coupled with my preliminary talk on the Battle of Arras and the ten minute ‘taster’ film shown prior to going underground my group got a good initial grasp of the battle in April & May 1917. Following our hour underground we visited the Arras Memorial to the Missing and Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery. The sheer scale of men with no known grave from the Arras battlefields had the usual sobering effect.
Being so close we popped into the Mur des Fusillés and paid our respects at the site where 218 French resistance and civilians were shot by the Germans in the Second World War. I have always found it an eerie place with a strange atmosphere all of its own.
We then headed out to the Great War battlefields around Arras with the first stop the Point du Jour for a visit to the military cemetery and the graves of the 10th Lincolns men (Grimsby Chums) found in 2001 and the impressive 9th (Scottish) Division memorial re-sited next to the cemetery. After a picnic lunch in the cemetery we headed back into Athies and along to Fampoux. The village marked the point of furthest advance into German lines on 9 April 1917. We stopped at the sunken lane to look at the attack of the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers (10th Brigade, 4th Division) against Greenland Hill and Roeux on 11 April 1917. Whilst at the Sunken Lane Cemetery overlooking the sloping fields down to Roeux I told my group of Donald MacKintosh and the actions that earned his Victoria Cross. We then drive through Roeux past the site of the Chemical Works (now a Carrefour mini-supermarket) and around to Brown’s Copse Cemetery to pay our respects at MacKintosh’s grave.
Back on the road we crossed the Scarpe and headed up to Monchy-le-Preux. I pointed out the positions of various trench lines and explained about the catastrophic failure of the 3 May attack, the Third Battle of the Scarpe. We then had a drive around Monchy, stopping at the stunning 37th Division memorial and the Newfoundland Caribou Memorial which is built on the top of a British artillery observation post constructed in August 1917 by 69 Field Company RE. Our day’s battlefielding was completed with a stop east of the village on Infantry Hill where I told of the disastrous 14 April attack by 1st Essex Regiment and the aforementioned Newfoundlanders. Both battalions were destroyed in carefully planned German counter-attacks – the first use of the new doctrine of ‘elastic’ defence. Monchy was at the mercy of the Germans and the situation was only saved by the quick thinking action of Lt-Colonel James Forbes-Robertson and a small group of men – all decorated for this action and known thereafter as the Heroes of Monchy.
We had a pleasant walk up Infantry Hill to the Mound and then headed back into Arras to pick up my car and then headed down to the Somme for a welcome meal and good night’s sleep.
The next day was spent touring the 1916 Somme battlefield. Very much aware that one can only skim over the surface with one day around such a large and important battlefield we were up early to make full use of the daylight. After an explanation in the car park on the battle using various maps we set off north up to Serre, the most northerly point of continuous attack on 1 July 1916. En route we pulled the car in at the Ulster Tower for a view across the Ancre and an explanation of events in the northern part of the battlefield. The Gospel Copses at Serre were deserted and we had Sheffield Memorial Park all to ourselves as I explained about the failure of the attack and the losses incurred by the northern Pals battalions of the 31st Division.
After some time in Railway Hollow Cemetery we stopped at Serre Road Cemetery No.2 (the largest on the Somme battlefield) and the across the Redan Ridge to Beaumont Hamel, and the infamous sunken lane, the jumping off point for the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers that fateful morning. We then retraced our steps and stopped for a pleasantly quiet walk around the preserved trenches of Newfoundland Memorial Park with its Caribou and even more imposing memorial to the 51st (Highland) Division, conquerors of Beaumont Hamel in November 1916. Our next stop was to the magnificent Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, a must for any battlefield visitor to the western front. Heading via Pozières of Australian fame we reached the Old Blighty Tea Rooms at La Boisselle for a deserved late lunch.
The afternoon began with a detailed tour around the Glory Hole at La Boisselle and a good walk around the site looking at the craters and depressions marking the trenches followed by a stop at the unmissable Lochnagar Crater.
We then headed east through the battlefield, past Contalmaison, Longueval and Guillemont to the Cedric Dickens cross at Ginchy overlooking Leuze and Bouleaux Woods. This was a special stop for one of the group whose grandfather had served with the 1/8th Middlesex Regiment and who had probably been in these very fields in mid-September 1916.
Our final stop of the day was to the site above Mametz of our successful archaeological dig for a Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector where I could stand my clients on the spot where the parts had been recovered in May 2010. Sadly we did not have time to all visit the Historial de la Grande Guerre at Peronne to see the temporary exhibition and salvaged projector parts as well as the full size replica but there is only so much we could do within the time constraints.
“I would just like to say a big thank you for making our battlefield tour such an interesting and amazing event. Your knowledge of the area and what went on and where, is just incredible. The tour was made that much better by the fact that you had researched my Grandfather’s service in the Middlesex Regiment and proceeded to show us exactly where he was and what he would have experienced almost to the day but 95 years ago. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck!
The choice of locations that you picked were excellent, and whilst I know two days is not long enough to cover everything there is to see, we certainly got a very good understanding of what happened, by whom and where. This was made even more poignant by linking them to my ancestors who had fought there. I would have no hesitation in recommending your tours to any of my friends, in fact I have told them of my experience with you and we are already planning another tour for next year.” John Waterman, Kent
It was a terrific trip with delightful people who have clearly got the battlefielding bug. My thanks to John, Clare, Sally and Jack for their enthusiasm, understanding and for sending me a selection of photos. I am already looking forward to the next time…
Last month I managed to stop in at the Arras battlefields when on my way down to La Boisselle for more site work. I only had a couple of hours before a lunchtime meeting in Peronne but still managed a quick recce for a private battlefield tour I am taking in September.
I have some clients coming from New Zealand who have a relative, Corporal Andrew McDonald MM, who was fatally wounded at the Battle of Arras. I have been compiling a detailed report on this soldier who served in the 6th (Morayshire) Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders.
Andrew McDonald was in the battalion from its very formation and arrived in France in 1915. As part of 152 Brigade, 51st (Highland) Division he served throughout the Somme offensive including Bazintin-le-Grand, High Wood and the successful capture of Beaumont Hamel in November. He was awarded the Military Medal for his part in a raid on enemy positions in September 1916 on the Railway Salient near Armentieres. A most useful book on the battalion is Derek Bird’s ‘The Spirit of the Troops is Excellent’ which I can heartily recommend as a superb battalion study.
On the opening day of battle, Easter Monday, 9 April 1917 the battalion was to be involved from the off. Facing the German trenches northeast of the small village of Roclincourt they were tasked with capturing three lines of German trenches, the third of which was designed the Black Line. They would then consolidate these whilst the 1/5th Seaforths passed through them in the ‘leap-frog’ system to take the next two lines, the Brown and Blue Lines.
Andrew McDonald was serving in C Company – they had even more limited objectives, being tasked with taking and holding a section of the first two lines. D Company with a platoon of B Company would then push on to the Black Line – the final objective for the battalion.
As Andrew McDonald’s service record no longer survives it is very hard to know where he was fatally wounded and the war diary offers scant evidence. However, in September I will take his relatives, having travelled half way around the world, to the site of the jumping-off trenches occupied by C Company and let them stand where he stood on 9 April 1917. I am pretty confident that he was wounded in the fields in front of us, rising towards Farbus and Thélus on the southern shoulder of Vimy Ridge. The beautiful Highland Cemetery now stands close to the site of C Company’s advance. It is full of Highland Division men and is well worth a visit.
One casualty buried in the cemetery that particularly stood out for me whilst reading Derek Bird’s book was Sergeant Charles Mackenzie who was reportedly killed while engaged in a bayonet fight. One of his men was bayoneted and in a selfless act Mackenzie stood over his body to protect him from further wounding. Sadly he himself was then overcome and killed.
Fatally wounded on 9 April Andrew McDonald succumbed to his wounds on 13 April, having made it back to the huge hospitals near Etaples. He is buried in the vast and sobering Etaples Military Cemetery, another spot my clients will visit on their September pilgrimage.
All of this took place just off the A26 motorway so please spare a thought and look to your right and the lonely Highland Cemetery just past Junction 7 next time you are heading south.
Total losses for the Battalion during the opening stages of the Battle of Arras were 9 Officers and 320 Other Ranks. Further trials awaited the battalion later in the month at Roeux and the Chemical Works during some of the most savage infantry fighting of the war. For those with an interest in the battalion Derek Bird has compiled a Roll of Honour to the fallen of the 6th Seaforths. It can be viewed here: http://www.scotlandnorthbranch.webspace.virginmedia.com/Roll-of-Honour/Index.htm
Today sees the grand opening of the new exhibition about the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector at the Historial in Péronne. I have taken a day out from a holiday and have just arrived in Péronne after three separate train journeys. The exhibition will commence with a few speeches and then the first screening of the “Breathing Fire – Le Dragon de la Somme” in French will be shown in two auditoriums. I understand from staff at the museum that usual attendances are about 80 people. That figure will be doubled tonight – we have 160 people coming along including many from the UK including representatives from the Corps of Royal Engineers.
I managed to get a few pictures earlier of the exhibition and, most notably, the specially-commissioned replica constructed by local students of vocational training centres. I will post an update later if time permits. Having worked on the project since its initial inception back in 2005/6 I am obviously a touch biased but, having had a good look at what has been produced and is on display, I can say that it looks fantastic and would urge any battlefield visitor to the Somme to take a look. The exhibition is currently scheduled to run to December 2011.
EDIT: Evening went with a great success – speeches followed by the unveiling of the replica flame projector and then a viewing of the Breathing Fire film with French subtitles. A great evening and wonderful to see so many people from all around the western front – Johan Vandewalle from Polygon Wood, Alain Jacques from the Arras archaelogical service, Philippe Gorczynski, owner of D51 Deborah from Cambrai and Isabelle and Pascal from the Carriere Wellington, Arras to name a few. Thanks to all for their support.
Today sees the public launch of our ambitious project at the Glory Hole in the village of La Boisselle at the heart of the Somme battlefields. We have been invited by the landowners to conduct a long-term archaeological and historical study into the site, one of the most unique still extant on the western front.
BBC Breakfast and News 24 are covering the launch with Robert Hall on live feed from the Somme. He will be interviewing members of the La Boisselle Study Group (Peter Barton, Simon Jones and Iain McHenry) as well as one of the landowners who has given us this tremendous opportunity. Owing to other commitments I am not able to be on site today with my colleagues but am enjoying seeing the reaction in the UK.
For all details of the project please see our website: http://www.laboisselleproject.com/
The detailed article on the BBC website can be read here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-13630203
Following on from my blog posts HERE and HERE on the finding, identification and burial of Private Thomas Lawless, 49th Battailon CEF I have just received this update from the Canadian Portrait Academy – more good news to come from this story:
On Friday May 26th the Canadian War Museum announced they will be acquiring for their collection the original forensic facial reconstruction of WWI soldier Pte. Thomas Lawless created by the preeminent Newfoundland & Labrador sculptor and forensic artist Christian Cardell Corbet, FRSA.
Pte. Lawless of Alberta’s 49th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Forces, was identified by means of the facial reconstruction and isotopes marking a first in the positive identification of a World War 1 soldier. Pte. Lawless went missing in battle in June 1917 and his remains were not found until 2003 in France. The facial reconstruction was created in a multidisciplinary collaborative effort between The Department of National Defence and the University of Western Ontario.
The Canadian War Museum wrote the Canadian Portrait Academy and Mr. Corbet stating: “The collections committee met this morning…and the forensic facial reconstruction bust of Pte. Thomas Lawless has been accepted by the museum…(it) will be the only (forensic facial reconstruction sculpture) one in our collection. It’s quite a unique piece and the committee was very excited about its acquisition.”
Corbet commented: “This acquisition is a true honour to me; to be recognized by a national museum in one’s own country is indeed very special. Corbet further commented: “I hope the portrait of Pte. Lawless will act as an educational visual means where it will help tell the story about Canada’s significant contributions during the Great War and ultimately to the freedom we so enjoy today.” Corbet hopes to deliver the portrait bust in person.
This recent important acquisition was preceded the day before with yet another milestone for Corbet where the National Museum of Ireland wrote to acquire a copy of the forensic facial reconstruction of Pte. Lawless.
Corbet is represented in over 80 museums, art galleries and special collections in 14 countries.
I spoke at the Thames Valley Branch of the Western Front Association (WFA) last Thursday (28 April). When first approached I had to choose between speaking about the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector on the Somme or the subject of our last book, The Battle of Arras. I opted for the latter, mainly because I figured that the Channel 4 Time Team programme would have been only shown a short time before and so many of those attending would know at least the gist of the story. So, Arras it was. The talk was to last for about an hour (as it was, I think I spoke for nearer 70 minutes) and so this necessitated a good deal of reading to refresh the memory. I prepared a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate some aspects of the talk and managed to get panoramas to slowly scroll across the screen too (a technical feat I was quite pleased with!)
The talk was entitled “The Battle of Arras: April – May 1917″ and was well attended with about 45 people regulars plus my brother Mark Banning and his friend and regular battlefield companion Malcolm Sime.
It was structured to not merely cover the battle but start with warfare in the Arras area in October 1914, look at the costly French actions of 1915 and then move on to British occupation in March 1916. The German attack against the 47th (London) Division on Vimy Ridge was touched upon and then I covered a basic backdrop to battle from the political and military standpoint and explained in detail the new German policy of ‘elastic defence’ to be brought into play for 1917. Moving through the Chantilly and Calais conferences I then spent some time on the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line (Operation Alberich) before exploring preparations for battle such as the tremendous work of the Royal Engineers. I also looked into French preparations, the actions of General Robert Nivelle and the extraordinary series of leaks and security lapses that marred the French pre-battle period. By this time half an hour had gone but I felt it important to set the scene fully and not merely delve straight into the battle itself.
I structured the actual battle part of the talk by focussing on the First and Third Army fronts from north to south, starting with the Canadian Corps attack on Vimy Ridge before moving into what I always think of the main ‘Arras proper’ battlefield. Realising that no talk about the Battle of the Somme would neglect to work its way down the front line for 1 July 1916 I adopted the same structure – following each division’s success (or failure) as we moved southwards across the Scarpe and Arras-Cambrai road into Hindenburg Line territory until ending with the 21st Division at the south of the attacking frontage. Explaining the reasons for success in many sectors and failure in others I then worked my way through the battle focussing on stand-out actions. These included the capture of Monchy-le-Preux on 11 April 1917 and the destruction of the cavalry of the Essex Yeomanry and 10th Hussars in the village.
I also covered the attack by two battalions of the 10th Brigade (4th Division) towards the village of Roeux and the Chemical Works. 1/Royal Irish Fusiliers and 2/Seaforth Highlanders suffered grievous losses in the attack; the Seaforths attacked with 12 officers & 420 Other Ranks and their losses were all 12 officers & 363 O.R. This meant that a mere 57 men survived the action unwounded – and the objective wasn’t gained in any way. The beautiful Seaforths Cross on the Sunken Lane at Fampoux is a reminder of the men who attacked and suffered so much that day. I touched on the fighting at Bullecourt that day but felt that the disastrous actions around that particular salient village warranted a talk of their own.
The next attack to be looked into was the attack up Infantry Hill by the Newfoundland Regiment and 1/Essex Regiment on 14 April 1917 – an attack that almost destroyed both battalions and which left the way open for the German reoccupation of Monchy. The day was saved by a gallant band of men led by Lt Col James Forbes Robertson, CO of the Newfoundlanders who organised a small group of men to run to eastern edge of village and open rifle fire. For five hours their fire held the Germans at bay until the village was relieved. All were decorated and became known as ‘The Men Who Saved Monchy’.
I then worked through the month of April, looking at the failed French attacks on the Aisne and then explaining the movements of 23 April (Second Battle of the Scarpe) with particular emphasis on the fighting for Roeux and the Chemical Works by the 51st (Highland) Division. The battle was deteriorating against well organised and deployed German troops employing the new ‘elastic defence’ doctrine. It was a dreadful time – Third Army suffered 8,000 casualties alone on the 23rd/24th April.
It seemed apt giving the talk on 28 April as I then touched on the attack that day 94 years ago and the capture of the village of Arleux. It was building to the climax of battle – the Third Battle of the Scarpe on 3 May 1917 – a very dark day indeed for the British Army. The 21km frontage from Fresnoy in the north to Bullecourt (again) in the south lent itself to particular problems. The Australians at Bullecourt wanted a night attack to aid their chances of success – in the north this would have been disastrous for the attack on Oppy Wood. A miserable compromise was reached and Zero Hour was set for 3.45am – the attack was still to go in at night time. It was a terrible fiasco – many units were unable to even find their starting points and had no idea of direction to attack, merely following the direction of the artillery barrage with the hope of finding some Germans. Accounts mention morale being poor and a general malaise amongst the depleted attacking divisions. I read from the Official History: Military Operations France and Belgium 1917 by Cyril Falls as it summed up most eloquently the reasons for failure on 3 May 1917:
“The confusion caused by the darkness; the speed with which the German artillery opened fire; the manner in which it concentrated upon the British infantry, almost neglecting the artillery; the intensity of its fire, the heaviest that many an experienced soldier had ever witnessed, seemingly unchecked by British counter-battery fire and lasting almost without slackening for fifteen hours; the readiness with which the German infantry yielded to the first assault and the energy of its counter-attack; and, it must be added, the bewilderment of the British infantry on finding itself in the open and its inability to withstand any resolute counter-attack.”
I concluded with the finals stages of battle, the loss of Fresnoy and eventual capture of Roeux and the Chemical Works and for my last slide whilst talking about the men who had done the fighting I showed one of my favourite pictures. It shows a triumphant shot of a group of the 12/West Yorkshire Regiment in Arras celebrating their success of 9 April with captured booty. I was amazed when a man in the front put his hand up, saying he had spotted his grandfather in the photo! Apparently the only wartime souvenirs that his grandfather left were his medals and a copy of this photo. The man was 50496 Acting Corporal John Davison Johnson (marked with a red arrow in the photo) and I thank his grandson, John Johnson for this information – it quite made my night!
All feedback received has been good and the Branch Chairman, Bridgeen Fox, wrote very warmly afterwards with her thanks. Her comments can be read here. As she herself said, “it should have raised the profile of the battles of Arras and I hope it will have encouraged more people to explore the area”.
When I have some time I will write a blog piece with detail about the 3 May fighting. My thanks to Geoff Sullivan from the wonderful ‘Geoff’s Search Engine’ for furnishing me with some tremendous statistics for that day. If anyone is intersted in hearing this talk then please contact me. I am speaking on this subject in Bristol in October – see here for details. For those with an interest in the battle our panorama book on the subject is available here. Alternatively, if you are interested in a battlefield tour to Arras then please contact me – I would be happy to discuss.
I had been invited to attend the annual service of commemoration for the Battle of Arras at the Wellington Quarry and had written a blog piece about the impending service which had been picked up by the WFA for inclusion on their website. Sadly I was unable to attend due to family commitments but I have been sent images and details of the event by Isabelle Pilarowski of the Wellington Quarry. The service is held at 0630hrs on 9 April each year. The early start is due to the start of battle in 1917 – Zero Hour was 5.30am. It is a gathering of people who want to pay their respects for the men involved in the huge British offensive at Arras in April and May 1917. So often overshadowed by the Battles of the Somme and Passchendaele, Arras stands as one of the three major British offensives of the war.
I have a huge soft spot for the place, as a battlefield and a superb town to visit, and enjoy the quiet surroundings without the hordes of coaches and resulting pilgrims that can often be seen in some of the more popular battlefield stops on the western front.
Isabelle tells me that the service went very well and that it was well attended by officials and visitors alike. Attendees included the Mayor, the Préfet, the Ambassador of New Zealand, representatives from Australia and Canada [denoting their countries role in the Battle – at Bullecourt and Vimy] as well as members from other French and British associations.
Of particular interest to me was the inclusion of extracts from the wonderful memoirs of Percy Clare, 7th East Surrey Regiment. As part of the 12th (Eastern) Division his battalion attacked up Observation Ridge on the first day of battle. After a rest in the middle of April the battalion was back in the line for the disastrous attacks of 3 May 1917 (Third Battle of the Scarpe) – 94 years ago today. The day is one of the blackest days for the British Army in the Great War and was a hideous muddle from its inception to its execution. Over 5,900 men were killed that day as the attack was repulsed with ease along the vast majority of the Thurd Army front. Very kindly the copyright holder, Rachel Gray, had let me copy a set of Percy’s memoirs for donation to the Wellington Quarry. They are probably the finest account extant of the battle and were quoted through the service. The service also included a reading of the poem ‘The Owl’ by Edward Thomas. He was killed on the morning of 9 April 1917 by a shell blast and is buried in Agny Military Cemetery:
For further details of Percy Clare please see this blog piece or consult our book Arras: The Spring 1917 Offensive in Panoramas Including Vimy Ridge and Bullecourt