Archive for the ‘Miscellany’ Category
I have been working with the schoolchildren from a local Bristol school, Fishponds Church of England Academy, for the past couple of years as part of my work with Historic England’s ‘Heritage Schools’ scheme. This has involved taking them on First World War themed heritage walks around the local area, including visits to the nearby local war memorial and the Glenside Campus of University of West of England (UWE), the former mental asylum which, in its wartime guise at Beaufort War Hospital, had over 30,000 wounded service personnel pass through its gates.
During this period it was discovered that the striking Fishponds War Memorial was not ‘listed’ by Historic England. The idea was formed to engage the local schoolchildren to work on getting their memorial listed. If successful, it would be the first time schoolchildren would play such an active role in this process. Furthermore, it would be a wonderful way for local children to engage in their community. The project began with high hopes as Historic England has pledged to protect 2,500 war memorials by 2018 to mark the centenary of the First World War.
In November 2015 I accompanied Michael Gorely, who manages the ‘Heritage Schools’ programme for Historic England, and a number of Year 6 children to the war memorial. The task was to carry out a condition survey; recording factual details such as the memorial’s physical appearance, what materials it was made from, its shape, size, setting and any changes from its original design. Also noted were details of plaques and additional inscriptions. The children also researched its history and wrote persuasive letters asking the memorial be listed to the Designation Department at Historic England. It was the department’s decision whether to grant listed status with the final ratification made by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. A selection of comments from the children’s letters can be found below.
“When we went to see the site, everybody had a fantastic time learning about it.”
“It is a great piece of history and most people would agree that it should be listed.”
“People would be devastated if anything happened to this historical memorial.”
“This amazing piece of history means something to everybody even if their family did not go to war…”
“Our memorial is a unique statue with lots of names carved down on it.”
“It is a part of the local community and we want to remember those who died for us.”
In March we heard the news their appeal had been successful; they are the first school in the country to achieve this! I was invited into the school on 22 March for a special assembly followed by a small wreath laying service at the memorial attended by standard bearers from the local Royal British Legion. The story made the Bristol Evening Post and we gave some interviews for BBC Radio Bristol’s breakfast show. The newspaper article can be read here: https://twitter.com/heritagemikeg/status/713032323537707011
The original memorial had been designed with a bayonet on the end of the soldier’s rifle but had been repeatedly vandalised. As a consequence the bayonet was eventually removed. The children and staff at the school are now working on getting a replacement bayonet added. Ironically, this is much harder now due to the memorial’s listed status!
A small number of Fishponds Church of England Academy children will be visiting the Houses of Parliament next week to speak to an All-Party Group about their success.
I have also recently heard that I heard yesterday that Historic England’s ‘Heritage Schools’ scheme has won the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage at the Europa Nostra Awards 2016. Press release: http://www.europanostra.org/awards/209/
Everyone who has been involved with this scheme has played a part in ensuring that pupils can learn about, connect with and enjoy their local heritage. So, let’s hope it continues and more children reap the benefits. And a huge congratulations from me to all of the children involved.
In January I was invited to speak to a group of ex-service personnel who were working with the Military Veterans’ Service. Offering psychological therapy the Military Veterans’ Service provides help to veterans across the North West.
Dunham Massey National Trust’s successful Sanctuary from the Trenches; a Country House at War has recreated the Stamford Military Hospital in the state rooms in Dunham Massey. A doubling of visitor numbers has shown the general public’s interest in the subject. However, for 2015 the staff are keen to showcase further aspects of the medical treatment offered from 1917-19. Sister Bennett, the Hospital’s Matron was a keen advocate of outdoor healing practises. A pivoting wooden hut was situated in the garden at Dunham Massey, which provided sheltered outdoor space for soldiers. A picture in the archive shows wrapped-up patients out in the hut in the snow, receiving ‘fresh air’ and ‘sun bath’ treatments.
Dunham Massey’s ‘The Fresh Air Hut Project’ was designed to involve a team of volunteers working with the Military Veterans’ Service to create an interpretive visitor experience in an authentic replica of the pivoting timber hut. By using art therapy, the ex-service personnel could draw inspiration from their unique training opportunity and reflection upon their own personal experiences of military life.
I spent a wonderful day with the veterans in early January, speaking about many of the stories of soldiers who had recuperated at Stamford Military Hospital. We were then treated to a tour of the house and able to watch recreations of soldier’s stories; the parts of soldiers and nurses being played by actors. With the information I provided the veterans were able to use parts of the stories in their art workshops. The result of their endeavours, the replica hut filled with artwork, was in situ when the house reopened in mid-February. I visited on the first day, 14 February, and was struck not only by the skill and variety of the artwork but the sense of calmness and solitude the hut offered. Tucked away from view, it felt as if one had stumbled across the hut. Windows etched with the names of soldier patients added to the overall feeling. My congratulations to the veterans who produced such brilliant work and thanks to the personnel who planned and worked with them on this.
Dunham Massey details via the National Trust website: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/dunham-massey/
I recently spent the day giving a First World War workshop to Year 6 pupils at Orchid Vale Primary School in Swindon. During the morning I spoke about my job and the variety of roles I perform. After that brief introduction I spoke at length about the wartime life of a typical British soldier, kit, food and the daily routine of trench warfare. Having brought along some German barbed wire found last year when walking on the Somme, I was able to show them the length of the barbs.
“We had a fabulous day on the Friday you came in. Without a doubt, the children found your visit inspirational – so much so that many now want to be historians! You helped bring to life some of the things they had started to read about and helped to give them an understanding of concepts that are hard for children in Britain today to imagine, in a way that was engaging.” Fran Randall, Year 6 teacher, Orchid Vale Primary School
We then spent some time talking about local Swindon men who went off to war. Having used Mark Sutton’s excellent ‘Tell Them Of Us’ book all about Swindon’s war dead, I had identified a number of characters that I knew would interest the children.
One of these men was Second Lieutenant Frederick Wheatcroft, a Swindon town footballer who was killed at Bourlon Wood during the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917. Another was a former GWR employee, Arthur William Loveday who had won the first of his two Distinguished Conduct Medals in a daring raid on the German trenches at Ploegsteert Wood in December 1915. We also looked at Swindon men who had gone to Canada before war started as so fought in the Candian Army.
The afternoon was spent visiting Swindon’s main war memorial. On arriving at the Cenotaph at Regent Place the children all had a good look at the memorial, reading John McCrae’s famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. We then headed inside to the former Town Hall, now occupied by a dance studio.
Hidden behind curtains is the hugely impressive wooden war memorial, listing over 900 of Swindon’s men who were killed during the war. The children were very keen to look up the names of the men that we had discussed earlier. They also found names that were familiar to them and we looked up their details in Mark Sutton’s book. Our visit concluded with the singing of wartime songs beefier we headed back to the school.
We all agreed it was a great shame that the memorial was hidden from public view. Fran Randall, the teacher who had invited me to Orchid Vale is Swindon born and bred and yet had no idea about the memorial. Ironically, the memorial was paid for by public subscription but is not available for the public to view. For more information about Swindon in the Great War follow
@SwindonGreatWar on Twitter.
I had a wonderful day at Orchid Vale, spent with inquisitive children and friendly staff. I hope their interest in the war continues, in particular their efforts to help the campaign to find a more suitable place for the town’s magnificent war memorial to be displayed.
Below are some extracts from pupil’s thank you letters:
“I have turned over a new leaf in history! It used to be a little bit boring to me, now I love it All thanks to you.”
“Finding out about your job inspired me to become historian myself. You obviously have lots of fun being a historian because you get to do lots of incredible things such as working for the BBC.”
“I used to think history was boring but now have a different perspective on it.”
“My class and I really enjoyed your visit, especially the trip to the memorial showing us who passed away and how special they were. What inspired me was learning about your job and your presentation about the war.”
“Before going on the trip I was not that interested in history, listening to the facts about the First World War and all about your life is inspired me to learn more. I found it fascinating to learn all about how people lived in the past.”
“Your visit I believe, pulled a history trigger in all of us and I’ve noticed that history seems more interesting when you know about it.”
This week has seen the much awaited launch of the National Archives First World War diaries online from series WO95. For those of us who spend their time at Kew it is a welcome relief to have these documents available at the click of a mouse. With many documents out of circulation in order to be scanned over the past couple of years I have had a number of frustrating trips to Kew so I was pleased to hear the news. However, our wait is not over yet as it is only the three cavalry and seven infantry divisions which made up the original BEF from August 1914 which are online. Previously scanned diaries (many in black and white) have been removed. Revised full colour versions will be released online in the spring with the entire collection available by the end of the year.
Strangely, the media confused these important operational unit war diaries with personal accounts. A small number of personal diaries can be found amongst the official records but there are not that many. Despite this, the BBC in particular, focused on relaying ‘newly released’ personal accounts. This missed the point and, to my mind, trivialised the importance of the announcement. I wonder quite what staff at the Imperial War Museum with their magnificent collection of diaries, memoirs and letters in the Department of Documents thought of this?
On Tuesday I gave an interview for BBC Radio 5live Drive in which I was asked to comment on a couple of readings from personal diaries that have been found amongst the newly digitised tranche. Each subsequent question focussed on what soldiers had to endure and, it being 5live, the importance of sport for soldiers. Only at the end of the conversation could I suggest I was asked about operational diaries and why they are so critical, not only to historians but also the general public and family members interested in finding more out about their forebears’ wartime service. It seems inexplicable that this confusion occurred.
I also gave an interview for Russian World Service which can be accessed below. During this I was asked what I thought would be the most important developments over the centenary period. Whilst having British war diaries available at the click of a mouse is wonderful, I firmly believe that it is only by using extant German primary source material that our understanding can grow. I sincerely hope the next four years sees a growing interest, not only in British records, but in a wider appreciation that much of the history written over the last hundred years has been done so using limited sources. As historians we want to find the truth, not a slanted or biased version of events.
Released alongside the British war diaries was an ambitious crowdsourcing project “Operation War Diary” which, it is claimed, will help us to unlock the data in our war diaries. Further details are available from a dedicated website: http://www.operationwardiary.org/. If it works and the data is fed back into the National Archives’ Discovery search facility it should be a great help. It will be interesting to see if the initial momentum is maintained over the centenary period. Hats off to the National Archives who should be congratulated on the digitisation process – 1.5 million pages is a lot of scanning. Now all we need is to get Germans interested in crowdsourcing and transcribing the millions of untouched pages of material in Munich, Stuttgart and Ingolstadt….
This morning I was invited to speak on BBC Radio Bristol on the subject of the new £2 coin to be issued by the Royal Mint. This coin depicts Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, from his famous ‘Call to Arms’ poster from 1914 – ‘Your Country Needs You’. The Green Party are calling for Kitchener’s image to be removed in preference to one denoting peace. Their argument is that the use of this image glorifies war. See http://www.westernmorningnews.co.uk/Kitchener-2-coin-face-glorifies-war-say-Greens/story-20415940-detail/story.html
Removing Kitchener in preference to a design honouring peace would be a strange decision at this time. It is worth remembering the coin is one of five to be created in the period 2014 – 2018. It is hard to think of a more appropriate design to remember the events of one hundred years ago than this iconic image. Kitchener’s links to our colonial nineteenth century past are undeniable. However, it is not those events the coin is recognising. Neither is it celebrating the man himself, even though he did much to raise an army and organise sufficient munitions to prosecute the war effort. The design is a clear symbol of 1914 and the beginning of the war. I am sure that by 2018 the calls to have a design denoting peace will be strong but that time is not now.
The poster, one of the most iconic of the twentieth century, symbolises the Call to Arms in which men enlisted in the hundreds of thousands into what became the ‘New Army’ or ‘Kitchener’s Army’. That those men went off to various theatres of war to fight is undeniable; inevitably a proportion were killed or wounded in action. However, that is the reality of fighting a modern industrial war. It is a bloody, vicious, all encompassing process which the entire country is part of. As such, large scale casualties are inevitable. Men’s enthusiasm to enlist (for a myriad of reasons and not simply patriotism) and duty ensured the British, for so long reliant on the Royal Navy, could form an army of sufficient size to fight the Germans in continental Europe.
I have read suggestions that an image of Harry Patch be used on the coin as an alternative. Harry was the ‘Last Fighting Tommy’ and won a place in the hearts of many around the world due to his passionate advocacy for peace. I was lucky enough to know him well, looking after him on his pilgrimages back to Flanders. However, whilst he was the last survivor of the trenches, the question remains, was he symbolic of the way that all old soldiers thought? Not at all. As hard as it may be for us to stomach, many of those who went to war enjoyed it, revelling in the experience; the camaraderie, regular food, exercise and the chance to escape their humdrum or dangerous industrial civilian life. These men would never live their life in the same way, never living on the edge again. It would be wrong to say that all soldiers thought like this but, neither did all men who fought share Harry’s views. With millions of service personnel it is inevitable there were many different views. So, would it be a good idea to have Harry on a coin? Only if his views mirror those of every serviceman and woman who did ‘their bit’. Clearly, they do not.
What we are talking about here is a coin – one of five to be created over the next five years. Does it remind me of ‘jingoism’ and the dark days of British colonial expansion? No. It brings to mind 1914 and the mass enlistment of a new army. The irony is that in many ways I am ambivalent to it. It is a coin, that is all. I doubt many could say what image adorns the loose change rattling in their pockets or purses. However, unless a brilliant new design is pushed through that strikes a particular chord then I’ll be happy to go with Lord K and his Call to Arms. If I ever get to see one in my change then my first reaction will probably be to think of that wasted morning I spent talking and writing about it. Which brings me on neatly to my next point….
Like many who spend their life researching and learning about the First World War, either guiding on the battlefields, researching in archives or speaking to schoolchildren I am increasingly disheartened by the events of the first week of 2014 which has seen an ugly war of words between various political parties. I am not alone in finding these arguments, started by Michael Gove in his Daily Mail article, unedifying. Clearly, the centenary offers a perfect opportunity for political parties of every persuasion to have their say on upcoming events, using it for their own political benefit. Making cheap political capital out of this period is opportunistic but, sadly, unsurprising. With the social and economic injustices in this country haven’t we more pressing issues in this country for politicians to deal with?
For many of us with a deep-seated and long-standing interest in the war the focus will remain the men who served, their families who remained at home and that legacy – that is what is important, not political jousting and ‘what if’ history. It is sad to say but after just ten days of the new calendar year I am already looking forward to 2018 and the lessening of media and political interest. At this rate, it cannot come too soon.
The discussion on the Steve Le Fevre BBC Radio Bristol Breakfast Show can be heard via iPlayer for another seven days HERE. The piece starts from 1:49.20 in.
In May 1915 Fred Brown enlisted as a private soldier in the 18th Battalion Royal Fusiliers at the age of 17 years, 10 months. After training at Clipstone Camp, Nottinghamshire and Tidworth Camp the Battalion sailed for France in November 1915 as part of 98th Brigade, 33rd Division, soon transferring to 19th Brigade in the same Division. After a short time the Battalion entered trenches near Festubert north of the La Bassée Canal.
Following a hard winter spent in and out of the trenches and in hope of a six week break away from the front in Rouen Fred volunteered for a course of engineering. Sadly for Fred and his fellow volunteers the course was far from what was envisaged – they were now temporarily attached for fatigue duties to 251 Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers, billeted in nearby Béthune. Their role was to acts as ‘beasts of burden’, working underground removing spoil excavated from the face by more experienced miners. After a few weeks Fred applied for a transfer and was accepted into the Royal Engineers as 256302, Sapper Fred Brown. He served with 251 Tunnelling Company for the remainder of the war. Toward the end of his life Fred recorded his wartime experiences in typed form and by tape recorder. These were left with his second wife’s family who have been kind enough to pass them on to me. My thanks to Mary Burgess for her kindness. The photographs used in the Audioboo links are of a dapper looking Fred in later life. The recordings are not brilliant quality, being taken from old D90 cassette tapes. Over the next few weeks I will post as many of Fred’s audio recordings as possible.
1. Hear Fred describe the start of a typical working shift on the Western Front as he moves from Béthune to Cuinchy
2. Hear Fred describe the descent into 251TC’s labyrinthine tunnels at Cuinchy and how the work of spoil removal took place underground
3. Fred describes his shift in a lone listening post spent listening for the sound of German miners
Recommended reading on military mining and the underground war
- Beneath Flanders Fields: The Tunnellers War 1914-1918 by Peter Barton, Peter Doyle & Johan Vandewalle
It has been another busy year on the battlefields. The year started with the BBC’s broadcast of Sebastian Faulks’ WW1 novel, Birdsong which acted as a catalyst for generating people’s interest in tunnelling and underground warfare. Back in June 2011, prior to filming we had taken actors, Eddie Redmayne and Joseph Mawle underground at La Boisselle to show them the real environment of a WW1 tunneller. Most of the year has been spent in organising and running our current archaeological project at La Boisselle. In total we worked five weeks on site, ranging from a few days in March to an entire fortnight of work in May and October. Details of the work can be found on http://www.laboisselleproject.com/ and our BBC Four documentary will be broadcast sometime in January. A personal highlight was our time filming underground in October. Descending a 50ft shaft down to the labyrinthine galleries at the 80ft level and exploring 700ft of tunnels, the first people to do so in over 96 years, was an incredible privilege and one which I will certainly never forget.
We opened the site from 30 June – 2 July, welcoming over a thousand visitors who were on the Somme for the 1 July commemorations. In the past I had always kept away from the Somme for this period and so had not experienced the crowds but found it hugely satisfying to see the public reaction. Best of all was the opportunity to fly over the battlefield in a friend’s helicopter which was infinitely safer than the microlight I had been up in during May’s dig!
I have spoken to many groups about La Boisselle this year; at schools, various WFA branches, Great War societies, private dinners and at Eastbourne Redoubt (as part of their Great War lecture series). Most recently, it was a thrill to speak in the Officer’s Mess at Sandhurst to ninety guests who had joined us for a fundraising dinner. However, my hardest lecture to give was in Arras in April, almost ninety five years to the day that battle had commenced, when I spoke about the April- May 1917 offensive for an hour….in French.
As a result of these other commitments I spent little time on the rest of the battlefields, taking only a few guided tours – trips to Arras and the Somme in the spring and autumn were a particular highlight. In October I spoke on BBC News and the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2 on the Government’s First World War Centenary plans for 2014-18. Over £50m has been allocated to commemorate the centenary but as much of this is designated for the IWM’s revised WW1 Gallery, financially it really is a drop in the ocean. It will be interesting to see the effect of this governmental effort on battlefield visitors and a greater understanding of the war, both at home and abroad.
My work with schools continues to grow and the autumn saw me providing talks and workshops for a number of classes. I am now part of Bristol’s ‘Heritage Schools’ programme provided by English Heritage and have a number of workshops already booked for the coming year.
In January I spent three days filming with actor and comedian Hugh Dennis for the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, following Hugh’s grandfather from Arras up to Ypres and Wytschaete. The resulting episode was broadcast in September. The following month I worked with Yellow Duck Productions on their BBC Wales’ ‘Coming Home’ programme with actor Robert Glenister, explaining his relative’s service in the AIF and part in the disastrous attack at Fromelles in July 1916. I was also interviewed for a programme on gas and flamethrowers for History Channel USA to be broadcast in 2014.
The coming year is already looking busy with a number of bespoke battlefield trips booked, plenty of research projects agreed for clients, and research work beginning on a new BBC television commission. I am also planning on spending time over the winter months on recces and battlefield walking and, as ever, will post images and updates on my Twitter account. Please check out 2012’s blog entries for more information on some of the events mentioned.
I have just returned to my office from the studios at BBC Bristol where I spoke with Jeremy Vine on his BBC Radio 2 lunchtime show. I had been asked to speak about the Prime Minister’s announcement concerning the commemorations of the First World War for 2014-2018 and the need for school battlefield trips. I did not hear the introduction to the story and so missed (what I later found out) were tales from people who had visited the battlefields and the effects it had upon them. We had a good chat about the battlefields, the effect they have upon visitors and the need for children to see them first-hand. My interview can be listened to from 1 hour, 20 mins onward but the entire segment can be listened to from 1 hour, 10 mins in: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01n64f1
Over the last few days I have been asked how I think the commemorations will pan out. I cannot really answer this question but would imagine that the official ceremonies will be carried out with great dignity as they always are. It is the lasting legacy that I am most concerned about – £50million is a huge headline figure but it will be interesting to see exactly how this figure is broken down.
Much of it will go to refurbish a new First World War gallery at the Imperial War Museum. It is high time that this was updated and will undoubtedly serve well as a central hub for the commemorative period. The Imperial War Museum, or IWM as it now prefers to be called, is the perfect place for this. However, it is in the matter of battlefield visits and engaging with local people that I feel most work can be done. The horrendous casualty figures from the Western Front invoke horror but it is only by bringing these down to an individual level that we can hope to engage fully with young children. The power of groups visiting CWGC cemeteries and seeing that there were 15 year old boys who joined up, fought and died for the British Empire cannot be overstressed. Similarly, much work can be done on encouraging schoolchildren to research the names of men on their local war memorial – to find out that a man who had lived on their street was killed suddenly brings the conflict that much closer, certainly much more than a list of endless casualty figures.
Let us hope that the commemorations are just that; to commemorate, not to pity or talk of futility. After all, who are we to say that a man’s death was futile? What gives us that right? Would those men have thought the same? I also hope that there is sufficient coverage of the silent majority – those who fought but came back to pick up the pieces of a country ravaged by war. The victors of 1918 were those who faced economic hardships in the 1920s & 30s and then faced up to German aggression once again. We should certainly remember them too.
I have seen disagreements already on Twitter and online forums as to the tone and content of this commemorative period but I hope that the coming few years can be a time when we pause, reflect, appraise and give an honest look at the forbearance and endeavours of that tremendous Great War generation.
I am back in Bristol after a delightful weekend spent in Sussex. On Saturday I gave a lecture entitled Somme Archaeology: The Glory Hole and the work of the La Boisselle Study Group at Eastbourne Redoubt Fortress & Museum. Despite it being a boiling hot day and the lure of the sea only a few yards away it was standing room only by the time I began speaking in one of the Redoubt’s (thankfully cool) casemates. My talk focussed on the La Boisselle Study Group’s work since June 2011, showing images from the British tunnel system as well as images of surface archaeology and artifacts. I spoke about the actions of the French in autumn 1914 with focus on the capture of the Granathof by the 118th Infantry Regiment on Christmas Eve 1914. British occupation of the ‘Glory Hole’ was also covered with especial mention of underground action by 179 and 185 Tunnelling Companies, RE. I was able to show the current state of excavation and explain the plans for the next tranche of work in September/October. This includes potential exploration of the British tunnel system at the 80ft level.
After an hour’s lecture there was a tea break which was followed by a further 25 minute Q&A session. It was good to see friends there, especially Richard Dunning, owner of the Lochnagar Crater. My grateful thanks to Ryan Gearing for organising the series of lectures, Keith Ross (ex-Royal Sussex Regiment) for his kind introduction and the Eastbourne Redoubt Fortress & Museum for providing such an inspiring venue.
September’s lecture is to be given by Richard van Emden who, utilising his research material gathered for his book ‘The Quick and the Dead’ will be speaking about loss, grief and the families who are often forgotten when the fallen are remembered. Further details can be found here: http://www.eastbournemuseums.co.uk/Events.htm
Having just returned from three days in Arras where I gave a lecture at the Carrière Wellington about the Battle of Arras (April-May 1917) I am heartened by the increase in interest shown in the spring offensive. There is even a plan to tweet updates from the battle which should appeal to those using social media. I thought it a good opportunity to write a short article on the first stage of the battle – the First Battle of the Scarpe which ran from 9 – 14 April 1917. If time and work permits I will do the same for the Second (23/24 April) and Third (3 May) Battles of the Scarpe.
Easter Monday, 9 April 1917 was a momentous day which saw the start of the Battle of Arras. It is best known in Canada for the attack and capture by all four Canadian Divisions (operating together as the Canadian Corps) of the previously unconquered heights of Vimy Ridge. It must be remembered that this action, whilst quite rightly lauded was undertaken to protect the northern flank of the main Arras battle front. Sadly, and almost inexplicably the main effort by troops of General Sir Edmund Allenby’s Third Army have been largely neglected by historians, television documentary producers and British battlefield visitors who all head north to Flanders and the blood-soaked fields around Ypres or south to the Somme. I cannot understand this omission as to me, Arras is the most interesting battle of the war offering a major element in the evolution of warfare. By the end of the offensive I would argue that, to many, the prospect of a final victory almost disappears from the Allies’ view.
The British attacks at Arras were part of a larger Anglo-French offensive planned for spring 1917. The author of this scheme was General Robert Nivelle, commander-in-chief of the French armies on the Western Front, who proposed three separate attacks. Two of these astride the Rivers Aisne and Oise would be French led. Great Britain, as the junior partner in the alliance was to launch a major diversionary attack in the north around Arras. It was not what Sir Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British forces wanted, but faced with such a huge French effort there was no other choice but to accept. The German retreat to the pre-prepared positions of the Hindenburg Line (Siegfried Stellung) rendered the attack on the Oise redundant. However, the major offensive on the Aisne and the British diversion at Arras would still go ahead as planned.
9 April 1917 – the opening day
Easter Monday, 9 April 1917 was, in the main, a great success for the attacking British and Canadian forces. Despite the unseasonal sleet, snow and severe cold the Canadian Corps captured the vast majority of Vimy Ridge and British advances to the south were also impressive. An advance of over three and a half miles was achieved by the 9th (Scottish) Division and the ‘leapfrogging’ 4th Division who captured the village of Fampoux. This advance was the longest made in a single day by any belligerent from static trenches.
South of the river attacking British divisions also fared well with Observation Ridge and Battery Valley captured. However, the planned capture of the village of Monchy-le-Preux on its hilltop plateau and Guémappe were not realised. Moving south of the Arras-Cambrai road the successful capture of The Harp and Telegraph Hill can also be viewed as particular triumphs. However, south of the Roman road the British were now attacking the newly constructed Siegfried Stellung (known to the British as the Hindenburg Line). The intelligent siting and design of the Hindenburg Line, coupled with the inability of British artillery to destroy barbed wire sufficiently made the attacks in the south a costlier and much more difficult task. Neuville Vitasse was captured but the two divisions to the south of the village suffered grievously in their attacks.
The night of 9 April saw Germany’s fate in the balance. If British success could be exploited then it was very possible a potentially disastrous breach in their line could lead to a full-scale German retreat. Sadly, for the British, the success of 9 April was the zenith of their action at Arras. Disorganization, breakdown of communications, dreadful weather and the perennial problem of moving the artillery forward over heavily bombarded ground resulted in little concentrated action taking place on 10 April. This delay was exactly what the Germans needed – time to reorganize and strengthen their defences.
First Battle of Bullecourt
The next day, 11 April was a pivotal day of fighting. General Sir Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army attacked in the south at Bullecourt. The hastily constructed plan has been to use tanks of the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps to crush the thick belts of barbed wire protecting the Hindenburg Line. When these failed to arrive on time Australian troops broke through the wire, fighting their way into the Hindenburg Line. By midday they were faced with the Germans closing in on them on three sides and were forced to retreat across No Man’s Land to their own line. Over 2,000 men were taken prisoner – the largest number of Australians captured in the war.
The Capture of Monchy-le-Preux
The day also saw the capture of Monchy-le-Preux by the infantry of the 15th and 37th Divisions, aided by six tanks. The capture of the village was an unbelievable feat of arms. Astonishingly, many of the attackers had lain out in the cold and snow for two days and it is a credit to their training and the fighting determination of the British Army that their attacks were pressed with such resilience. Despite the undoubted success of the infantry it is the the fate of the cavalry that Monchy has become synonymous with. With the village captured the cavalry were to advance east to the Green Line. However, they were forced back into the village by German machine gun fire where they were subjected to a ‘box barrage’ of artillery. Unable to escape, the narrow streets were clogged with horses and cavalrymen. The latter dismounted; seeking refuge in cellars but the horses could do nothing and were killed in great numbers as shells rained down. The streets of Monchy, full of horse carcasses and the foul residue of high explosive shells and animals are said to have run with blood.
Disaster for the Seaforths
An ominous taste of things for the future conduct of the battle to come was the attack by the 4th Division on the Green Line from Fampoux. At midday the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers attacked from the sunken lane between Fampoux and Gavrelle . They were spotted whilst forming up by the enemy in Roeux and on the railway embankment and subjected to shellfire. At zero hour, as they advanced over a kilometre of open ground behind a feeble artillery barrage they were hit by heavy machine gun fire from the railway embankment and Chemical Works. The Seaforths attacked with 12 officers and 420 men and suffered casualties of all 12 officers and 363 men. Only 57 men survived this attack unwounded. This action and the casualties from other battalions of Seaforths are commemorated with the Seaforths Cross at Fampoux. Subsequent attacks were similarly costly. Roeux was fast earning a reputation as a fortress village. British attacks were badly planned and not supported by sufficient artillery fire whilst German defences grew in strength.
13 April was a day for fresh troops to take the field in order to carry on the attack. Exhausted and frozen men trudged back to Arras, replaced by units at full strength. By now it was almost definitely too late for the breakthrough that had appeared so possible on the evening of 9 April.
Infantry Hill – the destruction of the Essex Regiment & Newfoundlanders
An attack was planned from the precarious Monchy salient. Just two battalions of men would attack up Hill 100 (named Infantry Hill by the British). Conditions were so bad in the village with the detritus from horse carcasses blocking the narrow roads that the attack was postponed until 5.30 a.m. on 14 April. The plan was to capture Infantry Hill and send out patrols into the Bois du Sart and Bois du Vert to check for enemy. In hindsight this badly planned attack appears highly dangerous, almost suicidal. The Monchy salient was already surrounded on three sides by enemy forces. The attack, carried out by the 1st Essex Regiment and Newfoundland Regiment went in as prescribed. It started well and by 7.00 a.m. it was reported that Infantry Hill had been captured. However, in their first proper use of the new defensive employment of ‘elastic defence’ a German counter attack was delivered with such speed and precision that over 1000 Essex and Newfoundlanders were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Monchy had been left undefended and was now at the mercy of advancing Germans troops. The situation was only saved by the commander of the Newfoundland Regiment, Colonel James Forbes Robertson who, with eight other men opened rifle fire from the edge of the village. For five hours their fire held back the enemy until fresh troops reached them. These men, known as the ‘Men who saved Monchy’ were all decorated for this action.
It is not the purpose of this brief article to mention every stage of the fighting but to merely pick out some of the more well-known points. Fighting continued on the Wancourt Ridge with the British capture of the remains of Wancourt Tower. Bitter fighting also continued in the Hindenburg Line; the most well-known casualty from these actions was war poet and officer on the 2nd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, Siegfried Sassoon who was wounded on 16 April. With limited piecemeal actions achieving little Sir Douglas Haig now took control, halting these costly and morale damaging attacks until a combined offensive could be made.
This decision marked the end of the first stage of the Arras fighting – the end of the First Battle of the Scarpe. It was now the turn of General Nivelle to launch his attack on the Aisne. After regrouping and with a marked improvement in weather the British attacked again on 23 April – the Second Battle of the Scarpe.
So, on 9 April 2012, ninety-five years after the whistles blew and attack commenced I will be raising a glass to the memory of the men of all nationalities who fought in the battle. Their sacrifice, perseverance and resolution to finish the job are astonishing. My respect grows for them daily. It is up to all of us to ensure that their efforts are not forgotten.
Should you be interested in the Battle of Arras then the book that Peter Barton and I produced, ‘Arras: The Spring 1917 Offensive including Vimy Ridge and Bullecourt’ is still available. I would urge anyone to visit Arras as it is a lovely town with good hotels and restaurants and only an hour’s drive from Calais. The battlefields are quiet and are immensely rewarding to visit. If you have a relative who fought in the battle or are looking for a guide to show you then please contact me. I would be delighted to help.
The Arras Tourist board are running a number of events over April 2012. Details can be found here: http://www.westernfrontassociation.com/attachments/article/2293/Arras_Ceremony_9_April.pdf