Archive for the ‘Talks and lectures’ Category


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.

By

Now that I am back at my desk in Bristol I can reflect on a wonderful time spent in Arras from the 11-13 November with my colleague Peter Barton. The main reason for our visit was to do a talk (in French) to the locals and media. This was scheduled for 1830hrs on the 12th, ensuring we had sufficient time to meet up with Rachel Gray, great-niece of Percy Clare, 7th East Surrey Regiment. Those who have the Arras panorama volume will know his name – we used extracts from his fantastic memoirs extensively, both for the pre-battle build up and 9 April attack and the disastrous 3 May attack between the villages of Monchy-le-Preux and Pelves.  Rachel lives in Aylesbury and her local paper, the Bucks Herald covered the story in a piece entitled “Following in the footsteps of a hero”.

I had let Rachel know about our talk some time ago and she had agreed to travel out to Arras with her partner Brian so that we could give her a highly personalised tour of the battlefields – literally, as the newspaper article intimated, following in Percy’s footsteps. After meeting at the Hotel d’Angelterre and having a quick fifteen minutes explanation of the battle we set off along the Arras-Cambrai road to the starting position of the 7th East Surreys on the first day of battle, 9 April 1917. Such is the quality and details of Percy’s writing that we could almost stand on the exact spot where each event happened. This luxury was denied us by the British front line, No Man’s Land and first four lines of German trenches being covered by the industrial units that have grown eastwards along the Roman road. Still, this did not spoil the experience.

View from top of Observation Ridge looking back towards British lines and Arras - 7th East Surrey Regt fought their way up this slope on 9 April 1917

We then drove up over Observation Ridge and I pointed out the site of Sergeant Cator’s VC action and the site near Orange Hill where the battalion spent a freezing cold night on 11/12 April 1917. Percy Clare later wrote; ‘Of all the bad nights I spent in France, this one was easily the worst’. We then headed up to the fields between the villages of Monchy-le-Preux and Pelves where, by driving across the farm tracks (thank goodness for Peter’s Range Rover), we followed the disastrous attack of the battalion on 3 May 1917. It was possible to see the ‘dead ground’ which Percy described as sheltering him and his colleagues from German machine gun fire from the direction of Keeling Copse and Bois des Aubepines. We drove up a track to Bois des Aubepines to have a view of the entire battlefield and appreciate the commanding position the Germans held. As we looked back towards the British start positions in the direction of Bayonet Trench we knew that that this benign ground in front of us was the ground in which Percy Clare and his pal, Edward Gunnett had rolled back to safety whilst under continual German machine gun and rifle fire.

Standing at Bois des Aubepines - the fields in the background are those fought over on 3 May 1917 by Percy Clare and others of the 7th East Surrey Regiment

After spending some time here we went back into Arras and visited the Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery and British Memorial to the Missing. The East Surrey’s panels bore names we recognised – one being Captain Thomas King, commanding ‘A’ Company whose compassion shone through when he had removed his coat, placing it over his sleeping servant in the bitter cold of the 11 April night. Captain King was then killed by a German grenade exploding on his chest in the 3 May attack. Another was Lance Corporal Christmas James Steele, a friend of Percy’s who had been killed when running into the British barrage on the German front line on 9 April and Private George Bean who Percy had discovered in No Man’s Land on 3 May, dead but with no trace of a wound on his body. We then headed back into Arras to drop Rachel and Brian off for a well-deserved lunch.

The name of Lance Corporal Christmas James Steele on the Arras Memorial to the Missing - one of over 35,000 names on this memorial alone

The Talk at the Wellington Quarry

Peter and I then spent a couple of hours putting up panoramas, aerials and maps on the walls in the Thompson’s Room at the Wellington Quarry – our talk venue.  The talk began at 1830hrs and we were delighted with the number who came along on a wet, cold night – over 100 people meant standing room only at the back. Peter’s talk was entitled ‘The Battlefields of Arras – the Past, the Present and the Future’. It started with the Battle of Arras and focussed not on specific actions but more on general tactics as well as an emphasis on the importance of the quality of the battlefield archaeological work undertaken in Artois. I then spoke for about ten minutes (apparently my French was understood!) about Percy Clare and his role in the battle as an illustration of one man’s battle. My aim was to use his story to show the importance that the fields around Arras had for not only his family but thousands of others. Peter then talked about the mass grave excavations at Fromelles and our work near Mametz (Somme) in May this year on the search for remaining pieces of a Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector.

The talk was followed by a book signing and the event judged a great success. We were treated to a lovely meal out in a restaurant in the Petit Place by M. Prestaux, head of the Arras Tourist Board. My thanks to Isabelle Pilarowski and the staff at the Wellington Quarry, Alain Jacques and M. Prestaux. Lovely also to see Philippe Gorczynski there. Overall, it was a real success and an honour to find out that we were the first two English historians to speak in French to a French audience in Arras.

Wellington Quarry website is http://www.carriere-wellington.com/

By

The past week has been very busy with preparations for the talk in Arras at the Wellington Quarry that Peter Barton and I are doing on 12 November in French to local media & invited guests. Peter is doing 40 minutes and I am doing 5 minutes but he can speak French and mine is very GSCE-level so I thought it a fair trade off!

We are meeting Rachel Gray, great-niece of Percy Clare, 7th East Surrey Regiment whose hitherto unused memoir was used extensively in the Arras panorama volumeIt will be a tremendous opportunity to show Rachel the battlefield where Percy fought in April & May 1917 and I should imagine it will be an emotional day all round. In my experience his memoir is unsurpassed in detail and we will literally be able to ‘walk in his footsteps’. The Bucks Herald are running this story for us as Rachel lives in their readership area. Many thanks to Nicholas Moore for his help with this. Link to be included when it goes online.

I have also been in touch with the Bristol Evening Post who are coming around on Thursday. Whilst on the archaeological dig on the Somme in May looking for parts of the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector with Peter Barton & Tony Pollard (Centre for Battlefield Archaeology) we explored some caves under one of the churches in a nearby village. These caves were used as a refuge from German shelling by British soldiers – a safe and dry place to sleep. The walls are literally festooned with graffiti – names of the men who were billeted in these caves. One of the names particularly caught my eye – that of a man from just outside Bristol who had written his name, unit and home village as well as the date – 30 November 1916. I did a bit of research and found that, sadly, he was killed in March 1918.  I will post more details on this plus the picture when the story is published.

The period around Armistice Day is always a busy time with the Great War in so many people’s minds through the Poppy Appeal. Coupled with upcoming research at Kew and the preview of the new ‘Valour’ Victoria Cross exhibition at the Royal Engineers Museum on 11 November  as well as a battlefield trip this year is no exception. The strangest thing will be not being in Ypres (Ieper) on 11 November – I think I have only missed one year in the last ten.

By

I went to my first WFA meeting at the Avon Branch in Kingswood last night to hear a talk given by Michelle Young on Vera Brittain in the Great War. Despite a mad dash to get there in time and arriving with literally a minute to spare I was made very welcome and really enjoyed the talk. As I sat there listening a good amount of the detail of Vera Brittain’s life came back to me – I had read her work, Testament of Youth and the Letters from a Lost Generation ‘First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends’ edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge over ten years ago.

The loss she endured through the war, losing her fiancée Roland Leighton at Christmas 1915, two friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow in 1917 and her own brother Edward in 1918 does not even bear thinking about. Michelle clearly had empathy with the subject and had visited many of the locations associated with Vera’s life as well as the graves of men she had known. Despite being a member for some time it was my first visit to a WFA talk and was a great experience. Having received a list of talks planned for 2010 I look forward to further visits.