Posts Tagged ‘3 May 1917’


Earlier this month having spent a few days recceing sites and walks for upcoming trips I spent a day showing a client, Tony Wright, around the Arras battlefields following in the footsteps of his great uncle, S/30401 Rifleman Herbert William Victor Wright, 9th Battalion Rifle Brigade who was killed on 3 May 1917. It was most likely that Herbert had joined the battalion as one of nearly four hundred reinforcements received in January 1917. As such, the spring offensive at Arras would be his first major battle.

Sadly, Herbert Wright’s service record no longer existed and so we were unable to determine which company he had served in. However, with the knowledge that he would have been ‘in the area’ we started off by looking at the battalion’s role in the 9 April attack. The 9th Battalion Rifle Brigade was part of 42nd Infantry Brigade, 14th (Light) Division. The divisional objectives for 9 April were to capture the strong German position known as the Siegfried Stellung, (Hindenburg Line) which the Germans had fallen back to throughout the month of March.  The hinge of the ‘old’ German line and new Hindenburg Line was the village of Tilloy-lès-Mofflaines. South of the village lay the 14th Division’s objective, the southern part of The Harp, a formidable position some 1000 yards long and 500 yards wide, full of tangled field defences.  Along with Telegraph Hill to its immediate south its dominant position enabled German defenders to fire in enfilade northwards up Observation Ridge and southwards to Neuville Vitasse; its capture was absolutely critical.

The Harp and Telegraph Hill - objectives for 42nd Brigade on 9 April 1917

The Harp and Telegraph Hill – objectives for 42nd Brigade on 9 April 1917

Looking across the rising ground of The Harp. The 9th Rifle Brigade advanced across here on 9 April 1917

Looking across the rising ground of The Harp. The 9th Rifle Brigade advanced across here on 9 April 1917

The role of the 9th Rifle Brigade on 9 April was limited to that of ‘moppers-up’. An initial assault was to be made against the southern portion of ‘The String’, a trench running down the length of The Harp, by the 5th Ox and Bucks Light Infantry and 9th King’s Royal Rifle Corps. Once captured the 5th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry would then pass through or ‘leapfrog’ the two battalions to capture the second objective close to the Blue Line running south from the rearward face of The Harp down the Hindenburg Line. Nearly seven hours after the initial advance and with these objectives taken B & D Companies of the 9th Rifle Brigade, under the command of Captain Buckley were to leave their positions in and around the old German front line to clear the ground between the Blue and Green lines within the Brigade boundaries.

German concrete position close to the final objective seized by 9th Rifle Brigade on 9 April 1917

German concrete position close to the final objective seized by 9th Rifle Brigade on 9 April 1917

They would also occupy an outpost line north east of the Tilloy – Wancourt road (now the D37). Considering the magnitude of the day’s fighting the Battalion war diary gives scant information about the work completed other than to record the final objective was gained by 1.30pm with one hundred prisoners and two machine guns captured. Casualties sustained were Captain D.E. Bradby killed , 2/Lt H.M. Smith wounded and fifteen Other Ranks wounded. Despite differing figures from those provided in Brigade records it is clear that losses amongst the 9th Rifle Brigade were extremely light when compared to other battalions within 42nd Brigade.

After relief on 12 April the Battalion spent time in training where they received a draft of fifty two reinforcements. On 23 April the Battalion began their march back to the battlefield, moving into newly captured positions between Guémappe and Chérisy on the evening of the 24th. The war diary records constant shellfire for this entire period; on one day alone 2/Lt J.M. Harper and a further sixteen Other Ranks were wounded.  Between 30 April – 2 May the Battalion were in reserve but provided working parties to dig out a new communication trench named Jungle Alley running between the Ape and the Boar trenches before taking up their positions in the front line north of Chérisy on 2 May. The stage was set for a renewal of the offensive; three armies would be attacking along a fourteen mile frontage from Bullecourt in the south to Fresnoy in the north. Having suffered such comparatively small losses on 9 April the 9th Rifle Brigade was to take a leading part in the coming battle, attacking on the left of the Brigade next to the 5th Ox & Bucks Light Infantry. The 5th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry and 9th King’s Royal Rifle Corps were in Brigade Reserve.

Annotated trench map extract showing 9th Rifle Brigade attack on 3 May 1917.

Annotated trench map extract showing 9th Rifle Brigade attack on 3 May 1917.

The decision to launch the attack at 3.45am in darkness was contentious. Many commanders protested to no avail. A further complication for the 9th Rifle Brigade was their position nearer to the enemy than neighbouring units. As such, they were not to advance from their jumping off line until eighteen minutes after Zero Hour. The Battalion had two objectives; firstly to capture the Blue Line running in front of Triangle Wood and through Hill Side Work and then to push on to the Red Line, completing the capture of both positions.  Advancing from a line 150-200 yards east of the front line marked by white tape fixed to the ground, the Battalion was to advance behind a ‘creeping barrage’ of artillery shells exploding in a slowly moving curtain across the battlefield.

3 May 1917 objectives overlaid on Google Earth.

3 May 1917 objectives overlaid on Google Earth.

Ten minutes before Zero Hour the first wave left the assembly trenches to line up on the tape. At 4.03pm they advanced, followed by the second wave that left the assembly trenches at Zero +42 minutes. In common with many units who attacked that dreadful day, no further report was ever received from the companies in the first wave. German artillery fire was extraordinarily heavy (lasting for over fifteen hours) with eight company runners either killed or wounded.  Post -action reports noted the first wave veered to the right in the darkness, striking a new German trench wired and held by the enemy. Despite this, it was captured by Zero + 40 minutes and advance progressed. However, enfilade machine gun fire caused heavy casualties and ‘few, if any ever reached the rear of Hill Side Work’.  All eight officers of the first wave became casualties very early in the day, some being wounded several times. Only seven NCOs of the first wave ever returned. The second wave fared no better. As their advance was in daylight they were subjected to machine gun fire sooner than the first wave and also came up against machine gun positions which had been established after or missed in the dark by the first wave, in addition to enfilade fire from across the Cojeul valley near St Rohart’s Factory.

Cross left in memory of Herbert Wright, 9th Rifle Brigade. Triangle Wood and Hill Side Work  are on the horizon

Cross left in memory of Herbert Wright, 9th Rifle Brigade. Triangle Wood and Hill Side Work are on the horizon

The second wave was finally held up just in front of Spotted Dog Trench which was held by the enemy; they dug in along  a line of shell holes about 600 to 700 yards in front of their original front line at Ape Trench. A German counter-attack against the 18th Division who had captured Chérisy forced their line back to its starting position; this action rippled northward with orders sent out to recall the Battalion. Such was the dominance of German artillery and machine gun fire (firing continuously from both flanks and from across the river valley) that these orders could only be communicated to two platoons; it being impossible to contact the remnants of the battalion occupying shell holes close to Spotted Dog Trench. On the evening of the 3rd two patrols were sent to recall one company holding a line of shell holes and strong point close to the German trench. Over the next couple of nights survivors of the 9th Rifle Brigade’s attack returned to the original British line. The Battalion’s casualties during the day’s operations were 12 officers and 257 Other Ranks. The 9th Rifle Brigade was relieved on 4 May before heading back to The Harp. This disastrous day marked the beginning of the end of the Battle of Arras. Desperate fighting continued for possession of Roeux, its infamous Chemical Works and Greenland Hill plus around Fresnoy which was recaptured on 8 May. However, by then British attentions were turning northwards to Flanders.

As Herbert Wright’s company is unknown it proved impossible to know whether he formed part of the first or second wave of attackers. Tony and I we walked the attack, passing the assembly trench positions, taped line from which the battalion advanced before moving to the final positions reached. It was here that Tony laid a small poppy cross in memory of his great uncle. Herbert Wright was one of ninety seven men of the Battalion killed on 3 May; all but two are commemorated on the Arras Memorial to the Missing.  We visited the Arras Memorial and saw Herbert Wright’s name on Panel 9.

Herbert Wright, 9th Rifle Brigade on the Arras Memorial

S/30401 Rifleman Herbert William Victor Wright, 9th Rifle Brigade on the Arras Memorial

His remains may be buried in the grave of an unknown soldier or still be out on the battlefield. The Third Battle of the Scarpe, as the fighting over 3/4 May was named, was an unmitigated disaster for the British Army which suffered nearly 6,000 men killed for little material gain.

In the Official History, Military Operations France and Belgium 1917 Cyril Falls gives the following reasons for the failure on 3 May 1917 in the VII Corps frontage:

“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.”

This stark paragraph illustrates perfectly the battlefield during the 3 May 1917 fighting; nightmarish, terrifying and bloody. Having been at home for a week now I am still thinking about it and the windswept ridge between Guémappe and Vis-en-Artois.

“I spent an extraordinary day with Jeremy walking in the footsteps of my Great Uncle, who fell on May 3rd 1917 at the Battle of Arras. He did a wonderful job of balancing a very good explanation of the complexities of the overall battle itself with a highly emotional and personal end to the day of literally experiencing his final hours.  As my Great Uncle was a private soldier, without detailed records of his service easily available, I was deeply impressed by how he brought together a range of different sources to nevertheless give me a really specific and personal understanding of what he and his comrades went through. It was an absolutely unforgettable experience”. Tony Wright

A good write up of the part played by one young officer, 2/Lt William Clarke Wheatley, former pupil at Sandbach School who was killed in the 3rd May attack can be found on Conor Reeves’ excellent website: http://sommejr.wordpress.com/william-clark-wheatley-3517/.

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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.

The opening page of my talk on the Battle of Arras

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.

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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.

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