Posts Tagged ‘Arleux’
I recently led a one day trip to the Arras battlefields for three generations of a soldier’s family (nephew, great-nephew and great-great nephew). I had been asked to research the actions of Private Horace Pantling, 10th Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment around Arras. Horace’s Battalion formed part of 112th Brigade, 37th Division and will be forever known with the actions on 11 April around the small hilltop village of Monchy-le-Preux.
After a general briefing on the battle and a visit to the Carrière Wellington to take a tour around the underground system we headed out on the battlefield, starting on the British front line on 9 April 1917, the first day of battle. Following the arrow straight Arras-Cambrai road I explained the attack British assault up to the Brown Line near Feuchy Chapel. From then I was able to use a series of maps from the 37th Division files that showed positions of units every three hours for the first three days of battle. We followed the 10th Loyal North Lancs in their advance up the road in the early morning of 11 April. With the neighbouring 111th Brigade attacking the village of Monchy it was down to the 112th Brigade to take the Green Line to their right.
The Battalion war diary records that on moving to their assembly positions for the 5.30am advance the 10th Loyal North Lancs immediately were ‘met with very heavy Machine Gun and Shell fire’. However, their assault on the trenches around the La Bergère crossroads was successful and positions were consolidated. Casualties were estimated at 13 Officers and 286 men for the Battalion’s part in the opening stages of the Arras offensive. A number of the Battalion’s dead now lie in the nearby Tank Cemetery.
As we looked over the gently rising fields near Monchy it was hard to imagine the scene in the early morning of 11 April 1917. We had been blessed with a clear, spring day. The British troops who performed so magnificently that day 96 years ago did so with heavy snow and a chill wind across the battlefield.
Having been taken out of the line for a rest they were next in action on 23 April during the 37th Division’s assault on Greenland Hill during the Second Battle of the Scarpe. The war diary made grim reading with very little gain possible owing to the German occupation of the Chemical Works at Roeux on the right. On the 27th orders were received to attack Greenland Hill at dawn the next day. At 4.27am on 28 April that Battalion attacked and reached a trench that had been begun by the enemy. The war diary records that ‘By this time the Battalion had suffered heavily and only one officer was left’. Once more suffering from enfilade fire from the Chemical Works, the Battalion dug in. The attack was yet another failure in the face of superb German resistance.
It was during the actions on the 28th that Horace Pantling was killed. Horace, like so many British killed in the latter stages of the Arras offensive, has no known grave and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial. We were able to stand close to the positions where the 10th Loyal North Lancs assaulted and then, after a circuitous journey walk close to the spot where the Battalion dug in. It is one of those strange twists of fate that the junction of the A1 and A26 motorways now stands slap-bang right on Greenland Hill. Only by heading toward Plouvain and turning down a narrow track could we get close to the spot where the Battalion ended up. Sadly, the exact spot is now accessible only by driving on the slip road from the A1 to join the A26.
We had visited Horace’s name on the Arras Memorial earlier in the day so it seemed a suitable place to end the tour. What struck me, as ever, was the small distances – easily covered in a minute or two in the car – that took so much effort to capture and consolidate in spring 1917. The British casualty figures for the Battle of Arras make sobering reading; 159,000 casualties in 39 days – averaging 4000 casualties per day. Despite countless visits to the battlefields such scale of loss in concentrated areas still both appals and moves me. Horace Pantling was one of those casualties but his name is certainly not forgotten and three generations of his family now know the ground over which he fought and was ultimately killed in April 1917.
“Thank you so much for organising such an excellent day in and around Arras last week. We all hugely enjoyed having your professionalism, enthusiasm and knowledge on tap, and your organisation was faultless! My father came away thrilled with the trip, and that was all I could have asked.” Nigel Pantling
A superb resource for those interested in the 10th Loyal North Lancs is Paul McCormick’s website http://www.loyalregiment.com/.
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.