Posts Tagged ‘East Surrey Regiment’


I had been invited to attend the annual service of commemoration for the Battle of Arras at the Wellington Quarry and had written a blog piece about the impending service which had been picked up by the WFA for inclusion on their website. Sadly I was unable to attend due to family commitments but I have been sent images and details of the event by Isabelle Pilarowski of the Wellington Quarry. The service is held at 0630hrs on 9 April each year. The early start is due to the start of battle in 1917 – Zero Hour was 5.30am. It is a gathering of people who want to pay their respects for the men involved in the huge British offensive at Arras in April and May 1917. So often overshadowed by the Battles of the Somme and Passchendaele, Arras stands as one of the three major British offensives of the war.

I have a huge soft spot for the place, as a battlefield and a superb town to visit, and enjoy the quiet surroundings without the hordes of coaches and resulting pilgrims that can often be seen in some of the more popular battlefield stops on the western front.

Isabelle tells me that the service went very well and that it was well attended by officials and visitors alike. Attendees included the Mayor, the Préfet, the Ambassador of New Zealand, representatives from Australia and Canada [denoting their countries role in the Battle – at Bullecourt and Vimy] as well as members from other French and British associations.

Of particular interest to me was the inclusion of extracts from the wonderful memoirs of Percy Clare, 7th East Surrey Regiment. As part of the 12th (Eastern)  Division his battalion attacked up Observation Ridge on the first day of battle. After a rest in the middle of April the battalion was back in the line for the disastrous attacks of 3 May 1917 (Third Battle of the Scarpe) – 94 years ago today. The day is one of the blackest days for the British Army in the Great War and was a hideous muddle from its inception to its execution. Over 5,900 men were killed that day as the attack was repulsed with ease along the vast majority of the Thurd Army front.  Very kindly the copyright holder, Rachel Gray, had let me copy a set of Percy’s memoirs for donation to the Wellington Quarry. They are probably the finest account extant of the battle and were quoted through the service. The service also included a reading of the poem ‘The Owl’ by Edward Thomas. He was killed on the morning of 9 April 1917 by a shell blast and is buried in Agny Military Cemetery:

For further details of Percy Clare please see this blog piece or consult our book Arras: The Spring 1917 Offensive in Panoramas Including Vimy Ridge and Bullecourt

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Calling all Western Front visitors!

With so much emphasis on the 1 July commemorations on the Somme and the mass pilgrimage that takes place every year, this year please spare a thought for the men who fought in the 1917 Battle of Arras. It was the most savage infantry offensive of the war with the highest daily rate of casualties – over 4,000 men per day. The campaign started with enormous success on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917 with the greatest advance of the war to date but ended in disillusionment and utter exhaustion 39 days later in the fields around Oppy, Roeux, Monchy-le-Preux and Cherisy. Arras is by far my favourite place to visit – there is something about it that I just can’t get enough of and even when driving down to the Somme for a tour, recce or meeting I feel a slight wistfulness as I pass the Vimy Memorial, the grain silos at Roeux, so close to the site of the dreaded Chemical Works and the spire of Monchy church with Monchy British Cemetery in the foreground.

I have just received details of the annual commemorative service to be held at the Wellington Quarry, Arras on Saturday 9 April 2011 at 0630hrs (local time). This service, held on the 94th anniversary of the start of battle is held at the Memorial Wall – if you come into the car park from the Beaurains road then you won’t miss it. The ceremony is open to all.

Sadly, owing to work and family commitments I will not be able to make it this year but have passed my apologies on to Isabelle Pilarowski and her colleagues. I know that the organisers like to use extracts from soldiers who actually took place in the battle and, having given Isabelle a copy of the 1000 page memoir of Percy Clare, 7th East Surrey Regiment, she has promised that she will be using his superb descriptions of battle during the service. Percy’s memoirs were used extensively in the Arras panorama book – from his descriptions of pre-battle training, through the 9 April attack and subsequent days spent between Arras and the fields below Monchy ending with the fateful 3 May attacks – a very black day for the Third Army.

As a way of thanking the copyright holders we gave them a highly personalised tour of the Arras battlefield (following the 7th East Surreys) when they came over in November 2010 to listen to our lecture in French. More details can be found by reading the blog post here: Arras – battlefield tour & lecture: 12 November 2010

A two-sided pdf file with more details on April’s events is available on request – please contact me here and I will email you a copy.

These events include guided walks & tours (French speaking only) in Neuville-St-Vaast, Roeux and Arras itself and seem very good value at just €3.00 per person.

I will certainly have the men of the Third Army in my memories on the  morning of 9 April  and would urge anyone over on a battlefield tour at that time to attend and pay their respects.

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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/

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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.

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