Posts Tagged ‘Fampoux’
Last weekend I had the pleasure of guiding nine gentlemen around the Somme and Arras battlefield on bikes. As a keen cyclist I try and take my bike when visiting the battlefields but this was something different in that it was the first organised specialist cycling trip I had put together.
Our base was the delightfully comfortable Les clés des places in the heart of Arras. The Somme was our destination on Friday, leaving the neglected battlefields of Arras for the Saturday.
Day One – The Somme
Friday morning dawned with beautiful weather. With the bikes fixed to the cars we headed south, crossing the ground voluntarily given up by the Germans as they pulled back to the Hindenburg Line in 1917. Parking at Serre Road Cemetery No.2, we got the bikes ready and headed off.
I had sent our proposed route to the group beforehand so everyone was aware of the distances involved. After an introduction of the battle and practices of the CWGC at Serre Road No. 2 we headed across Redan Ridge with its isolated ribbon of battlefield cemeteries to the small village of Beaumont Hamel. As one of the Somme’s most well visited sites with a highly evocative story the Sunken Lane offered our first chance to get to grips with the actions of July and November 1916. After hearing a 1st Lancashire Fusiliers officer, Lt E.W. Sheppard’s description of the 1 July attack we rode via Auchonvillers to Newfoundland Memorial Park where we had a good walk around the trench system, visiting all three cemeteries. The descent to Hamel was fun; infinitely more so than the climb up the Mill Road to the Ulster Tower! One of the group had previously served in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment so I was able to show him the Pope’s Nose and discuss the 1/5th Battalion’s attempt to capture the position in September 1916.
After a visit to Lutyen’s imposing Thiepval Memorial and our first (and only) puncture of the day we headed via Mash Valley for lunch at the Old Blighty Tea Room in La Boisselle. Subsequent stops included the Lochnagar mine crater, Becourt, Fricourt and Mametz.
From the bottom of Dantzig Alley Cemetery we surveyed the undulating ground in front of us, a familiar view to the British in July 1916. Dominating the landscape is Mametz Wood, scene of so much heartache and horror for the 17th (Northern) and 38th (Welsh) Divisions. Our tour continued up to Montauban and Trônes Wood before a stop at Guillemont Road Cemetery where we paid our respects at the grave of Raymond Asquith, 3rd Grenadier Guards.
Raymond, the son of the Prime Minister H. H. Asquith has been described as ‘one of the most intellectually distinguished young men of his day’. He had been mortally wounded at the start of the Guards’ attack on 15 September 1916 and died on his way to a dressing station.
One of our group was a former Coldstream Guards officer and so we deviated from the original plan, heading to the Guards Memorial between Ginchy and Lesboeufs. The exposed position on the ridge to Lesboeufs is in the centre of the ground over which the Division fought in the second half of September 1916.
Our route back across the battlefield took in Delville Wood, looking a perfect picture of peace in dappled sunlight – the polar opposite of summer 1916.
Next up was High Wood where I described the ferocious fighting that had raged there through the high summer of 1916. The wood and Switch Line proved such a bulwark to advance that British efforts resorted to siege warfare techniques; employing Vincent and Livens Large Gallery Flame Projectors in the wood along with the use of tunnellers to plant a mine under German positions. In the late afternoon light of a perfect spring day it was hard to imagine the carnage in these quiet mellow fields and woods.
Crossing the Roman road we headed via Courcelette to Miraumont, along the Ancre valley to Beaucourt before a gentle climb up past Ten Tree Alley en route back to the cars. The conversations that night over a much-needed dinner and drinks all touched on the benefits of cycling in helping everyone’s appreciation of the battlefield.
Day Two – Arras
We awoke the next morning with slightly aching legs and for some, aching heads. There was no need for cars as we would be setting out directly from our hotel. Whilst the touristy spots of the Somme were packed with coaches and school groups the empty fields around Arras are a very different proposition. I assured our travellers that other than farmers and locals we would have the Arras battlefield to ourselves. Heading south via Beaurains (a bike path runs alongside the road for much of this) and London Cemetery we rode to Neuville-Vitasse, a village which in April 1917 was wired into the German defences with the main Hindenburg Line running just behind it.
Heading up the bumpy track to Neuville-Vitasse Road Cemetery was fun. From its dominating position I spoke of the 30th Division’s attack on 9 April 1917, the start of the Arras battle. The closely packed graves of the cemetery are predominantly made up of men from the 2nd Wiltshires and 18th King’s (Liverpool Regiment) who suffered grievous losses attacking across this ground.
I explained the connection with Hugh Dennis’s grandfather, Godfrey Hinnels, whom I had researched for the television programme, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ Godfrey’s unit, the 1/4th Suffolk Regiment were tasked with salvage and burial duties in the days after the main attack. As such, it was likely he had been involved with the burial of the men that now lay in the cemetery’s walls.
Next up was Cojeul British Cemetery which is the resting place, amongst others, for two Victoria Cross recipients – Horace Waller, 10th KOYLI and Arthur Henderson, 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders.
Climbing Henin Hill we visited the remaining German pillbox (MEBU) before our next stop, the isolated and beautiful Cuckoo Passage Cemetery. This small battlefield cemetery, full of Manchester Regiment killed on 23 April 1917 lies at the limit of the Manchesters’ advance. I read aloud an account by Private Paddy Kennedy who served with the 18th Battalion describing events that day. Many of his comrades lay around us within the cemetery walls.
We returned back towards Heninel before picking the road up to Chérisy where I discussed the terrible events of 3 May 1917, the Third Battle of the Scarpe. Described by Cyril Falls in the Official History as ‘a melancholy episode’ the attack that day was an unmitigated disaster for the attacking British forces. British dead for the day reached nearly 6,000 for very little material gain.
Why cycling the battlefields is best…
Travelling by bike is by far the best way to appreciate the landscape; you feel every rise, every dip, every change in gradient. What would be a simple drive in a car takes on more meaning when on two wheels. Your thoughts turn irrevocably to the men whose footsteps still echo through the ground as, stealing a line from Sassoon, ‘they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack’.
Continuing towards Hendecourt our focus changed for a short time as I described the Canadian successes of August and September 1918. Stopping at Sun Valley Cemetery I pointed out the formidable obstacles of Upton Wood and The Crow’s Nest (the latter captured with great daring by the 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders of Canada) on the morning of 1 September 1918). Passing Quebec Cemetery we dropped down for our picnic lunch at the idyllic Valley Cemetery between Vis-en-Artois and Chérisy. This spot is the final resting place of a number of highly decorated officers and NCOs of the 3rd Battalion, Canadian Infantry who were killed nearby at the end of August 1918. Amongst the 3rd Battalion men buried here is the 23 year old Lieutenant Edward Slattery, DCM, MM & 2 Bars. From the decorations received whilst serving in the ranks and his tender age he appears to have been quite some soldier.
Suitably refreshed we headed back towards Guémappe and across the Route National towards Monchy-le-Preux. The road was blocked in the village, the result of a recent building collapse. Undeterred, we headed west where I explained about the village’s capture and the terrible loss of British cavalry in its narrow streets on 11 April 1917.
Having visited the impressive 37th English Division memorial and the Newfoundland Caribou in the village we rode eastwards, up Infantry Hill where I was able to regale the party with the story of the ‘Men who saved Monchy’: the disastrous 14 April 1917 assault by the Newfoundlanders and 1st Essex Regiment.
Infantry Hill is a special spot for me, the scene of so much concentrated fighting and yet, like so much of the Arras battlefield, it remains rarely visited. It was in these fields on 3 May 1917, that disastrous date for the British Army, that one of our group’s great uncles, Private Thomas Clark, 8th East Yorkshire Regiment was killed. Standing close to the spot where the 8th East Yorkshires went over the top I was able to explain the actions that day, reading from the war diary to enable everyone to appreciate the disaster that befell the attacking British troops and the magnificent defensive performance of the German forces.
Extract from the 8th East Yorkshire Regiment after-action report for 3 May 1917 action on Infantry Hill, east of Monchy-le-Preux
The Battalion moved forward at Zero hour [3.45am] but owing to the heavy smoke combined with the darkness they found it difficult to move on any definite point or points.
A platoon commander of the right-hand leading company found himself advancing up a small ridge which is to the south of the copse in O8 Central where he ran up against machine-gun fire. He was joined by a KSLI officer and some men. They moved forward together, the KSLI officer was killed as well as a number of men and as the place was bristling with machine guns and the copse occupied by snipers he stayed down in shell holes, returning at night to HILL TRENCH with 11 men on receipt of orders to do so from Battalion HQ…
…The men were in good heart and moved forward readily. I attribute the results to the heavy smoke, combined with the darkness which prevented people locating their points of direction. In addition to this the enemy barrage was very heavy to which must be added the very effective use of machine-gun both from the front but also enfilading attacking troops.
Casualties: 35 killed, 161 wounded, 39 missing
After some time to contemplate we returned to the village before riding down the Scarpe Valley to Fampoux where we looked at its capture on 9 April 1917 by the 2nd Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. Next up was another special spot; the Seaforth Highlanders cross overlooking the Hyderabad Redoubt, Greenland Hill and Roeux. Whilst there I explained the disastrous 11 April 1917 attack and read aloud the wonderful description left by Seaforth Highlander Private James Stout of events that day.
It is a great shame there is nothing at the former site of the Chemical Works, so bitterly fought over during the battle to show the ferocity of fighting and losses sustained to secure its possession. The site is now a Carrefour mini supermarket where we bought a cool drink and snacks before our ride via Athies back into Arras.
Our final stop of the day was the Arras Memorial where Private Thomas Clark and a further 34,765 men are commemorated. One of the group found the grave of his great uncle in the adjoining Faubourg D’amiens Cemetery. Tired but satisfied at the ground we had covered we headed back to the hotel before a good evening meal and much chat.
Day Three – A quick look north of Arras and back to Blighty
Our final day was overcast and rainy. Bikes were attached to cars before we visited the huge German cemetery at Neuville St-Vaast and French cemetery at La Targette. Next up was the preserved battlefield on Vimy Ridge before our final stop at Walter Allward’s masterpiece, the Vimy Memorial atop Hill 145.
My thanks to the wonderful group who I accompanied and for their generosity and looking after me so well.
If you are interested in a battlefield tour by bike, either as a group or by yourself then please get in touch via the Contact Page. I would be happy to put an itinerary together for any British battlefield and am happy to cycle up to 50 miles/day. However, there is so much to see that 25-40 miles/day is the ideal distance.
Earlier this autumn I spoke to the staff and volunteers at Dunham Massey Hall, a National Trust property in Cheshire. I had been approached some months before to help with their ambitious First World War project ‘Sanctuary from the Trenches’ which will see the hall will open its doors on 1 March 2014 as Stamford Military Hospital, the convalescent hospital in which 281 soldiers were treated between April 1917 and January 1919. Lady Stamford’s original plan to turn the hall over for use as a hospital for officers was altered, perhaps due to the sheer number of wounded men, and when the doors opened in April 1917 the hospital cared solely for ‘Other Ranks’.
My role in this project was to interpret the wealth of material gathered by the team of volunteers, pick a representative sample of men from those chosen and use their stories in a lecture to not only explain the conduct of the war in 1917-18 but also elaborate on the daily routine of trench warfare, evacuation of sick and wounded and medical treatment received by the men. The information uncovered by volunteers was prodigious; there was no shortage of material related to the soldiers’ stay at Stamford Military Hospital. What was lacking was an appreciation of where those men had come from, in what actions they had fought and been wounded and what happened to them after their recuperation.
Casualties studied included a man of the 11th Rifle Brigade wounded near Havrincourt Wood in the push to the Hindenburg Line in early April 197, two men caught up in the Hindenburg Line itself at Bullecourt in May and a French Canadian wounded on Vimy Ridge. I was also able to use descriptions from my research into the Battle of Arras to illustrate the actions at Fampoux and Roeux in which a soldier of the 2nd Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment was badly injured. Moving northwards to Flanders I was able to look at the Battle of Messines (June 1917) with Private John Ditchburn, 9th Yorkshire Regiment, wounded close to Hill 60 on 7 June and two further casualties from the Third Battle of Ypres. Sources used included Medal Index Cards, Service Records (where available) and Census Returns. By scouring Brigade, Division and Corps files I was able to find appropriate maps to illustrate the exact area where the men had fought.
I was also keen to include soldiers wounded whilst not taking part in any major set-piece battle but in the daily business of merely ‘holding the line’. This offered a good opportunity to show the limitations of available documents. None of the men I researched were named in unit war diaries and so, in many cases, it was an educated guess as to the site of his wounding. Private William Johnstone, 1st Gordon Highlanders was hit by shrapnel in spring 1918 close to the city of Arras but from sources available I was unable to identity which day. His was a particularly sad story; after recuperating for over two months at Dunham Massey he was found to have shrapnel embedded deep in his head. Over time his condition deteriorated and he died of a cerebral abscess in hospital in Manchester. The final man I focussed on was even harder to research; Private Jenkins of the 1st Gloucestershire Regiment was wounded at some point during the autumn of 1918, the ‘Last Hundred Days’ of the war. His full identity remains unknown with neither christian name or regimental number noted in the records extant. I was keen to contrast this with some of the earlier soldiers I had researched where I had been able to provide highly detailed information.
Having prepared the research on these men I spoke at Dunham Massey Village Hall to two groups of volunteers on 18 September. I was heartened by the audience’s reaction, not only by the enthusiasm shown but also the interest in the men and the ‘Sanctuary from the Trenches’ project. I look forward to returning to Dunham Massey to see how the information has been used and what the ornate saloon will look like with furniture replaced with stark hospital beds. I would like to thank Charlotte Smithson and all those who work and volunteer at Dunham Massey for their help and enthusiasm with this project.
Our forthcoming project Sanctuary from the Trenches; a Country House at War tells the story of how Dunham Massey Hall became the Stamford Military Hospital, caring for 281 soldiers. Our collection gives us some information about the soldiers that stayed at Dunham, but we wanted to know more about their lives before they were treated here. Using our archive and other resources, Jeremy pieced together their stories. Jeremy’s respect for those that fought during the First World War made for a heart-warming lecture. He talked us through what our soldiers had experienced and left us feeling fondly affectionate for the brave souls who were cared for here. Over 100 volunteers attended the lecture and it was a big hit with them all – they haven’t stopped talking about it since. It provided the background of information for our volunteers needed in order to contextualise the Stamford Military Hospital’s role in the First World War. We’ll be asking Jeremy back, without a doubt!
Charlotte Smithson, Volunteer Development Manager at Dunham Massey
An interview with me discussing my research is available to view below:
For those interested my lecture is available in full here: http://vimeo.com/75168130
A dedicated page on the National Trust’s website with further details is available here: Sanctuary from the Trenches http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/article-1355804816003/
‘Jeremy Banning’s knowledge of the First World War is second to none and he is as good a presenter as you could wish for. A star attraction, I would suggest. So to have him come to talk to us Volunteers was a real treat. The presentation was so revealing and full of fascinating tales of soldiers directly connected to our Property’.
‘I am still buzzing and it is down to Jeremy Banning! Such a wonderful talk – please pass on my thanks.’
‘I want to thank you for enabling me to have and enjoy the privilege of attending Jeremy Banning’s presentation this morning. The whole experience was informative, exciting, thought provoking, uplifting and at the same time humbling. Jeremy’s enthusiasm and knowledge, for me and I am sure, all the other volunteers attending, made it a most memorable morning and I thank you, very sincerely, once again.’
‘A superb morning at Dunham Village Hall with Jeremy Banning – he really brought our soldiers to life, with such affection too. It was a privilege to attend’
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
From 2 – 4 March I was guiding a private battlefield tour. Late last year I had been asked to compile a report on S/8888 Private William Charles Sewell who served in the 2nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders. William Sewell went overseas in November 1915, served through the Somme in 1916 and was killed at Roeux during the Battle of Arras on 3 May 1917. As well as compiling a detailed report on William Sewell’s war service I was asked to take his great nephew, Paul Carter with his friends to follow in William’s footsteps from Arras down to the Somme.
Despite a distinct lack of decent weather for the entire trip we had a wonderful time and it was a real honour to be guiding the first member of William Sewell’s family to ever visit his grave. Starting at Vimy Ridge and the Memorial Park we began our tour of the Arras battlefields. After a stop at La Targette for the enormous French and German cemeteries we picked up the Athies road, following in the footsteps of the triumphant 9th (Scottish) Division in their advance on 9 April 1917. After a quick stop at Point du Jour Cemetery and the 9th (Scottish) Division memorial we headed to Fampoux, tracing the route of the 4th Division as they leapfrogged the Scots that day. Stopping at the Seaforths Cross at the Sunken Lane I explained the disastrous attack on 11 April 1917 and read an account of the operation from Private James Stout, a survivor of the attack. As one of those actions that holds a particular fascination for me it was all the more poignant being there with a relative of a soldier who may well have taken place in that ill-planned venture. The following account provides a bleak picture of subsequent events:
At ZERO Hour (12 noon) 2nd Seaforths and 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers advanced, the former on a 3 company front, the latter on a 2 company front. The 2nd Seaforth Highlanders’ objective was the cross roads I.13.a.9.3, exclusive to cross roads I.7.a.4.3 exclusive. Immediately these two battalions advanced, they came under a very heavy machine gun fire from the INN, CHEMICAL WORKS, STATION, CHATEAU and Railway Embankment. The whole ground in Squares H.12 and 18 appeared to be swept by machine gun fire.
At the same time a barrage was put down on FAMPOUX and East of the SUNKEN Road where the remaining two battalions were assembling. This machine gun fire very soon thinned the advancing lines but the troops continued to advance.
On the left, part of a company of the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders entered a new trench some 150 to 200 yards west of the 1st objective, about I.7.c.5.9.
This party under an officer [Lt Donald Mackintosh] maintained itself in the trench for some time, until its ammunition was exhausted, when they were forced back by a counter attack and only a few returned. The remainder, including the officer who is missing, were either killed or wounded, and left in this trench.
The heavy machine gun fire maintained by the enemy made it impossible to obtain information regarding the course of the action but it required no report that a single wave of 400 men who had to advance an average distance of 400 yards with a Battalion front of 1100 yards could not obtain their objectives in face of such machine gun fire and rifle fire.
After the debacle of 11 April 4th Division went back for some rest. Their next large-scale attack was the fighting at Roeux on 3 May. It was during this fighting that William Swell was killed. Starting next to the A1 motorway at Crump Trench Cemetery we followed the battalion through their part in the battle. The following map shows the objectives, named respectively the BLACK, BLUE and RED Lines. The total advance was so far as the 4th Division was concerned was to cover a distance of 2500 yards, including:
- The capture of the Northern portion of the village of ROEUX, including the CHEMICAL WORKS and STATION buildings.
- The capture of the trench system on the high ground near HAUSA and DELBAR Woods, and finally
- The piercing of the defences round PLOUVAIN, which were partially wired.
Of the attack, the war diary notes:
3 May – Zero hour 3.45am when a heavy bombardment of enemy’s position started, lasting for half an hour. Barrage then crept forward very slowly. Battalion left their trenches at 4.30am, being in support to the Household Battalion who were to capture the cemetery north of ROEUX. The Royal Warwickshire Regiment were on the left of the Household Battalion and Royal Irish Fusiliers on left of Seaforths, support to Royal Warwickshire Regiment. 1st Somerset Light Infantry were on the right and were to capture village of ROEUX. On reaching BLUE Line which was just west of DELBAR WOOD the Battalion moved to their right until left of each wave was opposite NW corner of DELBAR WOOD where a halt was made until ZERO + 85 = 5.10am when they advanced to capture the RED line, east of DELBAR and HAUSA WOOD, and immediately west of PLOUVAIN, through I.21.b. and I.15.d & b. This attack unfortunately failed owing to both flanks being held up and severe losses, and later on the whole Brigade line was forced to withdraw to original front line. The Battalion came back to CRETE Trench. This was the position until dark when the Battalion was sent to relieve the Household Battalion in CEYLON Trench from its junction with CORONA Trench I.19.a.8.7. to its junction with COX Trench I.19.a. 7.3. Company Sergeant Major Fraser was in charge of the line as all officers taking part in these operations had become casualties. The Commanding Officer, Adjutant, Medical Officer and three other officers became casualties of the same shell.
Delbar and Hausa Wood no longer exist. Le Lac Bleu (Blue Lake) now covers the ground on which the woods sat. Unless there is specific personal testimony it is notoriously hard to pinpoint the exact spot that a soldier was killed. However, as most casualties were sustained between the BLUE and RED lines it seems likely that William Sewell was killed in this area. Having followed the route of advance we returned to the ground between Fampoux and Roeux to pay our respects at William Sewell’s grave.
Crossing the Scarpe we drove up in Monchy-le-Preux and up Infantry Hill where I recounted the story of 14 April attack by the 1st Essex and Newfoundlanders and the resulting action of the small band of men who saved Monchy from German recapture. For our last stop of the day we headed to the Arras Memorial to Missing.
Next morning began with a windswept walk on the Hindenburg Line to the quiet delight of Rookery Cemetery and Cuckoo Passage Cemetery, the latter full of men of the Manchester Regiment killed on 23 April 1917.
We then headed back into Arras for a good tour of the underground boves and tunnels at Wellington Quarry. Our brief visit to Arras was now at an end as we headed south down to the Somme battlefields.
Our first stop was the Sheffield Memorial Park and the Gospel Copses at Serre (the 2nd Seaforths held the frontline trenches here in November – December 1915). We then headed to Redan Ridge to look at the part played by the 2nd Seaforths in the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. The operation plan was for 11th Brigade to take Munich Trench and then for 10th and 12th Brigades to pass through them at a given time and gain the final objective along the Beaucourt Ridge (2nd Seaforths were part of 10th Infantry Brigade)
The war diary offers the following explanation of events:
Zero at 7.30am. From 5.30am the very intense bombardment concentrated on the German trenches in front. At 7.30am the 11th Brigade moved forward from our front in waves.
By 8.45am no messages had come through from 11th Brigade. Patrols advanced and were met by heavy machine gun fire. Telephone to Brigade HQ was out so two orderlies were sent for orders. As they had not arrived by 9am – the hour appointed for the Battalion advance – the remainder of the Battalion moved forward.
On coming into view of the German trenches the Battalion came under heavy machine gun fire from the front and direction of Beaumont Hamel. After passing the German front, parties pushed forward and reached the third line of trenches. Other parties of our men may have reached Munich Trench but there was no possible communication and none returned.
By this time 11th Brigade had already lost their Brigadier, General Prowse (died of wounds) and all four Commanding Officers (killed). Enemy held first, second and third lines on our left and right. Attempts were made to consolidate the ground gained. Enemy bombed on flanks and the third line was given up at about 1pm.
By 11am there were only 5 officers left with the battalion and casualties were proportionately heavy in the ranks. During the evacuation of the third trench Drummer Ritchie sounded the Charge with the idea of encouraging these waverers who had lost their leaders. This gallant action in addition to his conduct throughout the day gained him the Victoria Cross.
We finally withdrew at about 5pm to original front line positions south of the Quadilateral. At this time there were about 40 men of the battalion left.
The war diary records the following casualties:
|Died of wounds||1||6|
|Missing, believed killed||0||1|
Further stops that afternoon included the Sunken Lane at Beaumont Hamel, scene of the infamous attack by 1st Lancashire Fusiliers on 1 July, Newfoundland Memorial Park with its preserved trenches and the Ulster Tower and Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. We finished by following the front line by Authuille Wood to Ovillers, down Mash Valley and then to the hotel at Albert.
Our final day dawned in thick fog which made pointing out sites rather difficult. Beginning with a stop at Fricourt and the Bois Francais we followed the British front line and saw the site of Siegfried Sassoon’s Military Cross action before heading to the site of the Livens Flame Projector site at Mametz. Dropping down to Devonshire Cemetery we headed toward Maricourt and the junction with the French Army on 1 July. Passing Trônes Wood, Guillemont and Ginchy we headed to the desolate fields between Lesboeufs and Le Transloy for our last in-depth look at the part played by the 2nd Seaforths during the Somme battle. Fighting in desperate mud with a thick mist (not unlike the weather on the day we visited) the battalion took place in two attacks in mid-October against German positions in Dewdrop and Rainy Trench. The Battalion war diary recorded the ground conditions in the area:
From Montauban eastwards the whole country is one stretch of absolute desolation – a more gloomy sight I have never seen. The ground is just a maze of shell holes, varying from size of stokes mortar crater to the size of a crater made by a 15-inch.
The attacks on the 14th and 23rd were pressed with utmost gallantry but typical resolute defence from German troops allied to the dreadful ground conditions encountered made any serious advance impossible.
After a walk around Delville Wood and a stop at Flat Iron Copse Cemetery and the Welsh Dragon Memorial at Mametz Wood we ended up at the Glory Hole at La Boisselle where I was able to show them around site and take them underground in W Adit. It had been a real pleasure spending time with these gentlemen. Thanks to Paul Carter and his friends Tim Halliday, Al Kendall and Richard Johnson for making me so welcome. I hope that we can do it again sometime soon – perhaps Ypres next time?
Thank you very much for the wonderful report on my Great Uncle William Sewell and the tailor made trip following in his footsteps 97 years later. Your local knowledge, historical expertise and professional service gave my small group a fantastic tour- better than we could have hoped for. The stories of individual’s personal experiences brought an extra dimension to the trip and brought to life briefly a few of the thousands of names inscribed on memorial walls or grave stones. We all agreed that trip would have been so much less of an event if we had tried to find our own way around, and we would have missed so many significant points. The battlefield overlays and WW1 panoramas were fantastic to relate to as we stood in the centre of all those events and you recounted the events played out. On our journey back there was plenty of talk about the next trip – until then! Paul Carter
I know all four of us found the experience fascinating, thought provoking, educational and frequently moving as well. Your own passion and knowledge of a crucial era in our history was captivating and I am sure like me, the other guys have been singing your praises to those they have talked to about the trip. It certainly was a weekend to remember. Al Kendall
A few weeks ago I took a couple, Mac & Marian from New Zealand, around the battlefields. They had asked me to show them around the Western front for three days before catching a train to Paris for the next leg of their trip. What made this trip so special was that we were following Corporal Andrew McDonald, 6th Seaforth Highlanders. Andrew McDonald died of wounds on 13 April 1917 and is buried at Etaples Military Cemetery. His battalion was involved in the opening stages of the Battle of Arras. It is highly probable that he was wounded when the battalion ‘went over the top’ in front of Roclincourt at 5.30am on 9 April 1917. I had previously written about the area in a piece entitled 6th Seaforth Highlanders at Roclincourt – The Battle of Arras, 9 April 1917.
After picking up Mac & Marian at Folkestone we took the tunnel over and then headed along the coast to Etaples. They told me that they had visited Second World War cemeteries before but I could see how moved they were when we pulled up at Etaples. The cemetery, the largest Commission cemetery in France, was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. The scale of the place defies belief and really deserves to have more visitors. After visiting Andrew’s grave and laying a small cross – something that Mac had been wanting to do for years – we spent a couple of hours just walking around this vast and sobering cemetery – the final resting place for 11,500 men and women.
Retracing our steps back up the motorway we headed to Ypres where I took them to various spots around the salient including Pilckem Ridge, Polygon Wood, Robertson’s Bridge at Reutel, The New Zealand Division Memorial at Gravenstafel, Tyne Cot Cemetery and finally the German Cemetery at Langemarck. We headed back to our excellent B&B and then back out to Ypres so we could attend the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. We ate in the square before heading back to the B&B for a good sleep after a long day.
The next day was to be spent around the Arras battlefields. After a mammoth breakfast we set off south, firstly stopping at Nine Elms Cemetery at Poperinghe to pay our respects at the grave of David Gallaher, captain of the All Blacks.
We had a quick stop at Peckham and Spanbroekmolen, two of the huge craters formed by the Messines mine explosions on 7 June 1917 before heading south via Ploegsteert and into France to our next stop at La Chapelle-d’Armentières. It was here, at the site of the Railway Salient that Andrew McDonald’s brave actions during a trench raid on 15 September 1916 earned him the Military Medal. I was able to stand Mac at a spot looking down the railway line to where the German salient jutted out into No Man’s Land and explain the events of that night. We then continued south, stopping at Noeux-les-Mines Communal Cemetery & Extension to pay our respects at Marian’s great uncle, David Watson’s grave. He had been killed during the Battle of Loos whilst serving with the 1st Battalion, Cameron Highlanders. Leaving the coalfields of Gohelle behind us we began our look at the Arras battlefields.
I started with a stop at the village of La Targette with its staggering French and German cemeteries. If ever there is a place to fully appreciate the extent of losses suffered by our French allies and German foe then this is it. Neuville St Vaast Soldatenfriedhof has over 44,000 German buried within its grounds – a truly sobering place. We then headed to Vimy Ridge where, after a tour of the trenches, we headed to Walter Allward’s magnificent Vimy Memorial.
Next up was a special visit to the exact spot outside Roclincourt where ‘C’ Company, 6th Seaforths attacked on 9 April 1917. It was in the fields between the British front line and second German line (the area now contains the beautiful Highland Cemetery) that Andrew McDonald most likely received his fatal wound.
After an emotional stop at Highland Cemetery to visit other 6th Seaforth men we continued our tour through St Laurent Blangy and Athies to the Seaforths Cross at Fampoux. We then headed to the infamous village of Roeux (heavily fought over by the 51st Division in April and May 1917) and crossed the Scarpe to Monchy-le-Preux, Infantry Hill and then back down the Arras-Cambrai road to the superb Carrière Wellington tunnels. Our final stop of the day was at the Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery & Arras Memorial to the Missing where, bathed in evening sunlight, we wandered at our leisure. After a meal in the Grande Place we headed off for a much-needed sleep.
The following morning saw us continue south down to the hallowed ground of the Somme battlefields. Mac & Marian had asked for unusual stops so, en route, we stopped at the quiet Ayette Indian & Chinese Cemetery.
Continuing south we visited Sheffield Memorial Park at Serre where I explained about the destruction of the Pals battalions of the 31st Division on 1 July 1916, the First Day of the Somme. We then headed over the Redan Ridge to Beaumont Hamel where, as well as looking at the disastrous attack by 29th Division troops on 1 July I gave a detailed explanation of the 6th Seaforth’s role in 51st Division’s successful attack on the village bastion on 13 November. We then visited Mailly Wood Cemetery to visit the graves of 6th Seaforths men killed in that attack. Most notably I had wanted them to visit the grave of 2/Lt Donald Jenkins MC. He had won his Military Cross in the same raid that earned Andrew his Military Medal – in fact, both men had crossed No Man’s Land three times bringing back wounded men on each occasion. Undoubtedly, despite the officer/other rank divide there would have been some connection between Andrew and this officer now lying at peace in Mailly Wood Cemetery.
Other stops that afternoon included a good stroll around Newfoundland Memorial Park, the Ulster Tower and Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. Having stopped at Mash Valley I took Mac & Marian on a private tour of the Glory Hole at La Boisselle (http://www.laboisselleproject.com/) before our final stops of the day at the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery for the New Zealand Memorial to Missing from September/October 1916 and the New Zealand Division Memorial at Longueval.
Passing High Wood I was able to point out the position of Seaforth Trench, dug by 6th Seaforths in July 1916 before heading off to our B&B at Flers for a well deserved beer, meal and chat.
The final day dawned with beautiful sunshine and so, rather than dropping Mac & Marian off in Amiens as had been agreed, I took them just down the road to Delville Wood and the South African Memorial. We were the first ones to visit that day and the atmosphere and light were quite superb.
After a circuitous tour to Ginchy, Guillemont and Montauban I stopped at the site of the Carnoy craters to tell them about the successful use of the Livens Large Gallery Flame Projectors employed there on 1 July 1916. Moving on to Amiens, we visited the splendid cathedral before I bade them a fond farewell at the railway station. It was another trip to be remembered with lovely people – thanks Mac & Marian for making it such a great time for me too.
More photographs from this trip can be seen on my dedicated Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/67774984@N03/sets/72157627598624551/
“Thank you for a fantastic trip in September 2011. We were lucky enough to travel with you for three and a half (far too short) days and experience your enthusiasm and passion for WW1 and the Somme first hand. We needed a lot longer. On your website you mention Corporal Andrew McDonald. He is my husband’s Great Uncle lost in 1917. During our time with you he came back to life and it was marvellous to be able to tread the same ground that he walked and to see similar sights. The report that you provided to us will hopefully inspire some other family members to travel to France and Belgium and to utilise your knowledge and enthusiasm for the Western Front and the Somme. You were willing to take us out of our comfort zone and show us areas, memorials and cemeteries that we had no idea could exist from the smallest to the largest including German, Indian, Chinese, Kiwi, Aussie, French, British, South African, Canadian etc. More than we had hoped for or realised that we would have ever seen. Thank you for your ability to generate interest and create great memories.
We would suggest that anyone who contemplates visiting Gallipoli and the Somme, visit Gallipoli first as the memories of France and Belgium will be stronger than those of Gallipoli. Jeremy was a fantastic guide who took care of us and took us to places we could never hope to see or find on our own. His contacts, his advice, the accommodation he organised and all aspects of the trip were 110%. Thank you for your time and efforts and we both wish you well for the future. Keep guiding.” Marian & Mac Macdonald, Pukekohe, New Zealand
Last week I spent an enjoyable two days on the battlefields with four clients. For all but one of them it was their first visit to the western front. We met bright and early on Monday morning at the Channel Tunnel terminal and travelled over in convoy down to Arras.
Our first stop was in the superb Carriere Wellington. Our guide, the irrepressible Pascal, was as keen as ever and coupled with my preliminary talk on the Battle of Arras and the ten minute ‘taster’ film shown prior to going underground my group got a good initial grasp of the battle in April & May 1917. Following our hour underground we visited the Arras Memorial to the Missing and Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery. The sheer scale of men with no known grave from the Arras battlefields had the usual sobering effect.
Being so close we popped into the Mur des Fusillés and paid our respects at the site where 218 French resistance and civilians were shot by the Germans in the Second World War. I have always found it an eerie place with a strange atmosphere all of its own.
We then headed out to the Great War battlefields around Arras with the first stop the Point du Jour for a visit to the military cemetery and the graves of the 10th Lincolns men (Grimsby Chums) found in 2001 and the impressive 9th (Scottish) Division memorial re-sited next to the cemetery. After a picnic lunch in the cemetery we headed back into Athies and along to Fampoux. The village marked the point of furthest advance into German lines on 9 April 1917. We stopped at the sunken lane to look at the attack of the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers (10th Brigade, 4th Division) against Greenland Hill and Roeux on 11 April 1917. Whilst at the Sunken Lane Cemetery overlooking the sloping fields down to Roeux I told my group of Donald MacKintosh and the actions that earned his Victoria Cross. We then drive through Roeux past the site of the Chemical Works (now a Carrefour mini-supermarket) and around to Brown’s Copse Cemetery to pay our respects at MacKintosh’s grave.
Back on the road we crossed the Scarpe and headed up to Monchy-le-Preux. I pointed out the positions of various trench lines and explained about the catastrophic failure of the 3 May attack, the Third Battle of the Scarpe. We then had a drive around Monchy, stopping at the stunning 37th Division memorial and the Newfoundland Caribou Memorial which is built on the top of a British artillery observation post constructed in August 1917 by 69 Field Company RE. Our day’s battlefielding was completed with a stop east of the village on Infantry Hill where I told of the disastrous 14 April attack by 1st Essex Regiment and the aforementioned Newfoundlanders. Both battalions were destroyed in carefully planned German counter-attacks – the first use of the new doctrine of ‘elastic’ defence. Monchy was at the mercy of the Germans and the situation was only saved by the quick thinking action of Lt-Colonel James Forbes-Robertson and a small group of men – all decorated for this action and known thereafter as the Heroes of Monchy.
We had a pleasant walk up Infantry Hill to the Mound and then headed back into Arras to pick up my car and then headed down to the Somme for a welcome meal and good night’s sleep.
The next day was spent touring the 1916 Somme battlefield. Very much aware that one can only skim over the surface with one day around such a large and important battlefield we were up early to make full use of the daylight. After an explanation in the car park on the battle using various maps we set off north up to Serre, the most northerly point of continuous attack on 1 July 1916. En route we pulled the car in at the Ulster Tower for a view across the Ancre and an explanation of events in the northern part of the battlefield. The Gospel Copses at Serre were deserted and we had Sheffield Memorial Park all to ourselves as I explained about the failure of the attack and the losses incurred by the northern Pals battalions of the 31st Division.
After some time in Railway Hollow Cemetery we stopped at Serre Road Cemetery No.2 (the largest on the Somme battlefield) and the across the Redan Ridge to Beaumont Hamel, and the infamous sunken lane, the jumping off point for the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers that fateful morning. We then retraced our steps and stopped for a pleasantly quiet walk around the preserved trenches of Newfoundland Memorial Park with its Caribou and even more imposing memorial to the 51st (Highland) Division, conquerors of Beaumont Hamel in November 1916. Our next stop was to the magnificent Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, a must for any battlefield visitor to the western front. Heading via Pozières of Australian fame we reached the Old Blighty Tea Rooms at La Boisselle for a deserved late lunch.
The afternoon began with a detailed tour around the Glory Hole at La Boisselle and a good walk around the site looking at the craters and depressions marking the trenches followed by a stop at the unmissable Lochnagar Crater.
We then headed east through the battlefield, past Contalmaison, Longueval and Guillemont to the Cedric Dickens cross at Ginchy overlooking Leuze and Bouleaux Woods. This was a special stop for one of the group whose grandfather had served with the 1/8th Middlesex Regiment and who had probably been in these very fields in mid-September 1916.
Our final stop of the day was to the site above Mametz of our successful archaeological dig for a Livens Large Gallery Flame Projector where I could stand my clients on the spot where the parts had been recovered in May 2010. Sadly we did not have time to all visit the Historial de la Grande Guerre at Peronne to see the temporary exhibition and salvaged projector parts as well as the full size replica but there is only so much we could do within the time constraints.
“I would just like to say a big thank you for making our battlefield tour such an interesting and amazing event. Your knowledge of the area and what went on and where, is just incredible. The tour was made that much better by the fact that you had researched my Grandfather’s service in the Middlesex Regiment and proceeded to show us exactly where he was and what he would have experienced almost to the day but 95 years ago. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck!
The choice of locations that you picked were excellent, and whilst I know two days is not long enough to cover everything there is to see, we certainly got a very good understanding of what happened, by whom and where. This was made even more poignant by linking them to my ancestors who had fought there. I would have no hesitation in recommending your tours to any of my friends, in fact I have told them of my experience with you and we are already planning another tour for next year.” John Waterman, Kent
It was a terrific trip with delightful people who have clearly got the battlefielding bug. My thanks to John, Clare, Sally and Jack for their enthusiasm, understanding and for sending me a selection of photos. I am already looking forward to the next time…
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.