Posts Tagged ‘Hindenburg Line’
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’
Last January I spent three days filming with Hugh Dennis for Wall to Wall’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ series. We were following in the footsteps of Hugh’s maternal grandfather, Godfrey Parker Hinnels. Godfrey served with the 1/4th Battalion Suffolk Regiment from Spring 1917 until his transfer to the 1st Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment in March 1918. Despite having just over a year on active service Godfrey certainly saw his share of action, going ‘over the top’ at Arras and Ypres as well as fighting during the German Kaiserschlacht and the defence of Wytschaete in April 1918. This article is designed to provide more information on those units and their actions covered in tonight’s episode.
Battle of Arras
Godfrey’s Suffolk battalion formed part of 98th Brigade, 33rd Division. It did not participate in the initial advance on the morning of 9 April 1917 but was moved up close to the front line on 12 April, occupying a position on the road between Henin-sur-Cojeul and Neuville Vitasse, the scene of bitter fighting on the battle’s opening day. The battalion war diary records ‘A great deal of burial and salvage work was done by the battalion in the vicinity of the trenches in front of the Hindenburg line’. Godfrey’s initiation into active service can hardly have been harsher; searching through the blanket of snow carpeting the battlefield for men killed a few days earlier. There followed a move into the Hindenburg Line itself for a spell in the trenches before the battalion’s major effort in the Arras offensive.
At 4.45am on 23 April 1917 a huge British artillery onslaught fell on to the German trenches signalling the start of the Second Battle of the Scarpe. Godfrey’s battalion was tasked with bombing their way down 2,300 yards of both front and support trenches of the Hindenburg Line to the Sensée River. Despite the support of tanks and artillery this was still a highly ambitious task, being prosecuted down a strong system of trenches, specially designed for defence. A deep tunnel ran under the support trench offering accommodation, headquarters and stores. The initial advance was spectacular with the Suffolks reaching a sunken road between Croisilles and Fontaine-les-Croisilles within two hours. Just 200 yards short of their objective they then came under sustained German fire. Later that day a strong German counter-attack pushed them back in both trenches – they ended the day close to the morning’s starting position. Despite taking a remarkable 650 German prisoners in the initial advance the battalion suffered over 300 casualties (about 50% of the battalion strength). This bloody day’s fighting is chronicled in great detail in ‘From the Somme to the Armistice’, the memoirs of Captain Stormont Gibbs MC, an officer in the 1/4th Suffolks.
Following their mauling in the Hindenburg Line the battalion’s losses were made up with reinforcements. Back to fighting strength they moved north to the coast before heading to Ypres to take part in the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). The battle had commenced on 31 July but unexpectedly heavy rainfall in August coupled with the destruction of the delicate Flemish drainage system by millions of artillery shells had reduced the landscape to a shattered Stygian moonscape of overlapping shell holes. Any advance had been limited but September’s improvement in the weather gave the battlefield time to dry out. Ironically, considering the common perceptions of Passchendaele, dust became a problem with roads and tracks watered regularly to restrict dust clouds caused by passing troops and transport.
It was into this landscape that the Suffolks found themselves in September 1917. By 11.30pm on 25 September they were holding a line of trenches on the infamous Gheluvelt Plateau running between Fitzclarence Farm and Glencorse Wood, close to Polygon Wood. The plan was for the battalion to leave their positions, advance towards Black Watch Corner where a line of shell holes marked the British front line and join in the general attack at Zero Hour, 5.50am on the 26th.
The Suffolks were shelled prior to Zero Hour and heavy casualties sustained. The Battalion War Diary makes for depressing reading: ‘The heavy shelling, thick mist and darkness caused confusion and it was impossible for the men to keep touch but Platoon rushes were made and some Platoons made progress.’ Any great advance was impossible and by day’s end the battalion had only managed to advance to a line near Black Watch Corner. The battalion had achieved little and lost around 250 men in the process.
The Passchendaele section was not broadcast but has been included as ‘unseen footage’ on the ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ magazine’s website here: http://www.whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine.com/footage/13822.
Winter 1917/1918 & Talbot House
The battalion took no further part in offensive action but spent the next six months in and out of the line on the Passchendaele ridge. When not in trenches the Suffolks were at rest in camps close to the small town of Poperinghe. Whilst not documented, it is highly likely Godfrey would have visited Talbot House – the “Every Man’s Club” situated in the bustling town’s heart. At our first meeting I had described Talbot House (also known as Toc H) to Mark Bates, the director of Hugh’s episode, and suggested a visit. It would be a good opportunity to show a typical soldier’s experiences when out of the line. We visited during our recce in December 2011 and, like so many before, I could tell Mark was taken with Talbot House. The house has a unique atmosphere rarely encountered in other buildings and I was delighted to see the Talbot House section so prominent in the final edit.
On 1 March 1918 Godfrey headed south to the Somme where he joined the 1st Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment, part of the 21st Division, holding trenches near the village of Épehy, once again opposite the Hindenburg Line. The exact reason behind his transfer is not documented but coincides with the 1/4th Suffolks becoming a pioneer battalion. It may have been that Godfrey’s skills were required more in a frontline infantry battalion as opposed to a pioneer battalion. He was soon into action as the Germans launched their Spring Offensive (Kaiserschlacht) on 21 March. Deluged with gas shells the Lincolns were attacked under cover of ‘a heavy white mist’. A day of desperate fighting followed with positions held around Chapel Hill before relief and retirement across the 1916 Somme battlefield. On 1 April the Lincolns entrained north to Flanders but hopes for a rest were short lived.
On 9 April a German attack south of Armentières heralded the start of the Battle of the Lys. A huge hole was punched in the Allied line and with his southern flank crumbling General Plumer, commanding the Second Army, ordered a withdrawal from the Passchendaele Ridge back to positions close to Ypres and the Yser Canal. The situation was desperate.
On the evening of 12 April with the battalion at less than half strength the 1st Lincolns were sent to defend the village of Wytschaete (nicknamed Whitesheet by British soldiers), holding a line between Staenyzer Cabaret crossroads and Bogaert Farm. Messines, directly to the south, had fallen two days previously and with Wytschaete the next village along the ridge an attack was almost inevitable. At 4.30 am on the morning of 16 April a heavy artillery bombardment pounded the British front line, the village and all approaches, lasting for 70 minutes. The official account of the operation details the subsequent events:
“Under cover of a dense fog the enemy attacked on the flanks of the battalion, and succeeded in breaking our line just North of the STANYZER CABARET Cross Roads, and at PECKHAM. Strong parties of the enemy then wheeled inwards and attacked both flanks of the battalion…Owing to the dense fog and bombardment it was impossible to get a clear idea of the situation and the Companies did not know they were attacked until the enemy appeared at close quarters. Fighting under every disadvantage, as the fog denied them the full use of Lewis Guns and rifles and made it impossible to locate the enemy, the battalion stood firm, and fought it out to the last. No officer, platoon post or individual surrendered and the fighting was prolonged until 6.30 am. Ample evidence of this is provided by the Commanding officer [Major Gush MC] and Battalion H.Q. who made a last stand at the Cross Roads, and did not leave there until 7 am. They, a mere handful of men, withdrew slowly, fighting all the way through WYTSCHAETE WOOD.” [National Archives Ref: WO95/2154]
The Lincolns had provided a magnificent display of defensive fighting in tremendously difficult conditions. During the action Godfrey was wounded in his index finger – a wound that prevented his return to frontline service. The following day a mere 5 officers and 82 other ranks were relieved to be joined by a further 21 stragglers who had become attached to other units during the fighting. Having gone into action with over 400 men, the Lincolns’ stubborn defence had been bought at a high price – the casualty rate was nearly 75%. The losses were not in vain as Brigadier General Cater commanding Godfrey’s Brigade noted how the ‘hard fighting left the enemy disorganised and unable to consolidate; and materially assisted the counter-attack delivered in the evening.’
Matching soldier’s reminiscences to actual actions can often be problematic but by studying Godfrey’s war service it soon became clear his story of fighting Germans on a hilltop must have related to the defence of Wytschaete. It was a remarkably satisfying conclusion to stand with Hugh Dennis on the same ground where his grandfather fought so gallantly ninety four years earlier.
My thanks to Paul Nathan for his agreement to use his photographs from filming, Mark Bates, Mike Robinson and all at Wall to Wall for their help plus Peter Barton for various maps & documents.
If you would like to read more about these battles and places then a very short suggested reading list is included below:
- Peter Barton with Jeremy Banning, Arras – The Spring 1917 Offensive in Panoramas including Vimy Ridge and Bullecourt (Constable, 2010)
- Jonathan Nicholls, Cheerful Sacrifice: The Battle of Arras 1917 (Leo Cooper, 2005)
- Peter Barton, Passchendaele – Unseen Panoramas of the Third Battle of Ypres (Constable, 2007)
- Paul Chapman, A Haven from Hell – Talbot House, Poperinghe (Cameos of the Western Front) (Pen & Sword, 2000)
- Chris Baker, The Battle for Flanders: German Defeat on the Lys 1918 (Pen & Sword, 2011)
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