Arras and Afterwards, May – July 1917
From G. K. Rose, The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
“The next battlefield to which the Battalion’s steps were turned was Arras. Early in May the French came to relieve the 61st Division at St. Quentin. It was said, perhaps with little truth, that the ban which forbade our guns to shell that town in such manner as, from a purely military standpoint, it deserved, induced this re-arrangement of the front. Certainly the French had tried in April, before the German retreat had definitely stopped, to encircle the town and capture it without bombardment, and possibly their staff yet hoped that it might fall undamaged into their hands. The attitudes of English and French artillerymen towards large towns which they saw opposite to them were naturally different. On this particular front St. Quentin was a potent hostage in the enemy’s power and one which accounted for the extremely quiet conduct of the war in that sector after the English had left.
On its backward march – moves by divisions up and down the front were always made at a good distance behind the line through districts known as ‘staging areas’ the Battalion spent a few days close to Amiens, and thence marched through Doullens
to familiar billets at Neuvillette.
The I84th Infantry Brigade reached Arras at the end of May, and went into the line on June 2.”
A Map of the area from a great free resource: The Times History of the War, 1914-18 Volume 14
During this move Colonel Bellamy, who had commanded us since August, 1916, left the Battalion. He shortly afterwards succeeded to the command of the 2nd Royal Sussex, his former regiment. A man of tact and ripe experience, he had done much to improve the Battalion during his stay. He lacked few, if any, of the best qualities of a Regular officer. His steady discipline, sure purpose, and soldierly outlook, had made him at once Commanding Officer, counsellor and friend. Latterly he had been somewhat vexed by illness, but had refused to allow his activity to be handicapped thereby. His stay had not coincided with the brightest nor least difficult epochs in the Battalion’s history, for which reason, since he was not unduly flattered by fortune, his merit deserves recognition.
Colonel Bellamv’s successor, H. de R. Wetherall, was a young man whom ability and leadership had already lifted to distinction in his
regiment and placed in command of an important military school. From now onwards he is the outstanding figure in the Battalion’s history. In the new Colonel a quick brain was linked with
vigorous physique. In spite of his Regular training, Wetherall could appreciate and himself possessed to no small degree the peculiar virtues of the temporary officer, who based his methods on common sense and actual experience in the war rather than servile obedience to red tape and ‘Regulations.’ He had studied during the war as well as before it, with the result that militarv tradition – his regiment was the Gloucestershire – and his long service in the field combined to fit him for command of our Battalion.
The Division’s share in the Arras Battle, 1917, was small. Already at the time of out arrival the later stages of the fighting had been reached. The British advance astride the River Scarpe had stopped on its north side beneath the low ridge spoken of as Greenland Hill and on its south below a wood known as the Bois du Vert……””
The scene around Arras
The pictures below were taken in April 1917 around Arras. They can be found for free at The Times History of the War, 1914-18 Volume 14 It gives a good idea of the landscape the battalion was moving into.
Another image of the locality is from the sketch book of Fred A Farrell, The 51st Division War Sketches
“9th Royal Scots Attack “Crump Trench.” Description below:
“On April 23, 1917, the 9th Royal Scots took part in an attack on Roeux. Advancing along the side of the river Scarpe, with Roeux Wood on the right and Mount Pleasant Wood on the left, they were held up at the edge of the wood. With the assistance of a tank, however, they took the trench which was impeding the advance, together with a number of prisoners.The drawing shows the men rising from “Creek Trench” to attack “Crump Trench,” where the enemy were stubbornly holding out. Monchy is in the distance. Names of Men appearing in the Sketch.— Coy. Sergeant-Major D. Walker; Corporal J. Hanna; Privates R. Jameson and C. Arnott.
G. K. Rose, The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry continued…….
As on the Somme in November, 1916, local actions were continuing. To prepare for an attack on Infantry Hill, a position held by the enemy south-east of Monchy-le-Preux, the 2/4th Oxfords went into the front line on June 6.
Orders were received to advance across No-Man’s-Land and link up a line of shell-holes as a ‘jumping-off place’ for the subsequent attack. A Company successfully accomplished the task, and the Battalion earned a message of thanks from the Division which a few days afterwards made the designed attack.
Apart from this achievement, the confused network of old and new trenches occupied during this period offered few features of special interest.
C and A Companies and part of D were in the front line, which ran through chalk and was unsavoury by reason of the dead Germans lying all about. The enemy’s fire was of that harassing kind which began now to mark the conduct of the war. In the old days conventional targets such as roads, trenches, and villages within a mile or two of our front were generally shelled at times which could be guessed and when such places could be avoided. These methods changed. Wherever Infantry or transport were bound to go at special times during the night, the German shells, reserved
by day, were fired. Roads, tracks, and approaches, where in daylight English nursemaids could almost have wheeled perambulators with confidence, by night became hated avenues of danger for our Infantrymen moving up the line or ration carrying to their forward companies. The fire to which they went exposed was the enemy’s ‘harassing fire,’ and we, in our turn, very naturally ‘harassed’ the Germans. At this time a crater on the Arras-Cambrai road which must needs be passed and a shallow
trench leading there from, known as Gordon Alley, were the most evil spots. Monchy, the hill-village which had cost us so many lives to capture, was heavily shelled by German howitzers both day and night; below its slopes lay several derelict tanks.
Our gun positions, in proportion to the new increase in counter-battery work, were also often shelled. Though unconnected with any artillery, our doctor, Stobie, and with him Arrowsmith had a bitter experience of German shells. One fine summer morning the enemy commenced a programme of destructive fire upon some empty gun-pits where the Doctor had his dressing-station. Stobie and Arrowsmith, with their personnel, received a high explosive notice to quit, and their descent into a wrong-facing shaft was next followed by the partial destruction or their only exit. They escaped safely and arrived in a state of pardonable excitement at the deep cave under Les Fosses Farm, where my Company Headquarters and many others were. This cave, perhaps, will bear a short description. In Artois and Picardy where chalk strata prevailed, deep subterranean passages and caves abounded. Under Arras itself sufficient room existed to hold many thousands of out troops, who were housed underground before the battle opened. The Germans more than ourselves exploited this feature of geology. Under Gommecourt and Serre their reserve troops had lurked deep in caves.
In the Champagne more striking instances occurred of whole battalions issuing from hidden passages and exits to the fight. The cave below Fosses Farm was about 40 feet below the ground. Of most irregular shape, it branched and twisted into numerous alleys and chambers through the chalk. In it lived representatives of the Artillerv, Royal Engineers, New Zealand Tunnellers, the whole of B Cmpany, parts of Headquarters, the Doctor’s personnel, and my own Company Headquarters.
The cave was dimly lit by a few candles. Throughout the day and night there were perpetuaI comings and goings, and it was common to sec men, dazzled by the outside sun, come stumbling
down the stairs and tread unseeing on the prostrate forms of those asleep below. The bare chalk was floor, bed, and bench to ail alike. The shadows, the dim groups of figures, and the rough pillars forming walls and roof, gave the impression of some old cathedral. Atone end a hole communicating with the ground above served as the only chimney for the incessant cooking that was going on. The fumes of this huge grill-room, which did duty, not only for the 400 men or so within the cave itself, but for as many situated at a distance in the outside world, lent a primeval stamp to the surroundings. We were cave-dwellers, living in
partial darkness and lacking even the elements of furniture.
Caves, cellars, and deep dug-outs had a demoralising influence upon their occupants. The utter security below, contrasted with the danger overhead–for often the entrances to these refuges were particularly shelled – and the knowledge that at any moment the former might have to be exchanged for the latter could deal a subtle injury to one’s morale. It was a golden rule, one perchance followed by many of out leaders, to make each day some expedition afield before the sun had reached its meridian. On the whole one was happier without deep dug-outs – and safer, too, for to become a skulker was equivalent to death.
In quoting things to show how little picnicing there was in the war I feel it opportune to mention a fresh shape in which danger now appeared, not only for the Infantry, but for others formerly immune in sheltered positions far behind the front. I refer to bombing aeroplanes. The warm clear summer nights were now, for the first rime in common experience, marked by the loud droning of the enemy’s machines and by the crash of bombs dropped upon huts and transport lines and along roads and railways in our back area. Arras was often severely bombed. The German aeroplanes on any fine night came to be regarded as inevitable. Bombing might be continued until nearly dawn. When no bombs fell close there was always the constant drone announcing their possibility. To men in huts or in the open, without lights or any means of shelter, the terror carried nightly over- head was greater far than that which ever served to depress Londoners.
Another development which was destined to play an ever increasing part in the war and to make its closing phases worse in some respects that its early, was the long-range high-velocity gun. Though fully seven miles behind the line, Arras was shelled throughout the summer with very heavy shells. The railway station was their principal target, but the 15-inch projectiles fell in a wide radius and caused great destruction to the houses and colleges still standing in the city. Yet to the Arras citizens now eager to return and claim their property shells seemed a small deterrent.
Our star up in the line was short, but we had casualties. Lindsey, a new officer in D Company, was killed on his first visit to the trenches, and Herbert, of B, was wounded. D Company also lost as casualties Sergeant Buller and Lance Corporal Barnes and half-a-dozen Lewis gunners in the line. The night of our relief was spent in bivouacs near Tilloy. A violent thunderstorm, which was the expected sequel to the fortnight’s intensely warm weather we had been experiencing, drenched our surroundings and gave the hard earth, trampled by summer tracks, a surface slippery as
On June 11 the Battalion was back in billets at Bernaville, a village four miles west of Arras, and it appeared that the Division of
which the 184th Brigade alone had been into the line had completed its tour in the Arras sector.
I rejoice that the few pleasant phases of the Battalion’s experiences in France elapsed less rapidly than I describe them. At Bernaville the weather continued fine and warm; in fact, some of the hottest weather of the year occurred. A busy training programme was in swing. To escape the heat, companies paraded at 7 a.m. and worked till 11, and again in the evening at 5 and worked till 7. This training must not be judged by readers according to style and methods possibly seen by them on English training grounds during the war.
At home, after the last divisions of Kitchener’s Army went abroad, no officers trained their own men whom they would lead in battle. The men were usually the rawest drafts, while the officers in home battalions were too often those who had never gone and never would go to the front. A totally different spirit characterised training in France.
Colonel Wetherall was a master of the art of teaching. His emphatic direction and enthusiasm earned early reward in the increased efficiency of all ranks.
At Noeux, near Auxi-le-Château, whither we moved on June 23, the Battalion’s midsummer respite was continued; we were in G.H.Q. reserve.
Rumour, not false on this occasion, predicted the Division’s share in a great battle between Ypres and the coast which was due to happen before the autumn. Expectancy was rife to the effect that
cooperation from the sea was to assist in driving the Germans from the Belgian coast. News, big in its effects, was read one morning in the Daily Mail. The enemy had attacked our lines at Nieuport and driven our garrison across the Yser. A valuable footing had been lost. Happy memories are associated with Noeux. It was a pretty village, girt by rolling hills crowned with rich woods. ‘Wood-fighting’ (which I always said should literally mean the fighting of woods, and indeed it often resolved itself into a contest of man verses undergrowth) was a frequent feature
in the training programme. What was sometimes lost in ‘direction’ was as often gained in naughty amusement at the miscarriage of a scheme. For off-duty hours the wild-boars of Auxi woods and
the cafés in that small town provided varied attractions and romance. The General, who was delighted with the war and the Battalion, was more vigorous and inspiring than ever. It was owing
largely to him that the 184th Brigade became the best in the Division. This good time, which had for its object, hot enjoyment, but preparation for more fighting, came all too soon to an end.
On July 26 the Battalion said good-bye to Noeux. Its inhabitants, of whom an old lady called ‘Queen Victoria’ (La Reine Victoria, as she was known even by her fellow-villagers) was typical, gave us a hearty send-off. Three hours after leaving it we again passed through the village, this time by train. We reached St. Orner in the evening and marched to a scattered Flemish hamlet called Broxeele. Here a stay longer than was expected was made; the 61st Division was in reserve to the 5th Army. The introduction bv the Germans of the celebrated mustard-gas at Ypres had caused many thousand casualties in the line and lent new urgency to our gas drill.
At Broxecle on August 6 the Corps Cmmander, General Hunter Weston, paid a memorable visit of inspection to the Battalion. Long waits, succeeded by tedious processions of generals and
decorated staff-officers of every grade, are usually associated with inspections. General Hunter Weston was more than punctual. His knowledge of all military appurtenances was encyclopedic. A
rigorous examination of revolvers, mess tins, and similar accessories at once commenced. Companies, instead of standing like so manv rows of dummies, were given each some task to perform.
Suddenly in the midst of everything a loud crv of ‘Gas’ is emitted by the General. Not unprepared for such a ‘stunt’ as this, the entire party scrambles as fast as possible into gas-helmets. I think we earned high marks for out gas-discipline. This inspection made a strong impression on the men, who afterwards remembered the occasion and often spoke of it.
Towards the end of July the weather, hitherto so fine, broke hopelessly. Torrential rains followed, which inundated the flat country far and wide. After several postponements the Third
Battle of Ypres commenced on July 31. Some two weeks later the Battalion moved forward by train from Arnecke to Poperinghe. We awaited our share in the fighting which was to make this battle
the most bloody and perhaps least profitable of the whole war.