1st Battalion at Arras & Monchy-le-Preux (1917)

A New Year brings new Operations[edit]

German dead near Guillemont, September 1916, showing a destructive aftermath of shelling in the trenches, dug-outs and the mass of waste ground behind, what would have originally been fields.
The 1st Battalion was taking part in fighting to the S. in the neighbourhood of the Somme not usually included by historians among the leading events of the year's campaigns, yet, if one may judge by the casualties incurred by the Battalion and the very special remarks published by the Commanders under whom it served, was certainly not negligible and is of very considerable regimental interest. [1]

This, particularly with any history written about events that took place anywhere throughout the various theatres of war, is all too common whereby only those campaigns deemed more interesting have been committed to paper.[2] It is a shame that so-called minor events that took place have been forgotten about because historians believe them to be of less importance than their major counterparts. But people with a specific interest in smaller, yet still significant operations and battles, continually bring to light the events that took place during these forgotten moments. It is that that has always been, and will continue to be, important; to remember what happened all those years ago.

As we saw in the previous chapter, the 1st Battalion of the Border Regiment saw the old year out at Hangest. By the opening of the new year, 1917, they were still very much engaged in training until the 12 January when they moved onto Bresle via train and then march. Their stay was a short one as they soon packed up and moved again, this time by march again to Meaulte, Carnoy and finally to Guillemont on the 17 January. Here they remained for 10 days before being ordered to take positions alongside the 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers to attack an area just south of Le Transloy, particularly the Landwehr Trench. This attack, which commenced in the early hours of the 27th was seen through to success and as a result of the first stages, 117 German prisoners had been taken and passed back behind British lines. Each of the objectives had been achieved, a further 45 prisoners had been captured shortly after and by mid morning so had another 75 prisoners. The ground that had been taken was however difficult to consolidate owing to a combination of shelling, sniping from the enemy, and the frozen ground before them did not make matters any easier.

Their work was not over and fortifying the area was taking time. Some wire had been laid around a strong point, which at that time was still being dug and several Lewis gun emplacements were put into positions across Sunken Road to the right of that position. It took until 2pm before the area was secure under such conditions. The success of their efforts for that day were reported in congratulatory messages, which started coming through shortly after 4pm, one being from the Commander-in-Chief: "Congratulate the 29th Division warmly, and in particular the 1st Border Regiment and 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, on the success of their operations carried out this morning. In forwarding this message the Army Commander wishes to add his congratulations to the 29th Division on their most successful enterprise."[3]

The 1st Battalion alone (from a total of 6 officers and 355 unwounded other ranks) captured 4 officers and 200 men along with three of the five machine guns captured during the day. It was the gallant actions in the capturing of these machine guns that Sergeant E.J. Mott, of the 1st Battalion Border Regiment, was awarded the VC. Amazingly, even though he was wounded in the eye, he single-handedly made a dash for the enemy gun that was holding up his company and fought with the gunner to a conclusion that led to his capture and that of the deadly machine gun. It was also around this time that the retrieval of an enemy map showed just how accurate they were in plotting British headquarters, dumps, batteries and railway lines. All was not lost though as this map, detailed to the last, also showed all the enemy positions of equal value and so upon reaching those in higher command would have been put to some use. After the action here the Battalion marched back to Carnoy, taking up camp where the officers and men were personally congratulated by the Divisional Commander. The losses the Battalion sustained were high and totalled 137 all ranks including Lieutenants W. de H. Robinson, M.C., S.C. Cheverton, W.L Beattie and Second-Lieutenant A.M. Clark along with 12 NCOs. Those wounded came to 87 including Second-Lieutenant H.T. Thompson, while there were still 33 unaccounted for, missing.

Although the Battalion was involved in minor operations and battles throughout the months of February and March, they found themselves in the daily routine of training around the area of Bussy where they received further drafts in smaller numbers to recoup their strength. By the end of March the Battalion was in and around the area of Vignacourt, thus waiting to be called upon to take part in the Arras Offensive in April.

The Arras Offensive[edit]

18 pounder guns under fire at the Battle of Arras, 24 April, 1917

The 1st Battalion were glad to be taking decent shelter from the elements that were pretty unpleasant to say the least, according to the war diary there was "hail, snow, rain and wind,"[4] typical weather to be seen in early April. The Arras Offensive officially opened on the 9 April and the following day news was seeping through of the attacks that had already taken place with "captures of 10,000 prisoners and about 10 guns."[4] The Battalion did not leave their comfier accommodation until the 12th when then marched to Maison Rouge via Arras, upon arriving they relieved the 7th Norfolks and made their way towards old German trenches near the location of Orange Hill, roughly 2 miles east of Monchy.

A few days later on the 17 April the 1st Battalion moved up to the firing line; here they stayed holding the line as they had done so many times before. The next day, with a platoon of B Company, Second-Lieutenant Cox leading the attack, attempted to capture what was considered a German strong point about 250 yards distant from the British front line. Little did they know how well this area was protected and the result of the attack was unsuccessful, inevitable maybe as the actual location of the strong point was not accurately known. When they eventually found the location, it was far too strongly held with machine guns and in their actions, Second-Lieutenant Cox and five of his men were wounded. Fortunately, none of his men were killed either during the action or whilst in retreat.

There were caves situated at Arras and on the 19 April the men of the Battalion found themselves making their way to safer and more secure surroundings. These caves would be their respite but only for a short period. Their last tour on the front had cost nine lives while another 22 had been wounded. Only three days had passed before orders were received for the Battalion to ready themselves in preparation for short walk to take up preparatory positions for an attack the following day. On the evening of the 22nd they moved out to a position on the Arras-Cambrai Road where they were "met by guides, and conducted, at ten minute intervals, to the N.W. entrance of the village of Monchy-le-Preux, whence the platoons were marched off to their ‘Jumping-off’ place, a line about 30 yards west of the front-line fire trench up to the Sunken Road. The companies were here formed up in the order D, A, B, C in practically one continuous line, while Battalion Headqaurters was at the outset established in a shallow trench in rear."[4]

The task of trying to get the men through the village of Monchy-le-Preux was a difficult and risky one for the main reason that the village was being heavily shelled at the time. The village was greatly congested with troops and animals but the Battalion, generally unscathed, was ready and in position by 2.30am on the 23rd. There were few casualties, one officer, Second-Lieutenant V. Blomfield, and six other ranks wounded. At some point it was deemed that Battalion Headquarters were not in a satisfactory position and so the Adjutant, Lieutenant R.G. Cullis, was sent forward to scout for a more suitable location to set up Battalion HQ. He did not return until half an hour later, around 3am, reporting that he had found a place to establish the Battalion HQ, situated in a deep hollow in the nearby Château Wood.

Rue des Grands Vieziers, Arras.

The Battalion Aid Post had already been established there and soon the Battalion HQ would join them on the safer east slope of the hill, which afforded decent cover from enemy fire. The South Wales Borderers were on the attacking lines and at 4.45am, C and D Companies of the 1st Battalion Border Regiment, made their way to the rear reinforcing the S.W. Borderers, with A and B Companies taking temporary accommodation in the old firing line. All was not well as the barrage from our own guns was falling far too short. Into the mix of deadly enemy barrages from two separate locations, the situation had gotten worse and the smoke by that point was so thick it was virtually impossible to see what was going on. Two hours later, Captain Ewbank, commanding B Company, reported stating that the South Wales Borderers were successful in their attempts to gain their objectives but the combined barrages of both British and German had cost many lives and the 1st Battalion had suffered heavily. While the South Wales Borderers were digging in and creating strong points along the ground they had just taken, C and D Companies of the 1st Battalion had established themselves in the enemy front line.

The G.O.C. Brigade had sent orders with instruction that a company of the Border Regiment was to be at the disposal of the South Wales Borderers in case the enemy turned their flank. Captain Ewbank was then ordered to clear the German trench from the general area of Arrowhead Copse to the Sunken Road; this he did by sending Second-Lieutenant Layard with a bombing party to complete the task. However, later in the evening, upon his return he reported that the enemy section of trench mentioned prior did not actually exist, yet there was a section of trench further up Sunken Road where he had found some of the enemy, around 80 in number. With this information he made his way back to Arrowhead Copse where he secured a Lewis Gun. On returning to the Sunken Road, it was positioned in such a way as to successfully enfilade the enemy, which he did causing many casualties in the process before his location was pin-pointed. That kind of fire was not going to go by without retaliation and soon the entrenched Germans returned fire, four of Layard’s men were hit. He knew when to retire and swiftly withdrew his gun before there was further loss of life to his party. Upon orders, no further advance was to be taken, at least for the time being.

Monchy-le-Preux[edit]

Along the edge of the Arrowhead Copse and the village of Monchy-le-Preux the enemy shelling had become a heavy, continuous stream of hostile action. Somewhere in the Pelves Valley there was German enfilading fire cutting into the Battalion Headquarters, which was now no longer in a safe location as had originally thought. Shells were bursting everywhere, two heavy shells landed in very close proximity of each other; the first killing outright two scouts, the Scout Sergeant, a signaller and the Regimental Sergeant-Major, whilst Adjutant and Lieutenant Cullis was wounded along with several other men; the second landed above the Commanding Officer and other Headquarter officers when it hit them squarely on the roof of their dugout. They were under a direct hit and were all buried in the rubble. As a result of this the Battalion Headquarters were moved to a new location in a trench on the other side of the hollow. The Commanding Officer was unconscious from the shell fire and so Captain Ewbank, who was at that time on the front line, was sent for to take over temporary command. There had been some bitter fighting and it was only midday. Although the intensity of the enemy barrage had by now slowed down, the general situation had not changed.

By 1pm the Battalion Headquarters had been moved again back to the Château dugout and later on after dusk, to yet another dugout, larger in size. Two platoons set up a defensive flank that was parallel to the Sunken Road, because the situation was neither clearing nor satisfactory. For the time being, the men had to settle in for another night in the firing line as relief would not be possible for another 24 hours. The evening came quickly and passed by without too much action. The day's fighting had been fierce and had taken its toll on both sides. Full scale bombardments had died down and there was now only intermittent shelling as the hours rolled by. The morning of the 24th saw no change and throughout the day the main cause of losses to the battalion was through sniping. If the enemy spotted movement of any kind it was fired upon. It wasn’t until the following morning on the 25th that three of the Battalion companies were relieved. The full relief of the Battalion was not possible owing to the recommencement of the enemy barrage, which meant that D Company had to remain in the front line for further 24 hours. On the 26 April D Company rejoined the Battalion at Duisans where all men were accommodated in Nissen huts[5] Depending on the condition of the huts, the accommodation would have been a welcomed improvement than that of the front line. The 1st Battalion spent the remainder of the month at Saulty. Considering the hostility of the barrages and fighting that took place over the previous few days, the communication carried out by the runners was nothing short of amazing. Even though telephone communications between Battalion Headquarters and the rest of the lines had been destroyed on more than one occasion, they were soon repaired only to be destroyed again by further enemy shelling, lasting only for about ten minutes each time. Casualties were heavy by the men carrying these messages but there was never any sign of delay or hesitation when the time came to pass the messages on to those who needed them; the devotion to duty was remarkable under such circumstances. The total number of casualties of all ranks came to 156; 2 officers, Second-Lieutenant G.F. Kemp and R.S. Pooley, along with 22 NCO’s and men were killed; Captains B.H. Spear-Morgan and W.B. Wamsley (the medical officer), Lieutenant R.G. Cullis and Second-Lieutenant V. Blomfield along with 107 other ranks were wounded. Of this figure, 21 men were missing.

Arras town square in February 1919. The visible sign of war made its mark on the surrounding buildings. This, or something very similar, is what the 1st Battalion Border Regiment would have seen during their time there in 1917.

Almost two weeks passed where the Battalion had been given numerous orders to stand by in readiness to move out only for those orders to be cancelled and to stand down again. Each time the men were prepared to move up to the front line, ready to continue the fight wherever they were instructed to do so. The order was given again but this time, on the 13 May, the orders remained and in the afternoon the Battalion marched to Arras in preparation for another forthcoming battle. In the evening of the 14th they moved to the ‘Brown Line’, which was part of a German line captured on the 9th and also part of the Hindenburg Switch. The duties carried out the next day were spent solely on making much needed improvements to the trenches they were occupying. Under the cover of darkness a patrol was sent out with the specific task of reconnoitring the forthcoming objectives, the enemy position known as Devil’s Trench.

On the evening of the 17 May the Battalion were on the front line between the Monchy-Pelves Road and the Twin Copses. Each of the companies were in their positions before the break of day. There they remained until the evening of the 19th where they were needed for the ensuing action east of Monchy-le-Preux. The situation at that time, according to Wylly, is as follows:

After the 29th Division had fought itself to a standstill on the night of April 23rd, the date of the First Battle of Monchy-le-Preux, the remnants of the 87th Brigade had dug themselves in where their advance had halted, an on their relief this line had been more or less consolidated. The position, however, was anything but ideal from the point of view of observation, while that of the enemy was very good, and it was hoped to improve matters by turning out the enemy and occupying the line. The British line from which the assault was to be delivered had no properly organised trench system suitable for either defensive of offensive action; the front was disjointed, there being no connection whatever from N. to S. between the line passing between the Twin Copses; then, the soil being either clay or clay and chalk, the trenches in the low ground were wet and muddy, in some places were very shallow, in others deep and narrow, making passage very difficult. Further, there was no communication through to the front line by day under cover, and the companies in the fire trenches could only be reached by long and roundabout routes. [6]

Along side the attack to be made on the right, two further objectives for the 87th Brigade were thus: to capture Infantry Hill and the Bois des Aubepines, including the immediate establishment of strong points along Devil’s Trench, Cigar Copse, May trench, Long Trench and Tool Trench. Each company of the 1st Battalion had allotted objectives, which were as follows:

  • A Company (Captain Bunting, M.C.) was to attack and capture the positions in front, push through and establish a platoon (under Lieutenant New) as a strong point at a spot noted on the map, with two other platoons (under Second-Lieutenants Armstrong and Dunlop) forming a second strong point on the E. side of the Bois des Aubepines.
  • B Company (Second-Lieutenant Layard, M.C.) was to capture the enemy position in front and establish strong points, each of a platoon, one (under Second-Lieutenant Middleton) near the E. edge of Cigar Copse, the other (under Second-Lieutenant Rae) near the S. edge of Devil’s Trench.
  • C Company (Lieutenant Thornburn-Brown, K.O.S.B. attached) on the assault commencing, was to extend to the left and occupy the ground vacated by B Company.
  • D Company (Captain Palmer) was to advance over the open from Shrapnel Trench to the line vacated by A Company.[7]

Included in these objectives was also carrying and wiring parties and that of a company of the South Wales Borderers, whose objectives were to dig in strong points along Devil’s Trench at 50 yard intervals. There were many preparations to be made but by the morning of the 19th, most had been completed. The Battalion was again proving that it was working well together, like a well oiled machine. Orders were followed to the instruction and the work was done. The men were ready in their positions and the ground ahead carefully examined prior to the attack. The day grew lighter and the men found themselves starting a new day, cloudless and hot with almost no wind. The attack had been planned to start at 9pm that evening and so the men waited under the increasing spring heat for the inevitable to unfold. The final orders were given prior to 9pm and with this the British bombardment opened on the German lines. Little damage was being caused as many of the shells were falling too short from their targets but to the second, upon zero hour when the barrage fell, the men leapt from their positions and commenced the planned attack. Up to an hour had passed and little to no information had made its way back to Battalion Headquarters on the progress made so far. It was a message received from Private Crook, who had returned to HQ stating that the waves had gone “over the top” and the rear parties followed suit with wires and trestles in hand. However, German retaliation soon took a firm grip and sent up S.O.S. signals for their own barrage to open.

The officer commanding 1st Battalion Border Regiment had, prior to the attack during the many preparations, anticipated there could have been an issue regarding strategic opposition with the area between Cigar Copse and Bois des Aubepines and it was section that he had asked our guns pay particular attention to. Sure enough when a report came through it was this very section that had caused problems and as a result the attack was at that time presently held up. Colonel Ellis sent Captain Sutcliffe and two orderlies up to the front to find the commanding officers of the assaulting companies for reports on the present state of affairs. After further reports came through it was apparent that the attack was failing. The opening barrage had failed to do enough damage to the German defences and that many enemy shells had fallen on the attacking companies. The companies still pushed forward and upon reaching the enemy lines were almost instantly repelled by bombers hurling their weapons of war at them. Captain Bunting was here wounded in the eye from an explosion yet he managed to return to Battalion Headquarters to report what he'd seen. He noticed that Second-Lieutenant Dunlop, without fear, stood in very close proximity to an enemy trench shooting all he saw before him, one at a time with his rifle. He seemed to be undeterred even when they retaliated by throwing bombs in direction; it was here that this gallant officer was killed in the line of duty. Lieutenant Durham and Captains Palmer and Davies of the South Wales Borderers had also become casualties in the attack. Lieutenant Danielli was O.C. of D Company, which had managed to remain in position and contact with C Company on the left of his position, however, the right, front and rear was left wide open. He was in a dangerous situation where it was possible he could be flanked.

By 1.30am, all indications were clear that a successful outcome of this attack was no longer viable. All the indications stipulated that the continuation of this attack would not yield the outcome they had planned and so with this information in mind the Battalion Commander sent out a message as quickly as possible to Lieutenant Thornburn-Brown, who, injured shortly after the initial attack commenced, was still carrying on as O.C. of C Company. His orders were to fall back to the original front line and consolidate all the men before dawn as a defensive move in case of an enemy counter-attack. The adjutant returned from the front line around 3.10am and surmises with the following detailed information:

  • A Company had been held up at the edge of Boise des Aubepines by a strong bombing party in the strong point there;
  • B Company’s attack had failed, having met with very heavy machine-gun fire from between Cigar Copse and the Bois des Aubepines, and that Second-Lieutenant Rae, the senior officer remaining, had withdrawn all available men to the original front line and was there reorganising;
  • Of the right portion of A Company very little was known, Lieutenant Dunlop and most of those with him were casualties, while Lieutenant New had been seen leading on his platoon, but as they came under very severe machine-gun fire, it was feared the same fate had befallen him and his party;
  • C Company had extended to fill up the vacated line as far as possible, but the platoon supporting A Company’s advance had been badly cut up;
  • D Company had been under a heavy fire while in the trenches, and came under the barrage on moving over the open to occupy the vacated front line, and Lieutenant Danielli, now in command of what remained of the company in the front line, was busy reorganising and taking all defensive measures;
  • As regards to the South Wales Borderers company attached, they had come under very heavy machine-gun fire from Devil’s Trench and Bit Lane, the attack had been broken up, and while a few men had gained and were holding out in Arrow Trench, a general retirement to the old line had been ordered and was now being carried out.[8]
Killed Wounded Wounded & Missing
Lieutenant L.W. Armstrong Captain H. Palmer Second-Lieutenant F.S. Layard, M.C.
Lieutenant P. New Captain H. Bunting
Second-Lieutenant E.B. Dunlop Lieutenant T.E. Thornburn-Brown
Second-Lieutenant T.S. Middleton Second-Lieutenant A.H. Crane
Second-Lieutenant A.J. Durham

The original front line was re-established as ordered with the strength of all available men and two Vickers machine guns. During this time the stretcher bearers had a exhaustive time working continuously to bring in the wounded before the cover of darkness turned to light. This had mostly been achieved by dawn and throughout the rest of the day, the stretcher cases were subsequently evacuated. The Battalion had again suffered greatly with casualties including a total of 10 officers, these being:

The 1st Battalion’s next action would see them in the Third Battle of Ypres, but for now the men, who were battered and bruised from the fierce battle of Monchy-le-Preux, spent the remainder of May and most of June at Candas, in the Picardy region of the Somme, making the most of their time away from front line action.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. Wylly 1925, p.115.
  2. General term, meaning that these histories have been recorded be it in books, ebooks, internet based sites, archival storage, video, dvd, film and spoken word etc.
  3. Wylly 1925, p.116.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Wylly 1925, p.121.
  5. The semi-circular prefabricated multi-purpose hut designed and developed during the First World War by Peter Nissen of the 29th Company Royal Engineers and was usually made from corrugated steel sheets. It was patented in 1916 and brought into production in August of the same year.
  6. Wylly 1925, p.124.
  7. Wylly 1925, p.125.
  8. Wylly 1925, p.126.

References[edit]