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The Battle of Arras 1917

The 9th April 1917 saw the start of the British offensive moving eastward from Arras. The Battle of Arras which was part of a front about 15 miles long lasted until 16th June and was intended to keep German troops away from French attacks at Chemin Des Dames and in the Champagne District.

Five Royal Fusilier Battalions, including the 10th and 13th, were involved in the first phase of the battle between 9th and 12th April. All had key parts to play in the advance, but 10RF supported by 13RF had the specific task of capturing the key village of Monchy le Preux.

Preparations had been made for some days before the commencement of the action. 10RF had moved into Agnes les Duisans about 7 miles west of Arras where, on the 6th April, their camp was shelled. On Easter Day, 8th April, a move 5 miles to the east brought them to the outskirts of Arras where the CO, Colonel Rive, briefed the officers and senior NCOs about the coming attack. 10RF was in the 3rd wave, following the first two as they advanced from Arras towards the German lines about a mile away. Once the first wave had taken the Line, the second wave was to advance another 2 miles to take the 3rd line of German trenches from where 10RF accompanied by 13RF as part of 37 Div was to launch the attack on Monchy. They were promised artillery support and it was intended that Monchy would be taken late on the 9th April.

At 3am on that Easter Monday the men were woken and given breakfast. The temperature had fallen overnight and there was a strong cold wind from the east. The men’s greatcoats had been sent back so they were wearing battledress tunics, shirts and whatever layers they could put on underneath, but they were cold. At 4.40am as they began to move through Arras the artillery opened up and, following procedure, every man went past the guns open mouthed, not just because of the noised but because it lessened the risk of damage to concussion and to lungs, stomach and ears.

By 10am the battalions were waiting in a wood where they saw the first German prisoners being brought back by Military Police. The advance was clearly going well as the artillery was packing up to move their guns towards the next phase of the attack, east of Arras.

At the eastern edge of the city a communication trench towards the German lines led trough a cemetery. Waiting to enter the trench one platoon of 10RF was hit by two shells which landed very close by killing or injuring about half of the men. Once in the trench and in single file the battalion moved forward.

At 4.50am they emerged from the communication trench and stopped for a smoke in the old British front line. As the troops before them moved forward they resumed their progress to the east. The German front line was unrecognisable as a trench system as it had been obliterated by shelling. As the day progressed the rate of advance slowed until as the sun was setting the battalion emerged on a gentle plateau from where they could see open green fields in front of them. There was little artillery fire and no sign of the Division they should be moving through to launch the attack on Monchy.

Now about 2 miles from Monchy they could see the red roofs of the houses. The temperature continued to fall and 10RF and 13RF moving alongside each other began to feel more confident that they would be in Monchy that evening. The first intimation that all was not well was the German fire coming at them from the 3rd German line, which should have been occupied by British troops. A German sniper hidden in a farm cart was causing many casualties. Now sheltering in a ditch the battalion was heartened by the sound of an approaching tank, which unfortunately broke down and stopped. The men were too cold to sleep and some spent the night burying their fallen comrades, “not exactly cheerful work but it kept one warm”.

The difficulties of the cold were added to by the now increasingly frequent snow flurries. Now 24 hours behind schedule 10RF and 13RF were preparing to advance towards Monchy. A cavalry Division was preparing to follow 37Div into Monchy and break out on the other side. The open fields, standing trees and green hedges were an unusual sight to the men who had become used to the mud and barren landscape of the Somme. The hares running around in the fields seemed incongruous. Slowed up by fire from a machine gun the men of 10RF and 13RF moved carefully trying to use the cover afforded by the few shell holes. At about 5pm on the 10th April the snow showers merged to become a blizzard. 10RF saw this as an opportunity as a survivor later recalled:

Each and every man simultaneously became possessed with one idea viz that this was the chance he was waiting for to get across the 300 yards intervening space and right into the Germans with bomb and bayonet before they had time to realise what was happening. Cpl Grendon, me and the others from the shell hole dashed forward with the rest and must have covered 150 yards when the screening blizzard thinned out as suddenly as it had commenced revealing the whole battalion to a man running forward. Immediately the Germans opened fire with all the machine guns from the sunken road. Our poor chaps fell like ninepins and all round figures were stretched out dead and wounded in the snow”.

Despite this set back the advance continued. One man saw Germans running to a barn to get ammunition for the machine guns. He took a couple of shots and managed to hit one man, and discourage others from making the journey. However he was in an exposed position so camouflaged himself as best he could be letting snow fall on the back of his helmet, turn the snow covered back of the helmet round to the front and before it melted get off a couple of shots towards the Germans, and then repeat the process.

All night the battalions reformed and reorganised. By dawn on the 11th April the men were becoming resigned to whatever fate awaited them. The advance was resumed and the troops advance mechanically with still no artillery support, but by this stage they were so exhausted to be beyond caring. The arrival of two tanks encouraged them on and the Germans decided to begin to evacuate their positions. The attacking British began to emerge from shell holes and run towards the village. There was just one road leading to the square and a flood of men, later described as “like a crowd coming out of a football match” began to run up the hill. The houses were still standing intact, in some coffee was still heating on the stove and tables laid for a meal.

According to the plan 10RF and 13RF were supposed to have advanced through the village for about 300 yards and then dug in, on Monday afternoon, but they were now 48 hours behind schedule. They did the best they could but the east side of the village was still in full view of German troops well dug in further on. They struggled on, suffering under shell and machine gun fire as they attempted to defend their position. The cavalry had arrived but the German shelling had killed most of the horses so the riders were reduced to being additional, untrained, infantrymen.

By the end of Wednesday the 11th April, after nearly 90 hours without proper rest the order was given for 10RF and 13RF to ‘Return to Arras’. They straggled into the city the first arriving about 3am on Thursday 12th. At 5am on Thursday 13th buses arrived to take the survivors back to be reunited with their kit at Agnez les Duisans. Not all the survivors made it back so quickly. One man, wounded and stuck in a shed on the eastern side of Monchy had to wait until late on the Thursday before he was discovered by men from another Regiment and moved back to Arras, and then England.

During the period from 9th to 22nd April, 93 men and 2 Officers of 10RF were listed as killed in action or died of wounds. The Diary records 12 officers, including the CO and the adjutant and 240 Other Ranks as being killed, wounded or missing between 9th and 11th; about half the strength of the battalion lost.  The losses were similar among 13RF but both battalions were back in action a week later when they rejoined the action north of Monchy le Preux. At the end of the war the 37th Division Memorial was erected in Monchy indicating the importance of the village in the history of the Division.

 © David Carter

Written by David Carter, Volunteer Research at the Fusilier Museum London