Sunday 23 April 2017

The Battle of Arras Begins Again

Monday 23rd April 1917 - Saint George’s Day

After a dormant period lasting eight days the Battle of Arras sprang into life once more today. There have been small, isolated flare-ups during those eight days but today saw the beginning of the second phase of operations with a concerted and widespread attack. Phase One saw VI, VII and XVII Corps making the running, today XIII to the north also joined in the attack. We here in Arras are hearing the fighting today has been gruelling(1)

The day began with a heavy mist from ground which was very wet after snow and rain over the preceding weeks. As the day developed it turned into a bright Spring day, whose beauty belied the grim struggle going on all around. The various objectives were grouped into two lines - the first known as the Blue Line and the second, east of that, known as the Red Line.

VII Corps was instructed to attack downhill towards the River Sensée between Vis-en-Artois and Bullecourt. 33rd Division, on the right flank, gained some ground but could not take all their objectives because the barbed wire was uncut. On their left flank 30th Division, still smarting from its lack of success in the opening phase of the battle, advanced on high ground overlooking the village of Chérisy. The 2nd Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment, played no part in this attack, as it was in reserve around Neuville-Vitasse. Once again their attack was unsuccessful because enemy artillery rained down on them causing huge casualties. 50th (Norhumbrian) Division ‘s attack failed with heavy casualties. Finally we have just heard that 33rd Division has begun an attack of its own, with what results we do not yet know.

VI Corps to the north of VII Corps occupied a front from Wancourt and Guémappe to the River Scarpe, south-east of Fampoux, with a bulge, or salient, sticking out towards the enemy around the village of Monchy-le-Preux. 15th (Scottish) Division attacked Guémappe and points north. Guémappe fell after hard fighting and the rest of the Division was able to make some progress. Then a German counter-attack drove the Scots out of Guémappe, though the Germans could not occupy it and the battalions north of the village held their ground. 29th Division, on the Scots’ left flank, took most of its objectives.About four o’clock this afternoon, however, the enemy counter-attacked this division also and managed to force its right-hand units back. 17th (Northern) Division’s attack made very little progress, just obtaining a precarious foot-hold in the enemy trenches.

XVII Corps area lay north of the River Scarpe and their attack today was aided by a division of XIII Corps to its north - our old friends the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division, with the 4th Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment to the fore. Only two divisions of XVII Corps made any attack, both of them with local interest - 51st (Highland) Division, our Scottish friends who spent the first months of the war in Bedford, and 37th Division which includes 6th Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment.

51st Division were given the task of taking the village of Roeux and its chemical works and station and then moving on to the fortified ridge and Delbar and Hausa Woods. Thanks to the aid of a tank (C7 under Second Lieutenant L Victor Smith) which fired its cannons through the windows of the houses, the Highlanders were able to take Roeux. The chemical works, however, proved resistant to being captured and then the Scots were forced out of most of Roeux apart from its western fringe. Nevertheless the first objective - the Blue Line - had been taken.

37th Division did very good work today - its 111th Brigade capturing both first and second objectives and ended up two hundred yards east of the road from Roeux to Gavrelle, where it could advance no further, 13th Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps even managed to reach the road from Gavrelle to Plouvain. 112th Brigade advanced on Greenland Hill, south-east of Gavrelle, thinking that the Germans had fallen back, however, they were frustrated by the failure of 51st Division to take the chamical works outside Roeux, from which fire stopped any advance. The adjutant of 6th Bedfords was able to send me just a brief message that the battalion took part in this attack on Greenland Hill but could go no further than the road from Roeux to Gavrelle, much to his frustration.

63rd (Royal Naval) Division ws allotted the capture of the village of Gavrelle and an advance three hundred yards beyond it. They were well-supplied with artillery for this limited objective, though the wire in front of the village was not well cut. The adjutant of the 4th Bedfords, like his colleague in the 6th Battalion, has had time for little more than a brief message. They attacked at 4.45 a.m. and captured Gavrelle, reaching their first and second objectives. Its third objective, along the railway line from Arras to Douai proved beyond them, however beuase one of the battalions fo the brigade - 7th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, failed to take any of its objectives, expising the Bedfords to murderous fire. No units of the division could advance beyond the village. The Bedfords were shelled very heavily during the day and this afternoon they were counter-attacked by the enemy, an attack which they repulsed. They gave suffered about 260 casualties, around a quarter of their entire strength.

So much for events at Arras. It will be seen that fortunes, as usual, have been mixed - some success, some failure. We may only be able to judge the effectiveness of the attacks today over the coming few days.

North of Arras is the village of Givenchy-en-Gohelle and the town of Avion. 5th Division has attacked in this region today, attempting to capture la Coulotte, despite the fact that wire was uncut and the prospects for success slim. I have just received a report from the adjutant of 1st Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment. Their attack was no avail and the battalion has suffered terrible casualties - eleven officers, including at least five killed and 320 other ranks. The other battalions in the attack (1st Northumberland Fusiliers, 1st Devonshires and 1st Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry) have suffered correspondingly devastating casualties. Tonight the shattered battalion will withdraw, probably to Cambligneul. An attack further north by 46th Division was also a failure.

Sources: X550/2/5; X550/5/3; X550/7/1

(1) The Official History of the War states: “The fighting of 23rd April is described by more than one participant as the hardest of the War so far”.

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