Friday, 28 April 2017

Twentieth Day of the Battle of Arras

Saturday 28th April 1917

Here in the city of Arras we were awakened this morning just before dawn by a roar of artillery as the Great Push resumed. 12th (Eastern) Division of VI Corps was given the task of advancing a short way to ensure that the northern flank of the bulge, or salient, around Monchy-le-Preux was reduced. The results were mixed, some advances being made but some attacking units taking dreadful casualties.

On the XVII Corps front, 34th Division was given the unenviable task of capturing Roeux, taken and then largely lost again by 51st (Highland) Division on Saint George’s Day. Some progress was made and parts of the village entered but a heavy counter-attack drove parts of the division back to its starting lines again. So Roeux, as I write this, still appears to be in enemy hands. This village is acquiring as bloody a name as Thiepval, Guillemont and Ovillers did last summer on the Somme.

37th Division also attacked yesterday, despite the fact that some Battalions had been reduced fro a theoretical strength of around one thousand to about two hundred by the severe fighting a few days ago. The target was again Greenland Hill, between Roeux and Gavrelle. The adjutant of 6th Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment, has wired me reporting that they almost gained their objective, but were hit in the flank by fire from the chemical works outside Roeux. From other sources we understand that the Bedfords were probably a long way from their objective, having mistaken a trench about two hundred yards from their starting point for the trench in front of their true objective which lay three hundred yards beyond that. 63rd Brigade of this Division actually managed a breakthrough just west of Fresnes but steady losses from German counter-attacks has forced them to fall back to the road between Gavrelle and Plouvain. Meanwhile 111th Brigade managed to advance its line by about 800 yards up to the Gavrelle to Plouvain road. My colleague Ian McLeod, who is with the 6th Battalion, tells me that the unit has lost 294 men in the attacks at Greenland Hill of whom 51 are dead and 57 missing. In total this month the Battalion has lost so many men that only 58 are fit for duty.

Attacks have also been made north of Arras by 1st Army at Oppy and Arleux. 188th Brigade of 63rd (Royal Naval) Division was given the task of forming a defensive flank for the attack of 2nd Division further north.  4th Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment, was placed under the orders of 188th Brigade but did not go into action, despite the failure of the Brigade to achieve its objectives.

This failure had a serious impact on 2nd Division which had its right flank uncovered (“in the air” in military parlance) as it made its attack. The Division was already seriously under strength - around 3,500 men instead of a full strength figure in excess of 12,000. The Division was to capture the shattered remains of Oppy Wood and the village of Oppy itself beyond it. The attack began from forming up tapes laid by 1st Field Company, East Anglian Royal Engineers (now known officially as 483rd Field Company, Royal Engineers). 6th Brigade took the wood but were repulsed from the village and then from the wood as well. 5th Brigade made some progress north of the wood and the village. As I write this we believe that both 63rd and 2nd Divisions are to attack again in the next few minutes.

North of these two British divisions is the Canadian Corps which, fresh from its magnificent capture of Vimy Ridge, was given the task of taking the village of Arleux. They succeeded magnificently in their task and the village is now in their hands. These men from the prairies, mountains and wastes of Canada must be regarded as amongst the very best in the World.

Away from the fighting, we have heard that 7th Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment has arrived at the Arras front. They are billeted in what the adjutant described as “Hun trenches” near Neuville-Vitasse and this evening expect to move up to the front line near Chérisy.

Sources: X550/5/3; X550/8/1; WW1/WD3; information from Ian McLeod

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