THE 2nd BATTLE OF ARRAS
A day's halt took place at Barly, where the surplus personnel was left while the fighting men left for Bellacourt. The next day the Battalion left and, passing en route Ficheux and Blaireville, the villages in front of which it had spent so many weary months in 1916, arrived at Mercatel.
On the 27th August the Battalion proceeded, dressed in fighting order, to the Hindenburg Line, via Henin, and took over trenches in V. 7.c. On the 28th a warning order was received at 6 a.m. that the Battalion would attack that day. Operation orders followed later. The two leading companies were to assemble at Humber Redoubt and Mole Lane, and the other two companies in the rear. The first objective assigned to the Battalion was Hoop Lane and the second the village of Riencourt. Flanks were given and zero was fixed for 12 30 p.m.
It was fortunate that a warning order had been given as otherwise the companies would not have been in position in time. At 12 30 p.m. the barrage came down and the men commenced to move forward. The going at first was not easy, owing to the wire and numerous shell holes. Shortly after zero the contact aeroplane unfortunately received a direct hit by a shell and crashed to earth. Very heavy machine gun fire was directed against the leading companies from Copse Trench, which brought about many casualties. Fag Alley was reached and in its vicinity several machine guns were captured, and the teams either killed or taken prisoners. From this point to the first objective the resistance was not so strong, and on reaching it red flares were lit.
About 1-50p.m. the Battalion continued the advance from the first objective, and swung left in the direction of the village of Hendicourt. The resistance became stronger. The enemy was using his machine guns boldly. Some of these were outflanked and captured with a few light minenwerfers. About fifty prisoners, chiefly belonging to the 121st and the 180th Infantry Regiments of the 26th Reserve Division were taken, along with a few Uhlans. Eventually the fringe of Hendicourt was reached, and several men entered the village. As it was reported that there were no British troops on either side of the village it was decided on the spot to withdraw to Cemetery Avenue temporarily. "D" Company was endeavouring to get round the north side of the village but was held up by heavy machine gun fire from Crow's Nest. Owing to this machine gun fire and to the fact that the left flank of the Battalion was in the air, and that the British artillery was shelling the village, it was decided to consolidate Cemetery Trench. Meanwhile some enemy field gunners were firing at the British at very close range. By this time the troops had got very mixed up, and it was essential that the commanders on the spot should organise what men they found near by. This was done and the Battalion remained in its consolidated positions until the next day, when at noon it was withdrawn to Copse Trench and afterwards to a bivouac area at Henin.
Unfortunately, Lord Henry Seymour was wounded on the 28th August and the command then devolved upon Major Ball. There was a great deal of reorganisation to be done. The surplus personnel rejoined. Lists of casualties had to be prepared, ammunition, flares, Verey lights, and iron rations had to be given out. New platoon rolls had to be made at once. Lost Lewis guns and spare parts had to be made up, as well as possible. As a temporary measure "A" and "C" Companies, now sadly depleted in numbers, were united to form "X" Company, while "B" and "D" Companies formed "Y" Company. This scheme was adopted so that the original companies and platoons would not sink their identities in that of a sister company. This reorganisation was completed, equipment made up, and all necessary stores given out within twenty four hours, and the Battalion was again ready for action. The bivouac area was vacated at 4 p.m. on the 1st September, and the Battalion went to the Hindenburg Line, where a few hours were spent. It left the Hindenburg Line about 10 30 p.m. for Hendicourt. An unfortunate circumstance, however, had taken place. The intelligence section, which was to act as guides to take the companies to Hendicourt, was annihilated by a shell, and as a consequence it was very difficult to get there to time in view of the lack of guides. The Battalion was piloted by the Adjutant over numerous broken-in trenches, while enemy aeroplanes were disseminating bombs quite liberally.
Hendicourt was reached fifteen minutes before zero, which was at 5 a.m. One company was then ordered to advance in the direction of Riencourt, the fringe of which village it reached by advancing over the open under cover of the barrage and, incidentally, encountering the German barrage.
On this day the famous Drocourt Queant Switch, the last and perhaps the strongest line of resistance of the enemy, was completely broken. Months had been spent on its preparation and in making concrete machine gun emplacements and belts of barbed wire, and its fall in one day was remarkable.
Later in the day the companies went forward over the ground captured by the other units in the Brigade, and one or two patrols were sent out. The following evening the Battalion was withdrawn to a bivouac area outside Croisilles, which vicinity was shelled by a 350 m.m. Krupp gun. The Battalion was reorganised on a four company basis once more the next day.
On the 7th September the Battalion proceeded, via Hendicourt and Riencourt, to a reserve position by Cagnicourt, and on the 10th the Battalion furnished two companies for manning the Buissy Switch in the rear of Inchy en Artois. Battalion headquarters were situated in the Hindenburg Line and the two forward companies were just on the fringe of Inchy, and accommodated in what had lately been the headquarters of the 115th Feldartillerie Regiment. The dugout was cut into the side of the road and consisted of several well timbered rooms and there were about four entrances. This dugout was so well fitted that it actually contained a pump, to ensure an adequate supply of water for the garrison.
On the 11th September there was an attack by other units in the 57th Division in conjunction with the Guards Division on the east side of Inchy and Moeuvres, so as to secure the line of the Canal du Nord. The attack was covered by an intense bombardment of the enemy front positions and Bourlon Wood, and the advance of the infantry was covered by smoke. Officers from the Battalion observed the attack from Buissy Switch to note where lay the enemy barrage lines. The attack at Inchy was, unfortunately, a failure.
On the 12th the Battalion took over the defence of Inchy. The right company was located in Grabburg Post, and the left in a shell crater position by the Agache Springs. The other two companies were in support. The conditions were bad, and the men in front had to lie in their shell craters all day. As these generally contained water, the men got very wet. The village was incessantly shelled and periodically drenched with gas. Even night brought no respite and the guns still disgorged their fatal missiles. Some idea of the intensity of the shell fire may be gained from the following incident.
'A' Company headquarters and one platoon were quartered in a long cellar belonging to a factory. The cellar was divided into two compartments, and of these only the one further from the entrance was occupied. While the shelling was taking place the Company Commander was out interviewing the Commanding Officer and, returning to his headquarters, he saw shell after shell burst in the vicinity. When the intensity of the fire was somewhat mitigated, he returned to company headquarters and there saw a shell had entered and burst in the empty compartment. When he asked the men about it they did not know what had happened, and they even had not noticed it amid the several other shells that had burst close by.
While at Inchy the Battalion had the misfortune to lose its most popular officer, who was killed while doing a daylight patrol in Pavilland Wood. He had fought in the first Battle of Ypres in 1914 and had remained in France until wounded in 1917. Though blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, he insisted on returning to the battlefield after his wounds had healed. His conduct stands out in' sharp contrast to the thousands who were evading service at home.
On the 16th September, the Battalion was relieved and marched by companies to a bivouac area by Bullecourt. On arrival a thunderstorm took place. The men were soon wet, the ground sodden, and the bivouac sheets caked with mud. To this was added the fact that fires and lights were not permitted on account of the enemy aeroplanes. The next day, however, was fine and everyone quickly dried. Of the village scarcely a vestige remained. Here and there the foundation of a wall was discernible in the mud. French villages are usually well wooded, but of all the trees in Bullecourt there was only one standing, and that had died from the effects of shell fire. The Battalion marched off next day and entrained by Boyelles, and after a short journey detrained at Beaumetz. Here the men saw once again the village they knew so well in 1916. It seemed strange that trains were running in the station now.
At Beaumetz the Battalion marched past some of its former billets to Bailleulment. Here a few days were spent in resting and training, and on the 25th September the Battalion marched to Beaumetz and by train and route march proceeded to a bivouac area at Lagnicourt.
On the 27th September the Battalion took part in the advance. The men got to the position of assembly in the Hindenburg Line and then passed through Moeuvres, crossed the Canal du Nord and advanced in artillery formation towards the southern corner of Bourlon Wood.
While coming over the crest just north of Anneux "A" Company came under the direct fire of a 105 m.m. enemy gun, the detachment of which was firing over open sights, and several casualties were sustained. The Battalion was soon held up by machine gun fire, but it afterwards advanced and took up a position between Anneux and Bourlon Wood. The 29th was spent in reorganisation.
On the 30th the Battalion paraded, and an attempt was made to carry on the attack. Unfortunately, the suburb of Proville had not been captured, as had been originally supposed, and the attack could not proceed on account of the heavy machine-gun fire from the houses.
The Battalion was then withdrawn to La Folie Wood, where a few days were spent in old German shelters. The enemy evidently knew that the wood was occupied, for he persistently shelled it with his heavy batteries, and the trees served to intensify the sound of the explosions. Several 18 pounder guns and a battery of 8 inch howitzers were about a hundred yards or so in rear of the Battalion's position; and when an attack by one of the other units in the Division was in progress the noise was intense.
On the 5th October the Battalion took over the outpost zone at Proville, with headquarters at La Marliere. At this time there were few troops on the bridgehead east of the Canal de l'Escaut. The area was periodically searched by the enemy heavy artillery, and the posts at Proville suffered considerably from minenwerfer fire. On relief the Battalion returned to La Folie Wood.
When Cambrai fell on the 9th October the Battalion left for the Cantaing area and on the 11th moved to a bivouac area by Inchy. The next day it marched to Hermies, and there entrained for Bethune, where it arrived next day and marched to Douvrin.
It was now almost three years since the Battalion had been in the vicinity of Bethune, but there were still some present who could remember how the Battalion in the spring of 1915 had marched for the first time to the trenches in front of this town. The next day the Battalion went by motor lorries through Locon and other places the men had known so well in 1915 and, debussing near Laventie, the Battalion marched via Fromelles to Le Maisnil en Weppes. Passing through what was formerly no man's land at Laventie, the men were able to recognise the places they had held in the trenches in the early part of the year.