In part one of Looking For James Roy we followed his story from Edinburgh to Everton and into the army following the outbreak of WW1. We also saw how he had coming to Merseyside in common with some of the poets who for many people define how we now see WW1. In part two we pick up his story in early 1917.
Spring 1917 – The Yanks Are Coming
Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming everywhere.
So prepare, say a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware -
We'll be over, we're coming over,
And we won't come back till it's over, over there.
George M Cohan – 1917
The spring of 1917 was a period of massive upheaval for the opposing nations, unlike any other period of the war. On February 1st the Germans reintroduced unrestricted submarine warfare knowing that it would probably bring the USA into the war. They gambled that they could defeat Russia and France and starve Britain into submission before US troops arrived in numbers. A fortnight before they had secretly offered the Mexican government Texas, Arizona and New Mexico along with financial support if they would declare war on the USA. British naval codebreakers intercepted what is now known now as the Zimmerman telegram and made it known to the US government. After several US merchant ships were sunk President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to approve a declaration of war on 2nd April and the USA formally declared war on Germany on 7th. This had no immediate military effect as the US Army was completely unprepared for war but the news electrified the allied armies in France and Belgium. We can only guess at the effect the news would have had on James Roy, but accounts speak of jubilation amongst British and Canadian troops.
Sheet Music cover for George Cohan’s song using a drawing by Henry Hutt (Wikipedia)
But it was also a case of one in and one almost out. In early March a series of strikes and mutinies in Russia precipitated the first of the two revolutions of 1917 with Tsar Nicholas forced to abdicate on 15th March. The provisional government that emerged from the chaos tried to continue the war against Germany, but the Russian army was close to collapse and Germany was able to occupy huge swathes of Russian territory.
Allied plans for 1917 were dominated by the only man to give his name to an offensive on the Western Front; the new French supreme commander, Robert Nivelle. He had driven the Germans from the gates of Verdun in late 1916 and was regarded as a saviour by desperate French politicians facing a country almost broken by the war. When the Verdun fighting ended a few days before Christmas 1916 the French were approaching one million dead since August 1914 and morale was dangerously low. At Verdun there had been worrying signs of indiscipline, with units bleating like sheep as they went back into the artillery mincing machine in the hills above the town.
Nivelle’s success in rolling the Germans back was based on sophisticated artillery plans and clever fire and movement tactics by the infantry, but it was also helped by the Germans holding exposed positions onto which crushing barrages from the huge number of French guns could be directed. He was also ruthless and was not above shooting French soldiers ‘to encourage the others’. As the hero of the hour Nivelle was promoted to command all the French armies over the heads of more senior and experienced men. Never short of confidence, this now went to his head; and he boldly stated that “Nous avons la formule!” – “we have the formula!” and predicted that his new tactics would smash though the German lines in 48 hours in the spring.
Robert Nivelle as a divisional commander (Wikipedia)
Nivelle also impressed British Prime Minster Lloyd-George, as his mother had been English and he spoke the language fluently. Lloyd-George had been horrified by the casualties caused by the attritional tactics on the Somme, and came close to putting the British army under Nivelle’s direct command, and although he was outvoted the instructions were for the British army to conform to French plans. The British had wanted to attack out of the Ypres salient to try and take the Belgian coast from where German U-boats were posing a serious risk to Britain’s ability to continue the war; but this was postponed and as in the two previous years the British played junior partner.
The task the British were given was to mount an offensive on a broad front either side of Arras. This was intended to draw German reserves north after which Nivelle would mount his attack on a huge frontage to the south. But just as they had done a year before at Verdun, the Germans disrupted the plan. Since October 1914 the German line had bulged into northern France and Allied offensive efforts in 1915 and 1916 had been against the huge salient. However over the autumn and winter of 1916-17 they constructed a powerful defence line miles behind the front line using French labour and Russian prisoners.
The Germans had the luxury of designing the new defences out of sight of the Allies and incorporated all they had learned over the previous two years. The lines used the contours of the landscape with the defences dug on the reverse slopes of ridge lines wherever possible. An outpost line of concrete pillboxes was built to observe the enemy with two lines of trenches behind as far as possible out of direct sight. The trenches were deep and wide to stop tanks crossing and incorporated concrete machine gun posts and shelters at regular intervals. In front of the defences were two belts of barbed wire each up to 50 feet deep. Even so the pace of tactical change was such that the Germans realised they needed more than one line and started to construct other strongpoints and support lines further back.
In February the Germans began destroying everything that could aid the enemy back to the new line before withdrawing in early March 1917. The British and French followed cautiously, encountering blown up bridges, cratered roads and polluted wells; booby traps were planted to delay the pursuit and every village was burned, even orchards were cut down. Periodically the German rear-guard would turn on their pursuers and there were a series of vicious fights, especially as they approached their new defences where some construction was incomplete. The operation was called Alberich after the evil dwarf in Wagner’s Ring operas and the Germans called the new system the Siegfried Stellung after Wagner’s operatic hero. Siegfried Sassoon was also named after him, but there is no record of him seeing the irony, because the British called the new German defences the Hindenburg Line.
The Deep Midwinter
On 1st January 1917 22 year old 2nd Lieutenant Wilfred Owen arrived at Etaples on the French coast to join the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester regiment. He was part of a draft of over 500 replacements for the former regular battalion which had suffered heavily at the end of the battle of the Somme in November 1916. It was to that battlefield that the battalion returned in the first week of 1917, going into the line in front of the German held village of Serre. On 12th January, Owen and 25 men were given the task of occupying a captured German bunker in no man’s land; it was not so much a baptism of fire as a baptism of ice as the temperatures were sub-zero and the bunker flooded up to the knees. Owen found the four day experience harrowing and after a few more spells in the front line was sent on a 3 week transport officer course well behind the lines.
Wilfred Owen from the frontpiece of Poems published in 1920 (Wikipedia)
He returned to find his battalion had left the old Somme trenches and were cautiously following the retreating Germans as they fell back to the Hindenburg line. At Le Quesnoy on 13th March he fell down a well or a cellar in the dark and suffered concussion, spending almost three weeks in hospital. He re-joined his battalion at St Quentin on 3rd April having taken five days to cover 26 miles back to the front. This has been interpreted as a sign of cowardice; however the transport chaos caused by the German withdrawal and the problem of simply finding his battalion are plausible explanations. Owen found one of his friends had been killed in an attack on the German rear-guard the previous day.
Slogging up to Arras
At St Quentin Owen would have heard the rumble of artillery from around Arras 30 miles to the north west. A long and carefully planned barrage was the opening act of the offensive to support the French. The softening up of German positions around Arras started in earnest on the 20th March but heightened activity around the town had been going on since the turn of the year, and German retaliation had led to the death of Everton’s former keeper Donald Sloan there on New Year’s Day.
Today Arras is a beautiful town with architecture more characteristic of Belgium or Holland than the rest of France, having been part of the Spanish Netherlands until 1645. In late 1914 it became part of the front line with the opposing trenches running along its eastern edge, including through the town cemetery. The Vimy ridge to the north of the town had seen two costly failed offensives by the French in 1915. Arras was under regular shellfire and, on taking over the town in the spring of 1916 British troops went underground, joining up the sewers and underground quarries and tunnelling out to the front lines. Tunnels were also dug up the long slope of the Vimy Ridge, for nothing could move for miles without the Germans on the highest points observing it. A tunnel system was also dug just south of Arras, but this was rendered obsolete by the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line.
The Arras offensive was mounted by troops of three British armies; the Canadian Corps of 1st Army in the north, 3rd Army in the centre and a smaller contribution by 5th Army in the south. The preparations over the winter had put many of the lessons learned from the battle of the Somme into practice. In particular the artillery was stronger with more heavy guns, and would concentrate far more on neutralising the German artillery. Their fire plans would be more sophisticated to isolate the German front line troops and aerial photographic reconnaissance gave a clearer picture of the area to be attacked. Troop training was improved so that all ranks were clear about the objectives when the attack started, and officers were given rifles and ordinary uniforms so that they would not be targets for German snipers.
Above all the artillery would support the attacking infantry with a creeping barrage designed to keep the Germans heads down until the attacking troops were upon them. The creeping barrage had been used on the Somme but often ineffectively due to shells falling short, which was often due to gun barrel wear. Over the winter the gunners had calculated how wear affected their ranging and corrected accordingly, even taking the atmospheric conditions into account.
But the task facing them was formidable. In the north the Canadians faced the long slope up to the Vimy ridge which had defied all French efforts to take it. In the centre the low ridges to the east of Arras either side of the river Scarpe had multiple trench lines and small field fortifications behind them anchored on the dominating village of Monchy-le Preux. The British on the southern part of the battlefield now faced the depth of the Hindenburg line running south east away from Arras.
The Monstrous Anger of the Guns – Easter Monday 1917
At 5.30 on Easter Monday 9th April 1917 the massed guns opened up on the German lines and the creeping barrage moved forward. Behind it the Canadian and British troops left their jumping off trenches or rose from positions in no man’s land and followed as close as they dared. The morning was unspringlike, alternating driving rain, sleet and snow which together with the smoke from the shells made visibility a problem for attackers and defenders. The appalling weather was a complete contrast for the veterans that had survived the 1st July on the Somme the previous year.
What followed that snowy April day was also in complete contrast to what had happened nine months before. At almost every point the objectives were taken as each successive objective line on the map was reached by the attackers who consolidated and allowed following troops to pass through them on to the next. In the north the Canadian Corps, supported by one British brigade swept the Germans off the Vimy Ridge. The British and Canadian artillery were able to fire many times more shells than the French had used two years earlier and despite some stubborn resistance at the heavily fortified summit and at a position called the Pimple at the north end of the ridge, the triumphant Canadians could look out over the plain of Douai and see miles into the German rear areas.
The Vimy ridge taken from the massive French cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette (author’s collection)
There were similar successes further down the line. In the valley of the Scarpe the villages of St Laurent-Blagny, Athies and Fampoux were stormed, with cavalry assisting by capturing the river bridges. There was severe fighting in a position called the Railway triangle where the Arras to Douai line split and the Germans had fortified the embankments, and at the Hyderabad redoubt north of Fampoux the attacking troops kicked their football into the defences. They stormed the redoubt and capturing a German general whose chauffer had abandoned him.
South of the river the Germans on Observatory ridge had looked down on Arras since late 1914 and behind it Battery valley was full of artillery as its name suggests. This position was also stormed despite the German guns firing almost point blank at the attacking troops as they crossed the crest. The triumphant attackers captured some of the guns and even ran them up to the other side of the valley to fire on the fleeing Germans.
Easter Monday was inevitably not without problems, and there were disasters. The British troops adjoining the Canadian advance just to the south of Vimy were required to advance and then turn half right to conform to a kink in the German lines but in the smoke and sleet got lost. They were convinced they had reached their objective but were nearly half a mile short leaving a big gap to the Canadians; this was hastily corrected before the Germans could exploit it. At the summit of the Vimy Ridge, Point 145, the Canadian 78th battalion, the Winnipeg Grenadiers lost 20 officers and 774 men killed, wounded or captured. This compares with 22 officers and 650 men of the Newfoundland regiment at Beaumont-Hamel on the Somme nine months before. However the catastrophe for one battalion at Arras is barely remembered while the earlier disaster is one of the most famous events of the whole war. Yet the sacrifice of the Winnipeg Grenadiers resulted in the capture of the summit of the Vimy Ridge, while the Newfoundlanders barely got over their own front line.
Crossing the Line
The southern part of the Arras battlefield and the Hindenburg line meant that the advantages were with the German defenders. The line angled away south east from the town so the distance the British had to advance to reach the new line grew larger and larger. Consequently the artillery preparation was much less effective as the guns had to be brought forward and then supplied with ammunition across cratered roads and wrecked bridges. Even roadside trees were felled across the line of advance. If that were not difficult enough there were no trenches to attack from when the German outpost line was reached.
The corps commander faced with this was Sir Thomas Snow; the great grandfather of the TV historian Dan Snow. Snow’s initial plan was not to attack the Hindenburg line frontally but to go around its northern end and attack it from the rear. This was rejected and in its place an attack ‘in echelon’ was designed. Each division from north to south would attack one after the other, the theory being that the defenders’ attention would be drawn to their flank allowing each successive frontal attack to roll up the line. It was an ambitious plan which required everything to go right.
As it was it went half right. The two northernmost divisions got into the top end of the Hindenburg defences but the two southern divisions only penetrated the outer layer. But half right was still a failure, the line had not been rolled up and the position at the end of Monday 9th April in the south was precarious.
But despite this disappointment Easter Monday had been the best day of the whole war for the British and Canadian troops. They had achieved the largest gain of territory by the Allies, eclipsing the performance of the French on the first day of the Somme the year before. Equally they had avoided the disasters of the 1st July through planning, training and above all artillery support, so the bravery and determination of the attacking troops were not wasted. Those who were out on the battlefield and who couldn’t find a German dugout to shelter in might not have been in a mood to celebrate. Snow and high winds made conditions appalling, and despite the heroic efforts of the stretcher bearers, assisted in a lot of cases by the many German prisoners many of the wounded succumbed to exposure.
Worse still the shivering men would find that they had only done the easy part.
The hardest task facing all of the armies in WW1 was maintaining momentum after a successful initial attack. Time and again fleeting chances of breakthroughs were lost through the friction of war and the fog of battle. At Arras on the morning of Tuesday 10th April there was a lot of friction and fog on both sides, although the real weather brought blizzards.
A major part of the problem was finding where all units were and what state they were in; the guns had been almost too successful and in places had obliterated the German positions so effectively that it was hard to find landmarks on the open ridges. Then the lighter field artillery had to be got forward to support new attacks. Here the factors which had led to the success of the 9th became disadvantages as the ground was pitted and torn by the bombardment making movement forward very difficult. When the guns got into position it was a challenge to find any flat ground, and then establish contact with their eyes, the Forward Observation officers. FOO’s would find vantage points in the front lines to observe the shell bursts of their batteries and then correct the accuracy. To support this a small army of signallers maintained telephone cables to the guns, desperately fixing breaks caused by enemy fire or the movement of men and supplies up and down the crowded trenches.
In the far south of the battle area the 5th Army had planned to join in the offensive with a tank attack on the village of Bullecourt, a bastion in the Hindenburg line. However the tanks had failed to turn up, either lost in the snowstorms or through mechanical breakdown, and the attack cancelled until the following day. Their performance mirrored what had happened the previous day with the tanks that had supported the main attack either breaking down or getting stuck in some of the larger shell holes. In the Hindenburg line the tanks had been forced to drive up and down the front lines because the trenches were too wide for them to cross.
Further north the cavalry were brought forward and positioned to sweep forward, but from the new front lines patrols found unexpectedly fierce German resistance. In the end apart from some straightening of the front lines in the words of one officer there was “not much doing”. As evening drew on the cavalry had to return to their billets and, like the tanks at Bullecourt wait for the following day.
For the German defenders Easter Monday had been a disaster, but the German High Command acted decisively; they sent the fireman. This was the nickname of Friedrich Karl ‘Fritz’ von Lossberg, the German army’s defensive specialist. Although of relatively low rank he took over as chief of staff of the army at Arras, his authority coming directly from the high command and from his reputation built up over the previous two years. He had first come to prominence by stabilising the Champagne battlefront against the French in 1915, and had taken over the running of the Somme battle in July 1916.
He introduced tactics to negate the growing power of the Allied artillery and the creeping barrage, placing the main defences behind ridges on reverse slopes so they could not be observed by the artillery observers. He was also prepared to allow an elastic defence, the troops being allowed to retreat or even advance into no man’s land to avoid the dreaded creeping barrages. The front lines were lightly held and troops spread across the battlefield in fortified shell holes. He also used machine guns firing from positions far back from the front line and held strong counter attack formations out of range of most of the allied guns. In his diary Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, the commander of the northern army group noted Von Lossberg’s calm in the crisis, a rare commodity on the German side. In a strange Everton connection Rupprecht was named after the Prince Rupert who gave his name to the tower on Everton’s crest.
But the fireman’s arrival was not able to prevent a key point in the German defences falling on the morning of the 11th April. In a pre-dawn blizzard the British managed to get into Monchy-le-Preux., and after savage house to house fighting supported by a tank firing point blank through windows the village was taken.
While the fighting raged in Monchy a cavalry attack was launched beyond the village to try and exploit the weakness of the German defence caused by their retreat. The horses had suffered even more than the men in the freezing conditions and some had died from exposure; now they ran into heavy German fire as soon as they emerged into view around the village. The cavalrymen took shelter in Monchy and assisted with the defence of the village. Having been driven out the Germans concentrated their artillery on the village. New batteries were arriving and the German gunners laid down a box barrage around the village to isolate the defenders. This was progressively tightened and Monchy was pounded by shells of all calibres. The losses amongst the men were bad but the horses, unable to take cover suffered appallingly; hundreds were killed.
The capture of Monchy-le-Preux was hailed by the press as the triumph it clearly was, but it was the high water mark of the battle of Arras for the British. The Germans made holding the village hell, pounding it night and day. From that point on the focus would move two miles to the north and the village of Roeux.
The Comical Works
Just north of the village of Roeux was a fertiliser factory which stood on a low ridge above the river Scarpe. It appeared as ‘chemical works’ on the trench maps, but some of the troops christened it the comical works. But there was nothing remotely funny about it; the Germans had fortified the factory and it defied all attempts at capture. The inability to reconnoitre the ground and get the heavy guns forward across the wrecked battlefield meant that the success of the first day could not be replicated. A whole series of attacks were mounted from a sunken lane on the north side of the village of Fampoux across the open ground which is now crossed by the A1 autoroute, while the village was attacked from trenches right on the edge of the marshy river Scarpe. Despite increasing losses and minimal gains the British continued to attack to support their French allies who were about to strike to the south. It was a similar story in the other villages now in the front line.
In the north the dominance of Vimy ridge meant the Germans withdrew four miles to their next line of defence running though the villages of Arleux, Oppy and Gavrelle. Roeux defended the northern side of the Scarpe valley and south east of Monchy the village of Guémappe stood as a bulwark creating a salient with Monchy at its tip. Further south Cherisy and Fontaine-lez-Croisilles were defensive hubs within the Hindenburg Line defences while just to the south of them Bullecourt similarly defied the 5th Army. After the aborted attack on the 9th the Australians had attacked the village on the 10th this time with tank support but got trapped and suffered terrible casualties, including the largest number of Australians captured during the whole war.
Above the troops the Royal Flying Corps was desperately trying to assist the offensive with aerial reconnaissance and artillery spotting. This was carried out in the face of the bad weather and the superiority of the German fighters. Since the end of the battle of the Somme the British aircraft had been outclassed and suffered big losses as a consequence. The period of the Arras offensive became known as ‘Bloody April’ with over 200 aircrew killed. These losses pale into insignificance in comparison to the fighting on the ground where battalions could lose that many killed in minutes, but the courage of the RFC has struck a chord with historians completely outweighing the scale of the losses. The German fighters played a huge role in stopping the British using their artillery to best effect, and one man stood out from the rest. In April 1917 Manfred Von Richtofen shot down 20 British aircraft in his red Albatross fighter, nearly a quarter of the number of victories he achieved in the whole war.
Manfred Von Richthofen in January 1917 (The Wartenburg Trust via Wikipedia)
In the absence of progress north of the river at the chemical works the British were forced to attempt an attack from the ruins of Monchy-le-Preux. On the misty morning of the 14th April the Newfoundland Regiment and the 1st battalion of the Essex regiment went forward behind a creeping barrage into German territory and simply disappeared. The few survivors would later describe how they were victims to the fireman’s new tactics with the Germans retreating from the creeping barrage and then counter attacking from the flanks. Two whole battalions, close to 1,500 men were killed or captured. To make the situation worse the troops meant to replace them in the ruins of Monchy didn’t turn up and only a desperate fight by the headquarters staff and anyone they could gather prevented the Germans from retaking the village.
Also on the 14th April Wilfred Owen took part in an attack at St Quentin 35 miles to the south. This was in support of a French diversionary attack on the town which in turn was to support the main French push further south. It was not a typical attack, it did not start from a front line trench, for only temporary positions had been dug in case the Germans retreated again. It involved an approach march to stay out of sight for as long as possible, and although Owen and the 2nd Manchesters came under severe shellfire when they did approach the German outpost line they found it empty when they got there and eventually withdrew back to their original positions.
Manfred Von Richthofen’s Jasta 11, with his red Albatross DIII second nearest the camera (Wikipedia)
As Wilfred Owen and the 2nd Manchesters were attacking at St Quentin and the two battalions were disappearing in the mist at Monchy James Roy and the 5th Scottish Rifles were going into action two and a half miles to the south, near the village of Fontaine les Croisilles.
Much of the fighting along the Arras battlefront had now became what was called at the time “bombing”. The word is now synonymous with explosives dropped from aircraft; but this was in its infancy in April 1917 and the word meant the use of hand grenades to ‘bomb’ along enemy trenches. By the time of Arras the British were using the Mills bomb, and it was probably the most important weapon in infantry fighting. It had been introduced in mid 1915 but production problems meant it was a year later when it became fully available. It had replaced various inadequate designs used earlier in the war, some of which were manufactured at the front out of old jam tins and others which looked like hair brushes on contemporary illustrations. Such were the numbers of Mills bombs used that unexploded examples continue to turn up in the soil of the old Western Front today.
A deactivated WW1 Mills Bomb (deactivated-guns.co.uk)
The tactics required for bombing were completely different to those of the frontal attack. The attacking front was effectively two men wide and fields of fire were rarely more than a few yards as the trenches were dug with zig zag traverses. Where the trenches had been blown in by shellfire they might catch sight of the Germans but bombing often took place against an invisible enemy. The attacking force would consist of a group of throwers, a couple of bayonet men and a long snake of grenade carriers behind them. The bombers would throw grenades into the next bay of the trench and following the explosions bayonet men would rush around the traverse to finish off any survivors. This would be repeated and an attack would proceed down the trench. A successful bombing attack could take long stretches of enemy trench but could be checked by the Germans throwing their own grenades. Time and again the war diaries talk of an attack losing momentum as the grenades ran out and being driven back. It was also critical to check dugout entrances and communication trenches as a bombing party could easily be cut off by the Germans emerging behind them. Once a section of trench was captured a trench block would be constructed to consolidate the position, the Germans would do the same, and the process would start again.
The attack that James Roy’s battalion was involved in near Fontaine on the 14th was a particularly nasty part of the Hindenburg line called Tunnel Trench. Along this stretch in addition to the outpost line and two lines of deep trenches with concrete machine gun posts the rear trench had a tunnel running deep beneath it. It was invulnerable to shellfire and had many stairways to the surface and even ramps allowing machine guns on sledges to be hauled to the surface quickly. The attacking troops could take the trench on the surface but ran the risk of the German defenders cutting them off from below. To complicate things further the two main trenches and the tunnel ran across the front lines in this area with the British holding one end and the Germans the other. It was a nightmare, and may well have been the most difficult sector on the Arras battlefield to attack, although there were plenty of other contenders.
5th Scottish Rifles were originally in reserve for the attack but late on the 13th orders came for them to attack a German communication trench running back from Tunnel trench which was now the German front line. On their right their sister battalion, the 1st Cameronians would attack along the two trenches. James Roy and his comrades had to file up the Hindenburg line in the middle of a cold night impeded as they went by wheelbarrows and construction debris left by the Germans.The attack started at 5.30 am with two companies of James Roy’s battalion attacking from behind a low hill. They crossed the skyline and then their own front line coming under immediate machine gun and shell fire. Their supporting creeping artillery barrage was very weak, to the extent that they advanced beyond it without realising, while on their right the 1st Cameronians managed to take less than 200 yards of the two Tunnel trench lines before being stopped. This exposed the flank of the Scottish Rifles and they were forced to dig in having taken serious casualties. Around midday the other two companies were called forward to try to advance but they too were stopped by German fire. The attack had gained some ground but at a heavy cost; a pattern all too familiar at Arras.
The Croisilles to Heninel Road – James Roy’s battalion attacked across the ridge in the middle distance left to right – the Hindenburg front line ran roughly across the picture where the shadow of the wind turbine is and Tunnel Trench was on the edge of the Heninel-Croisilles Road Cemetery in the middle distance (Colin Taylor)
“The Germans Will Run Away, They Just Want To Be Off” – Robert Nivelle
At first light on the 16th April the great French offensive opened either side of the French city of Rheims. Nivelle told his troops that victory was assured, but if the troops believed him many of his fellow generals and the politicians that had placed their trust in him had already lost faith. Delayed two days because of the foul weather the troops went forward behind the creeping barrage, but found the same problems as the British at Arras a week before. So bad had been the security surrounding Nivelle’s preparations that the Germans knew what to expect and planned accordingly. The early gains were illusory as resistance stiffened the further they got into the German defences and casualties mounted. Nivelle’s staff had massively underestimated the likely numbers of wounded and the provision for treatment and evacuation were completely inadequate. By the standards of previous French offensives the attacks were successful, making several large dents in the German lines, but such were the expectations raised by Nivelle that disillusionment rapidly spread through the attacking French troops.
Also on the 16th April Siegfried Sassoon was in action at Fontaine. He led a bombing party of the 2nd Royal Welsh in support of an attack down Tunnel Trench by Scottish troops of the 1st Cameronians. Their attack began well but the Scots troops were forced back down the trench in some disorder by the Germans. Sassoon stabilised the situation and then with just a Scottish corporal for company he counter attacked down the trench. Throwing grenades that they picked up as they went they drove the Germans back some hundreds of yards. Sassoon then tried to work out where they had got to by looking over the parapet and was shot in the shoulder. In his memoirs Frank Richards would later describe how the men who witnessed the action believed that Sassoon should have been awarded the Victoria Cross.
The 16th saw the first part of the Arras battle called off to allow time to reorganise and get the big guns forward. The lull would last seven days, but fighting continued up and down the line as nobody had told the Germans.
Some Disputed Barricade
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
Alan Seeger was an American fighting in the French Foreign Legion when he wrote ‘I Have A Rendevous With Death’. Seeger was killed leading his troops in the battle of the Somme on 4th July 1916. His nephew was the American folk singer Pete Seeger, famous in the 60’s.
On the morning of the 23rd April 1917 the British launched another full scale attack at Arras to support the floundering French offensive. Many of the troops involved would have a rendezvous with death; they all had a rendezvous with cold, as the two days previous had been wet and freezing.
Like their previous attack James Roy’s battalion started in reserve, but would again called into the action. They weren’t waiting idly however, one company acted as traffic police inside the tunnel below the support trench while the others carried supplies, especially the all-important bombs forward to supply the attacking troops. The attack went well at first with the 4th Suffolks making rapid progress along both the front and support trenches of the Hindenburg line, moving forward down into the shallow valley of the little river Sensee. However they failed to keep pace and the group in the support trench under which the tunnel ran was first held up and then driven back. The Suffolks in the front line trench had not blocked the communication trenches running between the two lines and the advancing Germans were able to get from the support line into the front line and cut them off. The German counterattacks were supported by heavy and accurate artillery fire into the British held sections and suddenly there were no troops to hold the original trench blocks from where the attack had begun.
At 9 am the 5th Scottish Rifles went forward carrying as many bombs as they could to stabilise the dangerous situation. They reoccupied the trench block in the front line trench at 11.30 and then moved forward in the direction of the trapped Suffolks. They encountered the Germans in strength and fell back to build a new trench barricade. Here they fought off a series of German attempts to dislodge them, while unknown to them the survivors of the Suffolks made a run for it across no man’s land, suffering heavily in the process. In the early evening of the 23rd the battalion made another attempt to advance down the front line but only moved forward a matter of yards beyond their block before being driven back. This emboldened the Germans to mount a heavy counterattack around 8pm which was only held off with extreme difficulty and bravery, at one point it was feared that the Germans had broken through and something close to panic ensued, but the survivors of the Scottish Rifles together with men of several different units held on. The defenders must have spent a tense and sleepless night, but found that in the morning the Germans had retreated towards Fontaine and the disputed barricades were in their hands.
At some point during that long, difficult day James Roy was badly wounded. As with so much of his story we don’t know where and when, but he was posted as wounded which means that one of his comrades saw him alive and reported it. His wounds however proved mortal; which probably meant that he was unable to walk, unlike Sassoon the week before. Accounts of the desperate fighting in the area suggest that badly wounded men had little chance of being evacuated, and it may be that he was carried to shelter and left while his mates got on with holding off the Germans. His wounding was reported in the Edinburgh papers, only to be corrected on 21st June.
The site of the barricade in the Hindenburg Line where James Roy was mortally wounded. The village of Fontaine is in the middle distance (John Drouot)
On the 28th April the British made another push at Arras, again to support a French attack to the south in Champagne. This time the attack was mostly north of the river Scarpe and included the village of Oppy and its wood which formed the German front line. The 17th Middlesex, the first footballers battalion attacked the wood and made good initial progress, getting into the village. But as on the 23rd in the Tunnel Trench sector the Germans gave ground and then counterattacked. During the furious fighting the former Nottingham Forest centre back, Sgt Joe Mercer was wounded and captured. His three year old son Joe junior would have to wait another two years to properly get to know his father.
The British mounted another attack at Arras on 3rd May but the units that attacked were depleted and exhausted, and nothing was gained. The focus was now to the north and preparations for the great attack out of the Ypres salient. After the war the 16th May was chosen as the official end of the battle of Arras, but the reality was not so neat. Fighting continued sporadically through the summer, and at dawn on 16th June 1917 the 2/4th battalion of the London Regiment attacked the Hindenburg line at a position known as the Hump, two miles west of where James Roy had been killed. The attack started well but one group advanced too far into the German positions and got cut off; among the men posted missing was a Private Cecil Warner.
The Hindenburg Line under construction in early April 1917. The tracks are light railways and the chalk spoil in the reserve line at the top of the picture is from the tunnel (Mark Brockway –Great War Forum)
The area where Cecil Warner attacked from with the village of Fontaine on the right and Monchy le Preux on the middle right horizon – the field to the left is the area of the previous aerial photo (Author’s collection)
Dead Poets Society
The battle of Arras and its vicinity also took its toll the soldier poets.
Edward Thomas was in the front line as a forward observation officer for his heavy artillery batteries on 9th April and was killed by a bullet through the chest. He was 39 and is buried in Angy just south of Arras. He would use the recurring theme of home and flowers to leave his epitaph that Easter.
The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.
Second Lieutenant Arthur James “Hamish” Mann of the 8th Black Watch who had written the classic ‘happy warrior’ poem was mortally wounded on that first day of the battle in the same sector where former Everton keeper Donald Sloan had been killed three months before. He died of wounds 24 hours later aged 21, and is buried in Aubigny, west of Arras.
Rosenberg would be killed at Fampoux near Arras on 21st March 1918 at the start of the great German spring offensives the following year. He is buried at St Laurent-Blagny, also where Donald Sloan was killed.
Ivor Gurney was wounded on the night of the 6th/7th April 1917 at Maissemy near St Quentin, four miles north of Wilfred Owen’s 2nd Manchesters. He would survive the war.
Following the attack at St Quentin Owen and the 2nd Manchesters held a railway embankment but do not appear to have dug more that temporary trenches as they didn’t know if the Germans would retreat again. Owen’s letters home are the main source for his experiences and tell of cold, exhaustion and sleeping in scrapes in ground, keeping the cold out with brandy. The story becomes very confused at this point. He wrote of a shell hitting the embankment while he was sleeping, throwing him some distance. He talks of cowering in a culvert covered in corrugated iron surrounded by the body parts of his friend, but this cannot be true as his friend had been buried some miles away. It is possible that the blast concussed him or exacerbated his previous concussion; one of the original diagnoses of shell shock was that the shock wave of the explosion affected the brain and is the origin of the term. His words have been interpreted as cowardice, but more likely he suffered a nervous breakdown. He was evacuated although he was not diagnosed with any condition, and insisted to his family that his hospitalisation was to prevent him having a nervous breakdown. He ended up at Craiglockhart in Edinburgh to be treated for shell shock.
Following Sassoon’s shoulder wound on the 16th he was evacuated back to London where the horrors of the Tunnel trench sector led him to write ‘The General’ ; for me his greatest poem. He savages the staff officers and lays bare his concern for the troops under his command. The last line is one of the most powerful in WW1 poetry. Put Sassoon and ‘The General’ into a search engine and see what you think.
Having recovered he returned to Litherland and his disillusionment grew; he resented not just the generals but the politicians, and also the civilians who were doing very well out of the war. On a visit to the music hall in Liverpool he imagined a tank coming down the aisle machine gunning the audience, this is thought to have been the Liverpool Hippodrome, which had been Hengler’s Circus on West Derby Road on the edge of Everton. This feeling was not new; Sassoon had been bitterly aware of the gulf between the men in the trenches and those back home for well over a year. The officers at Litherland were honourary members of Formby Golf Club and he had spent Christmas Day 1915 there and commented on the members greedily feasting in contrast to the men out in the front line. While he recovered he would walk among the dunes at Formby Point and it was believed that he threw his Military Cross into the Mersey, however the medal turned up in a relative’s attic some years ago. It was his medal ribbon that ended up in the sea.
Sassoon’s anger culminated in a different kind of mad courage from that which he had shown at the front. He wrote a letter of protest about the conduct of the war to his commanding officer at Litherland, hoping to provoke a court martial. The letter would be published in the Times and be the subject of a question in Parliament but Sassoon was not be court martialled; the War Office was very careful not to make a martyr of Sassoon. However his friends feared he would be committed to a mental institution so Robert Graves represented Sassoon at a medical board held on 20th July 1917 in the Exchange Hotel on Tithebarn Street in Liverpool. In a performance worthy of a courtroom drama Graves convinced the board that Sassoon’s actions were not treasonable or insane but the result of shell shock. The board agreed and recommended Sassoon be treated accordingly. Sassoon was subsequently referred to the War Hospital at Craiglockhart in Edinburgh, and Graves was to make sure he got there.
In a final twist in the way Sassoon’s and James Roy’s stories are intertwined five weeks before Sassoon’s medical board the Everton board minutes had recorded James’ death; the meeting had taken place at the Exchange Hotel. For all we know it might have been in the same room.
A Meeting of Minds
At Craiglockhart Sassoon would encounter another man who had made the journey up to Edinburgh from Liverpool; Dr William Rivers. Rivers had started work on shell shock in mid 1915 at the Maghull War Hospital; which is now Ashworth High Security Hospital. He was commissioned into the Royal Army Medical Corps and sent to Craiglockhart. Rivers and Sassoon formed a close bond which was like father and son in some ways; Sassoon’s recovery was a tribute to his treatment, and they remained friends after the war.
In late August 1917 a diffident fellow patient knocked on Sassoon’s door while he was cleaning his golf clubs. Wilfred Owen was the editor of the Craiglockhart house magazine ‘Hydra’ and he brought copies of Sassoon’s book of poems for him to sign. Their initial meeting was unpromising as upper class Sassoon looked down on the middle class Owen; this was ironic as one of several unattractive aspects of Owen’s character was his snobbery towards his working class troops. However Sassoon soon recognised that Owen had talent and worked hard to help him develop it. Graves too encouraged Owen on his regular visits to Edinburgh, Owen would be a guest at Graves’ wedding in 1918. For Owen’s part he hero worshipped Sassoon and almost became a version of him. Some of Sassoon’s themes found their way into Owen’s poetry and he became convinced that he had to prove himself as a soldier to validate his work.
All three men would return to the fighting; for Rivers it would be a source of disquiet, because he was not curing the men in his care in the conventional sense but making them capable of facing death again. Against medical advice Graves returned to the Western Front but his previous wounds meant he was quickly sent home, and after Litherland camp proved too smoky for his damaged lungs he ended up commanding a training camp near Rhyl. He was posted to Ireland and nearly succumbed to the Spanish flu at the end of the war, but technically deserted to seek treatment in London which may well have saved his life.
Sassoon was sent to a different battalion of the Royal Welsh and made the long journey to Palestine via France and Italy. However he had no sooner arrived than the German spring offensives of 1918 caused his battalion to be recalled. He would go into the line in the Lys valley and was wounded again, hit in the head while on patrol, the shot this time coming from the British lines. This effectively ended his war although he would make a complete recovery.
Owen was discharged from Craiglockhart and through Sassoon and Graves’ connections achieved his ambition to be taken seriously as a poet by the literary establishment. He remained in the UK until July 1918 but returned to France and was at the front for the last two months of the war, taking part in the final offensives that forced the Armistice. It has been suggested that his return was inspired by news of Sassoon’s wounding, but whatever the cause Owen was a changed man winning the Military Cross for capturing a German machine gun and turning it on its former owners. He was killed trying to storm a fortified lock keeper’s cottage on the Sambre Canal a week before the Armistice came into force on the 11th November 1918. His parents received the notification of his death as the bells were rung to celebrate peace.
The Roy family had nothing to celebrate either; a second son, Robert had been killed defending Arras on the 28th March 1918 during the first German spring offensive. Like James he has no known grave.
The roaring 20’s had little time for the realistic poetry of WW1 whose subject matter people wanted to forget. The men who served in the trenches didn’t need to be told how they felt through poetry, they knew all too well, but forgetting was difficult if not impossible.
Owen’s work in particular was largely forgotten and efforts by Graves and fellow war poet Edmund Blunden to publish his work between the wars were commercial failures. It was only as the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of WW1 approached that Owen’s work was rediscovered. The 60’s saw a complete revision of the view of WW1 with the influential but inaccurate book ‘The Donkeys’ by Alan Clark and the musical ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ promoting the views still held today. Mud, blood and futility were how the war came to be seen and Owen’s was the voice that fitted this image. Sassoon would become politely annoyed before his death in 1967 by questions about his role in Owen’s career rather than about his own poetry.
What has happened over the last 50 years is that parts of the English literature fraternity have taken Owen’s poetry and tried to make it the way to understand WW1. None of this dates and locations stuff, Owen is the way to understand how the men in the trenches felt. Generations of students have been told to imagine themselves as Owen, sitting in a freezing dugout writing poetry while the shells outside make the candle flicker. Except that wasn’t how it happened. Owen’s poems were written in the UK, many of them at Craiglockhart, where William Rivers recognised and encouraged his patient’s desire to be a poet and used it as therapy. And it worked; with a lot of help from Graves and Sassoon he produced great war poetry, but the final act of validating that poetry, showing valour on the battlefield got him killed. Owen was not the victim of mud, blood and futility as he is usually painted but at the end was far closer to the poetic happy warriors, something that is uncomfortable for some of his fans.
Both Sassoon and Graves survived the war, although they both carried its scars, both physical and mental with them. Sassoon never achieved the same level of poetry and found that the post war world did not want his realistic descriptions of life in the trenches. WW1 changed him profoundly; he became literary editor of the left wing newspaper the Daily Herald and considered standing for Parliament for the Labour Party. He wrote two of the great works about the war, his autobiographical novel trilogy in which he appears as George Sherston, and his memoirs whose prose matches the brilliance of his poetry. However he fell out with Graves over his memoir of the war, the vivid but often inaccurate ‘Goodbye to All That’.
Graves came to see his ‘death’ on the Somme almost as a real event, and saw his life as beginning from that point. He disregarded his war poetry and went on to write brilliant poems about love. He was fascinated with the myths and legends of the ancient world and his novels about the Roman emperor Claudius were dramatized for TV in the 1980’s. He lived for most of his long life in the village of Deià, a few miles south of the resort of Puerto Sóller on Majorca’s west coast. He said he carried a fragment of the grave marble from the cemetery in Bazentin on the Somme embedded in his forehead, and late in life he suffered memory loss and thought he was back in the trenches.
For the Roy family the loss of two sons in the war was devastating. In June 1921 James Roy’s sister Elizabeth emigrated to Kenya to work as a telephonist and met and married Harold Warner whose younger brother Cecil had been killed just two months after James and less than a mile away; however such were the number deaths in this small corner of northern France perhaps it is not that much of a coincidence.
Arras was the worst battle of the whole war for the British; far more men were killed and wounded per day than on the Somme the year before and at Ypres later in 1917. The only period that comes close is the last 100 days of the war when Wilfred Owen was killed. Aside from the casualties Arras started so promisingly, only for it to deteriorate into chaos as the British army struggled with the new German tactics and defences. The disorganisation of trying to fight one battle with elements of three separate armies was a factor as was Lloyd-George’s decision to tie the British to the French failures that spring. And then there was the weather; the battle was fought in appalling conditions of cold and wet for much of its duration. And yet a hundred years on its centenary rated hardly a mention in comparison to the events on the Somme and at Ypres. Yet Arras did for James Roy, and so many others.
Finding James Roy
So are we any closer to fining James Roy? We probably will never know where his body lies, but I think he is somewhere in the fields between Croisilles and Fontaine; if he has an unknown grave the little Heninel-Croisilles Road cemetery is the most likely location. There is one other possibility for where James Roy’s body lies; but that is a story for another day. Symbolically he is on the Arras Memorial to the Missing along with his brother and sister’s brother in law together with 34,843 others. His name is not far from the grave of Donald Sloan the former Everton keeper who was himself one of four brothers to fall.
The Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing at Arras (www.cwgc.org)
But do the poets and authors of WW1 whose path crossed with that of James Roy help us find out more about his experiences? Because James’ battalion was in the same brigade as the 2nd Royal Welsh we are fortunate to have the writing of men like James Dunn, Frank Richards and above all Siegfried Sassoon to call on. They provide the vivid imagery that allows us to see what James Roy might have seen, heard and even smelled in April 1917. Both Richards and Sassoon talk about the ever present bodies of the dead during the intense fighting in and around Tunnel trench; Sassoon describes being in the tunnel and trying to wake what he thought was a sleeping soldier only to find it was a dead German with a hideous neck wound. He would turn the imagery into a poem but his prose description is terrifying, as are his descriptions of the half buried bodies on the surface. He describes two hands protruding from the earth, one like the roots of a tree and the other pointing an accusing finger. Worst of all he saw what he thought was a mask in a flooded shell hole, only to find it was the face of a dead soldier which had detached from the skull and was floating on the surface. Sassoon admitted to becoming almost hysterical with the horror.
But although you can see through Sassoon’s eyes what James Roy may have seen, can you feel what James Roy would have felt through the poetry? I don’t think so, partly because we know so little about him, but also because the poets famous today are not representative of the men who fought the war. Wilfred Owen, so often advanced as a kind of WW1 everyman spent relatively little time in the trenches and as we have seen, his experiences during the first months of 1917 were anything but typical. His response to those experiences was to suffer a nervous breakdown, or, as his detractors suggest feigned a breakdown through cowardice. His fans see him as a helpless victim of the war, but if there is no agreement on how Owen felt how can we use him to understand the rest? It has been calculated that Sassoon only spent a fortnight actually in the front line trenches, although his courage there cannot be doubted. Their poetry tells us much about them, but to impose the feelings they expressed on the rest is for me to go too far. To try to do so tells us more about ourselves and how we see the events of 100 years ago.
After the century of uncertainty that WW1 ushered in it is hard to get into the minds of the men who fought; you’ve got to work harder than reading Owen and trying to imagine the bunker with the flickering candle. I think the unpolished lines found in sources like the Wipers Times get us closer to how James Roy might have felt. They show men who faced hardship and danger with grim humour and resolute determination:
When the world is red and reeking,
And the shrapnel shells are shrieking,
And your blood is slowly leaking,
They carried on, and it got them through the worst.
James Roy was never lost, at least not to his family. His sister kept his brother Robert’s Boys Brigade bible with her until her death, and in 2017 the family made a pilgrimage to Arras to visit where the three great uncles fell. In particular John Drouot, whose wife Jane is James Roy’s great niece has found every piece of information possible on the three; I count John and Jane as friends as a result of our mutual interest in James. They too periodically make the journey to Merseyside to visit their daughter who now lives here.
So what use is the poetry? It provides us with laments for the fallen which for many of the poets became their own epitaphs, especially at Arras. The most recited poetry in the English language is probably the second verse of Laurence Binyon’s ‘For The Fallen’ which begins ‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old’. It was written as early as September 1914 but expresses the sadness of a much greater loss. However there are many poems just as poignant but less conventional. If you feel anger then go for Sassoon or Owen: choose the poetry that suits your view, or ignore the poetry completely; it is possible to understand WW1 without it despite what the militant wing of the English literature community would have you think.
But don’t forget, because if we forget we really do lose James Roy, and all the others who slogged up to Arras never to return.
Chris Baker’s Long Long Trail website: the best resource for the British Army in WW1 on the internet.
Lorna and Richard Conaghan who know everything about everyone who has ever lived in Scotland back to the last ice age.
John and Jane Drouot, whose dedication to telling the stories of James and Robert Roy, and Cecil Warner has inspired me.
Everton in the Community’s Stand Together group who sat through a talk about the war poets and Merseyside, stayed awake and whose questions inspired me to research further.
Ali Jones for her proof reading skills and sharp questions.
Lucy London, who runs forgottenpoetsofww1.blogspot.co.uk and femalepoetsofWW1.blogspot.co.uk, whose knowledge of war poetry has been of huge help.
David Ridgus, Michael Bully, Aurel Sercu, Mark Brockway and the other members of the Great War Forum.
John Rowlands for the initial work on James.
Billy Smith who ‘found’ James Roy’s Everton connection in the first place and whose Bluecorrespondent website is a goldmine of information.
Colin Taylor, whose unique book, ‘I Wish They’d Killed You In A Decent Show’ (the title is a line from Sassoon) has been of huge help. Instead of following units or individuals Colin has documented the Tunnel Trench sector itself from early 1917 to late 1918. Not only am I am fortunate that the book is so detailed, but Colin has provided me with further information and photographs. How lucky is that?
And last but not least Tony Wainwright, for knowing just the right book to get me started: Jonathan Nicholls’ ‘Cheerful Sacrifice: The Battle of Arras 1917’.
Reader Comments (3)
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1 Posted 06/01/2018 at 07:56:31
I wonder if Roy and the rest of the so-called 'Glorious Dead' think it is actually 'glorious' to be dead a 100 years on.
2 Posted 06/01/2018 at 21:38:09
3 Posted 08/01/2018 at 16:42:03
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