The War Diary of George Culpitt, Royal Welch Fusiliers
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Chapter 9 Arras
The other three companies on the day that we went to take up our residence in the trenches, left billets at 3 in the afternoon, arriving in the town of Arras just after dark and taking over billets in cellars in the centre of the town for it was impossible to occupy the houses for Fritz was continually bombarding the town with shells of every size.
As 'A' Company however was to occupy the town defences which ran through the suburbs of Arras on the further side, we did not leave until nearly 2 a.m. the next morning and were supposed to have reached our destination and taken over the trenches before dawn as it was not safe to move large bodies of men by daylight. Unfortunately, however, the Captain in charge lost his way at Wanquitin and took us 2 miles out of our way before he discovered his mistake. This meant that over an hour had been wasted, besides tiring out the men. It was therefore about 7 a.m. and broad daylight when we finally arrived, dead tired, and out of temper,.at our destination and took over the trenches allotted to us.
For the first four days we held this position, the system of town defences known as St. Savoins Defences, occupying the bays and posts at night from dusk to dawn and in the day resting in cellars beneath a row of small, badly knocked about houses leading out of the town on the Cambrai Road.
Arras itself is not so badly damaged in some parts, there being quite a large area absolutely untouched by the enemy's shells, but in other parts, chiefly round the station, the damage is thorough and complete.
The Town Hall, Cathedral, square containing many large and splendid public buildings, have all suffered the effects of big shells, some buildings originally constructed of large blocks of solid granite being now unrecognisable, their sites marked only by a heap of stone and bricks. In the town were a number of YMCA'S, Canteens, Estaminets etc. which are only allowed to open from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. at night but which were taken every advantage of. Altogether the position was a unique one for us, for in our billets were beds, mattresses, chairs, tables, looking glasses etc. saved from the of houses and now used in the cellars by the men. In the quartermaster's billet was a piano, while in another was a large 'Iitha', while many other evidences abounded on all sides of the haste with which the civil population left the town when the approach of the German hordes bodied ill for their personal safety.
During this first four days the line was quiet although indications of the coming battle were to be seen by the activity of and Engineers in the construction of mines and tunnels, but with the exception of trench mortar work no artillery activity had as yet superseded the quietness of this part of the line.
At the same time, however, troops were in and about Arras in large numbers for various reasons. On the one hand to take stock of the positions generally, for every battalion that held a portion of the line was going over in the offensive from that particular trench they now occupied, and on the other as a safeguard against sudden emergency's for it was thought that the Boche might make another attempt to break through our line and regain that ground which the French arrested from him at the beginning of the year when they drove him out of that half of the town which he occupied at the time.
For the next four days the three Company's which up to now had been right back in Arras, doing only an occasional fatigue at night, moved up and to over a portion of the front line and these lines behind, while we shifted to different billets a few hundred yards away in reserve for them. Here the conditions were the same, a battered street, living in cellars by candle light but with many civilian comforts such as sprung beds etc. to take off the roughness. It was here also we got our first bit of excitement for on the second night we had just got down to our night's rest after a fatigue up the line when the order was hurriedly passed down from the sentry above to 'stand to' and the guns started to roar, turning everything and everybody in a few short minutes from the usual quietness to a hurried bustle and nervous anxiety. Hurriedly each man got into his equipment and grasping his rifle ran up the steps into the street to be met with we knew not what. When we were all at last out of the cellar we formed up and marched to Company Headquarters and were ordered to take up a position in the road under shelter of some houses still left standing and await orders. Here therefore we stayed for some two hours while our guns which continued at full pressure for some time, gradually returned to inactivity, but to our mystification there was no reply from the Hun and so the first thought of an attack became without. foundation.
At last we were told to return to billets to await further orders and the affair being over returned to rest. We learned afterwards that they had caught Fritz's cutting our wire and in anticipation of an attack to follow had turned the artillery on to stop this before it could mature. Whether this was the case or not will never be proved but sufficient was it that nothing further took place.
This bombardment was the first of many strafes which marked the two or three months before April 9th, At first, intermittent and of short duration, they gradually developed, an additional guns of every calibre were brought up, into one continually thundering roll, to reach its climax in one of the finest pieces of artillery work seen during the war.
These four days coming to an end, we again took over the town defences, while the rest of the battalion went back to the town, and held there for a similar period after which we completed our 16 days stay in the trenches by 4 days back in reserve to the battalion in the line. This four days was again marked, on the last night but one, of our occupation, by a short and sharp bombardment started this time by the Hun and resulting in some 25 of ours being killed or wounded, in the front and second lines. That night we were called up at midnight to carry wire up to the front line to repair the damage done by the enemy trench mortars to our wire in front of the line.
Next morning we had a very close and clear view of an air fight between 6 of the enemy and two of ours, which resulted in one of our machines coming down in flames.
We had just come from the cellars to the street to get dinner and had noted two of our machines of the old 'BE' type of biplane now used chiefly for observation work, moving slowly overhead, when our attention was attracted by a hum of engines looking over the house tops. We espied 6 German aeroplanes of a swift and armed type approaching 5 grouped together and one on its own. They had quickly espied our two machines and were making for them with the obvious intention of bringing them down, while ours, seeing their danger and knowing the inferiority, both in speed and numbers, turned to flee. But it was useless, for with the swiftness of a hawk, the enemy machine which was on its own, overhauled and got on top of one of ours and with a few shots from its machine gun the plane burst into flames and fell swiftly to earth some distance away.
The remaining machines succeeded in making its escape while the German's, content with the damage they had already done, returned to the safety of their own lines.
That night we left Arras on the journey back to Hautsville after which we were to go further back for rest and training. We left the town about 6 p.m. and as usual lost ourselves, but at length, regaining our lost bearings, made our way out of the town, through Dainville to the railway bridge where we halted and had tea from the cookers which had been sent on before us. This over we continued our way, marching quickly through a drizzle of rain to our billets in Hautsville on the St. Quintin Road.
The following two days were given over to complete rest and to returning to a state of cleanliness by the C.O's orders and we then started that period of training which was to fit us for the big fight and on which our condition at that critical period so much depended.
On the 6th March we were to be inspected by Sir Douglas Haig and the day before saw us busily engaged, shining and polishing every article of equipment for the morrow. The morning of the day was spent in two parades for preliminary inspection by Company Officer and Colonel and then we marched to a field some kilometres down the Wangetin Road where the inspection was to take place. Here we found the 76th M.G. Corps already formed up and after we had taken up our position the K.O.'s arrived and lined up in front. The usual preliminaries having been got through we stood at ease to await the coming of the Divisional General, and five minutes after, that of the Field Marshall. This car, with the Union Jack at the front having reached the edge of the field, he alighted and held a short conference with the Divisional General, after which he walked along the ranks now standing to attention. The inspection over he then took the salute and we marched off the ground and back to home.
The following days were taken up in the usual training routine, coupled with a fatigue on ammunition carrying for the A.0.C. at a dump at Avesnes, for the preparations were now in full swing for the advance, and ammunition was being sent up the line thousands of rounds at a journey. This fatigue lasted us for four days, after which the Battalion moved back to Berlencourt.
Three days after, we were hurriedly warned for a coal fatigue at 8.30 P.M. just after we got down to rest, much to our annoyance, and falling in at 9 p.m. we made our way to Le-Sacs-ou-Bois, a village about a mile away and here we stayed for the night in a barn. Waking at 4.30 a.m. next morning we were given tea and bread and cheese and then taken in G.S. wagons to Ligny which was 2 1/2 hours away. When we arrived at the station the coal which we had come for had not arrived and we therefore had to hang about the town until 5 P.M. when we last found the coal and then waited for the arrival of 20 lorries to take the coal away. With the lorries came 50 men of the Kings Own for the job that we had originally been sent. to do, so after some argument we did the job between us and returned on the lorries to the dump at Liencourt where we unloaded the coal and returned to Berlencourt about 10.30 P.M.
Now we were getting near the end of March and we entered upon the final stages of our training on a large track of open country which had been trenched to an exact representation of that piece of the enemy's line we were to take.
Every day until the end of our training we went once or twice every morning in full fighting kit over the ground until every man knew the exact position in the attack, and this is one of the things to which our successes on the 9th can be attributed.
A great feature of the training was the forming of a rifle grenade section of which. I was one, and the throwing of undetonated grenades during the training for practice.
We had now been standing to under orders to move at 2 hours notice for nearly a fortnight for it was just after the German retirement on the Somme and it was thought that he might retire at Arras but although many rumours had come through he had not shifted.
Soon the beginning of April arrived and we now finished our training going on the ground for the last time on April 2nd. In the afternoon there was a parade which about half of us missed and therefore instead of resting the next day in preparation for the march to the line we had a parade at 10 a.m. for one hour.
The 4th April we spent in getting rid of all superfluous stuff both belonging to the Army and ourselves for we were not allowed much room in our fighting kit for anything other than necessary articles, and falling in at 4.30 pm we marched through Avesnes and Hautsville to Wanguetin. We were now on the line of march for the big battle and everyone was in high spirits and as a result of the training everyone had undergone we were all as fit as we had ever been. This fitness was another thing which attributed to our success. The whole brigade moved down to Wanguetin at the same time and it was a fine sight, many of these men might be going to their death but thoughts of the future did not decrease the high spirits of the present. We arrived at Wanguetin about 8.30 p.m. and took billets in a barn and received orders that we were to go into the line the next night and over the following morning.
Next day the usual preparations took place. The handing in of personal kit to the care of the quarter master, a few short words of encouragement and hope from the Brigadier, all the usual signs of the anxiety of the times, but at the last moment, the orders to move up were cancelled and the advance to the line put off for 24 hours.
Next day, however, April 6th, we moved off at 7 P.M. for Arras where we went into cellars near the station. All day the next day we did practically nothing but rest and prepare for the stunt. On the 8th (Easter Sunday) we finally drew bombs, grenades, picks and shovels and having got everything ready awaited the order to fall in at 7 P.M. to go to the Assembly trench. Now the guns were thundering for the strafe had long since begun and in a few more hours would reach it's culminating point of intensity. Fritz too was lively and active and shells fell frequently near our billet. During the afternoon we received our first casualties, a shell dropping at the end of the street and wounding three or four of the Company Headquarters' staff. After this we had orders to keep below ground until it was time to fall in.