The War Diary of George Culpitt, Royal Welch Fusiliers
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Chapter 10 The Battle of Arras
At 6.30 p.m. the Kings Own fell in, one company on a large square surrounded by houses, as they stood preparing to move off a shell landed clean in the square killing 2 and wounding more or less badly some thirty others. The artillery dual had now begun in earnest and we were very apprehensive when some five minutes before 7 we were ordered to 'get dressed' but, no time was lost in forming up and getting away to the temporary safety of the tunnel. 'D' Company however was not so fortunate and suffered a number of casualties while preparing to leave.
Making our way down the tunnel the first portion of which was a platform built over one of the large sewers of the town, lighted by electric light, we at length got up into the open again near the defences and continued our journey above ground. Soon we came under the enemy's retaliation shell fire directed on our first three lines and heavily laden as we were with extra bombs, ammunition, shovel etc., shell dodging was no pleasant game. At length however, we reached the Assembly trench from which we were to make the attack and being given our positions we took off our equipment and discarded our bombs etc. to rest and prepare ourselves for tomorrow's dawn. A dugout was close at hand and here with the exception of three sentries, the company gathered for the wait which usually proves so tedious and nerve trying. Most of us spent the few hours that remained in sleep, and tea with a dash of rum was served about 3 a.m. Conversation was not great for each man was engaged with his own thoughts. No one knew what the next few hours might hold for him, perhaps death, a severe wound, God alone knew the fate in store for each one of us. At length the hours slowly dragged to 5am half an hour to go!!! Conversation had dropped to nothing, the nerve tension was becoming acute, for we were on the very brink of one of the biggest battles in history. In a few short minutes we should be fighting for one of the biggest and best of the German positions - Vriny Ridge and the liberation of Arras.
5.15a.m. The order came down to get dressed and file out. The tension was broken; one by one the men file out of the dugout, most of us resigned to what the fates may have had in store for us. We move along the trench to our rifles and bombs. It is just dawn: a faint light is showing in the sky. The guns are now thundering steadily and Fritz replying-. We are ready. Four minutes to go!!! The platoon officer comes along just to see that all is well. Three ,minutes, two, one minute, then the earth seems to rock under our feet, the air is filled with the noise of flying shells as every gun on the British side opens out. It is deafening, but we take no notice. 'Over you go', and we scale the parapet and steadily cross the open ground to our first line trench from which the lst Gordons have already gone. Across the trench by bridges and on to 'No mans land'.
In front is the German lst line trench, myriads of lights rise and fall. Red, green, orange colours. Golden rain. All appears to his artillery to concentrate on us. Looking again at the enemy trench we see great spouts of flame and earth as shell after shell falls accurately in or nearby the trench.
Nothing on earth can live in such as this. A glance to the left towards Vimy and there the scene is the same. The whole of the ridge one mass of flame and rising earth. Around us, almost deadened in the terrible din, Fritz's shells are exploding as he vainly endeavours to stay our advance. Now and then a man falls dead or wounded but we take no notice but our casualties are slight for the terrible bombardment is too much for the enemy machine gunners who are either killed or cowering down a deep dugout. We reach the first line, now almost battered out of recognition and here we see a mopping up party of the Jacks clearing the dugout and sending the prisoners back to our lines. Now on again to the second and third lines which have been taken without much resistance, and here for a short space we halt. Everything has gone well so far and now we are waiting for our barrage which is playing on the wood to left before we do our part and take the wood. On the right edge of the wood can be seen a few of the enemy and shots are exchanged. We now move on again to the centre of the wood.
Our shells are now falling with clockwork regularity on the German 4th line which runs along the far side of the wood and which is our objective. A ten minutes wait close under our own barrage and we move forward again to our objective. No resistance meets us for the Hun has long since left in an endeavour to seek safety further back. A few dead lie in the trench but no living enemy is there to meet us and we occupy the position, and commence to consolidate in anticipation of a counter-attack. We have achieved our mission without resistance and at comparatively slight cost to ourselves. So far all goes well and we shall never forget Easter Monday. We now have time to breath fully and to take stock of our position which is a good one: in front nearly 1000 yards away lies the village of Tillery on which our barrage is now concentrated, and a little nearer in front of the village is an enemy trench deserted as far as we can see.
The noise for a little while has quietened down and the enemy's guns no longer trouble us for he is busy trying to get them away. This for him is indeed a difficult job for our artillery is still firing steadily and accurately on all his roads of retreat and owing to a shortage of horses he cannot get them away quick enough.
On our front there has been no hitch and as far as we can gather everything has gone well all along the line. Two hours pass uneventfully and now behind us we can see the advanced line of the 8th Brigade coming to carry on from where we left off, to take Tillery Village and some ground behind. Our machine guns suddenly start on the right and we hastily turn our attention in this direction. Through a gap in the enemy trench we can see the Boche hatless, without equipment or rifle, running for his life, but not many of them get away for they run into our barrage or are caught by our machine gun fire. By this time the advanced line of the 8th Brigade has nearly reached our trench and after a short halt to get into line they go forward across the 1000 yards of open country to the village. We are now spectators of the battle which is taking place in front of us, and which we watch eagerly. They reach the trench without difficulty and then go forward to the ruins of the village. Here they are lost to sight to reappear at intervals anon the piles of bricks and stone which were once houses.
Again our attention is drawn to the right for here a sharp scrap is taking place. It transpires that here is a sort of Brigade Headquarters and here we captured an entire German Staff. A short time elapses and now the scene has changed for we see the Germans coming back, but without arms for they are prisoners, 20 or 30 in a batch in charge of one or two British Tommie's. Some mere lads, some old men, a few well set up, well built chaps and here and there a haughty officer walking with his nose in the air. Once more the noise of battle lessens for a time, the advance is stayed according to programme. by 10 a.m. the Germans have been driven back over a mile and are almost out of range of our light guns, which are now busy limbering up and moving forward to take up a position in the open. Soon on our right and left we see our batteries gallop into action, swing round, unlimber and after a few sighting shots once more proceed to harass the retreating enemy.
About mid-day the third Brigade of the Division goes through us and on to the attack, while the Cambral Road becomes blocked with transport, ammunition limbers, while an occasional tank is to be seen crawling up the road on its journey to the still advancing line.
4 p.m. and we are still advancing. though slowly, our guns move up again and the first batches of cavalry make their appearance. Soon large numbers of cavalry can be seen concentrating on either side but they do not go any further but stay the night at this spot. At 7 o'clock we are relieved by the other two Companies in our trench on the edge of the wood and return to a dugout in the German 2nd line where we are to spend the night. The first thing after we have settled down is to make a thorough examination of the dugout and to go souvenir hunting., yet in. way this is a dangerous game for the enemy is full of devilish tricks and a pull at a piece of string, a touch of a seemingly harmless knob or anything may blow the whole lot of us sky high. But nothing happens. He was in too much of a hurry to leave to have any thoughts other than those for his own safety. Equipment, rifles, ammunition, bombs, all the implements of war, were left to us.
Black bread, coffee, tinned horse, sugar, cigars, cigarettes, fell into our hands, and were speedily made use of. The black bread did not find favour, but the coffee, was good warmed on one of his patent cookers of which there were some thousands lying about. The tinned meat (horse flesh), was not so bad and was speedily demolished. By the time we had investigated every corner of this large dugout it was well on towards midnight, so we turned in for a short rest for we did not know what the future might hold for us. It had been a good day's work,, but was but the beginning of more to follow.
The next day we received orders to move forward again and for this purpose fell in about 5 p.m. and received another issue of bombs etc. and a fresh supply of water. Then it began to snow and I have never seen it snow so hard. Overhead it was a dull grey and one could hardly penetrate it, so heavy did it fall.
Even yet however, our movements were undecided for after waiting a little we received orders to return to our dugouts and stand to. It seemed therefore that the evil hour had only been postponed, and this afterwards proved the case, for at 2 p.m. the next morning we were rudely awakened from our slumbers and ordered to get dressed and fall in as soon as possible. This successfully accomplished we moved up Hastings Lane, a track running parallel with the Cambrai Road, and made our wav to Tillery. It now proved evident that we were required to make an attack at dawn and should prove a unique experience for the fighting now was in open country fighting to a great extent.
A short halt at Tillery and then we moved forward towards where the rising and falling of lights of all colours denoted the line.
By some mistake the C.O. lost his way and much time was wasted. Dawn had broken and we had not yet taken up our position but at last after a great deal of marching, we succeeded in reaching the place from which the advance was to start. It proved to be a sunken road in the side and under cover of which a shallow trench had been dug. Here we stayed until the attack started, somewhere about half an hour and during this time we had our breakfast, biscuits only. We also had time to look round and the scene was one never to be forgotten by those who were present. In front of us, lying out in extended order in a shallow trench, were the first two lines of the advance composed of Kings Own and Suffolks, to whom we were supposed to be acting as supports and consolidating party when they had taken their objective which was the village of 'Monche'. Behind us could be seen the batteries of artillery to which Fritz was at the time paying his best attentions, and to our left rear were large masses of cavalry to accomplish the final rout of the enemy after we had succeeded in dislodging him from his trenches. A few shells were falling behind us, the splinters flying in our direction but this did not trouble us for the time was near at hand when we were to advance.
At 6.55 a.m. we got the order to prepare ourselves but this time there was no earth shaking blast of artillery fire to herald our appearance on the top and keep the enemy's heads down. No! on the stroke of 7 a.m. the C.O. mounted the parapet and waved the men over and scrambling on to the top we lined up in artillery formation and advanced. As soon as the enemy saw the first wave of the advancing Suffolks coming over the ridge his artillery opened out, but this did not cause much harm for he did not have a great number of guns at the time. However we had no barrage of artillery fire and consequently the Boche was allowed to make good play with his many machine guns, while sniper's able to work without interference, took a heavy toll of the advancing troops. Now we are approaching the ridge from the other side of which we shall be in full view of the enemy and the order comes to extend out. This we do and successfully with few casualties reach the top of the ridge.
Now down into the valley below and here we find the Suffolks and Kings Own a little disorganised by the terrible machine gun fire to which they were being subjected and which was already taking a heavy toll of life amongst our own comrades.
But no hesitating, we carry on and move forward, amongst the continual swish, swish of machine gun bullets, first high causing one to duck, then low swishing round one's legs. The advance continues and we reach the valley and go on to the village in front, and now the query arises, is this our objective or have we to go any further? We have already gone nearly two miles from our starting point and the distance of our advance was undecided. But we are told that this is our objective, and as a result of the heavy losses inflicted by the still active machine guns of the enemy, the attack collapses. Some take shelter in the trench, running from the village, but those of us who could not find room therein took cover in the large and deep shell holes with which the earth was dotted. The one to which 1 first went was in time too full. for comfort and when the rattle of the enemy's machine guns had somewhat subsided, three of us made our way to another hole a little to the left. Here we commenced to dig a trench towards the hole from which we had just come but this did not mature very rapidly and eventually we gave it up for it began to snow.
Now indeed we were in a nice state. As the snow melted and ran down the sides of the hole the. bottom, began to assume a state of liquid mud, while we were all very soon smothered in mud from the sides. After a time we managed to construct some sort of a shelter from the, snow with waterproof sheets and here we stayed wet through, cold and shivering until dusk.
As it began to get dark the enemy commenced his final strafe for the day and for the space of 10-15 minutes we were the centre of a circle of explosions and it was decidedly too hot to be pleasant. But it was useless to move for by getting, on the top and running. for it we might perhaps run into the next one that came, so we had to stick where we were until the bombardment ended. At the end of 10 minutes it began to slacken and in another 5 had ceased altogether.
Now it was dark and very quiet after the noise of a few minutes ago. Not even a rifle shot disturbed the place and the earth was covered with a mantle of snow which covered and hid the dead lying in many a shell hole or on the open ground, until they could be buried.
We now took the opportunity afforded by the darkness and left our hole in order to find the rest of the battalion that remained in the trench in front. Eventually we found them and with pleasure learned that we were to be relieved that night.
An hour or so after the relief turned up and we made our way on to the road and made tracks for Arras, but we were not sure to where we were going, whether to Arras itself, the German dugouts we had left or to Tillery, but eventually after wandering up and down the Cambrai Road two or three times we came to rest in the German dugouts.
Next day rumours were again rife that we were to make yet another attack and this did not meet with much approval either from the men or officers, for we were now sadly depleted in numbers and tired, for we had had little real rest for 5 days. The following night we learned that instead of going up to the line we were to go further back to billets in Arras.
This eventually we did, finally arriving at the billets which proved to be a top room of a house for us, at 12.30 midnight.