‘A mad scheme in my opinion’: The 1st Queen’s attack on the Hindenburg Line 23/04/1917

The 1st Battalion of The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment) did not participate in the opening phase of the Battle of Arras from 9th April, but on 15th April as part of the ‘fresh’ 33rd Division, moved into support north of Croisilles. The battalion, in 100th Brigade, faced the German line at Croisilles; the 19th Brigade and 98th Brigade were to the left on higher ground, holding the portions of the Hindenburg Line that had already been captured. Three days later Lieutenant Colonel Leonard Markham Crofts returned to command the battalion; he had led the battalion previously but had been wounded near Delville Wood during the Somme campaign.

The battalion was to take part in the attack on the Hindenburg Line on 23rd April, the start of the Second Battle of the Scarpe. The 98th Brigade to the north was to force its way south down the German trenches to link up with 100th Brigade, which would be carrying out a frontal attack to capture the first and second lines of the Hindenburg Line. The right flank of 100th Brigade was to be protected by two tanks. The 1st Queen’s and 16th King’s Royal Rifle Corps were to spearhead the attack, with the 2nd Worcestershires in reserve. To try and maintain the element of surprise the attack would be launched before dawn.

An aerial view of the area of operations (outlined in red) © IWM Q17253.

However not everyone was convinced by the plan. One officer of the 1st Queen’s who did not participate in the attack wrote: ‘A mad scheme in my opinion, as if the 98th don’t join up, they will be left in the middle of the German line with both flanks in the air, and it will be impossible to get up reinforcements or ammunition till dark. In addition the advance to within 200 yards of the enemy in the dark is a most difficult and dangerous operation; the wire in front of the enemy is very strong, in three lines radiating from a centre, and only gaps have been cut by the artillery.’ On the 20th several officers reconnoitred the Hindenburg Line from the vicinity of Croisilles, and the following day was spent practising for the attack.

On the night of 22nd April the battalion assembled north east of Croisilles. Battalion HQ was established at point A on the map. At 3am the men marched to their deployment position (point B). At 4.15am the battalion advanced and moved to a sunken road that bisected the Croisilles-Fontaine road (point C) and lay down to await zero – fixed for 4.45am – without being detected by the enemy.

The area of the 1st Queen’s attack

The country here is very open; although the Sensee River runs through the area, it is only a trickle running along a watercourse, giving a certain amount of cover but commanded generally from the high ground of the Sensee Valley which was held by the Germans. The German front line was protected by at least two rows of barbed wire twenty yards thick, with more thick wire between the first and second line. Concrete machine gun emplacements were regularly placed along the line, with dugouts and tunnels connecting the positions.

During the attack the battalion was under the command of Captain Frederick Godfrey, who had joined the regiment as a Private in 1897 and worked his way up the ranks. D Company formed the first wave under Captain Brodhurst-Hill to the right of the main road; A Company under Second Lieutenant Carpenter the second wave to the left of the road; and B (Second Lieutenant Holliday) and C (Captain Ball) companies forming a third wave. Two companies of the 16th King’s Royal Rifle Corps followed behind at a distance of 100 yards carrying extra ammunition and bombs.

Map of the objective showing the German line

The attack started punctually at 4.45am and worked up to within 50 yards of the barrage, entering the front trench with few casualties. The Brigade account of the action records that ‘A few Germans were found dead in the front line, a few more offered some resistance and were bayoneted and some half a dozen surrendered…’.

To the right of the road two strongpoints were captured and bombing parties pushed on until they were held up by another strong point. A double block was made and post established in the communication trench. On the left of the road a block was first made at the Sensee River, but when the box barrage lifted the enemy attacked. They were repulsed with rifle grenades and a party under Corporal Spooner followed them and captured a concrete blockhouse and machine gun. A block was then made 50 yards from the blockhouse.

The leading companies pushed forward towards the German second line but were held up by very strong wire; despite over 62,000 rounds of artillery ammunition being fired from 21st April on the area of the 33rd Division’s operations, the wire between the two lines remained uncut and impenetrable. The artillery barrage then lifted back beyond the second line, allowing the Germans to man their parapets. Only a small party of A Company reached the second line; the rest of the battalion were either still in the first line or had taken cover in shell holes between the two lines. A headquarters was established in a dugout in one of the communication trenches to the right of the road (point E). The first line itself was by now blocked with wounded; the battalion’s Medical Officer, Captain Herman Dresing, would be awarded the Military Cross ‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. After being shelled out of his dressing station, he took up another position, and continued throughout the day, and performed operations under heavy shell fire, which was causing continual casualties around him.’

The attack was already starting to falter. The two tanks which should have arrived to protect the right flank never showed up, having broken down before zero. In addition, the 33rd Divisional History records that as daylight came, ‘it was seen that the Sensee Valley was completely commanded by machine gun nests and pill-boxes both north and south of the River.’

By 6.45am the supply of grenades began to run out, and over the next few hours the two reserve companies of the 16th King’s Royal Rifle Corps took up nearly 1,500 bombs. However the Germans kept up incessant attacks of their own. At 10.10am Captain Godfrey reported that advance of 98th Brigade had relieved the pressure and although casualties were heavy the men were ‘cheery and confident’.

The blocks to the right of the road were maintained until 11am when the Germans made a determined attack but were driven back by parties under Company Sergeant Major Elderkin; he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions, the citation reading ‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He continually organised bombing attacks and throughout was instrumental in repelling hostile counter-attacks’.

Lance Corporal Ware, awarded the Military Medal for his part in the attack

At 12.20pm Captain Godfrey reported that the enemy were again pressing forward with repeated bombing attacks and the supply of bombs was getting low. Lance Corporal Ware from Reigate was awarded the Military Medal for volunteering to get more mills bombs. At 1.20pm the last carrying party of men of the Worcesters tried to take up an additional 800 bombs, but before they reached the line the enemy commenced a strong bombing attack from five different points. At 1.22pm three flares were seen from approximately point D on the map, believed to mark the furthest advance of the battalion to the right of the road.

With the British supply of bombs exhausted, at 1.45pm the Germans massed on the right flank and rushed the blocks. The pressure forced a retirement and the men in the centre communication trench were cut off.

Godfrey later recalled that ‘This fighting went on until about 2pm when affairs took a decided turn and it was evident that pressure was increasing and that the enemy was making a decided effort to eject us. What happened on our right is not quite clear but I think that although counter measures were in hand on all sides, the right had to bear the brunt of a very determined counter attack, about this time a verbal report reached me that the troops on our right were falling back and leaving the trenches. Events must have happened very quickly for in a short time the party at battalion headquarters found themselves isolated and their retreat cut off. With the enemy closing in on all sides, the trench we occupied holding quite a number of wounded, casualties increasing, about 2.30pm resistance ceased and we were disarmed.’

The Germans had broken through the block in the first line to the right of the road (point F), effectively cutting off the men in the communication trench and headquarters dugout, and placing themselves in a position to enfilade the men in the first line to the left of the road. Unfortunately Godfrey had just called a conference of the company commanders in the headquarters dugout, and eight officers were taken prisoner. Captains Godfrey, Ball, and Brodhurst-Hill, and Second Lieutenants Botton, Holliday (wounded), Walker, Jacob (wounded), and Thompson (wounded). In fact Second Lieutenant Lacey was the only officer who participated in the attack who got back unwounded from the German line.

Those men who could retire were not out of danger, for ‘As the men came back, the well posted enemy machine guns, picked them off like rabbits, and scarcely a man returned unwounded, whilst many were shot down in their tracks.’ This account from the 33rd Divisional History states that only 43 men from the battalion could be mustered after the attack.

Second Lieutenant Norman Fowler

In addition to the eight officers who had been taken prisoner, Second Lieutenants Millard, Fowler, and Burghope were killed, and Second Lieutenants Carpenter and Bower wounded. According to the battalion war diary of the other ranks 26 were killed, 101 wounded, and 308 missing; the war diary therefore puts the total number of casualties at 448.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission database records 123 deaths in the battalion for 23rd April and the following few days. One hundred and fourteen (93%) have no known grave and are commemorated on the Arras memorial. The total number of men taken prisoner is difficult to ascertain, but is estimated at between 40 and 100 men. At least seven of those taken prisoner that day died whilst incarcerated and are buried in Germany. The 16th KRRC also suffered heavily, with 270 casualties.

Private William Dulake, killed during the attack

The attack had failed for a number of reasons: the failure of 98th Brigade to effectively link up from the north; the minimal effect of the artillery bombardment on the German wire; the barrage lifting beyond the German second line; the breakdown of the two tanks due to support the right flank; and the difficulties experienced in communication and resupplying the attacking parties with bombs. The battalion had yet again been thrown into the thick of the action and had again suffered considerably despite fighting tenaciously for nearly ten hours. The loss of so many officers was a particular blow, but the battalion would once again reconstitute itself and would be back in action in the same area less than a month later, when the German line was finally taken on 22nd May.

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This entry was posted in 1917, Arras, Centenary, CWGC, Gallantry, Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment, Remembrance, Research, Surrey Regiments, WW1 and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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