The Battle of Arras (Spring battlefields 2017: Day Four)

Today we visited the battlefields of the Battle of Arras, all close to where we are staying. Due to having a prebooked tour of Wellington Quarry for the early afternoon, we didn't cover the area in a chronological way, but rather in a geographical loop.
We started by driving to Monchy-le-Preux, one of the easternmost targets of the battle. Here, there are memorials to the 3uth Division and the Newfoundland Regiment who had captured and defended the village. Monchy-le-Preux is sited at the northern end of the Hindenburg Line and despite strong defences, it had been captured by the British on 11th April.

Forces had taken the village before moving east to hold Infantry Hill. However, they became trapped by the Germans during their counter-offensive and it was left to just 10 men from the battalion headquarters to defend the village. Remarkably, they held off the counter-attack and Monchy could not be recaptured by the Germans. Lt-Col James Forbes-Robertson won the DSO for organising the defence.

On the road out of the village to the west is Orange Trench Cemetery, named for the German trench which had run through these fields behind Orange Hill. It is a small cemetery, where a number of Essex soldiers are buried from the assault on Monchy-le-Preux. Among them, there are four soldiers who were killed when an enemy aircraft was brought low over their position by a machine gun, only for a shell to burst among the rain of bullets on 25th May 1917. The plane managed to escape, but among the British casualties were four officers.

Further along the road we came to Happy Valley Cemetery, which was of a similar size to Orange Trench. Although situated on a small lane, it is very close to where the motorway now runs and so is quite a noisy spot in the fields. Many of the burials here are from the attack on 10th/11th April 1917. One burial is to Private Charles Quelch who had been awarded the Military Medal.

Towards the end of the lane we came to a third cemetery, Level Crossing Cemetery, which as its name suggests was built next to the railway. This territory had been taken on the first day of the Battle of Arras, en route to the Roeux Chemical Works. It contained many burials from the 15th, 9th and 51st Scottish Divisions which had fought in the area in 1918.

We then drove round to Athies, where my great great grandfather Percy Parsons is buried. He was killed while being brought up to reinforce the 10th battalion Yorks and Lancs on 21st April in advance of their assault on Fampoux on the 23rd. It is somewhat unknown what exactly happened to him as although his service records give his death as 21st his war grave records it as 28th. It is possible that he wasn't buried until a week later.

Further around the periphery of Arras we visited the Arras Memorial at Faubourg d'Amiens cemetery. Here there is also the Flying Services Memorial which lists the names of all Airmen from the Western Front who have no known burial. Although not officially part of any battle, their role was imperative to all ground offensives.

With time to spare before our tunnels tour, we went for lunch at a lovely Italian restaurant in the city centre called Viviani.
Full of pizza, we next went for our tour of Wellington Quarry. Although used as chalk mines before the war, Scottish and New Zealand miners were brought in to extend the tunnel system in advance of the Arras offensive. They spent six months digging out the system which was used to accommodate thousands of soldiers for the week preceding the 9th April 1917.

The tour was led by a young guide who did very well to narrate it bilingually, and supported by audio headsets which gave additional information about those who stayed in the tunnels. Although I have been here a few times before, the tour was really interesting and is definitely worth visiting Arras for.

On the way out of the city we stopped to walk out to Telegraph Hill which was an early target in the Battle of Arras. It was taken with relatively ease, and supported by tanks on either side to go on to target the German strong point of The Harp. A small copse has grown up on the hill but there is a clear line of a trench through the trees and some small shell craters still exist. There are no memorials here but it was a good vantage point for seeing the early phase of the battle.

We returned to the holiday cottage by mid-afternoon and early evening I set out again by bike to see the line of attack by the Canadian Corps between 26th August-2nd September 1918. The axis of this attack was the old Roman road south-east of Vis-en-Artois on what is now the D939.

Cycling down here it was clear to see each of the German defensive lines on each of the small undulating ridges. A Canadian memorial in the shape of a block lies just off this road, as well as the Vis-en-Artois Memorial and Cemetery which records the names of all those who are missing from August 1918 onwards.

Turning right off of the D939 at Dury, I realised just how strong the wind was and why I seemed to be cycling so quickly. I came back up a small lane into a cross-headwind, which became worse when the tarmacced surface suddenly seemed to end and was replaced by rough stone. I made it back across to Upton Wood Cemetery where all of the 300 burials were Canadian troops and a few associated artillerymen. This area very much has a Canadian character in the same way as Vimy does.

As ever, the ride ended up being a bit longer than planned and took a while longer than I had thought, particularly in the strong winds. I made it home just after 7pm, but thankfully in time for dinner!
Tomorrow is Mum's birthday so there won't be a blog post, but there will be one for the following day (Friday), the last day of our holiday.

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