ARRAS 1917 PART 1
Arras had been targeted by the German guns from October 1914, and many of the distinctive buildings around the Grande Place and the Petite Place had been totally destroyed.
From 1916 the town had been under British control, and it had been decided at the Chantilly Conference in November 1916 that Arras would be central to the offensive plans for 1917 and the location for a diversionary attack in the Artois.
The British were soon aware of the vast system of underground caverns that lay below the city of Arras. The quarries had been exploited since the Middle Ages, and in one area British engineers exploring the system found graffiti from 1314 etched in the rock. They also realised that if the caverns could provide a safe refuge during shelling for the few remaining inhabitants of the town, they could do the same for allied soldiers.
It was estimated that the caverns under various parts of the city could hold up to 25,000 men, and if they were joined up by the digging of tunnels, those men could launch an attack close to the German lines.
Major Jack Durgan, Commander of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company was given the task of completing the work in time for the attack. Work began in October 1916 and the New Zealanders were joined by men from a Leeds ‘Bantam Battalion ‘the 17th West Yorkshire Regiment, a part of the 35th (Bantam Division). They were all required to be ex-miners and the prospect of double rations meant there was no shortage of volunteers. The New Zealanders did the tunnelling and the Bantams cleared the spoil.
It was hard and dangerous work but the miners made remarkable progress. In one day they completed 268 feet, and by March 1917 they had created a network of tunnels of over 12 miles. Some dangerous areas had to be shored up with timber and by early 1917 they began to install electricity. The Royal Engineers also laid a narrow gauge railway track so that the spoil could be taken away in trucks.
The Engineers also prepared the exits for the troops for the attack. They drilled bore holes which they filled with ammonal, which when blown would leave a trench for the infantry close to the German lines. Although the Germans eventually suspected something significant was being prepared, they never found these exits. The entrances to the tunnels were also widely spread across Arras. One was in the cellar of the destroyed Town Hall, another near the Railway Station, and one in the square of a former French barracks.
In early April 1917, final preparations were made, and more men began to move into the tunnels. Today visitors can walk through a small section of these tunnels, known as La Carriere Wellington – The Wellington Quarry. It is a very moving experience, especially as you approach the area where on Easter Sunday 1917 Reverend G.C. Danvers 2nd Suffolk Regiment led the service.
The attack began at 5.30am on Easter Monday. As you approach one of the exits to the Front Line, where close to 24,000 men waited to confront the Germans, the words of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, “The General”, rings out:
‘Good- morning, good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card”, grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
After initial success, casualties mounted on both sides. In his excellent book, ‘Cheerful Sacrifice’ on the Battle of Arras, Jonathan Nicholls compares the casualty figures for three major battles. On the 141 days of The Somme there were 415,000 casualties, a daily casualty rate of for the 2,943, whereas on the 39 days of Arras there were 159,000 casualties. That gives a daily casualty rate of over 4,076.
It is difficult to find the appropriate words to describe this daily casualty rate experienced at Arras, but there were many individual acts of bravery and 25 VCs were awarded. Perhaps the name that most people recall is that of Captain Albert Ball VC, DSO & Two Bars, & MC. At the time of his death on 7th May 1917 he had accounted for 44 enemy aircraft. Born in Nottingham, he had enlisted in the Sherwood Foresters in 1914, transferring to the RFC in 1915.
His VC citation reads ‘For most conspicuous and consistent bravery from 25th April to 6th May 1917, during which period Captain Ball took part in 26 combats and destroyed eleven hostile aeroplanes, drove two out of control, and forced several others to land.
In these combats Captain Ball, flying alone on one occasion fought six hostile machines, twice he fought five, and once four. When leading two other planes he attacked an enemy formation of eight’.
The circumstances of his death while flying an SE.5 near Douai are not clear. German pilots who attended the crash site noted that his plane had suffered no battle damage, and there were no wounds on his body. His death was reported in newspapers all over the world.
The VCs awarded at Arras were presented by the King at Buckingham Palace on 21st July 1917. Captain Albert Ball’s medal was presented to his parents as were seven other posthumous awards. The only widow present was Gertrude Jarratt, the wife of Corporal George Jarratt VC, and her picture with their daughter Joyce receiving the medal from the King was to appear in the Illustrated London News in July 1917.
George Jarratt transferred from the 12th Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment to the 8th Battalion Royal Fusiliers and it was as a Corporal with that Regiment that he fought at the Battle of Arras. He was captured with some other wounded men from the Regiment at Pelves on the 3rd May and placed under guard in a German bunker. Later that day the Germans were driven back by a counter attack and grenades were fired towards the bunker. One of these Mills bombs entered the bunker and without hesitation Cpl Jarratt placed both feet on the bomb in an effort to limit the effect of the explosion. The subsequent blast blew off both his legs. Corporal Jarratt died of his wounds but all the other wounded men were removed for treatment. ‘By his supreme act of self-sacrifice the lives of these wounded were saved’.
George was 25 and from Kennington. Before the war he had been a junior clerk at the Beefeater Gin Distillery in Kennington. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial. His VC is displayed at the Royal Fusiliers Museum in London.
Sergeant Albert White VC, 2nd Battalion South Wales Borderers, was awarded his VC for his gallantry in an attack near Monchy-le-Preux. He realised that one of the enemy’s machine guns had not been located and he charged ahead in an attempt to capture the gun. Within a few yards of the position he was killed ‘having sacrificed his life in an attempt to secure the success of the operation’.
Sgt Whites’ VC was presented to his father. The family were from Liverpool and before the war Albert worked on ships as a coal trimmer, moving coal from the bunkers for the stokers. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Arras memorial. His VC is privately owned.