- from 'the War Illustrated' 6th May, 1917
- 'The Great Battle of Arras'
- By Max Pemberton
Britain's Initial Victory in This Titanic Contest
views of the Arras battle area as seen by a German magazine
There began on the morning of Easter Monday a battle about Arras which has justly been described as the greatest the world has ever seen.
This is old ground and of dominant importance. Here, and upon the heights of La Bassée to the north, the Germans established themselves in 1914. There was great lighting for the famous Vimy Ridge, which lies to the north-cast of Arras, during December, 1914, and again a violent French offensive during the month of May, 1915. General Foch was then in command, with General D'Urbal at the head of the Tenth French Army. The splendid endeavour then made by our French allies to break the line at this dangerous sector succeeded in capturing 3,000 prisoners and several guns. The French fought their way to the foot of the famous Vimy Ridge, captured the Lorette Fort and Chapel, and took Carency and Ablain St. Nazaire, where 2,000 prisoners were taken. Throughout the summer of the year our allies continued to gain ground, and, as the "Times" correspondent has said, "certainly did much to dishearten the Germans and to relieve the strain upon Ypres, where the situation between April 23rd and May 14th had been distinctly dangerous."
Those who would follow this momentous Battle of Arras to their profit should first master the strategy which is at the back of all that General Haig and General Nivelle are doing.
A Fateful Morning
Looking down our front from a little above Souchez in the north to the district about St.Queritin in the south, it is perfectly clear that if the Germans could maintain themselves upon the Vimy heights, and generally upon a line which maintained the safety of Douai and Cambrai, the hope of getting them out of Flanders could not be entertained. On the other hand, should their hold of the line north oi Arras be broken, then they might be driven wholly out of Flanders, and the dangerous seacoast about Zeebrugge be recovered for us. The city of Lille, the greatest railway centre of France, has been the heart of all these manoeuvres. "For Lille," says an observer, "Sir John French made his great movement into Flanders in the autumn of 1914 ; for Lille he fought Neuve Chapelle; for Lille he made the great offensive at Loos." Thus it is apparent that even in the early stages of the war the situation which developed subsequently was understood by both the British and the French Command, and to its mastery all our colossal efforts upon the western front have been directed for a long time past.
We had known in London for many days that some great affair. was contemplated about Arras. Rumours came of a concentration of guns, munitions and men like to nothing we had accomplished hitherto. Those who read the communiqués carefully noticed the intensity of the artillery bombardment and drew their conclusions. All leave was stopped, and the air was electric with the currents of expectation. Late on the evening of Easter Monday the newspaper offices obtained the first of the. good tidings. It then proved that we had begun our attack at 5.30 on the morning Of April 9th, and had continued it through the day, while the morrow promised no abatement of its intensity. The night had been one of a fierce and terrifying bombardment. Right, away from Givenchy-en-Gohelle on the north to Henin-sur-Cojcul on the south the guns were blazing. The day broke in a mist of rain which anon was to become a whirlwind of snow.
Fortunately this bitter wind blew upon the backs of our men and not in their faces, and after a final hour of renewed and terrible shelling, the whistles were sounded for the long-expected attack. "Then in an instant," says the "Times" correspondent, "hundreds of guns broke on the silence of dawn at once the rattle of the field-guns, like the clattering of machine-guns, being punctuated by the rhythmical roar of the heavier pieces. The whole of the enemy lines seemed then to break into flame.
Line of the Attack
Brilliantly visible in the half-light, and amid the flash and whirl of our bursting shells, the enemy's rockets calling for help rose from the whole circuit of the horizon red and white and green, and tall orange-coloured fountains of golden rain.
Here the strength of the enemy's positions we were about to assault should be observed. His front line was strong enough in all conscience; but behind that front-line system there was a network of trenches and strongholds which he has not surpassed in the west. A new and vastly formidable Hindenburg line runs from Drocourt, which is four miles and a half south-east of Lens, to Qucant, which is eleven miles and a half south-east of Arras, the distance between the two places being nearly fifteen miles, and the direction south by east. Vimy Ridge itself and its taking have already been described in another issue, but we may well recall the fact that this ridge in the north and Moronvilliers before the French in the south have been considered the two most formidable heights before our armies and those of our Allies, and that many did not hesitate to call them impregnable. Tunnelled and pocketed in an indescribable manner, Vimy Ridge was a master fortress indeed. Yet there were terrible traps and difficulties due cast of Arras and about the valley of the little River Scarpe.
views of the battlefield near Vimy ridge
The Harp Redoubt
Here was the famous village of Monchy-Ie-Preux, to lie taken a few days later by an assault which was magnificent Monchy and the famous Harp Redoubt, that system of German trenches which has been notorious these many months. Nor should we forget the railway triangle which Mr. Beach Thomas declares to consist of an embankment thirty to forty feet high, with a. deep trench inside and emplacements bristling with machine-guns.
These posts, however, were not to fall to us on the memorable Easter Monday. Our achievements then were the capture by the Canadians of the best part of the famous Vimy Ridge and of the fortified localities of Feuchy Chapel, Feuchy, the Hydrabad Redoubt, Athies, and Thelus.
Nor were we idle in the south, where we stormed the villages Hermies and Boursies, eight miles east of Bapaume, and penetrated into Havrinrourt Wood, south of these two villages ; while in the direction of St. Quentin we captured Fresnoy-le-Petit and advanced our line south-east of Le Verguier, which is six miles north-west.
The fighting itself appears to have been of varying intensity. It was violent at times in the suburbs of Arras, where, at the outset there were in one place but a few yards between the German and the British trenches. Vimy was taken upon a tremendous onset by the brave Canadians; but immediately east of Arras there were the more deadly traps, the intricacies of which had previously defied all observation. Here man fought man with the bayonet. There were pits innumerable, and some battalions had to cross as much as 800 yards in the open on ground that was spiny with wire and almost invariably mined. Opposite the town itself a switch of Hndenburg's line joined the old front, and this, as Mr. Beach Thomas has written, was trebly armed with such a tangle of trenches, posts and pits that they could not be marked even on the biggest map. Indeed, the whole of the twelve-mile front on which this first day's battle was fought has been declared to be stronger than Beaumont-Hamel, which leaves nothing more to be said.
Upon it, and northward as far as Henin, the victory was won. We had more than 5,800 prisoners by two o'clock, and one hundred and nineteen officers were included in the number. Of these a large number belonged to the Bavarians who had suffered the brunt of our attack.
Six Thousand Prisoners
Throughout the attack, from the first blowing of the whistle at dawn to the coming of twilight, our aeroplanes were droning in the air above and our monstrous "tanks" crawling like giant beetles upon the ground below. Again the latter proved invaluable, rolling-out the trenches, devastating the wire, destroying the citadels which the Huns had built ; while as for the services of our airmen, no words can overpraise them.
"Returning," says Mr. Beach Thomas, "towards the front at noon, I saw everywhere proof that the day had gone from good to better. Prisoners were the common object of the landscape. One single division on the north bank of the Scarpe took 1,000 men and twenty-five officers. One prisoner said that our artillery cut off all communication. He himself was taken while vainly calling up on a cut telegraph wire a reserve battalion which never appeared. The toughest fighting was immediately cast of Arras, especially at the railway triangle. When we had taken it, a 'tank' was seen perched across one of the cusps of the line. But many places thought strongest and most formidable, notably the redoubt called the Harp, were captured, with many prisoners, in our stride."
Later on in the same day he was able to write: "There is no doubt that we have won a great initial victory. The prisoners, must now exceed 6,000, and some guns have been taken."
- the War Illustrated, 10th May, 1917
- The Great Battle of Arras
How Monchy-Le-Preux Was Taken
British troops in a small village east of Arras
NORTH and south of the famous Vimy Ridge are two river valleys. The north is the valley of the Souchez running by Angres and Lievin to a mound called the Pimple, beyond which lies the town of Loos. South of Vimy there is the River Scarpe running almost due east by the village of Fampoux, and then slightly north-east across the great Plain of Douai. It was here that the terrible fighting of April 11th chiefly took place.
The first day of the battle, as we know, won for us the best part of Vimy Ridge. Our men had entered Blangy, that famous suburb of Arras, and our "tanks" had helped them to take the villages of Tilloy and Feuchy; but the Germans were still on the eastern slopes and in the woods above Vimy, and it was not until the Tuesday that the victorious Canadians came pouring down into the villages of the great coal-field. Farbus fell on April 10th, but the enemy remained in Vimy itself until April l3th, upon which day Givenchy-en-Gohelle, Petit Vimy, Angres, Lievin, and the Bois de Riaumont were all in our hands,
Famous Chateau and Park
Now, all this was the first step in the great encircling movement which we know must end infallibly in the ultimate fall of Loos and Lens. But the advance from the north had to be supplemented by a corresponding advance from the south along the valley of the Scarpe, and here the most formidable obstacles confronted us.
Of these the most prominent was the village of Monchy-le-Preux, with its famous chateau and park. Even in this dreary Arras region Monchy suggests all the dominant beauty and repose of the famous chateau tradition. It stands upon a spur of ground below the southern bank of the Scarpe and attains a proud altitude from which the great plain can be overlooked and even the spires of Douai dimly discerned on the horizon. With Monchy in our hands, the first absolute achievement in the turning of the Hindenburg line could be recorded. Without Monchy even the possession of Vimy was of little good to us, while its capture would mean that the dangerous villages Wancourt and Heninel, in the valley of the River Cojeul to the south-west of it, would form a dangerous salient for Hindenburg which he must immediately abandon.
- left : illustration of an incident described by British reporter Philip Gibbs
- rigt : views of the Arras battlefield
Advance in Heavy Snow
These were the immediate reasons which sent our men out very early on the morning of Wednesday, April 11th, to the assault of this towering citadel. Snow fell heavily even at dawn. To the accompanying thunder of the heavy artillery the Scotsmen and men of the Midland regiments had been busy all day Tuesday in the preparation for the final attack at the dawn of the following day. On the north of the river the village of Fampoux had fallen, while on Tuesday night the British troops had dug themselves in where they could, or defying the snow and the German shells, had boldly lain down in the open. This, like the night which was to follow it, suggests, as Mr. Philip Gibbs has said well in a fine despatch, "the glamour and cloak of a Russian campaign rather than a dead and bitter warfare in the month of April. The night was dreadful, for men and beasts," he records. "Snow fell heavily and was blown into deep drifts by a wind as cold as ice. Wounded horses fell and died and men lay in a white bed of snow in an agony of cold, while shells burst around them. As gallant as the righting men were the supply columns, who sent up carriers through the blizzard and shell fire.
"At four o'clock in the morning a ration was served out and Thank God for it !' said one of our officers lying out there in a shell-hole with a shattered arm. Strange and ironical as it may seem, the post came up also at this hour and men in the middle of the battlefield, suffering the worst agonies of war, had letters from home, which in the darkness they could not read."
Thus of the night for our own men but for the Boches one of amazing surprise. Up there upon that height, which rises one hundred feet above the river, ensconced snugly in the cellars below the beautiful old chateau whose white walls have been a beacon to many a generation of Frenchmen, the Hun may well have thought the citadel impregnable. The village itself had hardly been touched. The trees of the park were so many arbours for the machine-guns, which were often mounted in their very branches, while the artillery had as yet done but little damage to the beautiful chateau and its outbuilding.
Flight of the Germans
So we see the German officers stalking into the house late at night and telling the two old Frenchwomen, who still waited upon them there, that coffee must be ready at dawn. It was not coffee, however, that was served to these excited soldiers when the clarion call at length came to them.
We can imagine with what amazement they heard, when awakened, that the British were on the very outskirts of the village and that Monchy-le-Preux was already doomed. So hasty was their exit that they had not time even to pull down the battalion flag outside the gate, and flying head- long with the remnant of the garrison, they reached the first line of trenches in the valley below, and there, we may suppose, sent up their "SOS" for those counter-attacks which were to terminate in such a holocaust.
Meanwhile the dawn had broken and the British were coming on. Down there in the valley of the Scarpe the strange spectacle was to be seen for strange it was upon that Arras front of cavalry going at the gallop, their steel helmets already glistening with snow, their tunics whited like the garb of Cossacks.
Long had they waited for this hour, but now it had come triumphantly. Theirs was the task to sabre the Germans upon the lower slopes of Monchy, and gallantly enough they performed it. We read with sorrow that their losses were heavy, that many a fine horse stumbled and died, that many, a man lay prone with the snow covering him as a cloak. But their work was done, nevertheless, while their valiant charge was witnessed by the wounded of other regiments, whose figures lay everywhere upon the whitening landscape.
"You have never," says Mr. Philip Gibbs, "seen cavalry like them mud-encrusted figures in flat metal hats, men with three days' beards and faces covered with grime in no way suggesting the smart Lancers, Dragoons, or Hussars of other days.
"They had slept in shell-holes and lain in mud and rain with no protection save their greatcoats." And of their performance, a child with a subaltern's star on his torn tunic has said : "We went like the devil himself, full tilt for a good half mile into the funny old town itself."
Cavalry in Action
We see them in the wide street at last, the snow falling upon their drawn sabres, the Frenchwomen coming to meet them with tears in their eyes. And they were not alone. Monchy had been veritably encircled.
Fighting against the bitter wind, our infantry, heads down and bayonets poised, had fought their way across the southern slopes. There were machine-guns in every dip before them guns upon the house-tops, guns behind the walls. But they did not hesitate, though, as a Londoner has said, "The bullets were like rain drops."
Into Monchy they went, shooting at the grey-clad figures of the astonished Germans upon the house-tops. The doors of the cottages were beaten in, the stairs choked by the eager men who dashed up to fetch Fritz down. and were met by howling Huns who wailed like an Imam from the tower of a mosque.
Now were there joy and tears for the poor French people who saw salvation come to them. In their astonishment they also cried "Camarade! "to the British. But soon the women were lifting their faces to be kissed, while our soldiers were telling them that the hour of their agony was over.
We encircled Monchy, storming it from the north-east and the south and the west, and when we had taken it with a loss of life that was relatively insignificant, we had done something to make the Battle of Arras the most famous in history. Of course there were counter-attacks.
No sooner were we in the place than a storm of German shells began to fall upon it.
Grey Waves that Fell
The village which had been a village at dawn was but a ruin at nightfall. Beyond it our men, who would have pushed down into the valley, were met by a storm of shot from the wood of Sart upon the east, while later in the afternoon the first of the great counter-attacks was launched against them. From this time onwards waves of grey-clad Germans essayed to reclimb the slopes and to win back the citadel they had lost. "They disappeared," says an observer, "as snow in a May sun."
The butchery was ghastly. Our machine-guns were in position by this time and our full artillery at work. The grey waves of the enemy rose and surged and washed themselves out on that bloody shore. We remained masters of the place, though Monchy itself was no more and its chateau still hidden in the whirling snow.
- The War Illustrated, 26th May, 1917
- The Great Battle of Arras
The Epic Story of Lievin and Lagnicourt
How the Australians Broke the Prussian Guard
the battle for Arras as seen in a British newsmagazine
The dominance of a hill is a possession of majesty at any time, but when war is raging in the fields below you it is a throne of opportunity beyond compare.
Fortunately for those who witnessed the last days of the first phase of the Battle of Arras there were thrones innumerable. The slopes of the Vimy Ridge, Notre Dame de Lorette, the heights above the valley of the Souchez were the tiers of so many amphitheatres from which the lucky observer could witness a pageant of war which has hardly been matched from the beginning.
Before him lay a grimy plain beneath which are some of the immense riches of France. About him and behind him were the once-glorious woods, the steep slopes down which the Germans had been driven headlong but a few days before, and the villages whose picturesqueness had defied even the dour enmity of coal. From here he could look at his case down into the very streets of Lens, the capital of this mighty coalfield ; here he could see far away this regiment advancing, that at rest ; could watch the bursting of the mighty shells and boast of his indifference but, above all, could say that the city was doomed and must speedily be in our possession. It was tragic, too, for though Lens must fall, who should say what of its riches would be left to us ?
Inferno in Lens
Watching the city from a distance we saw ominous things. Now it would be the smoke of some great fire rolling up by the cathedral tower, suggesting for an instant that the church itself was burning anon, a shattering explosion, the vomit of flame and black vapour from the mouth of a coal-pit, and perhaps upon tills the lingering thunder of sonic building which had come clattering down. In the streets themselves, bordered by the miners' houses with their picturesque red roofs, a human being was rarely to be seen. We pictured the townsfolk hiding in their cellars and listening to that crash of sounds which .said that the enemy was seeking to rob them of their poor riches and their bread. There were moments when scattered figures in the familiar grey-blue darted from street to street carrying neither muck-rake nor lantern, but the deadlier high explosive which should blast the pits and bring down the houses about the people's ears.
And all this, mind you, in a sudden and welcome blaze of the morning sunlight, come as an interlude to wind and wet and snow and misery. Men lifted, their eyes to it and declared it to be an omen. The week that ended on Sunday, April 15th, should go out as it had come in upon the crest of a mighty victory. It was actually on Saturday, April 14th, that the Boche was driven out of Lievin, the famous western suburb of Lens, and on the following day there came their great counter-attack at Lagnicourt, which is down south and not far from Queant, about which we are hearing so much these days. This was a bloody affair, and the Australians have never done a finer thing. By a. concentration of forces, which was astonishing, the Germans massed an army of between forty and fifty thousand bayonets and threw it along the Cambrai-Bapaume road between the villages of Lagnicourt and Hermies. For a moment, overwhelmed by the torrent, we lost some prisoners and machine-guns, but, mustering again behind. Lagnicourt, we reattacked with a ferocity wholly remarkable even in days when men are found dead with the teeth locked in each other's flesh.
Coursing the Prussian Guard
Now, this counter-attack was made by picked troops of no fewer than five regiments of the Guard, and the barrage which heralded it was the best the Boche had put up since the Battle of Arras began. That our own casualties were relatively so few is not a little consoling, but our men took cover with a cleverness which was noteworthy, and, although the impetuosity of the attack overwhelmed them for the moment, they were never, in any sense, demoralised. And everybody agrees that their counter-thrust was superb. They charged with bayonets lowered and the wild. war-whoop of "Down Under."
Inch by inch they recovered the lost ground and drove the Hun back upon the famous Queant switch. What his feelings were when he found himself driven thus, not to the openings he had prepared, but actually back upon his own barbs, we must leave him to relate. This was the cold fact, nevertheless. He retreated in disorder, and then came up against that very entanglement he had prepared for our undoing. Screaming and shouting, he now ran to and fro like a rabbit that is coursed, seeking vainly for a burrow to shelter him. And the Australians watched him, and, seeing, they did not wait.
Australians' Battle Shooting
It was a veritable holocaust. Our men, kneeling down in the open, enjoyed sport of a kind they had hardly known during the war. Aiming carefully, they picked off their men one by one, and were unmoved by the shrieks of the wounded, whose dreadful cries were heard even above the rattle of the machine-guns. Fifteen hundred dead and three hundred prisoners were the fruits of this surprising victory. Lagnicourt has remained in our undisputed possession since this memorable Sunday, and the famous Prussian Guard has long since ceased to be a name with which Hindenburg can conjure. This was a fine finish to the first week's fighting in this titanic battle. Of it all, perhaps, the most deadly work had been done in the neighbourhood of Lievin, which fell finally to us on the Saturday morning. Some of our men who fought at Vimy and in the Souchez valley had but four hours' sleep between the Sunday morning and the Friday night.
They had to prod each other to keep awake in the trenches, but they stuck to it to the end, often advancing up to their knees in mud, meeting every kind of trap that could be set for them, and facing perils whose shape was changed with every hour that passed.
Sometimes their work was almost that of scouts. One officer of a Shire regiment, with half a dozen lusty fellows at his back, found his way into the suburbs and up to the roof of a house, whereupon he sniped a machine-gun party that was holding up our advance four hundred yards away. Others wandered around, discovering a gun emplacement here, or there a heave of the black earth which said that Bodies were buried beneath, and that a spade might find them living.
The Bois de Riaumont, the one prominent green hill between the Vimy Ridge and Lievin, had been fortified upon its western front until it resembled the glacis of an impregnable fortress.
Cunning and Courage
We flanked it cunningly, brave men creeping from ridge to ridge, here ducking into shell-holes, there sheltering a moment behind shattered walls and broken trees, until at last the Boche perceived the glitter of our bayonets and fled incontinently. So was it also with the machine-gun posts we named the Crook and the Crazy line. Their gunners shot by adventurers upon the wings, the posts could be held no longer, and once again the Boche bolted and left his equipment in our hands.
It was a great scene of battle this of the Saturday. Far up and down that valley of the black pits the smoke of the heavy artillery and of tlie light loomed and drifted. A fitful sun shone upon once- green fields and red-roofed houses and the shattered walls of ancient churches. Everywhere there moved the grey figures, leaping to the assault, here a regiment, there a platoon again but a handful of men in quest of an adventure.
An Old Score Paid
And death was everywhere, and the roar of the great guns, and the aeroplanes soaring like monstrous hawks above, and the ambulances on their grim errands, and the prisoners who laughed or cried, or were silent in their black defiance.
"I knew you would come back to us," said an old Frenchwoman, spitting in the face of an insolent officer. "You always said you would." Others, men; crazy lads, lighted cigarettes with trembling fingers and declared that we had made "hell over yonder." All, perhaps, at heart were thankful to have been dragged from that inferno whose very fons et origo was the line Hindenburg had declared to be impregnable.
We had smashed it, indeed, when Sunday, April 15th, came. By the Friday night there had been 13,000 prisoners taken, including 285 officers. We got 166 guns, among which there were eight 8 in. howitzers and 130 field-guns and ordinary howitzers. Lens was still held, but only upon sufferance. Lievin and the villages round about were in our hands, and northward we had fought successfully over the very ground about Loos where we had suffered so many disappointments in the days which will never be forgotten.
The greatest military operation in the history of the British Army it has been called. Perhaps it is truer to say the greatest in the story of any army.
- The War Illustrated 9th June, 1917
- The Great Battle of Arras
How Bullecourt Was Won
British troops in the field near Arras
This already historic Bullecourt ! What immortality has been won amid its ghastly ruins ! What a month it will make of this May in the year of grace, 1917, when the whole record of the war is before us I
Not, be it observed, that we did not hear the name of Bullecourt before May set in. There was fighting, hard fighting, there on April 14th, at the end of the first week of the Battle of Arras, when Hindenburg flung the Prussian Guard upon the Australians between Lagnicourt and the village, and for the day averted the peril to his famous switch -the new line of trenches running from Queant in the south to Drocourt in the north. That was the only set-back we met with during the famous week, and its memory was soon to be wiped out by achievements as magnificent as any the great battle has shown us.
It was natural that the German Higher Command should realise the importance of Bullecourt. Here ran the famous Hindenburg line, long spoken of as impregnable. Behind it was the switch, but the switch was not yet ready, and our airmen reported the feverish haste with which the wire was being set up and the concrete laid down. To gain time for the completion of this work Bullecourt must be held at all costs, the precious Guard hurled upon the Colonials, and on the battered fields about strewn with the German dead.
Fighting Amid the Ruins
This must once have been a pretty village, as pretty villages go in the river valley of the great coal-fields. It lay at the foot of a gentle declivity, was not remote from the vicinity of trees, and had a church and cemetery with some pretence to the picturesque. Red roots there were and pretty little houses, and main streets with byways, winding and tortuous in the best French manner. Now it 'is a blur of brick and timber upon a fair prospect. Not levelled utterly to the ground as were Thiepval, Combtes, and the villages of the Somme in the threat battles of last year, it was yet so destroyed that the oldest inhabitant might have been hard put to it to say, which had been the Grande Rue and which the Petite. The very fact added to the difficulties of the English, the Scots, and the Australians who took it so gallantly.
What fighting was this amid the desolation ! Look at those fellows creeping across the beams of a roof which once covered a house but is now a mass of dust and timber upon a shattered floor. They are figures from a new inferno, surely powdered to the very helmets, their faces begrimed, their boots caked with the muck, their beards unkempt, their eyes alight to the joy of it. Somewhere below them, they are saying, in a Labyrinth of linked cellars running beneath the houses, are the Germans who have been holding on to Bullecourt these many days. We know of their presence by the witness of our splendid dead who lie, white and still, amid the debris. They hide there in the depths to leap up when the opportunity comes and sweep that desolation with their emplaced machine-guns. And the work done, they go down to their burrows again and listen for British steps on the roof above, or wait shivering for the grenade which shall come with a flash and a roar and strew these sorry caverns with the. corpses of them or their fellows.
Now, this kind of fighting has been going on in Bullecourt since the third day of May. It was then that the Australians broke with magnificent dash into the Hindenburg line upon the right of the village, and, despite the fact that they had formed a most dangerous salient for themselves, held on tenaciously for ten days.
Heroism of the Australians
Nothing could fetch these fine fellows out. Digging themselves in as they could, cunningly taking advantage of every bit of broken wall or shattered ruin that the wilderness afforded, they lay down and waited for their fellows to come on. There were English and Scottish later on upon the south-west and the west, and in these there rested the hopes of these undaunted pioneers.
"Tommy will stick it all right," they said, when told that he had already deserted the village. "And there are some Scotties who will hold on till all's blue," they added, with a conviction which is as fine a compliment as any paid to the matchless troops from across the border.
Well, the men did hold on, and long days of a swaying conflict resulted. Throughout, there was the ceaseless booming of the rival artillery ; now the Germans shelling those trenches of the Hindenburg line they had lost, now our fellows feeling far and wide upon the horizon for the guns which were doing the mischief. Overhead there soared the "planes," the great birds in a cloudless sky who told us of this concentration or of that, of feverish work by Germans to prepare the Queant switch, of men and machine-guns in the labyrinth of the village, and of the plight of the plucky Anzacs who endured ten days of hell that Bullecourt might be ours.
The latter story has been told us by some of them, but it must ultimately make an epic. From the north, from the east, even from the west, the attacks upon them came. Snipers to the south found open trenches and enfiladed them with bullets. There were rushes of Germans perpetually; the grey waves appearing suddenly from the bowels of the earth and leaping to the attack with savage cries. It was "Stand by !" and again "Stand by !" Their machine-guns rattled like sticks upon a railing ; their rifles were always in their hands. And when night came the whole heaven would be lit up with the blue-white- light of the flaming star-shells and the whirlwind barrage would open, and men would wait for dawn with eyes that had forgotten how to sleep.
Yet this was but the preliminary to the fierce fighting of Sunday, May 13th, by which Bullecourt finally was won for us.
We came in practically from three sides of it upon that great day. There were Scots upon the west and English cheek by jowl with them. Dust-begrimed men with sweat upon their faces, they fought from the early hours as demons possessed. Here were things done and seen which shall not be surpassed in the story of the war. Men fought with men as animals in some ruined arena. You saw Germans upon one side of a shattered barn and British upon the other, and their grenades went over the wreck of the roof and men trod upon their own dead to get at the enemy. Every cellar was a possible refuge for the Boche and his machine-gun. And we must hunt amid the brick and the mortar, turn every stone, lift every beam, that the bomb may go down and the dead be garnered.
Guns in Graveyard Vaults
There was no village now, nor any thought of church or market-place or street that Bullecourt had marked upon its map only this ruin and the blackened figures leaping from stone to stone of it, and the bayonets flashing in the sunshine, and the cries going up of despair or of appeal as the steel went home and the life's blood gushed out. A fight to the bitter end, beyond all description horrible yet for us a triumph beyond all expectation magnificent.
Perhaps the climax of all this deadly business came in the cemetery, where the graves were opened and the dead flung out. Here the Boche found in the vaults an emplacement for his machine-guns which could not have been bettered. And he fought to the very death amid the bodies and the bones of those who had lived their humble lives in this once pretty village, and had known, perhaps, the greatness and the glory of France, and had believed .that civilisation would leave those white crosses standing until the end. So little did he know of the German, the corpses of whose proud Foot Guards now he amid the broken coffins, and whose blackened faces send even strong men shuddering from this hallowed acre.
We had taken Bullecourt by the 14th, but there were counter-attacks, of course. We broke them up with a barrage which did great credit to our gunners, and but twenty of many hundreds reached our trenches at the first attempt. These were shot or bayoneted to a man, while a later effort resulted in one wretched Boche arriving at the parapet to ask himself, it may be, if he were really alive, and to find the question answered immediately in the negative.
see also : The Tunnels of Arras
- left : transportation before and behind the Hindenburg Line
- right : a view of German front-line trenches near Arras
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