Beyond Monchy-le-Preux

During a recent group visit to the Arras battlefield we stayed at Boiry- Notre-Dame. One morning, before breakfast, I decided to take myself off on foot through the village heading west along a track (a continuation of the Route d’ Arras) towards Monchy-le-Preux. After about twenty minutes the ground began to rise slightly (Infantry Hill), and looking back towards Boiry, the ground also showed a small, but significant rise (Artillery Hill). Walking a little further, Monchy-le-Preux became visible from the western edge of Infantry Hill, but it was also clear that the area behind Infantry Hill would have remained completely hidden from view to the British in Monchy. The strength of both German positions (Infantry Hill and Artillery Hill) can only be fully appreciated when approached from Boiry rather than Monchy.

I suspect that most visitors to Monchy-le-Preux arrive there from the direction of Arras or Roeux, but it’s well worth doing it the other way round. Approaching from the east, it’s very easy to see why the loss of Monchy-le-Preux was little more than an inconvenience to the Germans. As long as they held Infantry Hill and Artillery Hill they were in a very strong defensive position on that part of the battlefield. The track in question, running from Boiry to Monchy, can just about be driven, but be very careful, the metalled surface is quite broken in places (where it exists) and any vehicle with low suspension should perhaps avoid it.

I happened to be in the same area a few weeks later with another group. Almost everyone had been to Monchy-le-Preux before, but always via Roeux or the Arras-Cambrai road. On this occasion I took them there via Boiry and it gave them a completely different perspective and understanding of the ground. After that we went on to visit the grave of Flight Lieutenant Ian Scovil SODEN, DSO, at Biache-St.-Vaast Communal Cemetery. He was killed in action on the 18th May 1940 when his Hurricane was shot down over Vitry. The actions that led to the award of his DSO are really quite impressive (Arras North – Page 50).

This was our last stop for the day, but as we returned to Arras we took the D.42, i.e. the road running between Biache-St.-Vaast and Roeux via Plouvain. Again, this was worth doing, since this was the route that many German troops (and British prisoners in reverse) would have taken on their way up to Roeux. The Arras-Douai railway was an important artery and Biache-St.-Vaast was where many German soldiers would have ended their train journey on way to the front line. Biache would have been a hive of activity throughout the Battle of Arras, not only as a rail terminus, but also as a holding point for reserves and a dump for ammunition and other essential supplies.

Today, Biache-St.-Vaast is bigger than the average village, but even in 1917 it was still fairly substantial, and even quite industrial. It had a factory and a power station at its southern end, as well as a brickworks alongside the railway, near to the branch line leading off towards Gavrelle. A British map issued at 11 a.m. on the 22nd April 1917 shows a dump right beside the railway station, which at the time was situated next to the level crossing (where the D.43 intersects the railway) and not where the current station now stands. The main railway line had a number of sidings, including several just beyond the western edge of the village.

I should also perhaps point out that the communal cemetery, where SODEN is buried, is not the original pre-war cemetery. That was situated further south between the centre of the village and the level crossing. If you can, do try to get to those places just behind the lines (British and German). They very often provide a valuable insight into the logistical, and sometimes tactical aspects of a battle.