Guémappe and Cavalry Farm – Applying the Brakes

Guémappe did not lie on high ground, nor was it very far from Wancourt, which lay a mere thousand yards or so further up the Cojeul valley to the south-west. With the Wancourt Tower in British hands, Guémappe appeared extremely vulnerable from the south, whilst to the north, with Monchy gone, it was beginning to look even less attractive as a holding position. So, why did the Germans choose to make a stand at Guémappe on the opening day of the second main phase of fighting, the 23rd April, otherwise known as the Second Battle of the Scarpe?

By that time, the really key positions on this part of the battlefield were Chérisy and Fontaine-les-Croisilles, both of which lay to the south, but also slightly east of Guémappe, whilst a little further north, the other vital position for the Germans was Infantry Hill, which sat just to the east of Monchy. Again, Infantry Hill lay slightly east of Guémappe. Of course, further south, the area around Bullecourt was also critical, as pointed out in my article earlier this year on Monchy-le-Preux.

The Germans knew they couldn’t to hang on to Guémappe indefinitely, but its position, slightly forward of the other locations, would constitute a  significant obstacle in the path of the British advance. The longer the Germans could hold out there, the easier it would be to defend Chérisy and Fontaine-les-Croisilles to the south, as well as Infantry Hill to the north. The whole point of holding Guémappe was to entice the British down the Cojeul valley where there was little room for manoeuvre and little shelter. Once there, the German guns could do the rest. As and when Guémappe fell, there would still be a credible defensive line between Infantry Hill and Chérisy with Cavalry Farm, St. Rohart Quarry and the St. Rohart Factory occupying the middle ground. For the Germans, Guémappe could still play an important part in the coming battle, but its retention was not critical within the overall defensive plan.

In the event, Guémappe didn’t hold out for very long, in fact it was captured on the 23rd April by the 15th (Scottish) Division. Although the Germans didn’t waste energy trying to retake it, they did launch two hefty counter-attacks that day against the divisions either side of the Scots, i.e. the 29th Division north of the Arras-Cambrai road, and the 50th (Northumbrian) Division, which was operating on the high ground where the remains of the Wancourt Tower now stood. Both counter-attacks, along with heavy shelling of Guémappe itself, forced the 15th Division to check its advance on Cavalry Farm until around 7 p.m. To have pressed on earlier in the day would have left the division’s flanks even more exposed than they already were. Although Guémappe was in British hands by mid-evening, we now found ourselves wedged in along the northern side of the Cojeul valley where we became increasingly vulnerable to enemy bombardment. This remained the case even after the 56th (London) Division had taken over this part of the battlefield from the Scots. Cavalry Farm was reached (on several occasions), but it was the 11th May before it was finally captured and consolidated. By this time, of course, the Battle of Arras was well and truly stuttering to a halt.

By the end of the Battle of Arras the new British front line would lie just east of Guémappe, around Cavalry Farm. Chérisy didn’t fall, nor did Fontaine-les-Croisilles, and Infantry Hill remained firmly in German hands. Guémappe and Cavalry Farm had served their purpose. Together, both positions had provided a very effective brake, slowing down the British advance and exacting a heavy toll relative to the amount of ground gained, which was exactly what the Germans had intended.

It’s certainly worth visiting the area around Guémappe and Cavalry Farm. Most people, I suspect, go there to visit Tank Cemetery, notably for the trench burial of 64 NCOs and men of the 7th Cameron Highlanders in Row F. Even though the actual ground close to Guémappe and Cavalry Farm now consists of just fields, it still merits closer scrutiny, if possible on foot.

On and around the 23rd April 1917 there were two trenches lying immediately to the north of Guémappe. These were Hammer Trench and Bullet Trench, and although they didn’t link up with each other, (in fact, they were both slightly offset from one another) they both faced the main part of the assault by the 15th (Scottish) Division on the 23rd April. Together, they defended the rising ground between Guémappe and the main Arras-Cambrai road. (The 8th Seaforth Highlanders attacked Guémappe itself, whilst the 7th Cameron Highlanders, the 9th Black Watch and the 11th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders launched their attacks between Guémappe and the Arras-Cambrai road)

By complete contrast, there were no trenches immediately to the south between Guémappe and the River Cojeul. Here, the British were free to press on down the valley, if they chose to do so, but any advance beyond the village would encounter heavy enfilade fire from Tank Trench which ran from the eastern end of the village and along the southern edge of the communal cemetery. This last position was, of course, also heavily defended. Needless to say, the 15th Division avoided that option. Today, the road running north-east out of Guémappe towards the Arras-Cambrai road corresponds more or less with the site of Tank Trench.

Like Tank Trench, Cavalry Farm completely dominated the Cojeul valley immediately to the east of Guémappe. Cavalry Farm was completely obliterated during the war and nothing now remains of it. It sat on the south side of the Arras-Cambrai road opposite the lane leading to Boiry Notre-Dame, now the D.34, which was once known as Cyclist Lane. Any British advance beyond Guémappe, astride the Arras-Cambrai road, would inevitably come under heavy fire from the ruined farm once it crossed the skyline.

The Germans also had other trenches in front of Cavalry Farm, all of which afforded additional protection. Shovel Trench, together with a similar trench, slightly offset and to the rear of the former, ran roughly north-south from the main road towards Tank Trench. North of the main road, Spring Trench and Pick Trench had been sited to enfilade the line of attack by the 29th Division on the 23rd April, but they also offered protection against any attempt to envelop Cavalry Farm from the north.

Although these wholly improvised positions were a far cry from the original trench systems that had existed further west prior to the opening of the Battle of Arras, they were nevertheless brilliantly set out, offering mutual support, and took full advantage of the topography. The entire defensive system around Guémappe and Cavalry Farm posed a significant and very effective obstacle to any further British advance along the Arras-Cambrai road.