Memories of Monchy, including Byng’s remedy for boils

The 12th (Eastern) Division spent much of 1917 in the Arras sector just south of the River Scarpe around Monchy-le-Preux. In ‘Arras South’ (pages 49 – 55) I went into a certain amount of detail regarding the events that took place in this locality during the Summer and Autumn of 1917 after the Battle of Arras had closed. The purpose of highlighting this period was to help visitors to make some sense of the dates on many of the headstones in Monchy British Cemetery, very few of which relate to April and May when the fighting was at its height.

After the British had captured Monchy-le-Preux on the 11th April 1917 both sides carried out numerous raids on each other’s positions which lay just to the east of the village. A significant part of our defensive capability, here as elsewhere, rested with the machine-gun companies. Despite its title, “With a Machine Gun to Cambrai” by George Coppard contains very little by way of reference to the Battle of Cambrai 1917, but it does contain three short chapters covering Arras and the area around Monchy during the above period.

George originally served with the 6th Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment), which was part of the 12th (Eastern) Division’s 37th Brigade, and although he remained with that division, he transferred to its 37th Machine Gun Company working as part of a six-man Vickers machine gun team. After six months in England recovering from a bullet wound to his left foot, caused accidentally by one of his comrades, he returned to his unit on the 8th May 1917 whilst it was still heavily involved at Arras.

On arrival he was immediately confronted with a familiar problem after absence from the front; two of his closest comrades had been killed, and after a harsh Winter and four weeks of heavy fighting the rest of his comrades were badly in need of leave. Roeux, over on the opposite bank, had still not been captured. However, sooner after his return, the division was relieved and billeted north-west of Arras in the vicinity of Avesnes-le-Comte. The period of respite included training and he and his team won ten francs put up by the officers during a machine gun competition. The prize money didn’t last long; that night he and his team blew it on wine at half a franc a bottle, which meant roughly three and a half bottles each.

After time out of the line he and his company marched back to its former position, just south of the River Scarpe near Shamrock Corner, where for a while it remained in reserve. It was now the middle of June, and although the Battle of Arras was well and truly over, enemy shelling was still heavy, especially around Monchy-le-Preux. In ‘Arras South’, I explained that the Germans were relatively unconcerned by the loss of this ‘village on the hill’ as long as they still held their positions on Infantry Hill and Artillery Hill. Even so, they remained equally determined to make our tenure of Monchy as uncomfortable and costly as possible. On the 3rd July Coppard counted 180 ‘coal-boxes’ exploding within a 200 yards radius of his position, something which he freely admits was extremely unnerving.

The following night his team did suffer a loss during another period of heavy shelling. Back in 2014 I did some work for a family over from Australia whose grandfather had fought with the Australian Imperial Force’s 13th Machine Gun Company. His first taste of action came on the 2nd April 1917 at Noreuil, (‘Arras South’, pages 158-160) and although he survived the war, he was invalided home after only six months at the front. One of the points I made to the family was just how tightly-knit a machine-gun team was; the death of any member of the team would have had a profound effect on the remainder. Coppard makes the very same point in his book.

In Coppard’s team the casualty was man by the name of Edwin Henry Short. During a lull in the shelling George and two of the team took Short’s body to a patch of ground near Fosse Farm where they quickly buried him as the Germans renewed their bombardment of the location. He recalls their brief time at the graveside. “Goodbye, old pal” were the only words spoken before the spot was marked. The trio then made their way hurriedly back to rejoin the rest of their unit.

Sixty years later, Coppard tells how he received a letter from Edwin Short’s cousin. Edwin, who had no brothers, but five sisters, was an Argentine by birth. His father, a banker who worked in South America, had married a strikingly beautiful lady of Spanish origin. The family had tried to dissuade Edwin from enlisting, and although he had no obligation to serve by virtue of his nationality, he travelled to England where he joined the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment). Whilst in England he spent time in Bristol with his cousin’s family and the letter went on to mention how very depressed Edwin had felt when the family went to see him off at Bristol train station in 1917 after a period of leave. His cousin recalls how, like many others, Edwin appeared to believe that he would never return. It was also during this brief period of leave that the family had to break the sad news to him that his mother had died, which upset him enormously, understandably so.

On hearing of Edwin’s death his father was naturally devastated, and in 1927 he returned to see the family in Bristol, but whilst over from South America he made a visit to his son’s grave at Windmill British Cemetery on the Arras-Cambrai road (Plot I.E.6).Edwin’s cousin had read Coppard’s book and had been pleasantly astonished to find him mentioned. From an author’s point of view, I know how it feels to receive correspondence from relatives of soldiers whose families believe they have been forgotten by the wider world. Although Private Edwin Henry Short is not mentioned in ‘Arras South’, his grave can still be visited, in fact, not far from where he was originally buried by Coppard and the others.

During the Summer of 1917 Coppard describes how much of his time was spent with his team on anti-aircraft defences around Monchy-le-Preux. Not only did the Germans shell this area heavily, their aircraft often overflew it, strafing ground troops and occasionally dropping bombs, just like the one that exploded feet away from his gun-pit. When not engaged in this activity, he and his fellow gunners provided valuable support whenever the Germans carried out one of their many raids on our posts and trenches east of Monchy. Although the raiders were often involved in heavy hand-to-hand fighting, sometimes for hours on end, Coppard and his team would bring down indirect fire on the enemy’s front and support trenches in a bid to prevent these attacks being reinforced or to catch the raiders as they returned. One of these raids,which took place on the 11th July, is referred to in ‘Arras South’ (page 51).

As well as being highly readable and informative, “With a Machine Gun to Cambrai” is not without humour. When water was in short supply Coppard describes how he and his team would improvise by filling the cooling jacket of their Vicker’s machine gun with urine. The gun didn’t seem to mind at all, but the odour from it was quite offensive. Another anecdote recalls the time that he was suffering from a nasty boil on the back of his neck. Whilst bandaged up around the head, neck and jaw he ran into Sir Julian Byng who was on an inspection tour of the division’s sector. Byng asked him if he was wounded. Coppard replied: “No, sir.” Byng then asked him: “Boils?” “Yes, sir”, came the reply from Coppard, very much hoping that he might be sent back for a few days rest and recuperation; hopes that were firmly dashed when Byng confided with him: “Beastly things. I’ve had them myself”, after which Sir Julian and his entourage promptly went on their merry way leaving Coppard to his own devices.

Coppard and his team were in action again on the 2nd August, putting down a machine-gun barrage on the Bois du Sart, an area where the enemy was known to be concentrating his troops during another raid on our lines. On this occasion the Germans used lots of gas shells, drawing favourable comments from Coppard on the effectiveness of the new box-type respirator, though he admits to it being uncomfortable. Between the 6th and the 12th August he and his comrades found themselves out of the line and billeted in tents at Beaurains giving them the opportunity to visit Arras where the wine acted quickly on them. He notes that “carousing was the best medicine for battle-weary soldiers”, though at the same time admitting that he and the others were constantly haunted by the prospect of a return to the trenches.

On the 17th August 1917 Coppard lost another dear friend as a result of an enemy bombardment. ‘Jock’ Herschell had left their dug-out during the shelling, but had then failed to return. Coppard became concerned and went out to look for him. He eventually found him wounded and slumped in a heap in a latrine sap. With the assistance of others Coppard managed to get Herschell back to their dug-out where they discovered numerous shrapnel wounds to his back. Once they had cut away his jacket the true extent of his injuries became apparent as blood bubbled up from his wounds every time Herschell took a breath. Although he appeared to be in no pain, he kept asking about his wounds, and Coppard freely admits that he and the others lied by telling him he had “a Blighty one”. Despite being evacuated to a casualty clearing station, David ‘Jock’ Herschell died from his injuries soon after. He is buried in Duisans British Cemetery (Plot VI.C.16).

In ‘Arras South’, one of the things I stress is how the shelling and fighting around Monchy-le-Preux never really abated during the Summer and Autumn of 1917. Coppard confirms this in his book, noting that “in the Monchy area the shell fire seldom stopped.” With regard to the fighting that took place there between September and early November he notes: “big British raids were developing too, the purpose being to kill, create panic and snatch prisoners. Many special volunteers, tough and resolute, were used in a single raid. They were exempted from ordinary duties and had good rests between operations. Officered by young and intrepid types, they were trained to perfection in bombing and bayonet work. Their plans were secret, and only when they swarmed into a sector of the line did the local troops know that there was trouble afoot. In ten minutes or so it would all be over, and they returned with a batch of frightened prisoners, leaving the local troops the burden of retaliation.”

In 1972 Coppard returned to the battlefields of France and Belgium, including Arras and the surrounding area, but particularly Monchy-le-Preux – the village on the hill. As he travelled along the Arras – Cambrai road he was able to look across to the location of Spade Trench, opposite the Bois du Sart, where Short and Herschell had been killed. Surprisingly, when he left the village it was with a feeling of happiness and contentment rather than sadness. He was able to draw great comfort from seeing it fully restored to a peaceful existence, remarking that his visit there had stirred up his memory more than anywhere else on his tour of the old battlefields. If you haven’t already got it, “With a Machine Gun to Cambrai” is another book well worth adding to your bookshelf.