‘Mind the gap’ – Bailleul, Gavrelle and the 4th Division

For anyone interested in the events surrounding the Battle of Arras I would recommend “Prelude to Victory” by Brigadier-General E.L. Spears. Towards the end of the book he writes about the opening days of the battle itself. In one of the paragraphs he writes:

“When the 4th Division reached the Green Line it had to its left the undefended gap between Bailleul and Gavrelle. Had it then faced north, or sent some elements towards the space between these two places, the advance of the 34th and 51st Divisions would have been greatly facilitated, for the enemy detachments which were holding up their advance would certainly not have stood their ground when they found we were advancing into their backs. Such a movement would have made inevitable the one thing the Germans feared above all others north of the Scarpe, the capture of Bailleul.”

He is right to point out that the gap between Bailleul and Gavrelle was undefended on the afternoon of the 9th April, though perhaps he should have qualified this remark by stating that the gap was ‘virtually’ undefended. There were small pockets of Germans in and around Bailleul, but almost certainly too few to have made a difference had they really been put to the test. Enemy resistance across the entire battlefield was very patchy that day. Many Germans were only too happy to surrender to the advancing British and Canadian troops whilst others retired, and some even fled, but in a number of places small detachments held fast and put up a very determined fight. The gap between Bailleul and Gavrelle was therefore ‘potentially’ open to exploitation on the afternoon of the 9th April.

On the face of it, Bailleul provided a reasonably good opportunity for a defensive stand. The Arras-Lens railway line, and the spur that ran off it around the western and northern edges of the village, did provide the Germans with a defensive position, but it failed to offer any long term solution and could not be sustained beyond a couple of days. A brief glance at the panorama on pages 120-121 of “Arras” by Peter Barton and Jeremy Banning illustrates perfectly why this was so. The railway cutting and its embankments offered excellent, temporary cover for small detachments of machine gunners and snipers, but the village and the entire area surrounding it were incredibly vulnerable to artillery fire. With Vimy Ridge now in Canadian hands, it quickly became clear to the Germans that Bailleul was no longer tenable as a defensive position. They did, however, bring up a battalion overnight on the 9th/10th April, deploying it along the road that links Bailleul with Gavrelle. They understood the immediate need to plug the gap, but only as a temporary expedient to allow them to re-group behind the Oppy-Méricourt Line, which was the obvious choice with regard to any future defence on this part of the battlefield. In short, Bailleul was now more of a liability than an asset, and it certainly didn’t warrant any unnecessary expenditure of valuable resources, especially manpower. Other parts of the battlefield were deemed much more critical, as was demonstrated by the transfer of four battalions from Chérisy to Roeux on the night of the 9th/10th April. For these reasons, I think Spears was mistaken when he stated that the Germans feared the loss of Bailleul above all else, at least north of the Scarpe. The following is a short account of what actually happened when the 2nd Division took over this part of the line from the 51st (Highland) Division:

On the morning of the 13th April a patrol led by Second Lieutenant G.H. Lee of the 1st King’s Royal Rifle Corps discovered that the Germans had abandoned their forward defensive positions along the railway embankment to the west of Bailleul. On its own initiative the patrol edged its way forwards, occupying the railway station and capturing a 77mm field gun before setting up a strongpoint with ten men and a Lewis gun. The discovery was indeed timely, since our artillery was due to begin bombarding this and other nearby positions that afternoon in preparation for an attack scheduled for the following day. As the new line was being consolidated, another post consisting of twenty men and two Lewis guns was established to protect the position against possible enemy counter-attacks.

The 23rd Royal Fusiliers sent two companies forward to link up with the men of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, who were already dug in along the embankment, whilst the 24th Royal Fusiliers, operating with a screen of scouts ahead of them, pushed on and established a line running north-south between Willerval and Bailleul. A six inch enemy naval gun was found abandoned in the orchard by the sugar factory at the crossroads between the two villages, and by nightfall all of these units had set up defensive posts and were beginning to settle down. The British didn’t have to capture Bailleul, it was more or less handed to them once its occupants had left.

The other part of Spears’ statement concerns the performance of the 4th Division on the opening day. He writes: “Had it then faced north, or sent some elements towards the space between these two places, the advance of the 34th and 51st Divisions would have been greatly facilitated.” The first thing we need to do is look at the different situations facing each of these three divisions on the afternoon of the 9th April, and secondly, we have to keep an eye on the clock rather than the map.

The 51st (Highland) Division’s plan of attack had been a complicated affair throughout. Between the Blue Line and the Brown Line, i.e. the second and third objectives, its frontage widened from 3,000 yards to 4,000 yards. Part of its initial attack had been in a northerly direction against the Labyrinth defences rather than easterly. The 6th Seaforth Highlanders, supported by the regiment’s 5th battalion, had become embroiled in some serious fighting and it took nine hours to capture the Blue Line, far longer than had been anticipated. It was 6.30 p.m. before some of the division’s units began to approach the Brown Line, but it was already too late in the day to consider making an assault on it, and the 7th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders were actually facing the wrong way. Having veered too far to the right, they had crossed two communication trenches before halting at a third, consolidating this new position in the mistaken belief that they were now occupying their intended objective. Even if the 4th Division had been able to send some of its units into the gap between Bailleul and Gavrelle, there still has to be a question mark as to whether the 51st (Highland) Division was in a position to have carried on with its advance on the opening day. By 6.30 p.m. it was probably time for it to start thinking about re-organizing and sorting out its own position in readiness for the following day rather than looking at going on.

As for the 34th Division, its left-hand brigade, the 103rd, had become held up at the Blue Line, whilst its 102nd Brigade had managed to reach the Brown Line and had even ventured a little way beyond it. However, on the extreme right of the division, the 15th Royal Scots could only muster around 100 men and the battalion was barely able to cover its own front. It was, however, in touch with the 9th (Scottish) Division to its right, but a gap of 100 yards existed between it and the battalion on its left, the 10th Lincolnshire Regiment. The 20th Northumberland Fusiliers had reached the Blue Line, but had suffered significant casualties along the way, and the 23rd Northumberland Fusiliers had also met with strong resistance. Everywhere along the 102nd Brigade’s front the wire protecting the Brown Line was virtually uncut. The 34th Division already had enough problems of its own to contend with, and it must therefore remain doubtful as to whether it could have gone any further than it did on the afternoon of the opening day.

As for the 4th Division, it only passed through the 9th (Scottish) Division at around 3.15 p.m. Its first task was to clear Fampoux, which it did after a short fight along the eastern edge of the village. The Hyderabad Redoubt, a German strongpoint just north of there, was captured by the 1st Rifle Brigade at around 4 p.m., but it wasn’t all plain sailing. Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Horsfall, 2nd Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, takes up the story:

“After waiting while some of our heavies were brought to bear on Fampoux we rushed the village, which was a very big one. Only towards the eastern outskirts was there any real resistance. The Bosch made a stand beyond the village, holding a railway embankment on our right, several trenches and a line of houses beyond with MGs. Trying to advance to the Green Line we lost about 80 men and 6 officers in 2-3 minutes. The survivors had to lie flat, any man showing himself the slightest bit being shot to pieces. I decided that without artillery support we could not push further, so we dug in along the forward edge of the village (5.35p.m.) It was now rather an anxious time for a bit as south of the river, on our right, a heavy Bosch counter-attack had gone clear past and about ¾ mile behind us. On our left, where we were warned an attack was expected, the rest of the Brigade had not come up into line. Both flanks were in the air.”

So, the 2nd Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, on the extreme right of the division’s front, found itself pinned down just beyond the eastern outskirts of Fampoux. Meanwhile, on the division’s left front, the 1st Rifle Brigade was experiencing much the same thing. Whenever its men tried to edge forwards beyond the Hyderabad Redoubt they too came under heavy rifle and machine-gun fire. The German detachments responsible for this hold up were not particularly strong in numbers, but they were very determined and sufficiently well-armed. Moreover, they were at least a thousand yards away and the intervening ground was completely open and virtually devoid of cover. Any advance towards Greenland Hill would have resulted in very heavy casualties.

Behind the 1st Rifle Brigade, the 1st East Lancashire Regiment did actually turn and face north towards the gap between Gavrelle and Bailleul, but it was not in any position to advance further. Between the Point du Jour and the Hyderabad Redoubt the line already bulged outwards towards Greenland Hill. Given the failure of the 34th Division to keep pace, the 4th Division had little option but to protect its own left flank, which was clearly its immediate priority. The 1st Hampshire Regiment, next to the 1st East Lancashire Regiment, might have been able to deploy some of its units northwards to deal with the pockets of resistance in front of the 34th Division, but it was probably too late in the day for that to happen. Furthermore, nobody really knew the strength of those enemy detachments, or their exact positions, or whether the Germans now had sufficient troops just beyond Gavrelle to launch counter-attacks later that evening. Besides, crossing the front of a neighbouring division without its full knowledge and co-operation was a very risky business. With little over three hours of daylight remaining, it was now time to start thinking about consolidation rather than further exploitation; there was certainly no time to start sorting out other people’s problems.

Spears’ comments regarding the 4th Division have always struck me as a little harsh. Sometimes risks have to be taken, and sometimes they pay off, but neither the 4th Division, nor General Allenby, would have known just how far away the enemy’s reserve divisions were, or how long it would take them to reach the battlefield. Although enemy counter-attacks were expected, none actually materialized that night, and so with hindsight some risks might have been worth taking, but things were certainly not that clear at the time. Let’s not forget that between them the 9th (Scottish) Division and the 4th Division had made the biggest advance against entrenched enemy positions so far on the Western Front. By late afternoon the men were wet, tired, cold, and very likely hungry. At least in its current position the 4th Division was well placed to consolidate the day’s gains; advance further and it risked extending itself beyond what it might reasonably be expected to defend. Although many Germans had been seen retiring throughout the day, in some cases dragging away field guns, the level of resistance now coming from locations such as the Arras-Douai railway embankment and the Chemical Works was giving serious cause for concern. Hostile shelling had also increased during the late afternoon. Was this resistance merely a desperate effort to cover a general withdrawal, perhaps as far back as the newly-built Drocourt-Quéant Line, or was it evidence that enemy reinforcements had already begun to arrive on the battlefield? I’m not convinced that anyone really knew the answer to that question during the late afternoon of the 9th April; certainly, for the men of the 4th Division, the situation would not have been as clear as it appears to us today. We perhaps need to slip into their shoes before we rush to judgement.

At around 4p.m. a subtle change began to take place on the battlefield. With only four hours of daylight left, the Germans defending the area around Greenland Hill and the Arras-Douai railway line were handed a huge psychological advantage. If they could hold out until darkness fell they knew that reinforcements would be on the battlefield by morning. On the other hand, if we were unable to capitalize on the day’s success during those few remaining hours, momentum might just begin to shift in favour of the enemy. Ironically, in spite of the day’s many successes, the pressure was now on us rather than our opponents. On the 10th April the Germans still faced a very anxious time. Their reserve divisions had been too far away on the opening day and had been unable to intervene, but time and the weather were on their side. Experience on the Somme had already shown that the Germans were extremely adept at improvising basic field works and defensive positions, and also that they could do so more quickly than we could advance without the aid of a protective barrage. It would take days for us to bring up enough artillery and shells for this to happen, which gave the Germans time to re-organize and bring up their reinforcements and guns in readiness for whatever came next.

Although, on this occasion, I disagree with Spears’ analysis of the situation concerning Bailleul and the 4th Division’s performance on the opening day of the battle, I still regard his work as essential reading for anyone interested in the Battle of Arras, and particularly the French offensive on the Aisne.