There can be no doubt that Monchy-le-Preux was a key location on the Arras battlefield. Its capture on the 11th April 1917 was an important event. The Germans certainly didn’t want to lose it, which was why they tried to retake it a few days later on the 14th April. That date rightly belongs to Lieutenant-Colonel Forbes Robertson and his gallant little band of Newfoundlanders whose exploits are now commemorated by a plaque in the village, but its loss was never critical for the Germans, nor was it critical in March 1918 when we were also forced to abandon it.
Its capture on the 11th April was heralded as a triumph, which in many ways it was, but holding on to it was always something of a mixed blessing. In the end, rather than waste valuable manpower trying to retake it, the Germans went for the cheaper option and subjected it to frequent heavy bombardment. They knew every inch of it, and if they couldn’t have it they were determined to make its tenure as uncomfortable as possible for the new owners.
On the 11th April Monchy-le-Preux provided a refuge for the cavalry whose men, in a dismounted capacity, did great work setting up defensive positions around the village against possible counter-attacks. Rapid consolidation of the village was important and the speedy, if unexpected, arrival of cavalry provided useful support to men of the 37th Division. The German response, as we all know, was swift and clinical. They merely drew their bombardment in around the village, like a giant fishing net, completely isolating it, before raining down shells resulting in heavy losses, especially among the horses.
It’s worth noting here that cavalry was unable to press on beyond the line reached by the infantry that day. Monchy cannot be held up as an example of what cavalry might have achieved on the 9th April, particularly east of Fampoux.
In April and May 1917, the real prize was not Monchy-le-Preux. The real prize was the high ground immediately east of the village, by which I mean Infantry Hill and Artillery Hill. In the third chapter of “Arras South” I outlined in some detail the events that took place here long after the Battle of Arras had ended. In April and May, and throughout the summer of 1917, Infantry Hill and Artillery Hill were of critical importance to the Germans. Although Monchy-le-Preux offered us good observation to the south and south-east, the capture of Infantry Hill and Artillery Hill during the Spring of 1917 would have conferred even greater advantages. The resulting threat to the Germans would have been huge.
The Hindenburg Line had been well thought out, and although the northern end had been weakened following the loss of Neuville-Vitasse on the opening day, followed by Héninel and Wancourt on the 12th April, the rest of the line remained pretty much intact. The Germans remained confident in their ability to defy any further assaults on it, and although Bullecourt eventually fell, their assumptions were essentially proved right. Even so, there was still a pressing need for them to provide a fall-back position behind their existing lines directly opposite Arras. The Germans had already begun work on such a position, but the Drocourt-Quéant Line, as it became known, was nowhere near complete. This switch line was vital in order to connect the Hindenburg Line with the defences around Lens, but the Germans needed more time to complete it. The loss of Infantry Hill and Artillery Hill would not only have exposed this on-going work to full view, it would have offered excellent views over those northern parts of the Hindenburg Line still held by the Germans.
The Drocourt-Quéant Line was critically important for the protection of Douai and Cambrai. Had the Germans been unable to complete the Drocourt-Quéant Line, they might easily have faced the unwanted prospect of having to withdraw behind the Canal du Nord, which is exactly what happened in September 1918 after the Drocourt-Quéant Line was captured by the Canadians.
So it was that, in Spring and Summer 1917, Infantry Hill and Artillery Hill became a real line in the sand for the Germans, and the same could be said for the area around Bullecourt. Just behind Bullecourt lay Quéant, where the southern end of the Drocourt-Quéant Line joined up with the Hindenburg Line, so it became equally important not to concede ground there. Bullecourt wasn’t just about defending the Hindenburg Line, it was also about defending the Drocourt-Quéant Line and ensuring its completion free from direct observation or undue harassment from our artillery.
The final objective for the Second Battle of Bullecourt on the 3rd May 1917 included the villages of Hendecourt and Riencourt. This last village was a mere thousand yards from where the Drocourt-Quéant Line joined up with the Hindenburg Line. Although the Germans were forced to give up Bullecourt, they made sure that it came at a huge cost. The loss of Bullecourt, together with another small section of the Hindenburg Line, was a price worth paying in order to protect the area behind Riencourt where the Drocourt-Quéant Line started its journey northwards.
Had the French offensive delivered much more than it did, the Germans would have found it extremely difficult to focus on the British efforts around Arras to the extent that they did. The French failure let the Germans off the hook. Once the Battle of Arras was over, the Germans were free to concentrate their efforts on finishing the Drocourt-Quéant Line. In front of it they were also able to construct strong defences around the villages of Vis-en-Artois and Haucourt, including the Vis-en-Artois Switch, whilst behind the Drocourt-Quéant Line they added a support line and a further switch line, the Buissy Switch.
Incidentally, chapters seven and eight of ‘Arras South’ cover many aspects of the fighting that took place around the Drocourt-Quéant Line in 1918, told through those buried in the nearby cemeteries. Again, it’s a much neglected part of the Arras battlefield, but one that I’ll be covering in more detail next year on the website.