Roeux was never intended as a front line defensive position, but on the afternoon of the 9th April 1917 it found itself thrust into the limelight, and immediately became the star of the show. For the next five weeks it proved to be a huge thorn in the side of the British. Its buildings, the quarry, the cemetery, the château, not to mention the station and the Chemical Works, all offered multiple opportunities for defence and the Germans made full use of them; all it required was quick thinking and a bit of improvisation. I know that many visitors to the battlefields are often pushed for time, but it really is worth taking a walk around Roeux with an old trench or sketch map of the area. Even allowing for some of the modern developments and new buildings in recent years, its defensive credentials can still be appreciated:
To the south it was protected by the River Scarpe. In many ways, its position could be likened to that of a medieval fortress. It also commanded much of the ground on the opposite bank between the river and Monchy-le-Preux.
The embankment of the Arras-Douai railway line, together with the river, created a very narrow frontage where every advantage lay with the defender. The ground between the river and the embankment rises gradually towards Roeux and the site of the former Chemical Works. Closer to Fampoux the ground was quite marshy, and even today the going can be quite difficult and slippery in places, particularly after heavy rain. Small patches of woodland, such as Mount Pleasant Wood, provided perfect cover for snipers, and even machine gunners, especially after trees had been brought down by shelling.
Greenland Hill provided very good observation over much of the ground that would have to be attacked if Roeux were to be captured. The ruined inn, situated on the lower slopes, half way along the road between Roeux and Gavrelle, provided yet another obstacle, especially on the afternoon of the 9th April. From the Chemical Works and the embankment the Germans could enfilade any attack on Greenland Hill launched from the direction of the Point du Jour ridge.
Much of Roeux was on a reverse slope and it also had good dug-outs, many of which were linked via tunnels to key defensive features, such as the château, the Chemical Works and other strongpoints.
Prior to the 9th April Roeux amounted to little more than a holding point and a dump for supplies destined for the main trench system that lay to the west of the village. German units passed through it on their way up to the trenches, and wire, ammunition, tools and other materials could be deposited there in relative safety until such time as they were required. Some local command posts were also located there, as were some signalling, engineer and medical units; it was certainly a busy place, but it wasn’t really set out for the purposes of defence. All that changed, of course, on the afternoon of the 9th April and it took us five weeks to wrestle it from the grasp of a very determined and resourceful enemy.
In many respects, the key to unlocking Roeux was the Arras-Douai embankment. During the initial phase of fighting, and by virtue of its position, this substantial earthwork was a superb location from which to bring to bear enfilade fire against any attack on Greenland Hill from the direction of the Point du Jour Ridge. As I mentioned earlier, the embankment also hemmed in the ground that lay between it and the river leaving any attacker very limited space in which to manoeuvre and where there was no alternative but to carry out frontal attacks over gently rising ground, a point that can still be appreciated today.
Back in September last year, I took a group of people to Crump Trench. I was talking to them about the British attempts to capture Roeux , and particularly the attempt made on the 23rd April 1917 by the 51st (Highland) Division. I then invited the group to follow me up the bank in front of the cemetery and out into the open field, which had since been harvested and turned over, and which was now completely bare. We walked back towards our coach, which we had left close to the track that leads down to the CWGC cemetery from the main road, a distance of a few hundred yards. At first the village is hidden from view, but as we continued up the convex slope its buildings gradually began to show themselves until the entire western edge of the village was exposed to view, including the former site of the Chemical Works. But it wasn’t so much the village that was exposed, it was we, the group, who felt vulnerable and exposed, just as British troops would have felt as they attacked from the likes of Crump Trench, even in the gloom, the smoke and the mist, as dawn was breaking on the 23rd April. Having just outlined the nature of the day’s events to them, the group was able to appreciate many of the hazards and difficulties faced by men of the 51st (Highland) Division that morning and throughout the day. The strength of the German position around Roeux and the Chemical Works became immediately clear to everyone. Again, if you have the time, and there are no crops in the field, and it’s not too muddy, try it yourself, and experience that feeling of vulnerability, and perhaps more importantly, the time it takes to reach the edge of the village. For my group, it was easily the most talked-about part of the three day visit.
The gap between Roeux and Gavrelle was also a relatively narrow one, and therefore potentially difficult to exploit. As long as both villages held out there was no possibility of progressing beyond Greenland Hill other than by way of costly frontal assaults. Even after the fall of Gavrelle on the 23rd April, the Germans had no need to abandon Roeux as long as they still held the area around Gavrelle Mill, which was still a very strong position from which to launch counter-attacks and which still offered good opportunities for defence. Roeux only became vulnerable once its northern approaches were exposed following the loss of Gavrelle Mill, but until then Roeux and its immediate surroundings remained a very valuable asset. When the Germans were eventually forced to abandon Roeux, they only retired a short distance, by which time it had already served its purpose, and in any case, the British efforts were virtually spent.
If anything, Roeux became even more important after the fall of Monchy-le-Preux on the 11th April. From its commanding position on the opposite bank, it was continually able to frustrate British attempts to advance between Monchy and the river. Anyone with half an hour to spare after a visit to Monchy-le-Preux should continue along the D.33 towards Roeux, past the wood on the right-hand side for another five hundred yards or so. The farm track on the left, once the site of Rifle Trench, is accessible on foot. Follow it until it meets a similar track at right angles running parallel to the D.33. This track was once the location of Bayonet Trench. Even after the British had captured Monchy-le-Preux, both trenches were still able to defend the ground between the village and the river, but a quick glance across the river will also serve to demonstrate just how useful Roeux was when it came to offering supporting fire to both these positions.
Clearly, the Germans had no wish to lose Monchy-le-Preux, in fact they attempted to retake it a few days later, but its loss didn’t exactly amount to a disaster, not by any means. As long as they still held Guémappe and Cavalry Farm, both of which commanded the main Arras-Cambrai road, they knew that they still had every chance of limiting our advance along this central corridor of the battlefield. Besides, the Germans still held Infantry Hill and Artillery Hill, and with Roeux also in their possession, the Germans remained in a relatively strong position on this part of the battlefield. All of these locations were crucial, which explains why the Germans were prepared to launch counter-attack after counter-attack whenever any of them appeared threatened. This remained the case until such time as the British intentions became clear, and perhaps more importantly, until it became clear the extent to which we could carry out those intentions, which is something I intend to cover in a future article.