“Same story, different tale” – Arras Memorials and Arras North

It’s not uncommon to come across different accounts of the same event and in “Visiting the Fallen” there are several such instances. Sometimes it’s a case of an event viewed from a different perspective, sometimes different people have only partial information rather than the whole story; occasionally rumour becomes shaped as fact, at other times there is even what we might call selective reporting, and sometimes recollections can simply prove to be wrong. Rather than posing a dilemma, I find these apparent inconsistencies interesting.

“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off”

One that immediately springs to mind concerns the circumstances surrounding the death of Sergeant St. George Otway LLOYD, 78th Battalion, Canadian Infantry, who was killed in action on the 19th February 1917, aged 23, whilst taking part in a raid on German positions on Vimy Ridge. Given the course of events that day, readers will not be surprized to find that he is now commemorated on the Canadian National Memorial. (Page 193 – Arras Memorials) Without wishing to cause any offence here, the difference between original intention and unintended consequence always reminds me of that much-quoted line from “The Italian Job”.

The object of the raid was the destruction of an enemy mineshaft and the raiders went equipped with a portable explosive charge of a type that was common and easy to use. There are lots of accounts of similar raids where such charges were used to good effect, and very often the raiders would simply hurl them down the steps of dugouts, etc. The explosion that ensued was likely to cause significant damage, including the potential for partial structural collapse, as well as the death of anyone within the immediate vicinity of the blast.

One version of events is that Sergeant LLOYD, for whatever reason, may have entered the mineshaft in order to detonate his device rather than just throwing it into the entrance. Why he might have done this is anyone’s guess. Just how much any of the other members of the raiding party knew about LLOYD’s final act that night must, to a large extent, remain uncertain, not least because anyone with him near the entrance to the shaft would have been blown sky-high, or else buried under tons of earth and debris from the explosion that followed. Almost certainly what LLOYD didn’t know was that the Germans had already begun loading the shaft with their own explosives. When LLOYD’s charge went off it also detonated the enemy’s cache resulting in a massive explosion and a crater of considerable size, known thereafter as Winnipeg Crater. In one sense, whether LLOYD threw or placed his charge is really immaterial, but in any event he was clearly unable to put enough distance between him and it before it detonated the entire contents of the shaft.

What is perhaps surprizing is how far the news of Sergeant LLOYD’s exploit managed to travel after his death. The story even managed to reach the ears of Brigadier-General E. L. Spears who was deployed at the highest level as liaison officer with the French Army. There his position was just about as far removed from day to day life in the trenches as it was possible to get, and yet a version of events still managed to travel that far, though by then it appears to have been modified in one important respect. According to the account that reached Spears, LLOYD had deliberately sacrificed his own life in order to achieve the raid’s objective, and according to this version of events, LLOYD had realized at some point that his chances of setting the fuse and escaping were non-existent, but had nevertheless gone ahead and detonated the charge in order to achieve his objective, thereby sacrificing his own life in the process. (“Prelude to Victory” – E.L. Spears – Pages 317/318)

On the face of it, this seems fairly unlikely and, as with so many extraordinary accounts, the story seems to have ‘grown’ as it passed along the grapevine that was the Western Front. Spears certainly had no direct knowledge of the raid. Why would LLOYD have chosen to remain with the device? Having located the mineshaft, all he had to do was set the charge, get rid of it inside the entrance, then make his way back to re-join the rest of his comrades. The resulting explosion would almost certainly have damaged the entrance to the shaft, which, after all, was the main objective of the raid; at the very least this would have delayed the German efforts, possibly even forcing them to abandon the workings altogether. Even if the Germans did eventually succeed in recovering and blowing the mine, the Canadians, being aware of that possibility, could always have taken sensible precautions to minimise casualties by thinning out their own line, a common practice in such circumstances. Provided they won the subsequent race to capture and consolidate the far lip of the newly-formed crater, very little would be lost. Given a little more time, and in the right circumstances, destruction by counter-mining might even have been a possibility.

What we don’t know, of course, is whether LLOYD had inadvertently stumbled across the German cache of explosives. If he had, he would certainly have faced a stark choice. At that point he would have known that the explosion from his own device was likely to trigger an even greater one, one that he had no chance of outrunning. On the other hand, by not detonating his charge, the enemy’s mineshaft would remain intact and the raid would inevitably fail in its objective – quite a dilemma. What also seems highly unlikely is that the Canadians knew anything about the German explosives in the mineshaft prior to carrying out the raid. If they had had any inkling, would they really have gone ahead with a plan  to destroy it using the method chosen, which effectively risked turning the raid into a suicide mission for at least some of those involved, including Sergeant LLOYD?

No doubt, in the aftermath of the raid, there would have been a good deal of speculation among the surviving members of the party as to what had actually happened. In addition to any official report on the operation, the incident would have been talked about for days after the event, if not weeks, by those who had taken part in it. In the wake of such speculation it is not difficult to imagine how different versions of the story might have emerged.

If Sergeant LLOYD was faced with an unenviable choice, and had then decided to sacrifice his own life for the sake of the mission, we are definitely in VC territory, though any potential award would inevitably be dependent on witness testimony. Of course, anyone close enough to LLOYD to have witnessed his final deliberations and actions was killed alongside him in the explosion, and so it’s hardly surprizing that no evidence ever emerged to justify the ultimate award for bravery. Whatever the truth of the matter, and we shall never know for sure, LLOYD’s actions were recognized by a posthumous mention in despatches.

My own feeling, for what it’s worth, is that LLOYD was probably unaware of the contents of the mineshaft when he discarded his charge and that he was blissfully unaware of the consequences, though this is certainly no reflection on his bravery in carrying out what was essentially the most critical part of the operation. On the contrary, he is precisely the kind of unsung hero whose actions I wanted to highlight when I set about writing “Visiting the Fallen”.

“If at first you don’t succeed… or third time lucky”

Another case in point is that of Captain the Honourable Sydney James Drever JOICEY, 10th Northumberland Fusiliers, who was killed in action on the 20th March 1916 near Calonne and who is now buried in Lievin Communal Cemetery Extension. (Arras North – Page 199)

He is referred to by name (albeit wrongly as Captain the Honourable J.G. Joicey) in “Twenty-Two Months Under Fire” by Brigadier-General Henry Page Croft, CMG, MP, which was first published in 1917. Croft describes JOICEY as an “extremely gallant officer” and recalls how he was killed by a bomb after going out to examine wire between two saps, one held by us, the other by the enemy. He goes on to add that several attempts were made that same night to recover his body in spite of heavy fire. Although he doesn’t name the man, he also records how a volunteer (Serjeant Green) had crawled out and tied wire to JOICEY’s body in order to facilitate its recovery. However, when the man’s comrades pulled on the wire it snapped and the attempt failed.

According to Croft, it was feared that JOICEY  had maps on him, hence the considerable efforts to recover his body before the enemy did. It was decided to try again the following night and a suitable plan was put together, including an intense bombardment by artillery and trench mortars around the German sap, during which a party would rush out, retrieve the body and bring it back to our own lines. The Germans, however, appear to have had the same idea, putting down a barrage of their own fifteen minutes before ours was due to begin.

In Croft’s version of events it was the Germans who recovered JOICEY’s body. However, we know that this is incorrect, not least because of the circumstances of Serjeant Green’s gallantry award (He was awarded the MM after recovering the body at the third attempt). It is possible that the Germans reached the body during their foray, though they would probably have confined their attention to searching it; after all, why would they go to the trouble of dragging a dead weight (in this case quite literally) back to their own lines? Croft definitely makes no mention of Serjeant Green’s eventual recovery of the body, which was clearly brought in after earlier attempts had failed. It may be that Croft was never even made aware of this outcome, and in a sense perhaps it was no longer considered such an important detail, particularly if Brigade had come to accept that the enemy now had JOICEY’s body, including any possible maps. In turn, this may well have closed Croft’s interest in the matter, at least from an operational point of view.

“All’s well that ends well”

Another partial account of events is the one given in the “History of the Fifty-First (Highland) Division” concerning two of its officers who were in action on the 13th November 1916 at Beaumont Hamel. It makes no reference whatsoever to the temporary setback that befell Second Lieutenant George Eric EDWARDS before he and Second Lieutenant (later Captain) William Dawson MUNRO finally achieved their objective. Instead, it focuses, perhaps understandably, on the day’s overall successes, including  the eventual achievement of both officers, which was the capture of a battalion headquarters situated in a large cave, complete with 300-400 prisoners. The full version of events is given in “Arras Memorials” (Page 103 – Arras Memorials). 

However, the divisional narrative does rejoice in further detail regarding the contents of the cave. As well as weapons and plentiful ammunition, the booty also included tinned beef from Montevideo, Norwegian Sardines, cigarettes (including Wills’ Gold Flake), cigars, (many a Jock was seen smoking large cigars for days after the battle) along with thousands of bottles of soda and beer. Other items found were a piano, (quite possibly the one played by Captain John Lauder in an episode recalled by his father, the music hall celebrity, Harry Lauder, in his work: “A Minstrel in France”) some ladies’ dancing slippers, silk stockings and petticoats. These last items led to speculation as to whether they had actually belonged to a German lady or, as the divisional history puts it in the parlance of the day, to a local Boche ‘Gertie’! The attack also succeeded in capturing all the incoming mail recently delivered to that part of the front line.

The official history of this division is well worth reading. As well as relying quite heavily on it with regard to the division’s exploits on the Arras battlefield, I’ve often found it worth reading for its perceptive comments; for instance, it contains some very interesting observations on the final few hours before its men went over the top on the morning of the 13th November 1916.