Visiting the Fallen – A trio of cemeteries just beyond Arras

My working draft of “Visiting the Fallen” also had the subtitle: “A Guide to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemeteries in and around Arras”. The question was how far should I stretch that definition? In the end I decided to be guided by the map that appears on the end-paper (front) of “Military Operations – France and Belgium – 1917 – Volume 1”, otherwise known as the Official History. (The map runs north to south, from Lens to Bapaume, and west to east, from Warlus to Cagnicourt)  That, I thought, together with a bit of common sense, would probably do the trick, though I knew I could always expand or shrink it a bit as and when required.

With that in mind, I thought long and hard whether to include the cemeteries situated around Bucquoy (half way between Hebuterne and Courcelles-le-Comte). Likewise, I considered including Sauchy-Cauchy Communal Cemetery & Extension, barely a stone’s throw from Rumaucourt. I had already decided to cover Warry Copse Cemetery and Railway Cutting Cemetery in ‘Arras South’, both of which are located around the village of Courcelles-le-Comte, and Rumaucourt Communal Cemetery also features in that volume. However the ‘Bucquoy’ group of cemeteries, plus the one at Suchy-Cauchy, would have added a good twenty-five pages, possibly thirty pages, to a book that already ran to 328 pages of text, so after some deliberation I opted to leave them out. I was also acutely conscious that I was perhaps starting to stretch things a bit too far in terms of distance from Arras, which was a pity because there’s a very interesting link between Bucquoy Road Cemetery and Sauchy-Cauchy Communal Cemetery & Extension. The third part of the story also involves a man buried in Naves Communal Cemetery Extension, a few miles north-east of Cambrai. The trio are:

Second Lieutenant Arthur Edward Arnold, MC, MM, 416th (City of Edinburgh) Field Company, Royal Engineers – buried at Sauchy-Cauchy Communal Cemetery & Extension. (A.1)

Sapper Charles Arthur Cox, 416th (City of Edinburgh) Field Company, Royal Engineers – buried at Bucquoy Road Cemetery. (Plot III. J.10)

Corporal James McPhie, VC, 416th (City of Edinburgh) Field Company, Royal Engineers – buried at Naves Communal Cemetery Extension. (Plot II.E.4)

By the early hours of the 13th October 1918 the 56th (London) Division was ready to continue its advance, but had reached the banks of the Sensée Canal, a significant obstacle measuring some seventy feet wide. Added to that, there were no bridges still intact. The village of Aubigny-au-Bac lay on the far side and two strongly defended German posts, quite close to the canal, were situated about twelve hundred yards from each other where the original bridges had once stood before their demolition. Brigadier-General Coke, the commanding officer of the 169th Brigade, decided that he would attempt to cross between these two points under cover of darkness.

In order to put a patrol across the canal he turned to Lieutenant Arnold and men of the 416th (City of Edinburgh) Field Company, Royal Engineers, who were tasked with constructing rafts to carry a party of officers from the Queen’s Westminster Rifles across the canal. On the far bank the patrol was to explore  the viability of carrying out an attack at company strength. Time was short and material would have to be brought up in the rain; absolute silence would also have to be observed if this daring feat was to be accomplished. Surprisingly, Arnold took the decision not to use rafts, but chose instead to put a footbridge across the canal. In a brilliant feat of engineering the footbridge was completed by 3 a.m. enabling the Queen’s Westminster Rifles to send its patrol across, but not before Arnold had ensured that he was the first man across, inspiring and instilling confidence in those following behind him.

It was for this act of gallantry that Arnold won his MC, gazetted on the 2nd April 1919, though the citation for it only appeared on  the 10th December 1919. The patrol found three German posts very close to the bridge, but, for whatever reason, none of them opened fire. A platoon from the 1/2nd Battalion, London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) was then sent over, and after rushing the posts, found only two Germans in the immediate vicinity the bridge. Further platoons were then pushed across the canal and the attack on the village was carried out. Though initially successful, the men of the 1/2nd London Regiment were later forced back by a German counter-attack, eventually giving up the bridgehead at around 5 p.m.

A further sortie over Arnold’s bridge was made during the early hours of the 14th with the Germans now fully aware of its location and the likelihood of further attempts to cross it. Sniper fire was heavy and at one point, as the men bunched, the bridge began to break up. It was at this point that Corporal James McPhie and a fellow Sapper, Charles Arthur Cox, went into the water under heavy fire and held the bridge together, despite having their fingers trampled during the desperate rush to get across. Later, in broad daylight, McPhie and Cox, together with several others from 416th Field Company, returned to the bridge and began to repair it. When McPhie was wounded in the head and fell into the canal Cox went to his rescue. McPhie insisted he be left, but Cox ignored him and continued in his attempt to rescue him. Unfortunately, McPhie was hit again a number of times and it soon became clear to Cox that his corporal was now dead. Only at this point did Cox let go of him. Remarkably, Cox, who had already received six bullet wounds himself, still had enough energy to grab a rope thrown to him from the bank by another Sapper. He was pulled out of the canal badly injured and was evacuated to casualty clearing facilities, but sadly died from his wounds, aged 28, three days later on the 17th October.

Later that day Coke’s 169th Brigade handed over the bridgehead to Canadian troops. A further attempt to force the bridgehead was made on the 15th, but this too was unsuccessful. After being relieved the 169th Brigade withdrew to Sauchy-Cauchy. It is clear why Arnold was awarded his MC, likewise Mc Phie’s VC, but it has always puzzled me why Cox’s efforts went unrewarded. From every account that I’ve read, the actions of McPhie and Cox appear to have been as close to ‘joint enterprise’ as it is possible to imagine. Whenever I’m close to Bucquoy Road Cemetery I always try to pop in and visit Cox’s grave to pay my respects to him and ensure that his gallantry doesn’t go unrecognized.

Apart from Lieutenant Arthur Edward Arnold, MC, MM, 416th Field Company, Royal Engineers, who was killed in action on the 13th October 1918, (A.1) and Corporal Edward Charles Crossley, MM, 512th Field Company, Royal Engineers, who was killed the following day, (A.3) Sauchy-Cauchy Communal Cemetery & Extension contains another interesting gallantry award holder with connections to the Arras battlefield.

Corporal Henri George Latarche, DCM, 512th Field Company, Royal Engineers, was also killed in action on the 13th October 1918. His DCM was gazetted on the 1st January 1919 and the citation appeared later that year on the 3rd September. In March 1917 during the retreat to the Hindenburg Line, and again in August 1918, the Germans resorted to laying booby traps and placing delayed-action mines in buildings and at road intersections, etc. On the 28th August 1918 the Germans still held part of Croisilles, a few miles south of Arras. Despite the obvious risks, Corporal Latarche entered the village via the main road in search of hidden mines. As he reached the centre of the village he discovered a mine just below the surface, disconnected it and then removed it while under sniper and machine gun fire. After reporting the road clear of further traps, he and two other Sappers spent most of the night carrying wounded men back to the nearest advanced dressing station. The following day he again went forward and removed six booby-traps east of Croisilles. His citation concludes by noting that throughout the entire operation to clear the village he showed marked courage and did first-rate work. Latarche was born in Bromley-by-Bow, East London, which is where he also enlisted. “Soldiers Died in the Great War” shows Crossley as having been killed in action on the 14th October 1918. The 416th and the 512th Field Companies were both part of the 56th (London) Division.