Tinkering around the edges – Arras South

Minor operations were often carried out at the same time as much bigger affairs and, understandably perhaps, they tend to have attracted little attention over the years. The opening of the Battle of Arras was no exception. For that reason alone, while putting together ‘Arras South’, I was tempted to venture across the Bapaume-Cambrai road. Had I done so, I would have covered the small operation carried out by the Australians against the villages of Boursies, Demicourt and Hermies. The cemeteries in that area contain a number of interesting personalities, perhaps the most famous of them being Brigadier-General Roland Boys Bradford, VC, MC, who is buried at Hermies British Cemetery. His brother, James Barker Bradford, MC, is buried at Duisans British Cemetery and both are mentioned in ‘Arras North’- Page 237, as is their brother, George Nicholson Bradford, who won the VC at Zeebrugge in April 1918. It was quite a remarkable family. Anyone with time on their hands after visiting Arras or the Somme might want to consider spending half a day on and around the Bapaume-Cambrai road. Just before reaching the Cambrai Memorial at Louverval, coming from Bapaume, there is a minor road on the right that leads off towards Doignies and then on to Hermies. It was here, between the main road and this one, that the Australian operation took place. In the end, as far as ‘Arras South’ was concerned, I had to draw a line somewhere, and the Bapaume-Cambrai road seemed a reasonably good point at which to stop, although the judgement in many ways was purely arbitrary and somewhat artificial.

Following the fighting at Noreuil on the 2nd April 1917, the villages of Boursies, Demicourt and Hermies were still in enemy hands and lay between the southernmost division of I Anzac Corps and the Hindenburg Line. After spending three weeks out of the line training, the 1st Australian Division was given the task of capturing them. The 4th Australian Division on its left was tasked with assisting the main effort taking place at Arras by attacking at Bullecourt, and when the 1st Australian Division relieved the 5th Australian Division it also took over the Lagnicourt sector from the 4th Division. The capture of these three villages was scheduled to take place on the 9th April in the hope that it would assist the main effort at Arras, though the reverse was equally true, if not more so.

The exact timing and method of the attack was left to local commanders, though Major-General Walker was instructed that all three villages were to be captured by noon on the 9th. The original plan suggested by Lieutenant-General Birdwood and Major-General White was for the assault on Hermies to take place before the attack on the other two villages, but this was then changed to a simultaneous attack on all three. By doing so, it was hoped that Demicourt, which lay between the other two, might be given up without too much of a fight.

However, before all this could happen, a preliminary operation needed to be carried out at 3 a.m. on the 8th April to dislodge the enemy from the ground between Louverval Wood and Boursies. Two companies of the 10th Battalion and two from the 12th Battalion, Australian Infantry, were assigned to carry out this initial task. It was a location that had recently proved troublesome owing to the presence of an enemy detachment supported by machine guns; accordingly, a fair degree of opposition was to be expected. Although progress was made here, the Germans withdrew to a sunken lane running through Boursies before launching a series of counter-attacks, especially around the site of the former mill. They even managed to bring up some field guns and some additional machine-gun support, so that the fighting here went on until late evening, and even beyond that. When the main attack on the three villages began at 4.15 a.m. on the 9th April, fighting to recover lost ground between Louverval and Boursies was still going on. What had begun as a prelude to the main attack had turned into a determined fight lasting twenty-six hours, far longer than expected. The 10th and 12th Battalions pressed home their attack on Boursies and the village eventually fell. All told, the 10th Battalion sustained eighty-five casualties, the 12th Battalion rather more; its total came to 256, including 7 officers and 15 sergeants.

The village of Hermies was much larger than either Boursies or Demicourt, but as with earlier attacks at Lagnicourt and Doignies, the Australians were able to make their assault at right angles to the main wire entanglements protecting the village. Consequently, the 2nd Battalion made its approach from the north-west with its right flank against the road running between Hermies with Doignies. An attack would also be carried out directly against the western side of the village. The plan proved successful and by 6 a.m. Hermies was in Australian hands, despite some pockets of resistance.

Initially, it was reported that Demicourt had been abandoned, but this turned out not to be the case. Here, machine-gun fire caused some unexpected casualties, but by noon Demicourt and Boursies were both secure. Total casualties for these operations came to 649 for all ranks. The Germans estimated their losses at around 50 killed, 100 wounded, and 240 missing, 200 of whom were now prisoners.

Some of the Australians who fell during this operation are buried nearby, but others are now commemorated on the Australian Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. Among those buried close to the scene of the fighting are:

Second Lieutenant William O’Brien, 10th Battalion, Australian Infantry, 9th April 1917 – Vaulx Hill Cemetery. (III.B.8)

Lieutenant Alfred Robert Cassidy, 1st Battalion, Australian Infantry, 9th April 1917 – Hermies Hill British Cemetery. (I.H.5)

Lieutenant Victor Wentworth Robins, 2nd Battalion, Australian Infantry, 9th April 1917 – Hermies Hill British Cemetery. (III.D.1)

Lieutenant Malcolm Paterson, 2nd Battalion, Australian Infantry, 9th April 1917 – Hermies British Cemetery. (A.7)

Lieutenant Kenneth Julian Cooper, 2nd Battalion, Australian Infantry, 9th April – Bapaume Australian Cemetery. (A.15)

Lieutenant Allen Stewart McMaster, 3rd Battalion, Australian Infantry, 9th April 1917 – Beaumetz Cross Roads Cemetery, Beaumetz-lès-Cambrai. (E.2) He was originally buried one mile west-south-west of Hermies and one and a half miles south-east of Beaumetz-lès-Cambrai in an isolated grave by the side of a track. He had initially been posted as wounded and missing in action.

Lieutenant Harold Frederick Uren, 12th Battalion, Australian Infantry, 9th April 1917 – Bancourt British Cemetery. (I.C.1) He and his brother, Leonard, enlisted on the same day in February 1915, both serving in Gallipoli. Harold contracted enteric fever and was invalided back to Australia, but returned to active service in May the following year. He died from a gunshot wound to the stomach soon after reaching the 2nd Field Ambulance. Leonard suffered from dysentery while at Gallipoli and was invalided to England via Malta. After the war he made a pilgrimage to the battlefields of northern France to visit the location where his brother had been fatally wounded, presumably paying a visit to his grave a few miles away. Harold was originally buried in the village cemetery at Frémicourt, but his body was later moved to Bancourt British Cemetery.

It has also been well documented how the Germans left behind many delayed-action mines and booby traps as they retreated to the Hindenburg Line. Perhaps best known is the mine that destroyed the Town Hall at Bapaume on the 25th March 1917, but there were many more. At Beugnâtre the enemy left just one house intact, which perhaps ought to have aroused greater suspicion, though it had almost certainly been checked and declared safe. When it blew up on the 29th March it took with it an officer and three men of the 14th Battalion, Australian Infantry. Since its capture the house had already served as HQ to a number of battalions and brigades. Lieutenant George William McQueen and Private Thomas Young have no known graves and are commemorated on the Australian Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, but Corporal W.W. Goodwin and Private Frederick Arthur Thorne are buried in Beugnâtre Communal Cemetery.

On the 26th March a delayed-action mine also exploded under the church at Sapignies. Four days later another device exploded at Favreuil destroying two dug-outs, both of which happened to be unoccupied at the time; yet another damaged two wells at Vaulx-Vraucourt, and an unoccupied house was destroyed at Lebucquière in similar circumstances. A delayed-action mine hidden under the railway station at Vélu exploded on the 18th April killing Lieutenant William Albert Symington, 4th Battalion, Australian Infantry, as well as eight other ranks, and wounding nine more, some of whom subsequently died. Lieutenant Symington, Company Sergeant-Major John Watt, Lance-Corporal Broughton Taylor Luscombe, Lance-Corporal David Walter Griffiths MM, Lance-Corporal Albert Victor Hastings and Privates William Alexander Smythe, Sinclair Winton and Walter Henry Houghton are all buried at Lebucquière Communal Cemetery Extension.