Wancourt, Héninel and the art of flexible defence

When the Germans evacuated the villages of Wancourt and Héninel on the 12th April they did so out of necessity. By then, the Wancourt-Feuchy Line, including Feuchy Chapel, had already fallen. The Hindenburg Line to the north of Héninel, around Neuville-Vitasse and Telegraph Hill, was now in our hands and Monchy-le-Preux had also been prised from their grasp. All this had left Wancourt and Héninel very exposed, and therefore extremely vulnerable in the event of further attack.

In previous years the loss of such ground would have been unthinkable, but in 1917 the German defensive doctrine allowed for, and even encouraged tactical withdrawals where appropriate. For Allenby and the British, the enemy’s withdrawal, and the prospect of further advance, must have seemed extremely attractive, but the ground ahead was far from favourable. In reality, the Germans had merely retreated up the garden path leaving the gate wide open for us to enter. In doing so, they set the scene for the second act of the Battle of Arras, an engagement that would largely be fought on their own terms. South of the River Scarpe it was now time for Guémappe and Cavalry Farm to take centre stage stage.

However, let’s leave Guémappe to one side for a moment. One of the key positions still in enemy hands was the Wancourt Tower. It sat, not surprisingly, on Wancourt Hill, otherwise known as Hill 92, and from its dominating position it commanded superb views over the surrounding area. From Tank Cemetery one only has to look south to appreciate its importance on this part of the battlefield. Although the tower’s original structure now lay in ruins, the Germans had reinforced it by constructing a concrete observation and machine-gun post inside its core.

Not surprisingly, the tower, and the hill upon which it sat, was heavily disputed. Between the 13th and the 17th April the position changed hands several times. On the 13th April, at around 7 p.m, an attempt to capture the position by the 3rd Division ended in failure and any hopes of an immediate advance towards Guémappe, just a short distance away down the Cojeul valley, came to nothing.

The following day, the 50th (Northumbrian) Division stepped in to provide a defensive flank for the 56th (London) Division as the latter made its own assault on Chérisy, a village that lay tucked away south-east of the Wancourt Tower in the Sensée Valley. The Londoners, of course, had already been in action, and not just on the opening day at Arras. A couple of days prior to that they had attempted to deal with Neuville Mill, but it was then decided that the strongpoint should be left until the main attack took place on the 9th April when tanks would be available. The 50th Division’s role on the 14th April was to protect the left flank of the 56th Division against any potential threat from the direction of Guémappe. The 9th Durham Light Infantry, under Lieutenant-Colonel Roland Boys Bradford, would provide cover for that flank whilst the regiment’s 6th and 7th battalions, together with the 5th Border Regiment, advanced alongside the Londoners. This attack on Chérisy also ended in failure, and in fact the 6th Durham Light Infantry had to relinquish some of the ground it had gained in order to conform with the general line at the end of the day’s fighting.

After two days of fighting the 50th Division’s line was a mere fifty yards to the west of the Wancourt Tower. On the morning of the 15th, as the Germans launched their counter-attack several miles to the south at Lagnicourt, a platoon from the 6th Northumberland Fusiliers bombed its way forward and seized the ruined tower. The enemy, however, made four separate attempts that night to retake it, a clear indication of how important this position was to the Germans. The next day, the 16th April, at around 10 p.m, as the 7th Northumberland Fusiliers were in the process of relieving the regiment’s 6th Battalion, the Germans launched a heavy counter-attack, this time regaining the crown of the hill and with it the tower. Not to be outdone, and to its great credit, the 50th Division attacked the following day, at which point the enemy abandoned the position, although they did attempt to recover it a week later. Once again, the Wancourt Tower was in our grasp.

It goes without saying that the crest of the hill, where the tower stood, was of great tactical importance to both sides during this critical phase of fighting. The existence of the machine-gun post inside the tower was perhaps an added reason for the enemy’s reluctance to give it up, but in any case, it was becoming increasingly likely that the Germans would make further efforts to wrestle the position from us. Either way, it seemed unwise to leave the post intact. From our point of view, quite literally, it faced the wrong way, west rather than east, making it less of an asset for us. For the Germans, however, the post inside the tower seemed to be just as important as the position itself. As long as the post remained intact it was likely to prove a focal point for further attacks. With that in mind, Brigadier-General Rees, commanding the division’s 149th Brigade, approached the Royal Engineers regarding the feasibility of destroying the tower and the all-important concrete emplacement within it. There was only one way to find out, and the man to whom the task fell was 2nd Lieutenant Charles William Stephen LITTLEWOOD, 7th Field Company, Royal Engineers.(Arras South – Page 99)

At around 2 p.m. Littlewood calmly made his way to the tower to carry out his assessment, even though the infantry claimed it was impossible to approach the position in daylight. The short journey took him across completely open ground. The enemy’s main positions were little more than a hundred yards from the structure, though some of his posts, especially those nearest the tower, were believed to be even closer. Undaunted, Littlewood walked straight up the hill to the tower where he completed his assessment. He then walked casually back to our own lines, later returning to the tower with a small party of sappers. Again, he and his men strolled up to the position carrying their explosives and other pieces of kit with them. They then lit the charge, but this time nobody hung around, in fact everyone ran back down the hill as fast as their legs would carry them. Despite all this activity, the Germans failed to respond, apparently oblivious to all that was happening. The tower’s remaining structure was completely demolished and the post inside it was damaged beyond further use.

Neither LITTLEWOOD, nor any of his party of eight, was armed during the operation, in fact rifles, bayonets, etc. were left behind in favour of carrying explosives and other necessary equipment. This entire episode was witnessed by a fellow officer from 7th Field Company, Royal Engineers, and his account can be found on page 232 of “Arras” by Peter Barton and Jeremy Banning.

A keen sportsman and a good all round athlete, LITTLEWOOD had attended Downside School where he had also been a member of its OTC. In the summer of 1915 he attended Woolwich, and in February the following year he received his commission in the Royal Engineers. In autumn 1916 he went to the Western Front and was often described by others as quiet, yet fearless. In “Arras South” I pointed out that I had been unable to find any citation for his Military Cross, though I had found several references to it. However, I recently came across the citation while carrying out further research relating to Wancourt and Guémappe; surprisingly, it makes no reference to the tower’s demolition. It reads as follows:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty carrying out work to strengthen a brick bridge under a hostile barrage. It goes on to state that his coolness and example ensured the work was completed without cessation, despite casualties.”

The work referred to in the citation is mentioned on pages 380-381 of “Military Operations – France & Belgium, Volume One, 1917”. It notes that on the nights of the 16th and 17th April divisional engineers constructed two bridges across the River Cojeul for use by infantry and that they also planned to strengthen the Wancourt road bridge, which although severely weakened by enemy shelling, was still largely intact. Surprisingly, the Germans had not destroyed the bridge during their withdrawal down the Cojeul valley. The 7th Field Company had also been tasked with making a new bridge for heavy traffic, as well as creating a road diversion leading to it. However, the note points out that this work could not be carried out until the 23rd April owing to enemy observation and machine-gun fire. The old bridge was successfully reinforced and was used by the artillery to cross the river. Despite enemy shell fire on the 23rd, the new bridge was also in place by late afternoon the following day, a feat which the Official History refers to as “a very fine piece of work”, and rightly so.

Sadly, LITTLEWOOD was killed on the 10th July when he was hit in the head by a shell fragment whilst engaged in night operations after a shell burst close to him. It was reported that his death was instantaneous. At the time he was supervising the construction of two bridges across trenches between our own front line and a position to the rear. The work took place under heavy fire from enemy artillery and trench mortars. It was said that he moved about alone amongst his men supervising them and encouraging them by his own disregard of danger. The work in question was also carried out in the open with little or no cover.

A huge part of leadership, I think, rests on the issue of credibility, and LITTLEWOOD, on numerous occasions, clearly demonstrated to those around him, and particularly to those under his direct command, that he was prepared to share the same risks and dangers they had to face. Second Lieutenant LITTLEWOOD’s original grave was lost and his name can now be found on Panel 1 of the Wancourt Road Cemetery No.2 Memorial on the back wall of London Cemetery, Neuville-Vitasse. He was aged just 19 when he died.