“Wake up, we’ve a busy day ahead” – With the South Africans on 9th April 1917

Good memoirs are always worth seeking out. “A Subaltern’s Odyssey – A Memoir of the Great War 1915-1917″ is one that I would highly recommend, particularly with regard to the opening day of the Battle of Arras in 1917. Its author, R.B. (Richard Barrett) Talbot Kelly, served as a Forward Observation Officer with the 52nd Brigade, Royal Feld Artillery, joining it in May 1915 when the unit was serving as part of the 9th (Scottish) Divisional Artillery. Although he remained with it for just over two years until he was wounded in early August 1917 at Ypres, his brigade left the division in January 1917 becoming an Army Field Artillery Brigade, moving as and when required.

During his 27 months at the front, Talbot Kelly saw a great deal of the war, often very close to the front line. When he first arrived in France, the short journey from Corps HQ to Divisional HQ was  made via bus, and the man who handed him written authority for that journey was none other than the Prince of Wales, who at the time was serving as a staff captain. Talbot Kelly joined his brigade while it was at Festubert, and later that year he saw action at the Battle of Loos, followed by tours of duty around Ypres and in the Ploegsteert sector. He was present on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme near Montauban and returned to the area  later that year up by the Butte de Warlencourt.  Between those tours of duty he spent the first of his two spells at Arras, a town he grew to love.

His first time at Arras was in the Souchez and Ablain-St. Nazaire sector, close to Vimy Ridge, in 1916. His second spell covered the opening day of the Battle of Arras in April 1917 when he accompanied troops of the 2nd South African Regiment as they went forward on a day that saw the 9th (Scottish) Division advance around three and a half miles to capture the Point du Jour Ridge where its memorial now stands. His battery was operating from a small chateau in the St. Nicholas suburb of Arras.

On the eve of battle, which was cold and threatened rain, (which later fell as snow) he was in the forward trenches with a team of three signallers laying telephone cable between the battalion HQ and the front line. The leading waves of South Africans had already left the trenches and were settled in shell holes in no man’s land, which at that location was about 250 yards wide. From an artillery point of view, it was relatively quiet following the barrage that had been fired to mask the sound of tanks assembling.  He also notes that for fourteen hours before the assault on 9th April some of our artillery had been concentrating on enemy gun batteries using gas shells. Intelligence regarding the standard use of gas masks by the Germans had revealed that their face-piece was fitted with an air filter that lasted four hours and that every enemy soldier carried a spare filter, giving a total coverage of around eight hours. It was hoped that the fourteen hour gas bombardment would therefore succeed in incapacitating the enemy’s gunners.

Talbot Kelly also provides us with two other fascinating details regarding the eve of battle. As the first rays of light began to appear over the eastern skyline at around 4.45 am, he describes the faint outline of the German front trench, noting that for all the hundreds of men that lay out in no man’s land in front of him, nothing was visible of them and nothing stirred, leading him to comment that it was hard to believe that anyone was actually out there. Behind them, having already moved up into our own front line, were men of the 2nd South African Regiment who would provide the subsequent waves once the battle began at 5.30am. He records that most of the infantry in these trenches were peacefully fast asleep, despite the coming battle and the ordeal that lay ahead of them. He found this sight as incredible then, as would many of us today. He goes on to describe the final half an hour of quiet during which a few heavy shells passed overhead, and how, with just ten minutes to go before ‘zero hour’, all the officers and sergeants were busy waking the men. A minute or so before our barrage erupted, and those out in no man’s land rose from their shell holes, the men who would follow on were ordered to ‘fix bayonets’. Far from being awake and alert, he notes that many of those around him went over the top ‘rubbing their eyes and yawning’.

This incredible scene that he witnessed that morning is followed by a single sentence in his memoir in which he concludes:” The last five minutes before an assault is the supremely dramatic moment of modern war.” Today, we can only imagine how men deal with that final countdown to ‘zero hour’, which is why Talbot Kelly’s account is so valuable; clearly, for many of the South Africans, most of whom he describes as ‘experienced soldiers’, the battle would unfold as it would unfold, and evidently, many preferred to snatch what little sleep they could rather than worry about their future.

His account of that first day as he went forward with the advancing waves of the 9th (Scottish) Division is very well observed. As an artilleryman, he makes several comments on the German wire, which provide us with a very useful insight, and one which is quite paradoxical. The wire in front of one of the German trenches, ‘Obermeyer Trench’, was more or less intact. Had the Germans been able to emerge from their dug-outs before our infantry reached their forward trenches, the outcome might have been very different for the attacking waves. The main reason for his interest in the state of the enemy’s wire was because British artillery had been using the new ‘106’  fuse, which caused the shell to explode on contact with the wire, but that had obviously not happened in and around ‘Obermayer Trench’. Again, when he reaches the ‘Blue Line’, which was the second objective that day, he notes that the enemy’s wire was largely intact. Here, strong belts of wire still protected the Arras-Lens railway embankment, which on his section of front ran through a cutting. This provided an excellent defensive position for the Germans and it was well-garrisoned.  For a brief moment, it looked as if the enemy’s machine guns there would hold up the advance of the South Africans, but fortunately, a group of men from some Highland regiment found a few large holes, passed through them and up the steep embankment, from where they managed to turn the defenders’ left flank at what could have been a critical moment. Amusingly, he recalls how some German HQ staff were still in their pyjamas when they surrendered!

The paradox, however, lies in the fact that almost every infantryman Talbot Kelly passed wanted to shake his hand and congratulate him for the ‘wonderful show the guns had put up’. Certainly, in places, the state of the German wire left a lot to be desired, and yet a great deal else had gone well, and so the overall outcome was very favourable. Of course, if things hadn’t gone well that day, the infantryman’s view of the artillery might well have been very different. Another very interesting comment by Talbot Kelly is the fact that he was very surprized at how familiar the German front trenches were to him. He, like many others, had been allowed to study maps and aerial photographs showing their layout, so that on the day of the attack he had no difficulty finding his way to key locations along the line of advance using the opposing trench  system. Throughout March and the first few days of April our troops had carried out many raids and the intelligence gained from these forays into the German front lines, including information gathered from prisoners, had clearly proved very useful.

For anyone wanting to know more about the role of a Forward Observation Officer and what it involved, I would suggest they read “A Subaltern’s Odyssey”. The following F.O.O.s are referred to in ‘”Arras North”:

Lieutenant SHARP, MC – page 120; Lieutenant McDONALD, MC – page 132; 2nd Lieutenant PERRY, MC – page 177; 2nd Lieutenant CREERY, MC – page 235; and very likely, 2nd Lieutenant St. Lo AUBER – page 309.

Richard Barrett Talbot Kelly was also a very talented artist and in 1923 he was elected a member of the Royal Institute of Water Colour Painters. He was best known for his illustrations of bird life. After the war he continued to serve in the military until 1929, but then returned to his old school, Rugby, as its Director of Art. He served again in 1939 and went on to head the Camouflage Development and Training Centre on behalf of the War Office before returning to Rugby. His keen eye as an artist comes across very clearly in his memoirs, which is no doubt why he proved to be a successful Forward Observation Officer.