“We, the undersigned” – An unusual petition – Arras North – Page 12

There were times during the final hundred days of the war when strong opposition to the Allied advance was to be expected. The Hindenburg Line and the Canal du Nord provided the Germans with good defensive opportunities and it was always likely they would take advantage of these. On other occasions the level of enemy resistance was variable and often remained an unknown factor until the point of engagement. Sometimes it melted away after initial contact, occasionally it never materialized, and on other occasions it proved stronger than expected.

Set against that uncertainty was a level of competence and confidence that had been steadily growing within many parts of the British Army since the latter part of spring. By the autumn of 1918, not only had the war developed into one of movement, units were coming up against a wide variety of situations and challenges, most of which they managed to deal with successfully. The fighting at Auby near the Haute Deule Canal on the 14th October 1918 is just one example of how two particular British divisions were able to deal with changing circumstances and heavier than expected levels of resistance with great flexibility and skill.

I mentioned in ‘Arras North’ that the attack on Auby presented several challenges. It lay not within the path of one division, but on the boundary between two divisions, the 12th (Eastern) Division and the 8th Division. Communication up and down the line from battalion to division, via brigade, was often difficult enough, but communication along lateral lines between different brigades belonging to different divisions was extremely problematic. During times of stress, i.e. in the heat of battle, such lateral communication was impossibly slow and very difficult to organize. Under these circumstances, the only people who could make effective ‘real time’ decisions were those who were actually in the thick of it and engaged in action, which was something that required a high degree of competence and confidence at every level within a battalion.

Half an hour before the attack on Auby, the 1st Worcestershire Regiment sent two of its platoons forward towards the southern edge of the village. As soon as the barrage allowed, these two platoons made their way into the village itself. Street fighting and clearing the enemy from buildings was tricky at the best of times and resistance was often difficult to quantify before operations began. Dealing with this type of operation was an extremely difficult task in an environment that was unfamiliar to the attackers, but which often favoured those defending it who were usually far better acquainted with their surroundings. A sharp, but brief fight took place in the village, after which Captain Harrison and his men tried to gain contact with men from the 1st Cambridgeshire Regiment, but there was no sign of them, so consequently he withdrew. Although this decision might at first appear strange, there was always the possibility that the Germans would shell the village if they believed it was now occupied. Harrison’s decision, despite appearances, did have some merit and was probably a sensible precaution.

Leaving aside the parties of the 1st Cambridgeshire Regiment that had pushed on towards the canal bank to the north-east of Auby, two patrols did enter the village, but with no means of co-ordinating their advance with that of the 1st Worcestershire Regiment, the two groups appear to have missed each other. Although Captain Harrison’s party believed it had cleared all opposition from the village, this was probably not the case, as the Cambridgeshire men encountered sufficient numbers of Germans to force them back towards the northern and western edges of the village where they set up a defensive flank. In doing so, they were at least able to offer the rest of their own battalion some measure of protection, and once the initial plan had failed, they were able to adapt quickly in the face of opposition and uncertainty.

Even before Captain Harrison had withdrawn his men, the 1st Worcestershire Regiment had suffered a severe blow when its battalion HQ in the nearby village of Flers (not to be confused with the village of the same name on the Somme) was hit by an enemy shell killing six and wounding eight. To add to the existing communication difficulties, enemy shelling also severed telephone lines that had been laid out between battalion HQ and other parties of the 1st Worcestershire men who had reached a small wood on the canal bank.

On the opposite side of the village the main parties of the 1st Cambridgeshire Regiment had reached the canal bank. Here they had to adjust their position when they came under fire from our own artillery which was firing short owing to worn gun barrels. This hazard had already been made clear to them at the start of the operation. There was clearly no prospect of forcing the canal, which was under fire from enemy detachments on the opposite bank, and so the Cambridgeshire men, undeterred and undaunted, set about exchanging fire using their Lewis guns in an engagement that continued throughout the day.

Enemy shells continued to fall on the advanced units of the 1st Worcestershire Regiment near the canal bank, who also faced heavy rifle and machine-gun fire from German units well dug in on the opposite bank where a factory roof gave the enemy the advantage of elevation. Unknown to this group of Worcestershire men, the hostile barrage was almost certainly timed to coincide with a determined enemy counter-attack from the direction of Cite Dorignies over on the right flank. With no means of communication between him and his shattered battalion HQ, the officer in charge of the Worcestershire company, Captain Prosser MC, was faced with a difficult decision; whether to remain in a vulnerable position and try to deal with the counter-attack unsupported, or attempt a fighting withdrawal back towards Flers. Caught between a rock and a hard place he chose the latter, even though it involved crossing half a mile of open ground swept by heavy rifle and machine-gun fire.

It was at this point that good, old-fashioned heroism emerged in the form of Private T.W. Woodhouse.  He somehow managed to cross the fire-swept ground and succeeded in getting a message back regarding Prosser’s situation. In response, Lewis gun teams, aided by men from a ration party, were able to give supporting fire to cover the withdrawal. Cutting a long and gallant story short, Prosser’s men were able to fall back, one platoon at a time, thanks to additional Lewis-gun fire provided by one of his own 2nd Lieutenants, H.L. Cooper, and Private A.S. Applebee. Prosser was the last to retire along with a handful of others, but never made it back.

In spite of the many setbacks, some of which were inherent to the initial plan, both of these battalions demonstrated a very high degree of judgement and skill, operating throughout the day with enormous confidence and competence. Very difficult decisions were taken by those on the spot, and when things failed to go according to plan, there was no sense panic or confusion; instead, patience and the confidence to adapt prevailed. Even without the benefit of good communications, everyone was alert to what was going on around them and decisions were taken that enabled emerging situations to be adequately managed. What followed also demonstrated great determination on the part of the Worcestershire battalion.

Once they had regrouped, the surviving officers of the 1st Worcestershire Regiment signed a petition stating:” We, the undersigned, request that you will lay this, our petition, before the commanding officer for his favourable consideration. We should like the Battalion to remain either in support or in the front line until the Division has taken the Canal and absolutely cleared the Bosche from this area. We are prepared to go into action at once and we can guarantee that the ground shall be cleared. We have the honour to be…..(followed by the officers’ signatures). The petition was also signed on behalf of all ranks.

The main body of the enemy defending the canal withdrew overnight, though his artillery continued to shell the opposite bank throughout the following day, the 15th October, gradually diminishing on the 16th. Our own artillery was brought forward with a view to supporting a renewed attack by the 12th and the 8th Divisions, but the infantry was later able to carry on its advance with minimal opposition. The 1st Worcestershire Regiment was not relieved during that time and shortly before dawn on the 17th, ‘B’ Company dashed across the remains of a shattered bridge over the Haute Deule Canal, at which point enemy sniper fire melted away. The remainder of the battalion followed and Auby was finally declared clear.

The man who led ‘B’ Company over the canal was Major F.C. Roberts VC, DSO, MC, a man of remarkable courage and leadership skills. He is referred to in ‘Arras North’ on page 136. Captain Prosser, MC, who never made it back, was captured by the enemy and died from his wounds, as did Lieutenant E.T. Leach and Lieutenant H.B. Lever, the latter attached to the Worcestershire Regiment from the Bedfordshire Regiment. Leach and Lever are buried together in Tournai Communal Cemetery Allied Extension. Prosser, who died of wounds on the 23rd October 1918, is buried at Schoonselhof Cemetery, near Antwerp, in Belgium. Woodhouse and Applebee received the DCM and Lieutenant Cooper was awarded the MC.

Casualties for both battalions came to just over a hundred apiece. Of those who were killed during this action, there are fourteen men of the 1st Worcestershire Regiment buried together in Douai British Cemetery, three at Orchard Dump near Arras and one who died of wounds on the 14th October who is buried at Duisans British Cemetery, Etrun. One man is also commemorated on the Vis-en-Artois Memorial. As regards those killed in action from the Cambridgeshire Regiment, four are buried at Loos British Cemetery, two at Houchin British Cemetery and one at Hautmont Communal Cemetery.

But of course, this miniature epic only appears in ‘Arras North’ by virtue of the unexpected presence of the six men of the Cambridgeshire Regiment who are  buried at Point du Jour Military Cemetery on the Arras battlefield. Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that the infantry that advanced to victory in 1918 was tactically equal to the one that advanced through north-west Europe towards the end of the Second  World War, though whether the opposition was as strong is an entirely different matter. Back to the Great War, much praise has been heaped on the British Expeditionary Force of 1914, but the army that went on to finish the job four years later was, without any shadow of doubt, a superbly accomplished and capable instrument of war.