The 7th Battalion Norfolk Regiment
1st Battle of the Scarpe
9th April 1917
On 16th November 1916 the Chantilly Conference had seen the Allies decide their strategy for the following year drawing up plans for a combined action to breach the German line. The area around Arras was chosen for a diversionary offensive to draw German reserve troops away from the main offensive at Chemin des Dames.
Their plans were disrupted in mid-March when the Germans conducted Operation Alberich which saw their troops withdraw to the new fortifications of the Hindenburg Line. Conducting a scorched earth campaign as they fell back, the Germans managed to shorten their lines by approximately 25 miles.
Nevertheless the Allies elected to move forward as planned. The main assault was to be led by the French under the command of General Robert Nivelle who had the task of capturing the ridgeline along the Chemin des Dames.
To support the French effort, the British planned to attack the Vimy-Arras sector a week earlier, where it was hoped that the attack would draw troops away from the French.
The British would use the 1st, 3rd and 5th Armies running north to south respectively. Also, the offensive would utilise a vast network of underground chambers and tunnels that had been under construction since October 1916.
Taking advantage of the region’s chalky soil, engineering units had begun excavating an elaborate set of tunnels as well as connected several existing underground quarries. These would allow troops to approach the German lines underground as well as the placement of mines. When completed, the tunnel system allowed for the concealment of 24,000 men and included supply and medical facilities.
To support the infantry advance, artillery planners improved the system of creeping barrages and developed innovative methods for improving counter-battery fire to suppress German guns. Rather than firing on the entire front as in the past, the preliminary bombardment would be focused on a relatively narrow twenty-four mile section and would last over a full week. During the bombardment over 2,689,000 shells were fired.
On Monday 9th April 1917 at 5.30 a.m., after an intensive bombardment lasting four days to preclude any retaliation from the enemy, the British 1st Army comprising four Canadian divisions under the command of General Henry Horne set out to capture Vimy Ridge. Taking control of this height from the Germans would allow the 3rd Army under General Edmund Allenby to advance on Douai, an important road and rail junction, and liberate the coal-mining region.
Allenby was also expected to take Monchy-le-Preux, a village lying a mile to the east of Arras which gave a commanding view over the Scarpe Valley and, because of this, could hinder the second arm of the offensive directed at Cambrai. Finally the 5th Army under General Hubert Gough, placed on the southern wing of the offensive, was given the task of taking the village of Bullecourt.
The the 12th (Eastern) Division, part of VI Corps, was positioned to the north of St Saveur facing Tilloy-les-Mofflaines on the Cambrai road. They would have the 3rd Division on their right and the 15th Division on their left. The division would attack with the 36th and 37th Brigades leading the advance and the 35th Brigade kept hidden in cellars near to the tunnels were in reserve. The the 6/Queens on the right and the 7/East Surrey on the left (37th Brigade) and the 11/Middlesex on the right and the 7/R. Sussex on the left would start the initial advance at Zero Hour. They would be followed by the 8th and 9th Royal Fusiliers for the 36th Brigade and the 6/R. West Kent and the 6/Buffs for the 37th Brigade. The advance would be covered by 24 machine guns.
The objectives were the German 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th lines known as the Black, Blue, Brown and Green Lines respectively. At Zero Hour the Black Line to the north of Tilloy was captured but the advance on the next two lines met with heavy machine gun fire as well as fire from the ruins of Tilloy.
The Blue line was eventually captured but the 6/Buffs and 6/R. West Kents were checked and the 8th and 9th Royal Fusiliers were delayed. The line was eventually taken with over 300 prisoners captured. But the advance was at risk of being stalled so the 35th Brigade was called upon to support the advance.
The 7/Norfolks on the right, along with the 9/Essex on the left, led the way up to the Blue Line and was given the task of capturing Observation Ridge as at this point it was learnt that the 3rd Division had still not cleared the position of opposition. The position was cleared with the assistance of the 7/Norfolks.
As they continued their advance they took casualties from Tilloy and Lieutenant John Bolland was killed. At 12.08 the main attack went in,
‘…the Norfolk men going forward with with great dash and quickly silencing the machine guns and snipers from whose attention they had been suffering. The Germans began to surrender freely; in Tilloy Quarry ninety of them stood with their hands up and were taken.’
The Norfolks continued their advance and their main objective was the high ground around Maison Rouge. Their advance was given special mention in the Official History of the Great War,
‘The 7/Norfolk, the only battalion of the 35th Brigade to go forward from the Blue Line up to time, had as its final objective, the “Maison Rouge” on the Cambrai road and some trenches north of it. It captured this without difficulty. Such Germans as were encountered put up their hands and “only wanted to know where “they ought to go”.’
The battalion pushed on and in total it captured at least 250 prisoners and by the time they stopped they had also captured seven 77 m.m. guns and six machine guns. They stopped to allow the 7th Suffolks and the 9th Essex to pass them in order that they capture Feuchy Chapel Redoubt. The battalion supplied a platoon to mop up German stragglers.
The line now held at Feuchy Chapel with the Suffolks and the Essex battalions digging in either side of the Cambrai roads. One objective still held which was the Chapel Redoubt on the Brown Line and the 35th Brigade were ordered to capture this on 10th April 1917.
At 8.15 a.m. the 7/Norfolks formed up on Chapel road and either side of Tilloy Lane trench, they were supported by two machine guns. They would advance with the 9/Essex on their right and the 7/Suffolks on their left and would cross the Cambrai road to take their objective. Casualties, especially in N.C.O.’s were caused by snipers as they formed up and the attack was postponed until 12.30 p.m. The 5/Berkshires were to push onto the Brown Line from the left and if the wire was found to be uncut the Norfolks would be used in a feint to distract this advance. The wire was uncut and so the Norfolks went in as ordered. They pushed up Tilloy Lane using bombs and the fact that the Berkshires turned the Germans forced them to retire.
The 37th Brigade now pushed onto Monchy-le-Preux, part of the Green Line, and the 7/Norfolks assisted in consolidating what had been captured at Maison Rouge. They were relieved in terrible wet and snowy conditions on 13th April 1917.
Casualties between 9th and 13th April were 5 officers killed and wounded and 162 other ranks killed, wounded or missing.
The initial stages of Arras were a stunning victory and this was the beginning of a sustained offensive which would run into May. We will look at what happened to other Norfolk battalions later on in April.