The 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment
28th June 1917
After the Arras Offensive had ended the Germans still held Oppy Wood, situated to the west of Oppy village and to the south west of Fresnoy. The wood was approximately 1-acre square and was heavily fortified. Attempts were made to capture it on 27th April and 3rd May 1917 (The 3rd Battle of the Scarpe) and both of these attacks had failed during terrible bouts of heavy fighting with the Germans counter attacking and pushing the British out of the wood on each occasion.
During this period Lance Corporal 8763 James Welch of “B” Company, the 1st Royal Berkshire Regiment, won the Victoria Cross on 27th April and Lieutenant John Harrison of the 11th (Service) Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross during the fighting on 3rd May. On this day, the 31st Division lost 1,900 casualties and the 2nd Division’s composite brigade lost 517 officers and men.
The next attack was planned for 28th June would be carried out by the 15th Brigade of the 5th Division and the 94th Brigade of the 31st Division. Their line would extend from Gavrelle in the south to the north of Oppy Wood.
By this time the Army was operating under a new training pamphlet entitled ‘SS143-Instructions for Training of Platoons for Offensive Action 1917’. This booklet would pave the way for the way the infantry would fight until the end of the war. In this book the infantry was expected to be able to fight its way forward independently of artillery support as a battle developed. It;s doctrine taught that there were advantages for different weapon types being brought to bear on the enemy as and when needed.
In the place of a single line of riflemen, SS143 promoted the self-contained platoon comprising a small HQ and four sections of specialists. In simple terms, the attack was to be led forward by bomb and rifle sections, with the rifle grenade and Lewis gun sections following close behind. Upon contact with the enemy, the rifles and the bombers were to seek out the enemy flank and attack with fire, bayonet and bomb. The rifle grenadiers and Lewis gun team were to attempt to suppress the enemy, allowing the other sections to press home their attack.
This flexible use of arms also passed a degree of initiative to the junior officers down the chain of command and was used to promote an Esprit de Corps.
SS143 taught a platoon to lead by its sections of riflemen and bombers with the platoon sergeant between, it is followed by the platoon commander then the Lewis gun and rifle grenade sections. The platoon has a prepared and hopefully rehearsed drill for reaction to coming under fire. In this moment of chaos, having a pre-programmed reaction is critical to overcoming the perfectly human reaction to hide. It would be too easy for the platoon to fragment into cover and the attack to lose its momentum. From SS 143 all members of the platoon would know what would be happening around them. On being engaged the Lewis gun section should find the first available cover and engage the point of resistance, this is accompanied by a barrage of rifle grenades. Under the cover of this direct and indirect fire the rifle and bombing sections are to deploy to a flank and pursue the attack.
This was how the battle for Oppy Wood would be fought.
At 5:30 p.m., German artillery bombarded the British jumping-off trenches for ten minutes and caused c. 200 casualties in the two attacking brigades. At 7:00 p.m., a British hurricane bombardment began from Gavrelle to Hulluch, along the 14-mile (23 km) front of the XIII Corps and I Corps, as part of a feint against Lens. Howitzers fired smoke-shell to create a screen, to the north of the 5th Division attack and then a thunderstorm began, the infantry advancing at 7:10 a.m. amidst lightning and torrential rain.
In the XIII Corps area, the 94th Brigade of the 31st Division advanced north of Gavrelle and the 15th Brigade of the 5th Division attacked Oppy on a 2,300-yard (2,100 m) front. Despite the German bombardment on the jumping-off trenches, the British troops advanced swiftly across no man’s land behind a creeping barrage, before the German counter-barrage fell three minutes later.
On the 5th Division front, the 15th Brigade had the task of advancing on Oppy Wood to the north of the 31st Division. The 1/Norfolks would advance centrally with the 1/Cheshires on their right and the 1/Befordshires on their left.
All three battalions went over at 7.10 p.m. moving out of Maquis Trench in two waves advancing within 25-30 yards of the creeping barrage and took some casualties from this.
They got into the first German line with opposition from a group of Germans that numbered around 30 in a concrete pillbox. This defensive position was dealt with by Mills Bombs. The Brigade got into Oppy Wood with little opposition and a line was established 80 yards into it with outposts placed further onward. By 9 p.m. this line was being consolidated and the battalion had captured 1 officer and 70 other ranks and two machine guns.
Losses, for WW1 standards, were light and the battalion lost 2 officers wounded and 61 other ranks killed or wounded.
Fighting patrols put out the next day were repulsed as they entered Oppy village.
Burning oil was also used in the attack to draw the enemy away from Oppy and toward Fresnoy. This is thought to have helped and was used as a deterrent against the German flame-thrower.
The 15th Brigade took 143 prisoners, several machine-guns and trench mortars and the 94th Brigade took a similar amount; 280 German dead were counted on the battlefield. Gavrelle Mill and the other objectives were captured easily but the rain interfered with consolidation, which had begun by 9:00 p.m.
In the attack of 28 June the 31st Division lost 100 men and the 5th Division casualties were 352 men.
From this total 17 men died serving with the 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment.