The fighting at the village of Bullecourt to the south of Arras did not start until two days into the battle and 95 years ago today men of the 62nd (West Riding) Division and Australian troops assaulted the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt with limited success. The fighting at Bullecourt continued into May with the West Ridings and Australians losing heavily on 3rd May 1917; the deadliest day of the Battle of Arras.
This image is from a German photograph and shows British dead from the 62nd (West Riding) Division left behind in the German trenches after one of the failed attacks. These Yorkshire Territorial troops took heavy casualties in the fighting of both April and May 1917. Among those who fought at Bullecourt with the division was author Henry Williamson, who later wrote the classic Tarka The Otter.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge, part of the northern operations of the Battle of Arras, which took place 95 years ago today, was one of the defining moments for Canada in the Great War. Up against formidable objective, all four Canadian Divisions – men from every part of Canada – took the ridge in five days at the cost of just over 10,000 Canadian casualties. Together with success in the British sectors at Arras, the sort of advance experienced on 9th April 1917 had hitherto only rarely been experienced and reflected the change in approach to battle not only in the Canadian Corps but in the British Army on the Western Front as a whole.
For a post-war Canada coming to terms with the lost of more than 66,000 Canadian soldiers in the Great War the fighting at Vimy took on a symbolism hard for others to understand; many felt that it was almost as if Canada as a Nation had come together on the slopes of Vimy Ridge. The French government gave the battlefield to Canada who turned it into a memorial park which today is one of the most visited sites on the Western Front battlefields, and one of the largest areas of preserved WW1 battlefield.
Today’s photograph is an official photograph but taken from a special album of photographs published during the war as part of an exhibition of Canadian war photographs. The photographs were printed in landscape format in quite large scale direct from glass negatives, so the quality is very high. This dramatic image shows Canadian troops going into action 95 years ago today on 9th April 1917 – they are men from the 29th Battalion Canadian Infantry who were operating on the southern end of the Vimy front.
This image games from the same source as one of the first I posted here; it was taken by Lieutenant Ron Short MC of the 2nd Battalion Queen’s Regiment, who had an illicit camera with him on the Western Front in 1917.
The village of Ecoust St Mein was captured by the 7th Division in the Advance to the Hindenburg Line in the Spring of 1917. It then remained in British hands until the following March, and became a staging post for the fighting in front of Bullecourt. By war’s end it was completely destroyed; an insight into that destruction can be seen here.
The two officer’s servants – batmen – are standing at the entrance to one of the officer’s dugouts; in this case the cellar of a partially destroyed house. While they are relaxed and out of view of the Germans here, the presence of war is not far away and both men are carrying their Small Box Respirator; the latest bit of kit at the time the photo was taken in early 1917 that helped to protect the British Tommy against gas attacks. The soldier on the right is wearing a Leather Jerkin, issued in cold periods as a piece of cold weather gear and often all that soldiers had to protect themselves from the extreme temperatures in Northern France.
This photograph is from a small collection owned by Ron Short, a Great War veteran I knew and interviewed in the 1980s. Ron was from Eastbourne and served in the ranks of the Royal Sussex Regiment until he was wounded in 1916. He was then commissioned in the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment and served as a platoon commander at Arras, in Flanders and Italy; he was awarded an MC for bravery at Passchendaele in 1917.
The photograph was taken during the advance to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917. The 2nd Battalion Queen’s Regiment, with whom he served, had advanced on positions just short of the village of Bullecourt. At this point there were no British trenches to occupy; in the background men from his company are digging in and in the foreground the officers are sheltering in a fold of ground. It was cold in March 1917 and they are all wearing leather jerkins. They have all attempted to blend in with the men in their style of dress. Ron himself is in the photo, second from the left, smiling. It was taken by his batman. All of those featured in the photograph fought in the Battle of Arras in April-May 1917, including the advance to the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt itself.