Men of the Machine Gun Corps fire their gun at a German aircraft (not pictured) during the Battle of ArrasThe attacks on the village of Roeux were part of the Battle of Arras (9 April - 17 May) carried out by Third Army under the command of General Allenby. Arras was to be the British contribution to the Allied Spring Offensive. Twelve divisions, with a further five in reserve, attacked on a 14-mile front between Vimy in the north and Croisilles in the south. The attack was intended to act as a diversion to prevent the Germans from feeding reinforcements further south where the French Army (commanded by General Nivelle) planned a major offensive on the Aisne. However, the latter was delayed by the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg line, and it was decided that the British attack should go ahead as planned.

Roeux is 4.5 miles east of Arras (in the Scarpe Valley) and was one of the fortified villages that formed part of the German defences behind the German front line. The ground before Roeux posed many difficulties for the British, two of which were: the Arras - Douai railway line, which ran north-east to south-west in cutting and on embankment; and the River Scarpe with its surrounding marshland.

XVII Corps (commanded by Lt General Fergusson) were directed to take an area between the River Scarpe to the south and Farbus Wood to the north. The major objective in this sector on the first day was the village of Fampoux.   This was reached at 4pm on 9 April by the 11 and 12 Brigades of the 4th Division, which had 'leapfrogged' units of the 9th Division. The success of the attacking units over most of the front on the first day lay mainly in the careful planning and effective artillery bombardment.

The original battle plan had envisaged an infantry attack on Roeux the following day (10 April), but the weather continued to be very poor and artillery movement was very difficult over the muddy ground.  The successes of the first day also encouraged the idea of a breakout, and plans for a cavalry advance towards Greenland Hill - to the north of Roeux - were mooted.  However, the cavalry were too far back and could not be brought up in time so it was decided to mount an infantry attack the following day on the Chemical Works at Roeux.

On 11 April, the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers (10 Brigade, 4th Division) took part in an attack on Roeux from the sunken lane north of Fampoux. A new German trench line to the west of the Chemical Works was heavily armed with machine guns and the Highlanders were seen entering the lane. They had about a mile to cover over open ground to the German front line and suffered heavy casualties. Indeed, only about fifty survivors from various units reached the railway embankment where they took shelter. Lt Donald Mackintosh [link to University of Glasgow Biography] of the Seaforths won his VC at this time for organising the defence of a newly one position, and then leading the survivors forward before being killed.

Schematic of battlefield at 05:00 hrs 9 April 1917The following day (12 April), two brigades from the 9th (Scottish) Division attacked Roeux over the same ground with similar difficulties.  Although some of the attackers got within 20 yards of the German line, they suffered heavy casualties and they were forced to pull back. The Official History later concluded that the attack failed because of hurried preparation, inadequate reconnaissance, and ineffective artillery bombardment, which was not sufficient to suppress the German defences.

There was now a break in the offensive. The French attacks on the Aisne had begun disastrously with heavy losses, morale was at a low ebb, and some battalions were refusing to re-enter the front line. In order to support his French Allies, Haig agreed to continue the Arras offensive. The third attack on Roeux can be seen as part of the Second Battle of the Scarpe, which began on the 23 April. Once again XVII Corps was ordered to attack Roeux, this time with the 51st (Highland) Division. 154 Brigade attacked south of the railway line and made some progress into the village but German counter attacks, supported by accurate artillery bombardment, were very effective and by the end of the day only the western outskirts of the village remained in British hands. After the war, German accounts of the battle commented on the failure of the British troops in this sector to resist counter attacks, even when carried by small groups of German troops.

On 28 April, a fourth attack was made on Roeux, this time by the 34th and 37th Divisions. The attack on the village itself being made by the 101 Brigade, with the 103 Brigade attacking north of the railway. A heavy bombardment preceded the advance, but as the 101 Bde moved forward behind their creeping barrage they encountered blockhouses, bunkers and tunnels and again faced strong counter attacks, which drove them back, with few gains.

Haig instructed the commanders of Third and Fifth Army to resume the offensive on 3 May. This was in response to appeals from the French to keep the German army from moving troops further south as it was now clear that the Nivelle Offensive had failed and was being abandoned. Haig decided to launch a two pronged attack: the Third Army would attack along the Scarpe valley and make another attempt to capture Roeux (Third Battle of the Scarpe and the fifth attack on Roeux); and Fifth Army would attack at Bullecourt to the south.  Ferguson's XVII Corps were involved in this battle, which started badly, in part because of a decision by Haig that the attacks along the whole front must start at the same time (at 0345, just before dawn).  This placed many units of the Third Army at a disadvantage as they had to advance over much more difficult ground than their comrades to the south and needed daylight. The result was considerable confusion with attacking units losing touch, or getting mixed up.  In the Roeux area, the 12 Brigade (4th Division) advanced just to the east of the Chemical Works but were pushed back by German counter-attacks and artillery fire.  Likewise, units of the 9th Division, on the left, had difficulty keeping direction and although some reached their objectives they were forced back, with some troops being cut-off. Once again, the attacks had brought few gains and only then at heavy cost

The sixth and final attack on Roeux began on 11 May, and once again 4th Division were charged with the task, despite being heavily under strength.  However, the Corps Commander placed 152 Bde of the 51st (Highland) Division at the division's disposal if required, which was to prove a sound move. The attack was preceded by the heaviest bombardment seen since the start of the battle and the infantry moved off at 7.30pm.  This time the troops were ordered to avoid the Chemical Works but to attack area around the railway station and the land to the north, while other units attacked the village itself.  By early the following morning (12 May), all the objectives to the north of the railway were taken, and the western half of the village had been occupied.  During the day efforts were made to consolidate the ground and that night the Germans evacuated the eastern half of Roeux and the Chemical Works, which allowed the line to moved forward (on13 May) to the eastern half of the village.

British Mark II tank No. 799, captured by German troops at Bullecourt near Arras 11 April 1917However, hopes that the enemy might retire further to the east were dashed when, on the night of 15/16 May, after a heavy German bombardment, a fierce attack was launched by two Germans Brigades along both sides of the railway line to the north of the village, on the village itself and along the northern bank of the River Scarpe. These attacks initially met with some success but the flanks held and the enemy were eventually repulsed from all but the most easterly positions, most of which were regained by the evening.

The Battle of Arras officially ended on 17 May, although a limited attack at Roeux on 5 June regained the remaining ground lost on 15/16 May, and it was here the line stabilised for the remainder of 1917.

The casualty figures are difficult to assess in relation only to Roeux alone but the 4th Division  and the 51st Division - both of which  were involved in much of the fighting at Roeux - recorded some 6,300  and 6,500 casualties respectively in April and May 1917.  The 9th Division suffered rather more - just under 7,000.

Roeux was held by the British until the Spring Offensive of 1918 when the Germans swept west and re-took much of the old Arras battlefields.

 

This article is based on a talk given by Foster Summerson to the Yorkshire branch of the WFA.

Contributor: Peter J Palmer.

Images and map courtesy of Wikimedia.

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