This article is adapted from part of my report on Corporal 232390 Alexander May, who I researched for a private client in 2018. “Alick” was taken prisoner of war in the action described, at which time he was serving with “A” Company of the 1/7th (Fife) Battalion. He had a broken collarbone when captured. Sadly, he died at the Reserve Lazarett II at Aachen on 6 April 1918 and that he was buried in the city’s Ehrenfriedhof. German records say that the cause of death was “Herzschwäche” which literally translates as heart weakness. In the period 12-15 June 1923, the remains of 169 British and Commonwealth soldiers including Alick were exhumed from the Aachen Ehrenfriedhof and reinterred in Cologne Southern Cemetery. He now lies in the cemetery’s Plot XIII, row F, grave 29.
The 1/7th (Fife) Battalion was a unit of the Territorial Force, under orders of 153rd (2nd Highland) Infantry Brigade of 51st (Highland) Division. It was a most experienced unit by 1918, having been in France since 1915 and having participated in many of the war’s largest battles.
The 51st (Highland) Division remained in the Cambrai area through the winter of 1917-18, a period in which the strategic situation on the Western Front fundamentally changed. On the British side, infantry manpower was running very short and the rate of replacement was slowing. A reluctant decision was taken to reduce the four battalions in each brigade down to three by disbanding one of them and using the troops to bring others back towards full strength. It was a necessary but disruptive change. At the same time, German strength in France was growing rapidly. The collapse of the Eastern Front in the wake of the revolution in Russia in October 1917 had given the Germans an opportunity to move tens of divisions to France. They decided to strike a number of blows against the British, with the offensive Operation “Michael” being the first. This action was also known to the Germans as the Kaiserschlacht: the official British name is the First Battles of the Somme, 1918. It was in this operation that Alick May was wounded and taken as a prisoner of war. A series of maps, below, describe his battalion’s situation:
The battalion’s war diary for 21 March 1918 reads [with my notes inserted],
“About 4am everything was reported quiet and normal and the situation wire [message] at 4.30am reported everything quiet. At 5am prompt the enemy artillery opened out with steady and intense fire on all our forward lines. The barrages consisted of HE [High Explosive] mixed with [mainly Phosgene] gas shell. The morning was extremely misty and it was difficult at first to realise the presence of gas, while the visibility was so poor that no enemy movement could be seen. Box respirators [gas masks] were first removed about 9.30am. All communication with “D” Company ceased around 7am. Bombardment on front, support and reserve lines slackened around 10am.
First enemy infantry were seen advancing at 10am from the sector on our left, and shortly after further bodies were seen advancing up the valley on our right flank. The front line was now practically obliterated. Front line was penetrated on the left first at Rat Alley and enemy commenced to bomb [use hand grenades] towards Rabbit Alley. Support line knew of no hostile attack till enemy appeared outside the [barbed] wire from right and left. Reserve line and Crescent Trench outflanked and the garrison bombed out [this is most of “A” Company].”
Another version, attached to the diary, adds,
“During the whole period 5am – 10am heavy barrages were kept upon the intermediate and reserve lines.”
Those elements of the front line companies who managed to escape fell back towards the support and reserve positions. By mid afternoon only 28 men of “B”, “C” and “D” Companies were still fighting.
The three platoons of “A” Company held in the Beaumetz-Morchies Line are not mentioned. Early next day, the attack began again and continued pressure forced this line to be evacuated.
By 26 March 1918, although the majority of them relate to 21-22 March, the battalion had suffered the loss of one officer and 17 men killed; four and 105 wounded; and 18 and 368 missing. The majority of the missing were now prisoners of war. The roll call taken just before the enemy attack noted a total of 41 officers and 941 men. In other words, the 1/7th (Fife) Battalion lost over half of its total strength.
The area today
The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for officers and men of the battalion with date of death 21 March 1918 list 71 with no known grave (commemorated at the Arras Memorial); 12 buried at Beaumetz-lez-Cambrai Military Cemetery No, 1; seven buried at Queant Road Cemetery [originally buried in German Cemetery, Pronville]; one buried at Red Cross Corner Cemetery, Beugny; and finally one buried at Dernancourt Communal Cemetery Extension.