Oppy is a village North East of Arras.
Lat: 50° 20′ 49 ” N
Lon: 2° 53′ 23 “E
Oppy was well behind the front line and in German hands from October 1914. During late 1916 and early 1917, the formidable construction known as the Siegfried Stellung (Hindenburg Line to the British) incorporated the village into the deep defensive system.
One subsidiary system running off the main Hindenburg position was known as the Oppy-Mericourt-Vendin Line. It can be seen here, running to the west of Oppy and its wood, branching off to pass on both sides of Arleux.
The Oppy-Mericourt-Vendin Line comprised numerous trenches, with dug outs and emplacements, protected by thick barbed wire defences. This is part of a British trench map of May 1917.
Having not been within range of the fighting before April 1917, Oppy was much as it had been in 1914. (I found this image online but could not trace a source or owner of the original: please accept my apologies and let me know if we have contravened any copyright).
The battle comes to Oppy
On 23 April 1917, in a phase of operations during the Battle of Arras, British forces made an advance of between 1 and 2 miles which included ground at Gavrelle. It was decided to carry out a next stage of this advance but as a preliminary to it there would need to be operations on both flanks of the sector to be attacked. Oppy lay in the northern flank and both it and the village of Arleux were to be captured by the British First Army. This attack went in on 28 April, but proved to be a failure.
28 April 1917
Three Divisions were deployed: right to left they were the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division, 2nd Division and the 1st Canadian Division. In particular, the Royal Naval Division struggled to make any headway, leaving 2nd Division – whose objective was to take Oppy – exposed on its right. To make matters worse, after recent operations 2nd Division was greatly under strength and whole on paper it deployed two infantry brigades, in reality its manpower amounted to little more than one. The attacking units did however cross the enemy’s wire (despite it not being thoroughly cut by British artillery) and first line and penetrated the wood, only to fight hard fighting as they entered the village itself. Enemy counter attacks drove the British back. On the left the 1st Canadian Division advanced successfully to capture Arleux: this assisted the left hand units of the 2nd Division. Further attempts were made on 29 April, but with little effect. During these operations, L/Cpl 8763 James Welch of “B” Company, the 1st Royal Berkshire Regiment, won the Victoria Cross.
3 May 1917
Despite the flanking operation being only partly successful, the main attack planned for 3 May (known officially as the Third Battle of the Scarpe) went in as planned. Once again, part of First Army’s objective was the capture of Oppy. It failed, with heavy losses. Amongst the factors was a late change of plan in which the start time was given as 3.45am (in the dark) when previous plans had called for a daylight operation: this change came too late for it to be put properly into effect and therefore “a night attack was carried out, based on dispositions suited to an attack at dawn … it was impossible to distinguish a line of men at a distance of 50 yards until 4.05am”. The advancing British infantry were however shown up in stark silhouette by a setting full moon, and made easy targets. The 63rd Division had been relieved by the 31st Division, which also took over half of the 2nd Division’s front for the attack: it would now have the task of taking Oppy. When they attacked, 93rd Brigade on he right made good progress; 92nd Brigade was cut down in the morass of fallen trees, wire and trenches of the wood; and the enemy took advantage of this to counter attack which also forced 93rd Brigade back to their start point. Lieutenant John Harrison of the 11th (Service) Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his part in this appalling affair.
28 June 1917
Oppy was to be attacked on 28 June as part of a large scale feint, designed to keep German attention from the British build-up in Flanders and from the fragile state of the French Armies to the south. A raid in force was carried out on 22 June, as a preliminary. It fell to 31st Division to make this raid on the village, having remained in this sector since the fighting of early May. Zero hour on this occasion was 10.20pm, and no artillery was fired before that time in order to maintain as much surprise as possible. Little resistance was encountered other than some fire from the wood, and enemy troops were killed or captured in Cadorna and Wood Trenches before the raiding party returned.
At 7pm on 28 June, an intense British artillery bombardment fell on the 14 mile front to be attacked. It stretched all the way from Gavrelle to Hulluch, to the north on the Loos battlefield. Facing Oppy, 94th Brigade of 31st Division on the left and 15th Brigade of 5th Division on the right, were to attack a total frontage of 2300 yards. They were detected while in the assembly position and were shelled by the enemy at 5.30pm: 200 men became casualties. Despite this disruption, when the attack went in no man’s land was quickly crossed and the wood captured (with 280 German prisoners taken) before heavy rain brought operations to a standstill.
This remarkable painting by John Nash is held at the Imperial War Museum (reference ART 2243) and is entitled “Oppy Wood, Evening, 1917“. It is one of a series of paintings commissioned by the British War Memorial Committee set up by the Ministry of Information early in 1918 and is 2 metres high and wide. The lower half of the composition has a view inside a trench with duckboard paths leading to a dug-out. Two British infantrymen stand to the left of the dug-out entrance, one of them on the firestep looking over the parapet into No Man’s Land. There is a wood of shattered trees littered with corrugated iron and planks at ground level to the right of the composition. The sky stretches above in varying shades of blue with a spectacular cloud formation framing a clear space towards the top of the composition.
Peaceful once again. Oppy was rebuilt after the Great War in a layout little changed from 1914.
Oppy is a small village with no accommodation or possibilities for refreshment. The nearest major selections of accommodation are in Arras, Douai and Lens but there are individual hotels in Biache-St-Vaast, Fresnes-le-Montauban, Gavrelle and Vitry-en-Artois. You will find cafes and restaurants in Souchez and several other towns within a few miles of Oppy.
Despite the terrible toll of casualties in the attacks on Oppy there is no British cemetery here. The nearest ones are at Willerval and Farbus. Those men who died at Oppy but who have no identified grave are commemorated at the Arras Memorial.
The church and village war memorial today, both on the central square.
The splendid Oppy memorial to the men of Kingston-upon-Hull and all local units who gave their lives in the Great War: many of the casualties of 31st Division who died at Oppy were from the Hull area. The ground of which the memorial stands was donated by the Vicomte and Vicomtesse du Bouexic de la Driennays in memory of their 22 yearold son Pierre, an NCO of the French 504th Tank Regiment who was killed in action at Guyencourt on 8 August 1918. It too is on the village square of Oppy.
See more places in the Gazetteer of the Western Front