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Failed attack at Croisilles 28 March 1917

Background

This article focuses of the 1st Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment, commanded at the time by Lieutenant-Colonel Archibald Bentley Beauman DSO. It was under orders of 91st Infantry Brigade (Brigadier-General Hanway Robert Cumming DSO) of 7th Division (Major-General George de Symons Barrow). The battalion was amongst the most experienced and battle-hardened British regular army units, although it had not been engaged in large-scale battle since the autumn of 1916, since when it had to be rebuilt after sustaining serious casualties.

Imperial War Museum photograph HU113568. With thanks. Archibald Beauman had served in France with the regiment’s 2nd Battalion until wounded in November 1914. He returned to France and had served as Staff Captain of 22nd Brigade, and Deputy Assistant Adjutant and Quarter Master General of 35th Division until being placed in command of 1st Battalion. Beauman, who had been awarded the DSO for his part when commanding a company of the battalion in the Battle of Festubert in May 1915, would go on to command a brigade in 1918 and to further distinguished service in WW2.

During March 1917, the Germans carried out a deep strategic withdrawal from the 1916 battlefield of the Somme, taking up a new position in the formidable prepared defences of the Siegfried Stellung (the British called it the “Hindenburg Line”). Once British patrols had detected that the Germans were on the move, a general advance took place until the outer defences were reached. In late March and early April, a number of attacks probed the enemy’s new line. The 7th Division had been one of the formations in the advance and it was now facing the Hindenburg Line in the area of Croisilles, south east of Arras.

On 24 March, 91st Infantry Brigade HQ received instructions that the division was to attack the area Longatte to Ecoust St. Mein in two days’ time. On its right, 1st ANZAC Corps would be attacking between Noreuil and Lagnicourt. The brigade would be in divisional support for this operation. British patrols found that they could not enter Ecoust due to barbed wire defences and heavy machine gun fire, and the 7th Division’s operation was cancelled. On the right, 2nd Australian Division captured Lagnicourt.

The German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in the area of relevance to this article.

On 26 March, brigade was instructed to issue orders for an attack on Croisilles at dawn on 28 March.

Plan of attack

1st South Staffords and the 22nd (Service) Battalion of the Manchester Regiment were selected to make the attack, the former to positioned on the left and the latter on the right. They would each place two of their four companies into the front of the attack, each in two waves, sending no more than two platoons (of four in a company) through the village, while the others moved around the outside of it. Each battalion would place a fighting patrol of not less than a platoon at the forefront of its advance. The 91st Brigade Machine Gun Company would place two gun teams at the disposal of each battalion.

The 2nd Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment) would be positioned to be in close support and would place one company at the disposal of the Staffords, while the 21st (Service) Battalion of the Manchester Regiment would be held in brigade reserve at Courcelles-le-Comte.

An extract from brigade orders. National Archives. WO95/1667.
The attack objectives as defined in brigade orders, overlaid with flags onto a grid map of the Croisilles area. The one as T.15.c.5.3 I have marked in blue as it seems odd and out of kilter with the general plan. It is possible that the co-ordinates were typed in error: T.18.c.5.3 would make more sense. The dividing line between the two battalions was set to be the road leading from Saint-Léger.

The infantry would advance close behind a creeping artillery barrage, moving forward at a rate of 100 yards per 4 minutes. Howitzers would continue to fire on the north east corner of the village while it remained safe for the advancing infantry to do so. On obtaining their objectives, the battalions would stay as clear of the village as possible and would create strong points at certain defined locations.

For the 1st South Staffords, this was a demanding objective. They would have to advance some 1500 yards across open ground and capture a 1500-yard line, while also throwing back a 1200-yard flank line on their left.

On the two nights before the attack, poison gas would be fired into the village at intervals, each followed by a burst of shrapnel fire. Croisilles would then be kept under a slow bombardment until zero hour.

A brigade store of 2,300 Mills hand grenades, 150 rifle grenades and 50,000 rounds for rifles and machine guns would be placed at a location in square T.27.d (just east of Judas Copse).

Each battalion would leave a defined number of officers, NCOs, other ranks and specialists “out of battle”.

1st South Staffords: events as they unfolded

23 March 1917: the battalion moved to Courcelles-le-Comte, from which it provided working parties for repairing a shell-cratered road for the next few days.

27 March: the battalion moved to relieve the 21st Manchester Regiment in the front line near Saint-Léger and brigade headquarters moved to Ervillers.

Australian War Memorial photograph H09416. With thanks. Croisilles, France. c. 1917. A German Army shell bursting during a British Army attack south of Arras. The soldiers are crouching to avoid shrapnel. (A better resolution image can be purchased from AWM).

28 March. The day proved to be showery. In accordance with orders, by 30 minues before zero the lead platoons were assembled 200 yards northeast of Saint-Léger wood, and in that final half an hour they closed up to their attack position.

At 5.45am, the infantry began to advance just 200 yards behind their own creeping barrage. On the right, the Manchesters were hit by heavy machine gun fire and could not progress beyond the enemy’s barbed wire except in one place, where a detachment of 12 men under Captain Duguid pushed forward into the German trenches and held on for 36 hours.

The right-hand company of the 1st South Staffords met with similar heavy fire but managed to push on towards the barebed wire: another company came up in support, reaching the southwest corner of Croisilles. They came under a German counterattack but were able to initially drive it off with Lewis machine gun and rifle fire. But pressure mounted, and they were ordered to withdraw.

Said to be an explosion of shellfire in Croiseilles. Origin unknown. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence CC-BY-SA-4.0.

On the left, Captain William Anthony Dickins’ “A” Company also came under fire but managed to advance much further, approaching the sunken lane in grid squares T.17.a and c. In this position they were hit by heavy fire coming from in front but also in enfilade from their right, where the Manchesters and the other half of the Staffords had failed to enter and clear the village.

“A” Company approached the sunken lane marked here with a red X.

The brigade’s after-action report states that “A” Company’s situation after 7am was “very obscure”.

It appears probable … that after maintaining their isolated position under very heavy fire for two hours they were heavily counterattacked from the road running from T.23.a.2.7 to T.1.7.c.7.5, and were thus completely enveloped. All, except the left hand platoon who were acting as a defensive flank, became casualties or were taken prisoners.

War diary 91st Infantry Brigade headquarters, National Archives WO95/1667.

Brigade received orders that fresh arrangements were being made to renew the attack next day, and what was left of the battalion was relieved by the 2nd Queen’s and withdraw,

On 29 March 1917, the battalion’s headquarters at Courcelles-le-Comte was visited by British Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.

Casualties

Losses as stated in battalion war diary.

Killed

Second Lieutenant John Stanley Goodwin and 19 other ranks:

Official casualty list, “Birmingham Post” 27 April 1917
Wounded

Lieutenant James Francis Benoy
Second Lieutenant William Horace Curry (rejoined 7 June, killed in action 26 Oct 1917)
Lieutenant Eric Hindsley (died of his wounds 11 April 1917)
Second Lieutenant Tom Hall Longmore

Eric Hindsley featured in De Ruvigny’s roll of honour. he had originally enlisted into the ranks of the “Birmingham Pals”.

54 other ranks:

Official casualty list, “Birmingham Post” 27 April 1917. As far as I can tell, all 49 named are from 1st Battalion. The mix into what had been a strongly West Midland battalion of men from the North East is quite evident.
Missing, later confirmed prisoner of war

Lieutenant (Acting Captain) William Anthony Dickins MC

In one of the least successful [operations] we lost a whole company, most of whom were taken prisoner, including Capt. Dickens [sic], one of my best company commanders. I am glad to say that he had a successful post war career with the regiment and reached colonel’s rank.

Brigadier-General A. B. Beauman CBE DSO in his book “Then a soldier” (London: P. R. Macmillan Ltd, 1960

56 other ranks. I have not yet traced all of them.

A War Office list of 4 August 1917 included these 22 men as being confirmed POWs by German sources. Cross-reference to Red Cross records confirms that they had been captured in the attack:
Allen 40629 W. J. (Newcastle-on-Tyne)
Barker 23003 F. (Lincoln)
Blanchflower 31777 T. (Heaton)
Cotterill 16628 L.-Cpl. A. (Wednesbury)
Cross 14900 F. J. (Birmingham)
Curry 40630 T. (Newcastle-on-Tyne)*
Cutler 28451 F. (West Bromwich)
Dawson 40060 G. (Newcastle)
Derry 31636 T. (Walsall)
Dirden 19437 J. (West Bromwich)
Ford (sic – Faid) 40631 W. (Newcastle-on-Tyne)
Gibbons 9154 L.-Cpl. J. H. (Darlaston)
Green 40091 A. (Leicester)**
Halls 14718 W. (Birmingham)
Hartshorn 32517 H. (Leicester)
Hodgkinson 9671 L.-Cpl. A. (Walsall)
Jackson 40093 E. (Stoke)
Kirby 9557 Sjt. W. H. (Walsall)
Phipps 16267 J. (Walsall)
Platt 31513 H. (Wolverhampton)
Twemlow 40083 H. (Tamworth)
White 8955 W. (Wolverhampton).

*The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission show that Thomas Curry died on 23 August 1917 and was buried in a German cemetery at Auberchicourt. After the war he was brought into Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery near Souchez.
** Albert Green died on 22 October 1918 and was buried in the British section of Posen Old Garrison Cemetery. Posen is now Poznan in Poland.

British Newspaper Archive. Birmingham Daily Post , Tuesday 7 August 1917. Most of these men were of 1st Battalion but at least one is not (Bagley, who was with 1/6th Battalion and captured on 25 May 1917).

Burial and commemoration

Drawing upon records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Officers and men without known graves, all comemorated at the Arras Memorial:

Second Lieutenant John Stanley Goodwin (Aged 24. Son of John and Jessie Goodwin of Dunham House, Cheadle, Staffordshire. A pharmacist-chemist, he went to France 30 August 1915 as a Corporal of the Royal Engineers just ten days after enlisting. Was comissioned 19 January 1916.)
Sgt 8724 Alfred Hayward (A Company)*
L/Cpl 9275 Harry Davies
L/Cpl 20418 John Alfred Turton
Pte 21736 Ernest George Allen
Pte 19218 William Clarke
Pte 40640 George Denholm
Pte 23031 Albert Earl
Pte 17072 George Glover (A Company)*
Pte 32612 Enoch Holyoake
Pte 19786 Roland Harry Perry
Pte 31769 William Edgar Stuart
Pte 9312 John Henry Edward Wood

*Named as missing in action. Casualty list “Times” 9 June 1917

Buried at Bucquoy Road Cemetery, Ficheux: brought in during battlefield clearance November 1919

L/Cpl 10409 Bernard Timmins (VII.B.25)
Pte 40043 William Hannon (VII.C.24)
Pte 15562 Thomas Jones (VII.B.26)
Pte 15415 Robert Walker (VII.B.24)

Buried at Saint-Léger British Cemetery:

L/Cpl 16495 Frank Rowley (Special Memorial – known to be buried in this cemetery)*
L/Cpl 9920 John Thomas (C.11)
Pte 40067 Henry Appleby (C.5)
Pte 40115 William Fresson (C.6)
Pte 32622 Arthur Harold Jordan (C.12)
Pte 32624 Alfred Bert King (C.14)
Pte 19639 James Thomas Neville (C.9)
Pte 17753 Edwin Ernest Ross (C.15)
Pte 40144 Leonard Russell (C.8)
Pte 31428 William Shuker (C.4)
Pte 18596 Edward Simpson (Special Memorial – known to be buried in this cemetery)
Pte 5920 Charles Spittle (C.16)
Pte 31733 Joseph Patrick Stephenson (D.2)
Pte 30896 Edwin Charles Tyrer (C.7)

*Named as missing in action. Casualty list “Times”9 June 1917

Buried at Euston Road Cemetery, Colincamps: all died of wounds 29 March 1917

L/Cpl 9776 Bert Taylor (II.F.8)
Pte 32586 George Clark (V.F.8)
Pte 23052 William Mycroft (I.H.11)
Pte 23161 Thomas Webb (I.H.12)

Official casualty list, “Times”, 1 May 1917

Buried at Wimereux Communal Cemetery:

Lieutenant Eric Hindsley (III.F.3)

Awards

London Gazette, 26 May 1917
Distinguished Service Order:
Second Lieutenant William Horace Curry. “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He collected men from three different companies and led them forward as far as it was possible to advance. Later, although nearly surrounded by the enemy, he succeeded in consolidating and maintaining his position. On another occasion he took command of two companies and handled them in a most able manner.”
Military Cross:
Second Lieutenant Victor Rodney Stokes White. “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when acting as Forward Observation officer. He constantly moved about in the open under very heavy fire and obtained most valuable information.” White later transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and earned a Bar to his MC in 1918.

The site of the attack today

The area of the attack is close to a high speed TGV railway line and motorway constructed in more recent times. My flag and X markers are shown overlaid onto a present-day map. Note that the left-hand platoon which escaped the enemy counterattack was positioned approximaealy where the railway line now passes close to the left-most flag. Dickins and his men of “A” Company were killed or captured near the X.
Google Maps view. I have crudely highlighted an approximation of the area reached by “A” Company. It lies on private farmland but can be approached by walking the lanes shown.

Links

7th Division

Manchester Regiment

South Staffordshire Regiment