German attack near Arras: 4 June 1916
Lying north of Arras (but now, with the city having expanded, absorbed into it) lay the village of St. Nicolas. Leading away from it to the north east was a lane. It went up to a crossroads known as Chantecler and beyond that was La Maison Blanche. The crossroads was held by German forces, in a position they had occupied since 1914. The British Army had taken over this sector from their French ally in 1915. Although the gradient is very gentle, occupation of Chantecler gave the Germans an advantage of observation across British lines towards Roclincourt, St. Nicolas and Arras.
The 1st Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment (of 15th Infantry Brigade of 5th Division) returned to the front line on 29 May 1916, taking over the “J2” Sector of the front line facing Chantecler.
On 2, 3 and 4 June the Germans bombarded the British front line system with heavy artillery and trench mortars. Things quietened down at 5pm on 4 June, except in the area of trenches held by the battalion’s left-hand company which continued to come under heavy fire until 7pm. There was then an ominous silence: the Norfolks manned their line, expecting a trench raid.
At 9.17pm, four underground mines exploded (one just outside the battalion’s area), resulting in enormous craters. It was reportedly a very dark night and few flares or illuminating rockets went up. The Germans immediately carried out two infantry attacks: one against the Norfolks and the other against the 15th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (2nd Birmingham, of 13th Infantry Brigade) slightly further north. This article focuses on the southern attack, which was carried out by the 1st and 2nd Bavarian Reserve Regiments: British accounts indicate a belief that it was more than just a hit and run raid and was designed to seize and hold the British front. If that was so, it failed in its objectives, but interrogation of captured Germans indicates that it was not such an ambitious action.
Craters: this map dates to some time after the fighting of 5 June 1916 but shows the position of the front line trench system and the craters. British trenches are in blue and German ones in red. The three explosions on the front of the 1st Norfolks were soon named, north to south, as Claude, Clarence and Cuthbert.
This is an extract from a sketch map contained within the war diary of the 1st Norfolks. National Archives piece WO95/1573. Crown Copyright. Note the scale of the craters and how Claude and Cuthbert had destroyed part of the battalion’s front line. In the centre, Clarence went up slightly short of the main British trenches.
The battalion’s war diary summarised what happened next:
Notes from interrogation of Ersatz-Reservist Johann Neunieier of 2nd Kompanie, 6th Bavarian Reserve Infantry, are included in the war diary of 15th Infantry Brigade headquarters and reveal details of how the attack was carried out.
The battalion’s war diary does not give any details of how many of its officers and men became casualties during the mine explosion or the subsequent infantry attack, and we must also bear in mind that the battalion had remained under heavy artillery fire until just a few hours before it all took place.
The diary of 15th Infantry Brigade HQ only gives a total for the period 1-20 June 1916 inclusive: the Norfolks are said to have lost one officer killed; two officers missing believed killed; 25 men killed; 19 men missing of which 16 were believed killed; 23 were wounded and 21 shell shocked.
Records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission list 17 men with known graves, all buried at the Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery in Arras:
|Private||'3/6833'||BATTELLEY||SAMUEL GEORGE||I. D. 46.|
|Private||'12778'||BISSELL||W||I. D. 34.|
|Private||'14221'||BRAY||F||I. C. 19.|
|Private||'3/7524'||BROWN||F||I. C. 23.|
|Corporal||'9821'||DANIELS||A E||I. D. 53.|
|Private||'12721'||GERALD||JOHN WILLIAM||I. C. 46.|
|Private||'13972'||HARRISON||J R||I. C. 44.|
|Private||'3/10758'||HOLSWORTH||JAMES||I. C. 52.|
|Private||'16679'||JEX||H||I. C. 16.|
|Private||'13266'||LUDKIN||W E||I. C. 53.|
|Private||'13681'||RAYNER||I. C. 45.|
|Lance Corporal||'3/10214'||SIMMONDS||HENRY ROBERT||I. C. 24.|
|Private||'6506'||STARLING||GEORGE THOMAS||I. C. 20.|
|Private||'16836'||TAYLOR||ALBERT WILLIAM||I. C. 21.|
|Private||'17456'||WARMAN||JOHN||I. C. 18.|
|Private||'8833'||WORDINGHAM||CHARLES DOUGLAS||I. C. 17.|
|Private||'3/10833'||WRIGHT||JOHN||I. C. 22.|
Another 18 officers and men have no known grave and are listed at the adjacent Arras Memorial:
|Private||'12013'||LEYTHAM||WILLIAM FORREST JOHN|
|Lance Corporal||'13053'||LONG||FREDERICK JAMES|
|Second Lieutenant||ROW||LESLIE JOSEPH|
Records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission also include two of the battalion with the date shown as 5 June 1916: Lt Burlton and Pte 3/8172 Robert Abbs (who, judging from the location of his burial at Habarcq) died of wounds that day. Quite why Burlton’s death is given as 5 June is not clear. Even less clear is why the death of Second Lieutenant Leo Edwards is given as 8 June 1916. He is also listed at the Arras Memorial.
Visiting the scene
The site of the action can be visited today. Beware that the two craters are rough ground, have been used as rubbish tips, and I would not advise trying to enter them. The surrounding fields are private farm land and such be respected as such.
Looking along the road towards Chantecler, Claude Crater lies on the left hand side of the lane. The trees on our right surround Clarence.