Saturday, March 17, 2012

28th March 1918: the first battle of Arras

The King's Liverpool Regiment
The following is taken from the Regimental History by Everard Wyrall:-

THE FIRST BATTLE OF ARRAS, 1918: 28TH MARCH (This is the day that William Noll was killed whilst serving with this battalion)

On the 28th of March the enemy launched a great attack north of the Somme River from Puisieux to north-east of Arras.
This attack was a considerable extension of the original front of attack. But it had been foreseen and arrangements had been made to meet the assault. The enemy attached the greatest importance to this attack, in which he hoped to recapture the Vimy Ridge and carry the ground east of Lens.
"After a bombardment of great violence," state the official despatches, "three fresh German divisions advanced to the assault along the northern bank of the Scarpe River: they were supported by the two German divisions already in the line. The enemy's immediate objective was to gain the general line Vimy-Bailleul-St. Laurent-Blangy. On the following day three special assault divisions were to carry the Vimy Ridge.

"Immediately south of the Scarpe four German divisions were engaged, to two of which were assigned the tasks of capturing Arras and the heights overlooking the town. This assault, the weight of which fell on the 3rd and 15th British Divisions, was supported by powerful attacks in which eleven hostile divisions were engaged along our whole front southwards to beyond Bucquoy."

A second attack, north of the Scarpe, launched during the afternoon after another heavy bombardment, was also completely repulsed and, broken and disappointed, the enemy fell back to his original line.

The 13th King's were heavily engaged by the enemy's great attack on the 28th of March.

The battalion story relates that "at 4.30 a.m. the enemy put down an intense barrage on the whole of our sector. The trench-mortar barrage on the front line was more intense than anything previously experienced. The Reserve Line was barraged with light guns and heavies. Under cover of this barrage the enemy launched a terrific attack with masses of troops. In spite of the intensity of the bombardment, the front line stood firm and poured a devastating fire into the enemy, whose attack was beaten off with colossal casualties to the attackers. The value of this steadfastness against tremendous odds cannot be estimated; it gave
the enemy his first check at a point where he was subsequently checked throughout the day. The enemy came back again in a second attack with even greater numbers. The battalion on our right was forced back and the enemy poured in behind "C" and "D" Companies from the right flank. What happened on the left is not known. All that is known is that these two companies, attacked on all sides, mounted the parapet and fought to a finish on the ground on which they stood.

"Under cover of the barrage the enemy came on up the hill to the reserve lines. Owing to the nature of the ground he could not be observed along most. of the battalion front until nearly on our wire The barrage lifted and in dense waves the Germans swept on to our lines. It was the beginning of a fierce battle which lasted until 2 p.m.

"The coolness, courage and endurance of the garrison were beyond praise. Every rifle and Lewis gun brought a tremendous volume of fire to bear on the approaching masses. In spite of his losses the enemy continued to push on until the thin, line, wavering, could go no further and turned down the slope again. Our men mounted the parapet to keep him under fire so long as they could keep him in sight.
"The first attack on the front line had been beaten off and our line was everywhere intact."

"The enemy now resumed his barrage on our positions by firing green lights. An intense barrage came down for ten or fifteen minutes. As soon as it lifted the enemy immediately came on to another attack. This also was repulsed with heavy loss to the enemy. Our flanks were still intact, but it was known that, further to the left, the enemy was making progress, and our left flank was becoming exposed. Twice again the enemy fell back, each time bringing down the barrage on our positions with green lights and pushing on his attack as soon as it lifted. About midday the enemy's fourth attack penetrated on our right. A block was immediately made and maintained, about 150 yards from the road on the southern side. A defensive flank was put out and a few men lined the bank of the Neuville-Vitasse road to guard our rear as far as. possible.

"From midday onwards only about five or six hundred yards of the reserve line remained in our hands, the troops on both flanks having fallen back some hundreds of yards. It was evident that, with the next hostile attack, the position would immediately be surrounded and would hold out no longer. However, it was decided to hold on, though the brigade message informed us that no reinforcements were available. At 2 p.m. a message from brigade instructed us to rendezvous in N.24 central (about seven hundred yards east of Wancourt) if withdrawal became necessary. Withdrawal to support of the 4th Royal Fusiliers in the Green Line was then decided upon and orders were issued for an immediate withdrawal. It commenced at 3.30 p.m., the movement from the front line being covered by small posts and blocks, and the defensive flank on the right remaining in position until all the garrison of the reserve line had moved off to the south-west of Neuville Vitasse road by the Sugar Factory. The enemy, moving forward for another attack, severely harassed the withdrawal, and it was only by great gallantry and initiative of individuals that the enemy was warded off until the line was clear. By 5 p.m. all troops had passed through the Green Line with all wounded evacuated and without anyone being cut off. The battalion reorganised under cover of the ridge in N.24 central, and at dusk moved back into brigade reserve and occupied trenches in M.22.C" (about 1,200 yards north-west of Mercatel).

There is no casualty list in the diary of the battalion, but in the Brigade Diary there is a list which gives the losses of the King's men as one officer killed, two wounded and eight missing, and in other ranks twenty-one killed, ninety-two wounded and 254 missing.

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