The Battle of Arras, 1917

For the next impending battle our Advanced Dressing Station and the Walking Wounded Collecting Post were fixed at Anzin on the Arras-Mont St. Eloi road, where spme accommodation capable of extension existed while at already Madagascar, a kilometre across country in front on the Arras-Bethune road, was a dug- out serving as Relay Bearer Post ; leaving a Collecting Post- the Lille Road Post – to be constructed another good kilometre nearer the line, in an old trench running alongside the Arras-Lille road. Here, marking off some seventy feet of the trench, we set about deepening it, broadening it, and roofing it with iron “English Shelters”, a thinner type of the heavy “Elephant Shelter” ; on top of them, again, laying sandbags filled with the excavated earth. Three tiers of Stretcher racks were fitted on each side of the interior, the whole available space being about fifty feet by ten, and holding forty wounded ; while in the middle, with sandbagged partition walls in case of a hit, was a chamber set apart as a dressing room. 

All this meant steady and hard work for the R.A.M.C. fatigue parties of the three Divisional Field Ambulances from the end of February up to the very eve of the battle, as the bulk of the work had to be done in the dark owing to the position being under enemy observation. Steps, too, had to be cut down from the road and fixed with wood while, at the top of these, the road itself had to be widened and stones hammered in to make a turning-point for the motor ambulance cars. Still, when the job was finished on the night of 8th April and we had gone below for a rest before Zero hour- a retiral that was hastened by a dose of shrapnel from the enemy, as it was moonlight and we had been over trustful in the concealing power of a ground mist- our post had fairly good head-cover and was safe enough, short of a direct hit from heavy stuff. 

On our right, some three kilometres away, lay St. Catharine, a suburb of Arras: on our left, the remains of the village of Ecurie while in front of us, in the dip, were the ruins of Roclincourt, to which, and the trenches, ran a hand trolley line, similar lines running back to Madagascar and Anzin. It was on our programme that these were to be used for carrying back casualties, but the combatant traffic soon knocked this on the head ; so we were dependent throughout the battle on hand and wheeled stretcher carriage from the line to the Post, and on motor ambulance cars from the Collecting Post to the Advanced Dressing Station at Anzin. 

The cars clearing the Lille Road Post had to run to St. Catharine and negotiate a hairpin bend there to get on the road to Anzin, a total distance of some seven kilometres : across country via Madagascar was only about two. A short cut “switch” road from leg to leg of the hairpin had been made some distance from Anzin in preparation for the push ; but early in the battle it was needed for guns and ammunition going forward, and our sole car evacuation route afterwards was the longer one.

From left to right our posts in the trenches were Abri Mouton (a specially enlarged dug-out), Sabliers (another dug-out in a sandpit), and a third post in a freshly made dug-out at Fish Avenue, where all the M.O.s of the 152nd Brigade worked together. A further supplementary Aid Post was available in a cellar at Roclincourt. All these had been provided with a plentiful supply of medical stores, blankets, stretcher pillows and Stretchers, with an extra chocolate ration for our bearers.

The weather had been for some days wet and cold. This, incidentally, was due – although one might not have thought it – to the fact that it was Holy Week ; so the fair daughter of the farmer who was our host informed us. “Le temps est toujours Caucourt mauvais la Semaine Sainte jusqu’au Dimanche passèe.” 

At 4.30 a.m. on 9th April, the day of the battle, all hands were roused and the Collecting Post given a final clean up. At 5 the first car was up in readiness, and at 5·30 our barrage started,, presenting a weird spectacle of hellish intensity. Day was just breaking, and the dawn was illuminated with the long line of bursting shells, to which the golden rain and coloured S.O.S. rockets of the enemy lent a strangely picturesque variety of colour.

The noise was terrific with the continuous whistling scream-like a furious gale of wind – of the thousands of heavy missiles going over us to the enemy ‘s lines, and the thunderous drumming of their arrival. At 6 the barrage ceased and the advancing troops were visible from the Lille Road going over the first ridge. But casualties were now coming in (chiefly men hit in the assembly trenches before the advance had commenced ), and soon everyone was busy – carrying the wounded down to the shelter, dressing them there and loading the cars.

In a nook left between the end of the stretcher racks and the exit from the shelter was set a small collapsible table, whereto were pinned a map of the district and a more detailed one of the trenches, both together making up the board on which you played your own special little game of chess against unforeseen circumstances. A clip took in all the “schits” from the M.O.s at the various R.A.P.s, chronologically arranged as they came in, and marked with the hour of receipt, by the Sergeant Clerk who sat beside you. Each message was supposed to have the hour of its despatch written on it by the sender : fifty per cent of them never had. Many were soaked and barely decipherable – medical handwriting is somewhat peculiar at best, especially when written in indelible pencil which had “run.” Many demands were indefinite “more stretchers” “more bearers”, “more dressings” : others asked for impossible and exaggerated quantities. Here your knowledge of the sender’s mentality had to come in, and you discounted the requests of the M.O. who thought too imperially, and dealt with him on more parochial lines. One M.O., who was a bit “rattled” (and no wonder), might have sent off three messages one after another, all without the hour of despatch stated ; and you had to make a shot at which was the latest one (and, therefore, that to be dealt with), as messenger 2 and 1 might turn up in that order after messenger 3. 

All the time, too, if you were wise (for it paid you to do it), you were jotting down a running tale of how things progressed, your literary efforts interrupted by visits here and there to lend a hand in dressing cases and loading cars ; or by interviewing messengers and supervising the issue of stores in response to indents, and seeing that other indents were going back at once for fresh supplies. Then your map had to be kept up to date as the Regimental Aid Posts changed when the battalions advanced, and all such changes had to be duly notified to the A.D.M.S. Altogether you were the head of a somewhat irritable family, whose nerves, after some hours of it, were apt to get a bit jangled : knowing, too, as regards yourself, that you were the certain recipient of criticism, both from those above and those below you in rank, for all that went wrong ; and at the very least expected to remedy the unexpected with the speed of Hermes and the patience of Job. But, above all, your métier was to “cock your bonnet and whistle, to be, like Sydney Smith, a yogood-humorist,'” and to throughout all your preserve enigmatic smile of a Mona Lisa. 

Take a look at the map, then, and read the medical account of this battle as it was written down hour by hour for three days in the Collecting Post : April 9th.. 6 a .m. Ambulance cars bringing in casualties sustained in assembly trenches before advance commenced.

6.45 a.m., M.O. Abri Mouton reports he has thirty Trench Mortar Battery men available and no demands for them so far. Told. to send orderly here to await orders, and meanwhile rest his men till needed. Steady Stream of casualties coming in here.

8.10 a.m. M.O. at Madagascar reports twenty-four German prisoners who have been examined by Intelligence Officer available as bearers. No demands yet, so told to hold on to them. 

8.30 a.m. M .0. at Sabliers reports things going on steadily and no hitch. Wants ten fresh tins of water. Sent.

8.45 a.m. Some wounded Huns now coming in and plenty prisoners passing back. Work so far well in hand. 

8.50 a.m. Satisfactory report from M.O. Sabliers. M.O. Abri Mouton reports only a few cases. 

10.30. a.m. Interviewed Tramway Officer and then notified M.O. Fish Avenue that 6 trollies were now free for use from Roclincourt to Lille Road Post, but route will be difficult to work, as all uphill from Roclincourt and trollies will have to be lifted to pass ammunition traffic going forward. 

10.45 a.m. All reports show evacuation steady and rapid considering distance from now advanced front line and length of hand-carrying required. 

11 a.m. No R.A.M.C. casualties so far. M.O. Sabliers reports wire from O.C. 9th Royal Scots that bearers are urgently needed for No. 1 Co. between new front line and Black Line. Estimated 80 cases. Ordered M.O. Abri M outon to send T.M.B. officer and 36 men to M .O. Sabliers. Called up reserve Bearer Division of 3rd H.F.A. from Anzin and ordered M O. Madagascar to hold 50 Huns in readiness. Messages later : orders carried out.

11.14 a.m. Cleared 16 casualties off road right back across country to Anzin by hand-carriage, as Collecting Post choc-a-bloc. Casualties coming in freely. M.O, – Fish Avenue asks 36 bearers sent 36 Huns from Madagascar. Drew 10 for auxiliary loaders here also.

12 noon. Reported to A.D.M .S. on phone. Snow now falling heavily. 

2 p.m. Notified A.D.S. Anzin to keep all available cars in front area to clear us. 

4 p.m. Went round Sabliers and Fish Avenue and trenches in front of Roclincourt. At Sabliers saw liaison M.O. Field Ambulance and M.O.s 7th Black Watch and 4th Gordons. Called at 154 Bde. H.Q. and saw Brigadier regarding new positions. Saw O.C. 7th Black watch and got 24 men from him to assist in clearing the field, as we have to make the most of daylight owing to extreme cold and steadily increasing fall of snow. Phoned 153rd Bde. H.9: for further parties from Bde. ın reserve as per operation orders. After some delay got parties of 50 each from 7th Gordons and 6th Black Watch. These parties to search field all night, drawing Stretchers from reserve supply at Sabliers and Éish Avenue. Transferred all bearers (less two men to look after stores) from Abri Mouton to Sabliers. At Fish Avenue saw líaison M.O. Field Ambulance and M .O.s 6th Seaforths, 6th Gordons and 8th A. & S.H., who reported everything, going steadily. Called at 152nd Bde. H.Q. and saw Brigadier, who said he was satisfied from his own knowledge that our work was going on all right. M. .O. Abri Mouton brought back to assist M .O. at Lille Road Post. Abri Mouton now a wash-out : nothing doing. 

8 P.M. Got back by trolley track from Roclincourt: Track now no use to us owing to snow and constant ammunition traffic. Phoned report to A.D.M.S. 

8.30 P.M. Heavy snow still falling. Collecting Post acutely congested and 130 overflow cases in open on road- side. round about it, owing to no cars coming up. Cars held up by (ı) switch road not available through guns going up : (2) block on Arras-Lille. Road through motor lorry colliding with, gun (3) all cars on evacuation roads to M D.S: going slow through heavy up traflic. Turned on all available Dearers and Huns to hand-carry. and wheel-stretcher the casualties, across country to Anzin. Got 50 The long rows of snow -covered, blanketed figures on the stretchers are a sad sight. Phoned A D.M.S to clear Anzin A.D.S. if possible by MAC cars and release all F.A. cars to clear Lille Road Post. All suitable cases in open given hot coffee soup, and all spare blankets on them. Hand stretchers and wheeled stretchers hard at it across open to and Anzin.

I0 p.m. Cars have got through again and cases here rapidly diminishing. 

12 Midnight. Heavy snow and very cold. Majority of cases cleared. 

April 10th – 5 a.m. Still snowing heavily. Steady but lessening stream of cases coming in. Large percentage from dug-outs and shell holes who had been hit early in action : shews field is being well searched and cleared. Many of them enemy cases.

9 a.m. 30 rested bearers now available at Abri Mouton. Brought them here for loaders to relieve Huns who are played out. Huns fed at soup kitchen and sent back to Madagascar 

11.30 a.m. A.D.M .S. up. M.O. Fish Avenue reports his area all cleared. 

4 p.m. Reports in from Fish Avenue and Sabliers giving map references of new Regimental Aid Posts. Both report their areas well cleared up. This is borne out by lessening number of cases coming back, and these mostly of the “hit-early” shell hole type. Wrote out detailed report for A.D.M .S. No bearer casualties, and all ranks have worked splendidly. 

8 p.m. Things practically stopped : an odd case now and then. 

April 11th – 7 a.m. Only 6 cases in through night. Men rested and had 4 hours sleep. First chance since push began.

12 noon. Received report of M.O. 7th Black Watch being killed by stray shell.. M.O. from here sent up in his stead. Things now quiet. Several cases of exhaustion and prostration from severe cold have come in. 

3 p.m. Received Operation Orders re relief here by F.A.s of 2nd Division, to be carried out on 11th and night 11th-12th. Started checking stores at all posts. D:A.D.M.S. 2nd Division with M.O. of 5th F.A. up re relief. Cannot get his Ambulances up by time specified. Suggested he should relieve Sabliers and Fish Avenue at 7 a.m. tomorrow, and Lille Road Post and Anzin by 9 a.m. This allows our men to have a night’s rest and let the R.A.P.s be relieved by daylight. Agreed. 

6 p.m. M.O.s Sabliers and Fish Avenue report their areas all carefully searched again and found all clear of casualties. Some new R.A .P. map references. Sent on to A.D.M S. Things quiet. All personnel resting. 

April 12th -10 a.m. Relief completed all routes demonstrated to incomers : receipts signed : unit moved to Acq.

The comic relief at Lille Road Post was supplied by “James” one of our Hun auxiliary loaders. His real name, I suppose, was Heinrich Schneider or something of that sort ; but, as he spoke good English, he was appointed interpreter for enemy wounded, and put in charge of his whole-skinned countrymen who were assisting to carry casualties down to and up from the dressing room. He had been – so he said, and there was no reason to doubt it – for ten years before the war a waiter at the Hotel Cecil, hence the temporary name bestowed on him ; and his behaviour was certainly a curious mixture of the soldier and the waiter. When spoken to he came sharply to attention (military), with a gentle bend forwards from the waist (Hotel Cecil) ; while his prompt “Yessir!” almost made one see the napkin over his arm. Stoutish, broadish, and – to us, his captors – affable, he magnified his office with evident relish, and treated his hoplites with true Hunnish high-handedness. 

From the entrance to the dressing room I overheard my colleague, who was busy with a wounded enemy casualty at one period of the first day’s work, giving James a high moral lesson, in a clear, somewhat professorial style. “You will observe, James, that here, contrary to the custom of your countrymen in this war, we treat our wounded enemies with the same consideration extended to our own troops.”‘


“Before the war, James, I had travelled much in your Fatherland, and had failed to detect the degeneracy – ” 


“Which has since, evidently, developed with such alarming rapidity.” 


“Cruelty, on our part, is not made a matter of military routine.”


“You mean No sir, ‘ I think, James!” 

“No sir l” 

“Ah, well! The case is dressed ; summon your comrades.” 

“Yessir Achtung! Zwei träger! Aufheben!!

 And away went James with his compatriots to load the case on a back-going car. After twelve hours of it, James came to me, saluted, and remarked : 

“Sir, I and my men are exhausted” 

“I and my men are also exhausted, James.” 

“Yessir! But we had no sleep for two nights before this battle.”‘ 

“Right, James, I shall believe you and relieve you”

So, in charge of a sergeant, James and Co. were sent along the trench to the Divisional Soup Kitchen to have a good feed, and were thence taken below to an old French dug-out, where various worn-out bearers of our own were resting. Later, it was reported to me that James was missing and although we made a perfunctory search for him, we could not find him. Two hours afterwards I was passing a small recess blanketed off from the sandbag wall of the dressing-room, in which was a stretcher and some blánkets, placed there for my accommodation with kindlv forethought by the staff-sergeant, should an opportunity for rest come along. Hearing a stertorous snort, I pulled back the blanket and discovered James sound asleep in my bed, evidently under the impression that his “staff job” entitled him to some precedence. The humour of it tickled me so much that I left him ; but his snores gave him away to others before long, and he was “put back where he belonged.” 

When the time came to hand him and his comrades over to the A.P.M’s guard, James asked to see me, and giving his salute-cum-bow said : – 

“Sir, I trust I have given satisfaction?’ 

“Let your mind be easy, James : you have”

 “Sir, I hope we shall meet again.” 

“When, James?”  

“After the war, sir” 

“And where, James?” 

“At the Hotel Cecil, sir!” 

With which pious hope James solemnly saluted and vanished into the gloom of the trench. 

To Acq, then, as aforesaid, we went mud-stained and very weary. And, as our messroom was not of the roomiest, my fellow-officers decided to dine, with many similarly minded officers of other units, at the well-known Marguerite’s.

A cheery, rackety crew ; gunners, foot-sloggers, A.S.C.- all were there – with a sprinkling of Canadians clouds of tobacco smoke ; corks popping and a jingley piano going thirteen to the dozen ; while those who could sing did so, the majority merely contributed a joyful noise. Dulce est desipere in loco: “let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”: a somewhat emotional outburst, doubtless, of the nerve-strained. History tells us that throughout the ages the intervals of rest time in war have seldom been lucid : the picture has been stęreotyped and the cannikin has always clinked.

The wine is red and the wit is keen, 

Joy’s heel on the neck of Sorrow! 

And we reck no more of the Might-have-been 

Or Tomorrow – Oh ! Damn Tomorrow !

In Acq we remained, resting and overhauling equipment, till the 16th, when we moved to St. Nicolas, on the outskirts of Arras, taking over there from the 28th F.A. an A.D.S. consisting of four parallel tunnels, each some fifty feet long, running back into the hillside, fitted with stretcher racks and capable of holding in all about a hundred and fifty casualties. The tunnels opened on flat ground covered with ruins, some of which had been sufficiently repaired to serve as offices, a dressing-room, stretcher and blanket stores, cookhouses, etc: . while beyond it again the ground dipped to a light railway running parallel to the river Scarpe up the valley towards Fampoux and Roux by way of Blangy and L’Abbavette, all these places being in ruins. At the last-named was the Collecting Post ; and at Fampoux, Three Arches (of the railway embankment), and Athies Lock, were Relay Bearer Posts ; while the Walking Wounded Collecting Post was in tentage about a kilometre up the valley road. Fighting was going on at the famous Chemical Works and a steady run of casualties came in all day.

The roofs of the tunnels, unfortunately, owing to the persistently wet weather, dripped steadily : and as all ranks were underneath them this did not make for comfort, especially as the water which found its way through was not even clean. At night the unlucky possessor of an upper bunk had to tack his ground-sheet on to the earth roof above him, a precarious protection at best ; as in time the sheet bellied out with the accumulated water, and either tore itself from its fastenings, or at the least touch poured out on to the ill-starred sleeper from each end. The tunnels, too, could not be ventilated, smelt like a tomb, and were “fuggy” to a degree ; but there were some forty feet of head cover, which made up for many minor deficiencies.

Till the 19th the weather continued vile, and we were busy both with cases coming in (many of them casualties from Blangy and the valley road, which the enemy shelled steadily) and with improving the accommodation – clearing fresh tracks through the ruins, firming up the incoming and outgoing roads for the motor ambulance wagons, and getting up some operation tents for “sitting cases” when space was available: It was always a matter of duty, honour, pride and routine that those in posses- sion should make a place of this sort better than when it had been handed over : and the outcome was that, in some of the sites where unit after unit had worked at the job for months, a wonderfully high standard was attained. 

On the 22nd, in view of a new Divisional push the next day, the Bearer Divisions of the Field Ambulances went up to Blangy for distribution to the R.A.P.s (twelve to each) and to the various Relay Bearer Posts. A hundred and fifty extra bearers (from the 5th Gordons and Trench Mortar Battery) were also in readiness, to be sent in relays, as required, by the Field Ambulance cars going up the valley for casualties. Twelve bandsmen also reported for work as loaders at St. Nicolas. All day Arras was shelled intermittently and the valley road steadily.

On Zero day reveille was at 4 a.m., and by 6 the usual steady stream of casualties commenced to come in by our cars, the bearers near the Chemical Works being exposed to very heavy shell and machine-gun fire. One squad of four was carrying a casualty shoulder-high on a stretcher when a shell struck it, knocking the men over in a heap, and carrying stretcher and occupant some ten yards before it burst. The wounded man was blown to bits but the bearers were unhurt except for the strained neck muscles of the two who had been on the leeward side – a truly lucky escape for them. 

German prisoners could always be depended on for marvellous information, and one enemy casualty distinguished himself that day by assuring us that Hindenburg had committed suicide ; which, unfortunately, while a cheery bit of gossip, turned out to be untrue. Between 10 and 11 a.m. over twenty shells landed in our vicinity, one hitting the office of Divisional Signals in the dip below, killing one man and wounding several more ; while another landed at our entrance, fortunately at a time when no car was there. 

All that day and all night we were busy with casualties, many still coming from the narrow valley road, on which movement was necessarily slow, crowded as it was with the dense traffic of guns and wagons (ammunition, motor, g.s., ambulance and limber).  Going up it on a car one would progress slowly for five minutes, then halt for ten, and then on again ; and the wonder was (especially at freely shelled spots like the famous broken railway arch at L’Abbayette) that casualties were not more numerous. During our stay here our unit lost one bearer killed in action, one died of wounds, two were wounded and returned to duty, while seven were wounded and evacuated.

On the morning of the 25th April, having dealt during our stay at St. Nicolas with 747 cases, we handed over to the 102nd F.A., and on the 26th moved to Agnieres, a small village near Aubigny. 

Two days later we moved by Berlette, Berles, Penin, Maizieres, and Gouy-en-Ternois, to Monts-en-Ternois. It was glorious spring weather, redolent of the promise of even better things to come, and the coquet little village, with its red tiled roofs shewing through the verdant leafage, was welcome to our eyes. Truly we could say with St. Francis : “Praised be God for our Sister Mother Earth, which brings forth varied fruits and grass and glowing flowers” For to us, freshly come from all the desolation of ruined Arras, it seemed no ordinary thing to see a normal countryside with daisies, buttercups, green trees and grass, and the houses whole and untouched by shell fire. A hen and her little fluffy yellow brood, straggling along a side road, came as a wonder seen for the first time ; a sight to be followed and leisurely enjoyed, until, doubting the honourable nature of our intentions, the harassed mother hysterically drove us away by a headlong charge. 

A good many German wounded went through on the 17th from the 94th and 95th Thuringian Regiments. One was an iron cross man : another, shot through the chest, was a non-commissioned officer though only 17 years of age. Asked what his fellow countrymen were thinking about the war now, he replied, “What care I? Am I to live or die ? That alone is of interest to me”” Another Boche had his right arm shattered: shot – so he said – by his officer for not advancing promptly. Two more there were some days later, both of whom came into British hands after lying out for twenty days near their own lines; one vilely septic, with commencing tetanus, the other in articulo mortis.

On the 21st our officer with the bearer division took over the front line evacuation, with H.Q. at L’Abbayette twenty bearers at Fampoux village forty at Beaver Lock, Fampoux ; and a small party at Athies Lock. Evacuation ran from the R.A.P.s either to Fampouy village, whence to St. Nicolas by Ford cars ; or to Beaver Lock, and thence on the canalised Scarpe in pontoons to Athies Lock, where the casualties were transferred to cars ; an alternative route being by Decauville light railway straight from Beaver Lock to St. Nicolas. As the light railway and the canal were as freely shelled as the road, and as progress on the waterway was, further, a slow-going business at best, most of the cases found their way to the village post and down the valley by car. A road was generally more quickly repaired than a railway. 

It was always a tricky old valley. Going round the posts one day with our only Hibernian, things were quiet, the day was fine, and we strolled along the tow-path of the canal engaged in cheerful and improving discourse worthy of “The Compleat Angler.” Suddenly old Fritz let go at the landscape, one shell landing in the mud swamp which had once been the opposite bank of the canal. I hastily embraced a large poplar tree on the side away from the enemy, while showers of mud descended everywhere ; and then I discovered that I could see no sign of my companion.

“Where are you?” I sang out. 

“Where you’d be yourself, sir, if you had any sense at all” came the reply from nowhere I could see. 

Much struck by the respectful and practical nature of this reply, I at last detected the top of his tin hat in a neighbouring shell hole, and promptly joined him there : Jerry giving us a quite unsolicited encore, and my colleague a spasmodic lecture to me on the advantages, under such circumstances, of shell holes over poplar trees. And he was quite right, too: he knew his natural history well. The military cemetery, left at L’Abbayette by the Germans, had some exceptionally well-finished memorials of slatey stone, engraved and even gilt-lettered. One had a well-carved head of Christ on it. Where they got the stones, tools, and opportunity for doing the work was a mystery : but they had a characteristic trick of breaking up the French memorials in the communal cemeteries and using them for their own purposes. By the 27th our bearers were “out”

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