June 5th 1917

Last year 2nd Lieut. Humphrey Arden (RGA) gave us a gunner’s view from the Somme and now he has been in the thick of it again – presumably at Arras. His latest letter recounts events “of just over a month ago.”

30/5/17. “There was to be a big attack and certain objectives were, as usual, laid down. We were ordered to push forward our OP by stages to a point a few hundred yards behind the final objective, following up the attack and keeping up communication, sending back information and reporting and dealing with counter attacks and so on. It all sounds very easy.

At Zero hour I was at the regular OP with a drum of cable ready to go forward. The attack began while it was still dark and the usual hideous inferno of noise reached perhaps the greatest intensity of the whole war…

About an hour after it was light the wounded began to straggle back, but they could give me no information, having been hit at the outset…

Programmes are always arranged on the assumption that everything goes well. Accordingly I set out with my signaller, laying the line as we went. When we reached the valley below our hill I realised that it was absolutely thick with machine gun and rifle bullets, besides the usual shells. We therefore rushed from shell hole to shell hole, a few yards at a time, till we reached the first spot indicated on the programme.

Finding a roomy hole nearby, we settled down in it to consider the situation and fix up the phone. Watching over the top a few minutes later, I was surprised to see our infantry go over the top from the original front line, and they were met by such a concentrated fury of machine guns and shells that I knew they had not been able to advance at all in the first attack.

We tried to send information back to this effect, but of course our line was broken. Out we got to mend it, which we did successfully, and we were just about 20 yards from our shell hole when ‘pht pht pht’ came a sniper’s bullets, so close that I knew he had spotted us. We dived into a hole and completed our 20 yards about a yard at a time, just diving to earth as the ‘pht’ of the bullet arrived. I got my information back , but for the moment could do no more as the sniper had seen where we disappeared, and every few minutes he would send one over the lip of the crater on the chance of catching one of us…

A little later, thinking that the Hun would surely have forgotten us, I decided to make another attempt to get forward… I got out of the hole, but hadn’t gone 5 yards before ‘pht pht pht’ came the bullets again. Down I went into a hole – not nearly such a nice one, as it was near to the carcass of a horse. I had no sooner got into this when a great 8-inch shell came right down beside the carcass and threw the whole horse bodily about 15 feet into the air, right over my head, and it landed the other side of me about 15 yards away. A great jagged piece of this shell hit me hard on the helmet, but I hardly felt it.”

With some difficulty by mid afternoon Humphrey had got his line through to the second location on the programme, but thereafter could get no further, as the infantry had not reached their objectives.

His job done, he and his signaller returned to the battery. It does not sound as if this “big attack” met with great success, despite their considerable efforts.

It is a sobering thought, but if it wasn’t for the dead horse, Humphrey must surely have perished.

June 1st 1917

Following the news last week of John’s disappearance on the battlefield of Arras, Mr & Mrs Dowson have received a letter from his Company Commander, Captain Green of 1st Royal Berkshires.

Capt. OJ Dowson

28/5/17 “…As you perhaps know, my Company, to which your son belonged, attacked on April 28th, and he got back safely.

Then at dawn on May 3rd the remnants again attacked. The attack was successful in that we gained our objective, but no supplies were sent us and we had to evacuate the captured trench, lie in shell holes close by till dark and then get back.

John was quite fit after we entered the Boche line, and was so when last seen a few minutes before our withdrawal.

I have carefully questioned all the survivors, but from this time onwards nothing has been seen or heard of him.”

From what one can deduce from the above, the fighting was heavy and there were many casualties.  It is nearly a month ago now, and with each passing day the likelihood – I fear – of John having survived, grows more remote.

May 24th 1917

Every day I open the morning newspaper to read on the ‘Roll of Honour’ of large numbers of officers killed and wounded, always in fear that I shall see the name of one of our Old Boys.

I am also confronted by an increasing number of those who are pronounced as ‘Missing’. This gives hope, but the families of these men are condemned to months of uncertainty as to whether their loved ones are dead, wounded or captured. In the case of the family of Capt. Edmund Gay (Norfolk Regiment) it has been nearly two years; he has been missing since August 1915.

Now two more of our Old Dragons have joined this list.

On May 20th, Mr Herbertson received a telegram stating that his grandson, Lieut. Hunter Herbertson (King’s Royal Rifle Corps) was reported as missing, but he understands that this does not necessarily mean that he is either wounded or killed.

On the night of May 16th he went out on a patrol with two others near Cherisy (at the southern end of the Arras battlefield). None of them returned. Enquiries will be made in the hope that he was captured and is a prisoner of war.

Hunter had done two years at Balliol (reading History) when war was declared. He joined up, but whilst training he suffered a double tragedy. His father (Oxford’s first Professor of Geography) died in July 1915, followed two weeks later by his mother. Both are buried in the Holywell Cemetery.

 

Mr & Mrs Dowson have also been informed that their son, Captain John Dowson (Royal Berkshire Regiment) has been notified as “missing.”

Like Morice Thompson, he was involved in the attacks that took place on May 3rd in the Arras district, but as yet we have no further information as to the circumstances of his disappearance.

John has been a regular visitor to the school in recent times. When home on leave he was always about, ready to take a form or a game.

It is at times like this that you are glad to have a photograph that captures happier times and places to have in front of you. This is John, as the boys will remember him, and hopefully he will return to us in the fullness of time.

 

Better news was to be found on a list headed ‘Previously reported missing, now reported prisoners of war in German hands.’ Included on it was the name of 2nd Lieut. Peter Warren, whose fate has been unknown these past seven weeks.

His squadron was returning to their base on April 2nd when they were set upon by German squadron. It seems that Peter’s plane was singled one and forced to ditch behind enemy lines.

 

 

May 5th 1917

The battle at Arras continues unabated. Indeed, a couple of nights ago (around 1 a.m) many in Oxford were awoken by the sounds of the artillery bombardment – or so it was believed to be. I did not hear it myself.

* * * * * * *

We now have more encouraging news of William Leefe Robinson. His sister has been told that a captured German airman has revealed that William is alive and is now a prisoner of war.

We still do not know the fate of Peter Warren, who has been missing since April 2nd.

The casualties suffered by our airman last month must be a matter of great concern to our leaders. The Daily Telegraph of April 27th reported a significant increase in our losses (killed, wounded and missing):  January – 56, February – 119, March – 152, April –  319.

Of the twenty or so Old Dragons serving with the RFC, William and Peter are the first to have been declared “missing” and the news of William renews our hope that Peter is also a prisoner.

* * * * * * *

It is good to have the boys back and on the very first day of term our cricket team enjoyed a match against a team of young Old Dragons who are still on holiday. We scored a creditable 63 to the ODs’ 93.

The new boys are settling in well, although there have been some tears. Indeed, I found young Betjemann crying outside the Lodge. We walked up and down the road whilst I tried to comfort him.  He does know Ralph Adams from their holidays in Cornwall, so we have put them both in Form II. Let’s hope Ralph can help buck him up.

My brother Hum got to know the Betjemanns on holiday in Trebetherick a few years ago, and hearing that John was not having a good time of it at Highgate School (where his German-sounding name led to some unpleasantness), suggested he came to board here at the OPS.

 

April 21st 1917

Lieut. John Pratt (Yorkshire Regiment)

Announced in The Times yesterday was the death, on April 11th at St. Martin sur Caquel, of Jack Pratt, the second Old Dragon to die in the battle at Arras.

His regiment was involved in an attack on the Hindenburg Line. The artillery having failed to destroy the barbed wire defences, John went ahead with a machine gun to find a gap in the wire entanglement through which he might take his Company.  He was picked off by a sniper.

His Commanding Officer has commended him for his gallantry and devotion to duty.

During his time at the OPS Jack was a promising athlete and a merry youngster around the school, with plenty of pluck and nerve. He distinguished himself at Blundell’s School, which he entered in 1908, by getting his cricket and rugger colours whilst still aged 15.

April 19th 1917

2nd Lieut. Rafe Griffith (Royal West Kents) only left us five years ago, in August 1912 (with an Exhibition to St. Bees College, where Harold and William Leefe Robinson also went).

We presume that this description is of the Battle of Arras, which has featured in our newspapers of late and opened up on the morning of April 9th:

14/4/17. “Here we are absolutely untouched. We ‘went over’ at 5.30 a.m., and of course it was raining. Never shall I forget ‘zero.’ There are two outstanding things, barrage and the company going over. Every gun massed at A______ went off together, as though worked by a spring, in one great crash.

The company went over as though starting a 100 yard race, never a man late. The whole way through I can’t say enough for the men. They were magnificent throughout, laughing and joking all the time. There aren’t any duds in the British Army; they are all as plucky as anything and full of the fighting spirit.

We took old Fritz by surprise, entirely; we were over his first lines before he had realised anything. Some of them were in bed with their boots off. I had two lucky escapes. Before we reached our front line, my haversack was shot away; we were finally held up by a strong party of Germans at the end of a communication trench. Three bombing raids were led against them, but their snipers were too hot for us. Then a bullet went through my steel helmet. We finally rushed them over the open and bagged the lot. We then went on to our objective and found Fritz had cleared off.

We stayed there that night and the next day had to go on to the furthest point our troops reached. It snowed hard all the time, and we were all soaked to the skin and a bitter wind was blowing.

On arriving at our destination, we found the Boche on three sides of us and had quite a nasty time from his shelling…

The line nowadays is a very funny place. Both sides sit in shell holes and little bits of trenches a few feet deep, with gaps here and there in the line, so when we take over a bit of the front, we don’t know whether we are hanging by a thread, so to speak, or strongly supported on the flanks. Fritz doesn’t give us much opportunity to find out either, as his snipers are always on the watch and it is more than one’s life is worth to show oneself…

The general feeling out here now is that the war may be over by the Autumn, but that we shall have to fight very hard.”

This is encouraging to hear.

January 27th 1916

I wonder if you have worked out where Capt. Maurice Jacks was when he wrote:

“Being more or less conscientious I cannot tell you exactly where ‘here’ is, but if you remember where Polonius was stabbed, you will be within reasonable distance of the spot.”

Polonius stabbed

Polonius was hiding behind a rich tapestry (typically hung to make a screen) when stabbed by Hamlet. Such a tapestry was called an arras.

So, our man is somewhere near the town of Arras, to the north of Albert in the region of the Somme.

W Front map

 

Two marks if you got it right, one if you got it wrong!