Title - Oppy-Gavrelle, May & June 1917

In the aftermath of the carnage of the 1916 Battle of the Somme, the German Army began to execute a skilful retirement to the prepared positions of the "Siegfried Stellung" or Hindenburg Line in late February 1917. Serre, the hill-top village which had held out against attacks on 1st July and 13th November 1916, was finally taken by the 21st Manchesters on 25th February.

Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Armies on the Western Front, remained eager to implement the offensive in Flanders for which he had argued more than a year previously. Now he was to be frustrated by Lloyd-George, the new British Prime Minister, who was desperate to see the war won without a repeat of the casualty lists seen throughout the latter half of 1916. When Nivelle, commander of the French Army, held out the prospect of outright victory through a massive French spring offensive on the Aisne, Lloyd-George was readily persuaded; the British contribution was to be limited to a major diversionary attack one week ahead of the French offensive.

At 5.30am on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917, 14 divisions from the British First and Third Armies attacked on a 17½-mile (28km) front at Arras. The spectacular capture of Vimy Ridge by four Canadian divisions overshadowed the equally-impressive achievements made by British divisions of Allenby's Third Army. Heavy snowfalls over the next three days made it difficult for the heavy artillery to get forward to support the infantry, and the offensive - the First Battle of the Scarpe - came to a halt on the 14th.

Nivelle's grand offensive was finally launched at 6am on the 16th. Its failure brought the French Army to breaking point and forced a renewal of the British offensive at Arras on the 23rd, and again on 3rd May (Second and Third Battles of the Scarpe).

Oppy Wood, 1917 by Paul Nash It was in readiness for the Third Battle of the Scarpe that the 11th East Lancashires (Accrington Pals) were moved to Arras as part of 94th Brigade, 31st Division. The battalion was fortunate only to be in support when 92nd Brigade made its unsuccessful attack against Oppy Wood and village on 3rd May.

Left: "Oppy Wood, 1917" by Paul Nash. Reproduced by kind permission of the Imperial War Museum, London.

Within hours of taking over the front line in the Oppy subsector on the night of the 11th/12th, the battalion drove back an enemy raid with rifle and Lewis gun fire. The remainder of the tour was to be no less eventful.

On the night of the 13th/14th, 2/Lt. John Lott led a bombing party northwards up Oppy Trench under cover of a Stokes mortar and rifle grenade barrage. Lott's men made several attempts to break into a strongly-wired enemy strongpoint 50 yards north of the junction with Bird Alley, but each time were repelled.

Right: Raiding party waiting for the signal to go, Arras, 1917. Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London (Q5098).

Click to enlarge photograph

Q5098: Raiding party waiting for the signal to go

The following night, 2/Lt. Lott and 2/Lt. Cyril McKenzie led bombing attacks up both Oppy Trench and Wood Trench in an attempt to capture Bird Alley. Both parties reached the trench only to find it filled with wire, making further progress impossible and - after a 20-minute long bombing duel - the only option left was to withdraw. An enemy counter-attack at 5.30am on the 15th was driven back after a "very hot" action.

Map of trenches in the Oppy subsector, May 1917

After the enemy strongpoint in Oppy Trench had been shelled by heavy artillery fire during the 16th, Lott - for the third consecutive night - led a bombing party against it. The party immediately came under heavy attack from bombs, and within 15 minutes it became apparent that further advance along the trench was impossible. As enemy machine gun fire chattered overhead, to attempt to go over the top in conditions of heavy mud and total darkness would have been suicidal, and so Lott's party was again forced to withdraw.

The battalion's casualties during its 5-day tour in the front line totalled 10 killed, 36 wounded and 1 missing.

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