Personal experiences on April 9-10, 1917, by Captain H.U.S. Nisbet, 3rd attd. 1st The Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment.
With the unveiling of the great Canadian Memorial on Vimy Ridge by Edward VIII in July 1936, the last link with the famous battle was forged. It is not generally known that English and Scottish troops played a prominent part in the assault and capture of the ridge. On my last visit to it in 1922, I found a memorial to them and the 2nd Canadian Division in the shape of a wooden cross, surrounded by a small garden, close to that part of the Lens-Arras road where the 1st Battalion, Royal West Kent Regiment formed up to continue the attack after passing through the Canadians.
Before recounting my experiences, it may not be out of place to touch upon happenings prior to the launch-ing of the attack. The 13th Brigade, consisting of my own battalion, 2nd King's Own Scottish Borderers, and the 14th and 15th Royal Warwicks, together with their 5th Divisional artillery, had been attached to the 2nd Canadian Division for the operation, and for a week or two we had been practising daily over specially marked out country behind the line. Although this bore little, if any, resemblance to the ground over which we were to fight, the tapes and flags with which it was accurately bedecked not only familiarised us with the names and relative positions of trenches and woods on the Ridge, but also inculcated in all ranks an instinc-tive sense of direction that no amount of map reading would have done. In fact, there is no doubt that these elaborate preparations, coupled with the perfecting of the creeping barrage time-table, were responsible for our immense confidence and contributed significantly to the overwhelming success of the whole attack. This, we had been given to understand, was to commence on Easter Sunday, but was postponed until the following day.
On Sunday, April 8th, we marched to within four or five miles of the line and spent the afternoon resting under cover of a small wood. The weather, which for a long time had been vile, was mild and sunny. It seemed, indeed, like the beginning of summer.
I had been allotted the job of liaison officer with the 29th Canadians, who were to advance on our right. That evening I set out with Flynn, my batman, to join them. Owing to the darkness, the slippery state of the ground, and the weight of our rifles, ammunition, packs and two days' rations, the journey took nearly two hours. Eventually after several sousings of liquid mud we reached their camp dead beat at the moment they were about to move off.
A short respite, while their C.O. completed his preparations, and we were away, an easy start down the slopes of Mont St. Eloi. He had allowed his battalion a quarter of an hour's lead and now expressed his intention to get ahead of it. As he carried nothing but a couple of gas helmets he succeeded without much difficulty in accomplishing this feat. To me it was a nightmare. Somewhere on the route I passed Flynn my sack of rations and told him to follow on later!
After a while, we left the road and struck across fields near Neuville St. Vaast, guided by a line of tape. Para-llel to it the tracks of tanks (eight from D Battalion) could be dimly seen. We passed some batteries that were being gas shelled. In consequence box respirators were adjusted, and we crept along at a snail's pace until the air cleared again.
At last the trench system began and, after losing our way once or twice, we reached the dug-out that was to house us 'till dawn'. As the official despatch stated later, there had been twenty days' intense bombardment of the enemy's front and rear positions. This had quietened down on the night of the 8th-9th to allow the troops to get into position with as few casualties as possible from retaliatory fire. So far as the battalion I was with was concerned, there were only two or three wounded. In spite of the hard going everyone was in high spirits, and although the French were commonly reported to have lost 60,000 killed in their assaults on the Ridge, failure was unthought of.
We slept for a few hours as best we could. In these more comfortable days it is extraordinary to recall how luxurious a table used to be for this purpose even when one's legs were too long to be supported by it.
At 5.25 am I was awakened to witness the start. It was scarcely light outside, very cold and drizzling. We mounted the fire-step and waited for zero-hour, watching the strangely quiet seconds tick by. Suddenly a gun fired, and immediately the whole sky from Arras to Lens seemed to explode into flame. From our position we could see lines of dark figures and tanks advancing behind the barrage, and beyond them the coloured rockets of the enemy, calling for help.
The din was so continuous that one soon forgot it.
After a scratch breakfast of sardines and tinned ham, we set off up the trench to the front line. The first prisoners now appeared with some of our own wounded, whom they were helping along. One of them was wearing the ribbon of the Iron Cross. They were obviously very thankful to have got through alive.
As we neared the front line we came under German shell fire. An officer a few yards ahead of me was killed, but I and my batman, who had reappeared during the night, safely reached our reserve line, from which a deep tunnel had been dug up to the front. This was crowded with troops moving up, also with R.A.M.C. men, wounded and stretcher-bearers. When at last we emerged at the far end the trench had suffered such damage from the rains and shelling that for a moment we could neither haul ourselves out of it, nor tell which way to proceed. However, we got through a gap and more by chance than skill found ourselves in No Man's Land.
From here onwards the ground was a boggy wilderness of shell craters. The early morning drizzle had turned to snow. It needed all one's strength to drag one leg after the other. About half-way across this first stretch I just had time to hear that terrible sound of a 'dead-on' shell when its wind bowled me over like a ninepin. This, and the violence of its explosion, convinced me that I was finished. It was there-fore curious and somewhat disheartening to come back to the realisation that I was still alive without even a 'blighty'. There was nothing for it but to go on.
During the next hour we covered a thousand yards, passing two derelict tanks which had been defeated by the mud, and reached our first (official) halting place - the Lens - Arras road, where the troops detailed to attack the second and later objectives were forming up. The road, which was quite unrecog-nisable as such, was being heavily shelled, but both the West Kents and the Canadians were exceedingly fortunate, casualties being few.
Great work was done here by the former's C.O., Lieutenant-Colonel Buchanan-Dunlop, in getting com-panies sorted out, and all ranks behaved as though on parade. The result was that the leading waves were ready to advance at 9.30 am according to schedule.
I think it was a little while before this that I saw something I had not seen before, and was not to see again, on the Western Front, a tri-plane. It appeared for a brief moment over some trees on my left, then was lost in the snowfall.
At the pre-arranged moment our great barrage lifted and moved forward in hundred-yard jumps every three minutes. During practice we had thought that this might necessitate our waiting very much exposed in front of the objectives, but on the actual day the pace was quite fast enough for anyone. The accuracy of the barrage called forth loud praise from the Canadians. Co-operating with it were two hundred machine-guns, firing over us at long-range targets. Their combined effect was devastating. No sooner had the curtain of shells cleared an enemy trench than the leading wave dashed in, and the succeeding one passed through to continue the attack. Meanwhile, the weather remained atrocious; occasionally the snow became so thick that the Ridge was entirely hidden. At other times the sun shone brilliantly for a few minutes, but it was mainly dull and bitterly cold. Through all this our aeroplanes carried out their observation work, flying low over objectives.
By 10 am the Canadians were in possession of the village of Thelus. Nearby we descended a deep shaft and to our surprise, found that it led to a vast underground system of dug-outs and tunnels. So unex-pected and rapid had been the advance that the inhabitants were blissfully cooking or awaiting their breakfasts. They offered no resistance. Among them was an artillery colonel who owned a nicely papered bedroom and a feather bed with sheets. In addition to quantities of maps, documents and souvenirs of all kinds, there were crates of Vichy water, German sausages, excellent cigars, cigarettes, potatoes, coal, rice and other luxuries, which were by no means wasted. Above ground, in the village itself, the troops captured several guns and then continued the attack towards the crest of the Ridge - a distance of about 4,000 yards.
The enemy was now thoroughly demoralised, and by early afternoon we had gained the final objectives. For the first time since the early days of the War our infantry looked down across the wide panorama of the Douai Plain. It was a sight for the gods! We could see the German gunners working their guns, then limbering up and moving back. Transport wagons were in full retreat with hundreds of fugitives from the Ridge. There appeared to be nothing at all to prevent our breaking through - nothing, that is, except the weather. So appalling was the state of the battlefield that neither cavalry nor tanks could cross it.
The day before, we had seen the cavalry massed behind our lines and were bitterly disappointed that they never came through to exploit what seemed to be a deep gap in the German front. I believe that the High Command never expected such an overwhelming success and had no plans for a follow-up.
The 1st Royal West Kents captured nine guns and a most realistic dummy, made up of two old wheels and a log of wood. That night we and the 29th Canadians consolidated our positions along the crest of the Ridge and threw out strong posts in front. The cold was intense; there was no cover of any kind. Rations, which had to be brought up on pack animals and officers' chargers, took nine hours to reach Battalion headquarters. The Germans made no attempt to counter-attack; it was not until the following day that we saw lines of men advancing in extended order across the snow covered Plain. They were dealt with effectively by our artillery and gave us no trouble. During this second day there was a good deal of sniping on our sector, but little else, what shell-fire there was being spasmodic and directed for the most part on fixed spots which we left severely alone.
In the afternoon I had a welcome visit by my C.O. with news of the Battalion's doings. There was a curious peacefulness just then on that part of the Ridge. I can recall only a small patch of grass and an odd shell coming over.
On the night of April 10th - llth the 13th Brigade was relieved and rejoined the rest of the 5th Divi-sion in reserve. Elation at the victory no doubt helped the exhausted and mud-plastered troops over the half-dozen miles back to Villers-au-Bois. My job having terminated, I avoided this anti-climax by wangling a lift on an ammunition limber returning for fresh supplies.
The Fifth Division in the Great War gives the total captured for the Battle of Arras on April 9th as 15,000 prisoners and 200 guns, and the total losses of the 13th Brigade on Vimy Ridge as seven officers and 280 other ranks. Of these two officers and 136 other ranks belonged to the Royal West Kent Regiment.