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April 2017 Item of the Month

A story of gallantry in the Battle of Arras

April 9th marks the centenary of the opening of the Battle of Arras, one of the less well known battles of 1917. The initial advance of three miles into the German positions was the deepest yet made by the Entente Powers. Stiffening resistance, fierce blizzards and the poor state of the roads behind the German lines combined to stall progress after a couple of days. Instead of shutting down the operation the British high command persisted in launching further set piece attacks for the next month, many of which incurred heavy losses for very little gain.

William Lowe, whose papers survive in Durham University Library’s Archives and Special Collections, had been adjutant of 18th Durham Light Infantry since the beginning of the war. When the Battle of Arras began he was in England on a Senior Officers’ Course training to take command of a battalion. Despite his absence from the battalion he collected a series of reports and signals from the Arras operations, which suggests that even at that stage he intended to write a history of the battalion, which he did in 1920. Some are still stained with mud and candle grease.

18 DLI’s involvement in the battle came late in the month when they were attached to the 63 (Royal Naval) Division near the village of Gavrelle. Among Lowe’s papers are three leaves from a notebook containing an account of events between 3rd and 5th May written by 2/Lt. C. G. Finlay commanding B Company; there is also a list of men he recommended for gallantry awards (WDL/B/53/9). At 05.00 on the morning of 3rd May B Company were ordered to support 16 West Yorkshire Regiment in heavy fighting around the windmill to the north of Gavrelle. The trenches they occupied were heavily shelled over the next 36 hours, twelve men being killed in one incident. Three men were buried by a near miss as a trench wall collapsed on them. Sergeant William Morgan supervised the rescue under continuous shell fire. The area was also swept by machine gun and rifle fire. He was helped by Private Rutherford and Lance Corporal Taylor. Taylor had just returned from leading a patrol of five men up an old enemy trench; they found two Germans whom they killed. Private Thomas Vockuich managed to get a third man out and administered first aid to him saving his life. Such rescues were a race against time to save the buried men from suffocation and sometimes men were injured by the shovels wielded by their rescuers.

Award recommendations rarely survive and it is interesting find out how these men fared. Sergeant Morgan ended the war as a Company Quarter Master Sergeant and survived to go home to West Hartlepool. He remained undecorated as did Private Rutherford who also survived the war. L/Cpl Taylor was later promoted to Sergeant and was awarded the Military Medal on 9th July 1917, probably for this incident. Private Thomas Vockuich also received a Military Medal on 27th April 1917 but was not so lucky. On 28th September whilst on patrol in no-man’s-land he was killed by German mortar fire. His body was recovered and he is buried in Roclincourt Military Cemetery. Sergeant Pringle Balmer was later promoted to Company Sergeant Major and then commissioned into 1/5 Durham Light Infantry. This battalion was moved to a quiet sector on the Aisne after suffering heavy losses in the spring of 1918 but were overwhelmed by a sudden German offensive on 27th May. Balmer and eight of his fellow officers were killed. His body was never recovered and he is commemorated on the Soissons Memorial.

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