56 Division Narrative of Operations 22 May 1917
56th Divn. G.3/355.
Narrative of operations from 28th April
to 21st May 1917.
27th April. On 27th April 167th Infantry Brigade relieved the Reserve Brigade of 15th Division,
On the night 28th/29th it relieved the two leading Brigades of the 15th Division, 169th Infantry Brigade taking its place in Support, while 168th Infantry Brigade had moved into ARRAS in Reserve during the day.
29th April. The command of the line was taken over by 56th Division at 10 a.m. on 29th and on the same night, 169th Infantry Brigade took over from 167th Infantry Brigade the right section of the line, the dividing line being the ARRAS – CAMBRAI Road.
30th April. 56th Division Order No. 88 was issued on the 30th for the attack on 3rd May.
2nd May. On the evening of the 2nd May 168th Infantry Brigade was moved up out of ARRAS, two battalions being in or about THE HARP and two in the old German line East of ARRAS. The 169th and 167th Infantry Brigades also concentrated that night for the attack on the next morning, their final dispositions being:-
On the right – – 169th Infantry Brigade.
Right front Battalion – 5th London Regiment.
Left “ “ – 2nd “ “
Support “ – 9th “ “
Reserve “ – 16th “ “
On the left – – 167th Infantry Brigade.
Right front Battalion – 1st London Regiment.
Left “ “ – 7th Middlesex Regt.
Support “ – 3rd London Regiment.
Reserve “ – 8th Middlesex Regt.
A sketch map is attached showing the assembly areas, dividing lines between Brigades and the objectives. [Map not attached]
OPERATIONS OF 3rd MAY.
3rd May. Zero hour was 3.45 a.m., it being then dark, and no reports were received for a considerable time.
169th Infantry Brigade.
At 6.15 a.m. a F.O.O. reported that our men could be seen digging in front of ST. ROHART FACTORY and that 14th Division on the right appeared to have reached its objective.
At 7 a.m. the Brigade reported that the 2nd London Regiment had two platoons and four Machine Guns in the trench S.E. of CAVALRY FARM, but that the enemy appeared to be holding TOOL Trench.
The 2nd London Regiment was also holding a portion of LANYARD Trench, and more of the same Battalion, together with 5th London Regiment were in Trench N.15.a.0.5. to the CAMBRAI Road. The 5th London Regiment was also holding a Trench close to the PIT near ST. ROHART FACTORY.
No further news was received until 10.45 a.m. when 169th Infantry Brigade reported that bombers of the 9th London Regiment had rushed CAVALRY FARM after a bombardment by Stokes Mortars – they had bombed the dug-outs and taken 22 prisoners, and were proceeding to bomb up TOOL Trench, to aid in which 4.5” Howitzers were turned on to the trench in front of them.
At 10.50 a.m. 3rd Division asked for our guns to lift off TOOL Trench as they had troops in it who were going to bomb Southwards and at 11.35 a.m. they reported that they held that trench at the Northern end to East of the COPSE in 0.8 Central.
At 3.50 p.m., however, it was confirmed that the enemy was holding the whole of TOOL Trench, and that the 3rd Division was in touch with 7th Middlesex Regiment in our original line. Meanwhile at 11.50 a.m. the 14th Division on our right reported that both their attacking Brigades were being heavily counter-attacked and had been driven back, and at 12.30 p.m. it reported that it was in its original line. About the same time 169th Infantry Brigade reported that it had no troops North of the ARRAS-CAMBRAI Road, but that it still held the trench immediately West of the PIT in 0.15.c.
The situation, therefore, was that while the troops on the right and left were back on their original line, 169th Brigade held a narrow wedge of ground at the bottom of a valley and projecting about 1,000 yards forward, and very open to attack from the high ground on either flank. This wedge, however, was occupied until after dark when the enemy bombarded the whole front very heavily, and at 11.15 p.m. it was reported that the 2nd and 5th London Regiments had been driven in.
The General Officer Commanding 169th Infantry Brigade was, therefore, ordered to hold our original front line and to re-organise, and he issued the necessary orders to carry this out. Before these orders reached the 2nd and 5th London Regiments, however, they had organised a fresh advance and pushed out and re-occupied all the ground they had won during the day except CAVALRY FARM, where the Germans appeared to be holding the line of the CAMBRAI Road as a T-head to the South end of TOOL Trench.
This prevented all communication with the troops who were forward, except along the bottom of the valley, and the troops were therefore withdrawn an hour before sunrise, in accordance with the previous orders. During this period an officer and 15 Germans came out and surrendered in the neighbourhood of CAVALRY FARM.
167th Infantry Brigade.
At 5.54 a.m. it was reported that the 7th Middlesex Regiment had met with heavy Machine Gun and Rifle fire and failed to reach TOOL Trench.
At 6.40 a.m. a wounded officer of the 1st London Regiment reported that his Battalion had made two attacks but was each time driven back by Machine Gun fire, and that it was back in its original trenches.
The 168th Infantry Brigade was ordered at 7.10 a.m. to move two Battalions up to the WANCOURT LINE and two Battalions to THE HARP in view of the uncertainty as to the situation on the front of the 167th Infantry Brigade and the fact that the casualties were reported to be heavy.
At 8.55 a.m. it was reported that the Reserve Bn. (8th Middlesex Regiment) was prevented from moving up by a heavy hostile barrage.
During the morning it was reported that numbers of Germans could be seen reinforcing TOOL Trench along STIRRUP LANE, and these were dealt with by field and heavy artillery.
At one time (10.25 a.m.) it was thought that the enemy was retiring from the BOIS DU VERT as a large number were seen moving S.E. from there, and with a view to taking advantage of any opportunity, the Reserve Battalion was kept in readiness; but there was no sign of any weakening of the enemy on our immediate front. There was no further incident of note on the front of this Brigade – it was pinned to its original ground by M.G. and Artillery fire and had many of its troops lying out in shell holes about 80 yards from TOOL TRENCH.
Some small parties did undoubtedly pass over TOOL Trench and reached LANYARD Trench, but they were completely cut off and were never able to gain touch with the 169th Infantry Brigade on the right.
(a) There is an unanimous opinion that Zero hour was too early.
In the dark, signals to advance cannot be seen, nor can whistle signals be heard owing to the bombardment. Consequently Officers could only pass the order to advance down the extended line, and, as each man advanced as he received the order, the waves became zig-zag in shape with the officers at the forward points.
(b) In one instance a tape was laid out in front of our front line. This was found a great help in correcting the alignment and in assisting the direction, there being no landmarks visible.
(c) The barrage was very good, but the pace (100 yards in 3 minutes) too slow considering the dry state of the ground.
There is a natural inclination among assaulting troops to reach their objective as quickly as possible, and so the rear waves push on while the leading wave is kept back by the barrage. This tends to dangerous thickening of the line and to premature mixing of units.
For the first part of the advance, at any rate, a pace of 100 yards in 2 minutes would be better on dry soil: the barrage could lessen its rate of advance later as the Infantry get less fresh.
(d) Mopping up is still of great importance. CAVALRY FARM was not properly mopped up, two separate parties of prisoners being captured in the vicinity long after the leading wave had passed beyond it.
It is thought that TOOL Trench also had Machine Guns in it which came up after the leading wave passed, but there is little doubt that the bombardment had made the trench unrecognisable as such, and the darkness was against proper “Mopping Up”.
(e) A good many Germans were found killed by the bombardment and many more were disposed off by the bayonet and rifle fire by 169th Infantry Brigade, of which all ranks were satisfied that they had inflicted heavier losses than that had themselves sustained.
(f) The PIT contained several M.G.s and at least one Light Trench Mortar. Two M.G.s were found blown up by 4.5” Howitzers which had made excellent practice here.
(g) No hostile M.G.s or Infantry were met with along the COJEUL RIVER, along which a flanking platoon had been sent especially to deal with such a situation.
(h) S.E. of CAVALRY FARM the CAMBRAI Road is embanked 7 ft or 8 ft, but it is swept by fire from the direction of ST. ROHART FACTORY, and troops who formed a defensive flank along it suffered severely from enfilade fire.
(i) The enemy was found to be occupying shell-holes in front of his trenches as well as the trenches themselves.
4th – 10th May.
During this period 168th Infantry Brigade took over the line from 167th and 169th Infantry Brigades, the relief being complete on the morning of 5th May.
One Battalion of 167th Infantry Brigade and one from 169th Infantry Brigade remained attached to 168th Infantry Brigade.
The Divisional front was re-adjusted in accordance with orders from VI Corps, the 168th Infantry Brigade taking over from 3rd Division additional frontage as far North as 0.8.a.8.8.; this was completed by 5 a.m. 7th May.
Our patrols endeavoured on several occasions to enter TOOL Trench, but on each occasion found it held by the enemy in some strength.
Much work was done in deepening trenches, improving and constructing communication trenches and wiring.
On 9th May, 56th Division Order No. 92 was issued for an attack to be made on TOOL Trench on the evening of 11th inst.
During the whole of this period the German Artillery was active.
11th May. Operations of 11th May.
The attack by 168th Infantry Brigade on TOOL Trench was carried out at 8.30 p.m.
For two days previously, the trench was systematically kept under steady enfilade fire from 4.5” howitzers in N.23 which had been specially placed there for that purpose.
A steady destructive fire was kept up and great precautions were taken to prevent the enemy suspecting that an attack was intended.
A practice barrage of 18 prs on TOOL Trench on the evening of the 10th drew a heavy hostile barrage rather quickly, and it was, therefore, decided that the steady bombardment of the objective should continue up to the last possible moment, and that there should be nothing in the nature of a barrage opening at Zero hour.
The attack was carried out by the 4th London Regt on the right, and by the 14th London Regt (London Scottish) on the left, the dividing line being an E. and W. line between Squares 0.8 and 0.14.
The exact objectives were:-
(1). Trench S.E. of CAVALRY FARM, O.14.a.7.1. to O.14.a.9.3.
(2) CAVALRY FARM.
(3) TOOL Trench from the ARRAS-CAMBRAI Road O.14.a.6.5. to about O.8.b.2.2.
Except for CAVALRY FARM, the objectives were practically out of sight behind a spur which ran between the two lines.
The assault was a complete surprise to the enemy.
On the right the 4th London Regt had very little opposition and it appeared that this part of the objective was not held in any strength.
On the left there were some casualties in the Left Company of the London Scottish from machine gun fire from a N.E. direction, but the actual occupants of the trench made little resistance.
Six machine guns were captured (one of these by a gun team of 168th M G. Coy, which at once turned the gun on the enemy).
A party of about 50 Germans broke and fled, but were caught by Lewis gun, machine gun and rifle fire in the open, and practically annihilated.
A considerable number of German dead were found in the trench, and 11 unwounded prisoners taken.
As soon as the trench was captured a block was formed at the North end by filling it in for about 40 yards, and the position was consolidated, while the portion of the trench north of the objective was kept under steady fire by artillery and Stokes Mortars, and a slow sweeping barrage placed in front to prevent counter-attack, either by bombing from the north or over the open ground from the east.
The trench was also thinned out by withdrawing to our original line after dark troops in excess of the numbers required for the garrison.
The principal lessons of this small operation appear to be:-
(a) The efficacy and demoralising effect of a steady observed enfilade bombardment by howitzers.
(b) The advantage to be gained by frequently altering the hour of an attack, the enemy having become accustomed to attacks at dawn.
(c) The advisability of occasionally doing without an 18 pr creeping barrage opening at Zero. In this case the enemy barrage came down on our front line some 3 or 4 minutes after our assaulting troops had left it. Although 6 m.g.s were captured in the trench, some were taken unmounted and none were used effectively.
(d) The limiting of one’s objective when the enemy is plentifully supplied with artillery.
12th -17th May.
During the nights 11th-12th May, three communication trenches were dug connecting our old front line with TOOL Trench and the latter was strengthened.
167th Inf. Brigade (with 1 Bn. 169th Inf Bde attached) relieved 168th Inf. Brigade (with 1 Bn each of 167th and 169th Inf Brigades attached) between the nights 12th-13th and 14th-15th May.
Considerable work was carried out repairing and deepening trenches, and active patrolling was carried out.
At 9.20 p.m. 18th May, 167th Inf Brigade carried out a bombing attack on the northern portion of TOOL Trench with a view to capturing it as far north as O.8.b.55.50.
This attack was carried out by 8th Middlesex Rgt., who attempted a surprise attack. They started by successfully passing the block (where the trench had been filled in for 40 yards at the northernmost point previously captured), and made good another 30 yards; but they came up against very strong opposition and were unable to progress, and having fought for an hour and suffered some 10 to 15 casualties, they withdrew, bombers covering the party while the wounded were removed.
As the element of surprise had gone, no further attempt was made.
As a reconnaissance on the night 17th/18th showed that the trench appeared to be only held by about 6 posts of 4 men each, and as this attack came up at once against strong resistance and enemy were seen both in front of and behind TOOL Trench, it appears likely that the Germans were also contemplating a surprise attack, which was frustrated by ours.
The Officer in command of the party is satisfied that the enemy had many casualties as the trench was full of Germans and cries were heard when our rifle grenades fell among them
At 9 p.m. 19th May, an attack was carried out by 167th Infantry Brigade on:-
(1) TOOL Trench from our block about O.8.b.2.2. to its junction with HOOK Trench and LONG Trench about O.8.b.55.45.
(2) HOOK trench from junction with TOOL Trench to about O.8.b.50.95.
(3) LONG Trench from junction with TOOL Trench to O.8.b.99.95.
The 29th Division on our left was to capture the continuation of (2) and (3) on INFANTRY HILL, the BOIS DES AUBEPINES and DEVILS TRENCH. The attack was made under an 18-pdr barrage which, opening at Zero and remaining on TOOL and HOOK Trenches till Zero plus 5 minutes crept forward at the rate of 100 yards in 2 minutes till it reached a line just West of the BOIS DU VERT.
Behind the 18-pdr barrage other batteries swept ground from which Machine Gun fire was likely. The B.G.C. entrusted the carrying out of the attack to the 8th Middlesex Regiment and placed at the disposal of the Officer Commanding that Battalion two Companies of 1st London Regiment for the purpose of holding our original line in the event of the attack being successful.
Owing to the late hour and the dust from the barrage, observation of the attack was not obtained and for a long time no reports were received as there was a failure to establish visual signalling and all telephone lines in advance of Battalion H.Q. were cut.
At 1.25 a.m. Brigadier-General Commanding 167th Infantry Brigade reported that he had received a message timed 1 a.m. from O.C. 8th Middlesex Regiment that the attack had failed and that our troops were back in their own trenches. He also believed from reports received that the attack of 29th Division on our left had also failed.
From reports subsequently received our troops reached the first objective in the centre, but not on the flanks and were subjected to heavy bombing attacks. All the Officers became casualties and our men were finally forced to withdraw after sustaining casualties of about 40% of the attacking force.
At 5.30 a.m. the 29th Division confirmed this and reported that their line was then the same as before the attack.
19th – 20th May
On the 19th May, 112th and 111th Brigades of 37th Divn. Relieved 169th and 168th Infantry Brigades respectively.
On the early morning of 20th and on the night 20th/21st May 112th Brigade relieved 167th Brigade in the line, the 111th moving up to the Support Area.
The command of the line was handed over at 10 a.m. on 21st inst.
During the time the Division was in the line the following casualties were sustained. –
Period Killed Wounded Missing Total
O. O.R. O. O.R. O. O.R. O. O.R.
29th April – 2nd May
4th May -10th May
11th May – 12th May
13th May – 18th May
21st May –
TOTALS 25 341 41 1428 13 253 79 2022
Commanding 56th Division.
22nd May 1917
1 per Battalion