Saturday, 30 July 2016

First or Second Battle of Arras?

Reading up on the Battle of Arras has been interesting. I'm into the end of the first week of my summer holiday, which has mainly entailed back-breaking 'stuff-around-the-house' including setting up my new study in the spare bedroom. In amongst that I've gained some time to research a little bit more about the Battle of Arras and Robert Gooding Henson's possible role in it. It also strikes me that there must be relations around who are more directly related to Robert, so the other next step is to investigate the family tree a bit more. I was due to sit down with my Dad to talk about this a bit more but the car being in the garage all week (long story) has put paid to a long drive to Wales.

The Battle of Arras actually breaks down into three parts:
The First Battle of the Scarpe (9-14 April 1917);
The Second Battle of the Scarpe (23/24 April 1917);
The Third Battle of the Scarpe (3 May 1917).

The first battle was mostly a Canadian-led attack, with the British attacks at Arras intended to be part of a larger Anglo-French offensive planned for the spring of 1917. From what I've been able to ascertain (and an excellent summary of this can be read at Jeremy Banning's website), the night of 9th April represented the peak of success at Arras. The campaign was plagued afterwards by a lack of organisation, poor communications and terrible weather. It was also incredibly difficult to move artillery over the ground that had been bombarded and ripped up by enemy attack. Little happened on 10th April, and the collective failure to capitalise on the Canadian success of 9th April gave the Germans enough time to build up their defences in preparation for the next day.

11th April was when the First Battle of Bullecourt took place. This was pivotal, but the tanks that the Fifth Army needed failed to arrive in time. They needed the tanks to breach the German barbed wire defences. Barbed wire was a relatively new invention that foiled attack on many occasions. Many soldiers learned the hard way how easy it could be to get trapped in barbed wire and meet an end, hanging there, waiting to be shot or die from exposure. It was the Australians that had some success this day, breaking through sections of the wire to make for the Hindenburg Line. By midday, though, the Line was so well defended by the Germans that they were surrounded on three sides and had to retreat over No Man's Land. This made them easy pickings and by the end of the day, 2000 Australians were taken prisoner.

As far as Robert Gooding Henson is concerned, what I know so far is that, after 11th April, the 4th Division, of which his Somerset Light Infantry was a part, many troops were sent back to Arras and replaced. Others were fresh, alert and waiting in the wings. The rest was well deserved, despite the British failure to gain all of the ground that had been planned. However, the 4th Division had 'leapfrogged' the 9th (Scottish) Division on 9th April to capture the village of Fampoux. This was a massive advance of between 3 and 4 miles but they were foiled by the barbed wire.

The crest of the Somerset Light Infantry, as photographed at the cemetery at Hervin Farm.
A great deal more happened over the next few days, including the 1st Essex and Newfoundland Regiments capturing Hill 100 (known as Infantry Hill) on 14th April. But, as far as I've been able to tell, Robert and the Somerset Light Infantry were back in Arras, resting.

We know that Robert's death date is given as 22nd April, so the mystery - at the moment - is when and how he died. My first assumption was that he was wounded close to the end of the First Battle and died later of his injuries, but it appears that he was not involved in any attack after 11th April. So, the question is whether he was wounded on or before 11th April and then suffered from his injuries for a further 11 days, or whether something else happened.

The Second Battle commenced on 23rd April when the weather had improved considerably, but troops were assembling before then ready to attack, and there are isolated incidents of shelling between the two Battles, so the exact cause of his death I don't yet know. Is it possible that he made it to 22nd April uninjured, and then something happened prior to the official beginning of the Second Battle of the Scarpe on 23rd April?

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Robert Gooding Henson's Grave at St Laurent-Blangy


The Commonwealth War Graves Commission gives the above certificate in memoriam of Robert Gooding Henson. His grave is on a small site near St Laurent-Blangy, about 3 or 4 kilometres north-east of Arras, at Hervin Farm British Cemetery. It appears that only 48 identified casualties are buried here. There are 51 in total, 3 of them unidentified. Given the lives lost at the battle, it'll be interesting to investigate why Robert was interred here in particular. What I do know so far is that the Allied front line ran through the village of St Laurent-Blangy until 9th April 1917. According to the CWGC website, "Hervin Farm was taken by the 9th (Scottish) Division on 9 April 1917 and the cemetery was made by fighting units and field ambulances in that month; three graves were added subsequently". Given that we know that Robert died on 22nd April, perhaps his grave is one of those added later.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

The beginning - The Battle of Arras, 1917.

The attack began at 5.30 a.m on 9th April 1917. It was a Monday. Depending on your attitude to work, Monday mornings are full of either expectation or trepidation. Knowing what faced them, many having already lived through the Somme earlier in the Great War, trepidation was the least the young men of the British and Canadian regiments were feeling as they prepared to face thousands of young Germans who were feeling the fear and uncertainty.

There was heavy rain - some accounts say even an April snowstorm - but then the weather cleared. The original attack was successful but, like every conflict during the Great War and since, it was not that simple.

The Second Battle of Arras ended by 15th April. Six days of sliding, sucking mud, suffocating gas bombs and indiscriminate rifle fire ended with too many soldiers dead on the battlefield, and even more dying slowly from their injuries.

In the following days, Siegfried Sassoon, who had fought at Arras, died on 16th April. Acquiring posthumous fame as a war poet, the world remembers him. Robert Gooding Henson died on 22nd April 1917. He was, to the world at large, less remarkable. Robert was in the 4th Division of the Somerset Light Infantry, one of 84,000 men on the front line at Arras. He was my father's grandmother's sister's son.

As I write, it is 27th July 2016. In a little under nine months, it will be the one hundredth anniversary of my relative's death at Arras. I only discovered that he even existed very recently. My father, who is in his seventies, had been talking with his elder sister about the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme that had been commemorated all over the media. Being in her eighties, my Aunt Marlene's memory is not what it was, but like many of her age, short term memory is unreliable but long-term memories can re-emerge crystal clear, and she told my father about his first cousin once removed, Robert Gooding Henson.

I am now in my forties and had believed all this time that we had no relatives who fought in the Great War. My father's father - and my mother's father - were both Welsh miners so were needed underground and did not fight during World War Two. Although many Welshmen did fight in World War One, I had always believed our relatives stayed down the pit so neither I nor my father investigated further. However, Robert Gooding Henson was not from Wales. My father's family had originated in Somerset and had moved to Wales later.

This blog will chronicle my efforts to find out a little more about the family, reaching back into the early twentieth century and into the nineteenth, and to investigate just who Robert was. We are separated by generations and a century, but on 22nd April 2017, I will be taking my own family to visit his graveside in France. The hundred years to Arras begins here.