The 11th Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment

The Attack on the Chemical Works at Roeux on the 28th April 1917


British Troops at Arras

The First Phase - 9th April 1917

The seeds of the plan for the 1917 offensive rest with the replacement of Joffre by Neville, an ex artillery officer who had made his reputation at Verdun. Nivelle believed that modern artillery tactics would produce "rupture". Attackers advancing behind a creeping barrage would break through the first, second and third line of defences, by-passing strongpoints which would be mopped up later. The French would attack in the Southern Aisne Sector whilst the British would reopen their offensive on the northern shoulder of the Somme salient, at Arras and against Vimy Ridge.

The British had a further difficulty to deal with. The Germans had retrenched to the heavily fortified Hindenburg Line in mid March. The jumping off points for the new offensive were opposite defences more formidable than any yet encountered. The first map in the attached supplement illustrates the line of attack given to the 101st Brigade of which the 11th Battalion, the Suffolk Regiment was a part.

The Brigade was tasked with taking three German trench lines. Black (Rearmost), Blue (Front Line) and Brown. All three lines had to be taken, and a new line, called the Green (east of the Brown line), had to be dug by the end of Z day (9th April 1917). The Green line was to be sufficiently in advance of the Brown to give good observation over the forward slope of the ridge towards the next German line.

The attack itself is best described by quoting from a couple of authoratative sources. Firstly the 34th Division, Official history.

"... the Brown Line was taken by two thirty P.M. The leading Battalions of the 101st were the 16th Royal Scots and 11th Suffolks. The enemy's artillery fire was weak, and his rifle and machine gun fire feeble, most of his men being caught in dug-outs. His trenches were badly shattered, and the Black Line was occupied and consolidated without great loss. In fact "A" Company of the Suffolks reported the Black Line captured without loss."

In fact the 11th Suffolks had lost 25 men killed. For further details follow this link.

"Mortar Firing" - A Painting by the German War Artist - Frost

The second description is from a German viewpoint and who better to comment than the man who inspired the name of the German Trench system involved. In his autobiography "Out of My Life", Marshall Von Hindenburg describes the British attack thus.

"On April 9th the English attack at Arras gave the signal for the enemy's great spring offensive. The attack was prepared for days with the fury of masses of enemy artillery and trench mortars. There was nothing of the surprise tactics that Nivelle had used in the October of the previous year. ... The English swept over our first, second and third lines. Groups of strongpoints were overwhelmed or silenced after herioc resistance. masses of artillery were lost. Our defensive system had apparently failed ! ... The evening report of the 9th April revealed a rather dark picture ... Many shadows - little light. In such cases more light must be sought. A ray appeared, a tiny flickering ray. The English did not seem to have known how to exploit the success they had gained to the full. This was a piece of luck for us, as so often before ! ... I knew that our reinforcements were hastening to the battlefield and that trains were hastening that way."

Some of the reinforcements that Hindenburg referred to were busy reinfircing the labyrthinth of trenches and dugouts in the vicinity of the Chemical Works at Roeux.

The Second Phase - 28th April 1917

Following the initial effort of the Arras offensive the 34th Division was tired and depleted. The enemy had been reinforced was reorganised and the next stage of fighting was to take place in an area of ruined buildings - fighting for which the poorly trained conscripts (who had been drafted in to replace 34th Division losses) would not be well suited.

The key to the front in front of 101st Brigade was Greenland Hill. This could not be taken until Roeux had been reduced. The famous 51st Highland Division had made a determined attack on the 23rd April and had taken Roeux and the Chemical Works only to be driven out again by a determined enemy counter attack. It was now the turn of the 34th Division and the 11th Suffolks were to take a key role in the forthcoming attack. The map below shows the dsisposition of the 101st Brigade  and the line of objective for the Cambs Suffolks.

Chemical Works

The scheme of attack was fairly straightforward. See map 2 in supplement. 101st and 103rd Brigade were to advance straight through to their objective. See map above. The scene in front of the 11th Suffolks was a chateau slightly to the right with a line of irregular buildings and gardens stretching down to the railway line. The extensive and solidly built Chemical Works were slightly to the rear. The enemy were present in strenght with well sited machine guns clearly evident.The 11th Suffolks were on the right of the two other first wave Battalions - each front line Battalion was reinforced with 2 guns from the 103rd Machine Gun Company.

The assault was delivered at 4:25 A.M. and to quote the Divisional commander, General Nicholson "It began badly, continued badly, and ended worse." The barrage was inaccurate and at the time of the assault the enemy machine guns were highly active.

The action of the 11th Suffolks is described in the Divisional History thus.

"The Suffolks met with the same fate as the 24th Northumberlands, being met by machine gun fire from a trench untouched by the barrage and from buildings. They made no progress, and at 5:30 A.M. Major Tuck, Second in Command, being sent up to reorganise the Battalion, found only five officers and about three hundred other ranks in our front line, including about sixty men from the 16th Royal Scots. Some of the Suffolks got as far as the houses near the Chemical Works, and Stayed till dark, when they returned with some prisoners."

Following the unsuccessful attackand in preparation for a further attack (in which the 11th Suffolks would not be involved) on the night of the 28th April, the Heavies treated the Chemical Works to a bombardment. Between ten P.M. and midnight five thousand rounds were discharged. The impact of this barrage can be seen in the photographs below.

The Chemical Works at Roeux - 9th April 1917

The Chemical Works at Roeux - 7th May 1917

Pictures from "Twenty Years After" - Supplementary Volume - Edited by Major General Sir Ernest Swinton K.B.E., C.B.

The cambs Suffolks lost 103 men in this attack, including two from Swavesey, the small Cambridgeshire village in which I live. Sergeant Alfred A. Linford (right) second son of Jethro Linford, of Swavesey and Pte James William Hepher (left), eldest son of Mr Charles Hepher, Swavesey. Linford had been a very early volunteer - enlisting under number 15663 in October 1914. Hepher, number 23971, enlisted later in the early summer of 1915.

 The Arras and Roeux Map Supplement - Complementary to this Page  
 The Cambs Suffolks Resource Guide
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