Haughley And The Battle Of Arras

The battle of the Somme is probably the most famous battle of the Great War. However this wasn’t the case for the Suffolk Regiment.

The battle of Arras claimed more than 150,000 lives (depending on source) over a thirty nine day period from the 9th April to 16th May 1917. The battle had the heaviest daily casualties of any battle which the British Army was involved in, and it was fairly successful. Haughley had five soldiers fighting at the Battle of Arras with the Suffolk Regiment, sadly none of them returned home. But with their duty they helped with a major turning point of the Great War.

Three soldiers from Haughley helped but they were not to return home.

Two soldiers from Haughley; Private John Marchant Morphew was born in Nedging in 1892. The third son of Peter and Ellen Morphew of Tot Hill he joined the 7th Suffolk Regiment in Stowmarket. Prior to joining the Army he was a labour. A fellow Haughley soldier Private William Pearson served in the 7th Suffolk Regiment and was born in Catton.At this time the 7th Suffolks were part of the 12th Division. Their task was to capture the enemy’s black line, then moving to the brown line.

Fig 1. The battle of Arras 1917

Fig 2 12th Brigade task

Brigade was tasked with taking three German trench lines, shown in fig.2. 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.

Located in the same area Private Oliver Charles Jefferies who was born in Haughley and the fifth son Mr and Mrs Jeffries of Old Street. Private Jefferies was fighting with the 11th Battalion, B company, Suffolk Regiment, under the command of Captain Percival Gurrey. On 1st April the battalion moved to Arras and was billeted at St Catherine and St Nicholas. This was a to be a brief time of quiet following divisional and platoon training prior to the move. Between now and the 8th April the battalion took part in small raids gaining a small number of prisoners. The 8th April, the day prior to Z day the battalion moved into position for their part in the battle of the Scarpe. Late that evening hot tea and rum were issued bearing in mind it was extremely cold and for morale.

All three of Haughley boys went over the top at 05.30am on the 10th April. With sleet and the cover of darkness visibility was extremely poor. Crossing no man’s land they were hindered by snow drifts. Due to the previous day’s bombardment and the weather the Germans were caught by surprise. Some didn’t even have boots on. By 08.10 the 11th Battalion HQ had located itself near Kate Crater due to an enemy barrage. At 09.30am battalion HQ moved into the Blue line. This signaled the end of the attack with B company, Private Jeffries was located forward of the railway cutting where he was digging a trench 50 yards in front of the railway line.

Unfortunately we can’t trace Private Morphews steps during the battle due to very little information, however by reading this you can appreciate the conditions he would of fought in with the 7th battalion. However we know that he was killed in action on the 10th April which would of been at the first battle of the Scarpe.

The 7th and 11th battalions remained at Arras in hostile positions. on 24th April the 34th Division moved in to relieve 51st Division. The 11th Battalion was at the front of 101st Brigade from the railway to the River Scarpe. By 02:00 on 25th April they were Opposite the Chemical Works at Roeux ready for the order to move. The 34th Division was tired and depleted but still had to press on.

At 04:25 the barrage commenced with the battalion advancing at 04.27 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.

“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.”

Fig 3. The battle of Roeux

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 strength with well situated 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.

With heavy machine gun fire from a machine gun post which had been missed by the barrage held up the advance. What was left of the battalion formed up in the front line where Company second in Command Major Tuck reorganised the defences. It is at this point in the war that it is likely Private Jeffries was wounded in action and taken prisoner of war.

Private Jeffries was taken to Lazarette Aachen which was a military hospital for the British wounded soldiers. This particular hospital was were soldiers were waiting to repatriated. He died on the 17th May 1917 from wounds. In fig. 2 you will see a ‘cross’ next to a date on the top right hand corner. This indicates his date of death in the Pow camp.

Fig 4. Private Jefferies POW card

At 09:45 the Enemy executed a counter attack from Roeux where they captured Mount Pleasant Wood and part of the Ceylon which was a communication trench. Fifteen minutes later at 10:00 all communications with the front line where cut off. The Enemy was driven out of the Ceylon Trench and out of Mount Pleasant Wood. From 23:00 the Battalion moved out of the front line trench & support line to enable the heavies (Artillery) to bombard the chemical works. The battalion then moved back into the front line at midnight.

The third soldier from Haughley was private William Pearson with the 7th battalion Suffolk Regiment with the 12th (Eastern) Division, 37th Brigade.

Following a ten day well deserved rest the division and the 7th Suffolks re-entered the battlefield. The Brigade went into the forward position between the north east of Monchy and the River Scarpe. An operation took place north of the 12th Division on the 28th April to capture Roeux. Unfortunately this was not successful.

The 3rd May 1917 there was another attack to try and take Roeux. The attack was of mixed success. The main problem was the German shell fire which caused many casualties. It is almost certain that Private Percy Pearson was killed at this point with an unknown grave in no man’s land.

Private Tom Ransom was serving with the 17th Middlesex Regiment following transfer from the Royal Sussex Regiment.