In the early days of the ongoing lockdown when outdoor activity was limited to an hour’s duration, I took myself off to the cemetery of All Saint’s Church in the Hockerill area of Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire, a 15 minute walk from my house and as such, even with a 30 minute sojourn among the headstones, I would be safety enclosed once again inside of my four walls within the regulation 60 minutes.
With my print off of each of The Great War graves in the cemetery I passed through the Lych gate into the morning peace and tranquility of the graveyard. With a bit of toe scraping and grass tearing, I managed to find each of the memorials listed on the Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s website for the All Saints site.
However, here it is my intention to focus on just one and hopefully shed a little more light on the circumstances of yet another Bishops Stortford soldier’s death in the trenches of the Western Front.
Pictured is the family headstone of John Gilbey and his wife Mary Gilbey. On the same headstone other members of the family are commemorated, namely, William Gilbey, their son, Lily Gilby, their granddaughter and William C. Drage, their Grandson, who is the subject of this particular post.
Their grandson’s epitaph reads:
‘ALSO WILLIAM C. DRAGE, GRANDSON
KILLED IN ACTION IN FRANCE
MAY 4 – 1917 AGED 25 YEARS’*
*The Commonwealth War Grave Commission website records William's date of death as the 3rd May 1917, the day of battle rather than the 4th May that appears on the headstone. This may have been the result of an administrative error, not uncommon under the circumstances, or William may have died on 4th May of wounds received on the the previous day.
Lance Corporal William Drage 43065 served with the 6th (Service) Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment, a fighting unit of the British Army within 54 Brigade of the 18th (Eastern) Infantry Division. The Battalion was established in Northampton in September 1914 after the incredibly successful recruitment drive that rapidly filled the ranks of the newly formed Kitchener’s Second Army. Sailing from Southampton, the Battalion landed in Le Havre on 26th July 1915.
Throughout 1916 to 1918, the 6th Northants as part of 18th (Eastern) Division saw action in those insignificant hamlets and woods of Picardy and Flanders whose names are still capable inducing a gasp from the reader, even after more than 100 years after the events that took place. Montauban, Trones Wood, Delville Wood, the capture of the Schwaben Redoubt, Miraumont (The Somme), Pilkem Ridge and Passchendaele (Ypres), each and every one now now indelibly a part of the nations psyche.
The 6th Northamptonshire Regiment as indicated above were participants in some of the bloodiest engagements of the Battle of The Somme but even after the offensive petered out in November 1916, the British High Command were insistent that rather than adhere to the usual tactic of consolidating the ground and waiting for the improvement in the weather that would herald the next Spring offensive, the pressure on the German forces was to be maintained through the early months of 1917. This decision saw the 6th Battalion engaged in the Ancre Operations and the fighting for Miraumont. Here on 17th February, another Stortford soldier of the 6th Northants fell, he was John Payne, who is remembered on his parents headstone in Bishops Stortford Old Cemetery. John has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval memorial to ‘The Missing of The Somme’ (his story can be found here). Being young men from the same, then small, Hertfordshire market town, there is a good chance that they were acquainted. I guess we will never know.
John Payne died in an action to capture land that was theirs for the taking just five days later, for on the 22nd February 1917, the German High Command ordered a tactical withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, as known to the British and as the Siegfried Stellung to the Germans. Running from the Belgian Coast to the River Moselle, this well constructed defensive line stretched for 300 miles, but the critical point in the line was at its centre where a salient bulged around the village of Neuville Vitasse, just south of Arras.
The Battle of Arras formed the British contribution to the larger French Nivelle Offensive further to the south on the Aisne. The combined efforts of the Canadian forces around Vimy Ridge and the British forces around Arras were intended to draw German troops and armour away from the French front where it was hoped that a breakthrough of the Hindenburg Line could be achieved.
The Battle of Arras was launched at 5.30 am over a broad front on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917. That day saw some of the most remarkable Allied successes of the entire war. In the north the Canadian Corps took Vimy Ridge, whilst to the south the British Third Army achieved a great advance on the day having fallen on the German front lines after emerging from blown forward exists of the medieval Arras chalk mines that had housed and sheltered up to 20,000 troops in advance of the attack.
Exit No. 10 from the Arras tunnels
A very improbable infantryman in the Arras tunnels
Nevertheless, the successes of the first three days of the offensive faded as subsequent attacks in latter phases of the battle faltered when depleted and exhausted Divisions were ordered to take fortified strong points such as the Chemical Works and Roeux Chateau.
The lessons learned on the Somme created a new system of German ‘elastic defence’ or ‘defence in depth’ and this new strategy paid dividends in the Battle of Arras. No longer were the front line trenches to be crowded with troops, vulnerable to the bombardments that heralded an attack. Rather the front line would thinly held by outposts and machine gun positions. To the rear a second line would confront the advancing enemy with withering fire from interlocking strong points, whilst those fortunate/unfortunate enough to survive this far would be faced with a third line of massed infantry who up until this point would have been protected from the artillery barrage in bunkers and blockhouses up to a mile or more behind the front line trenches.
The main French offensive on the Aisne was delayed and only started on the 16th April and it quickly ran into trouble, so much so that French troops were reported as going in to the line bleating in imitation of ‘lambs to the slaughter’. A serious mutiny of French troops in the Aisne sector occurred throwing the French military command structure into turmoil.
An escalation of the U-Boat activity in the Channel turned Hague’s attention towards the Belgian sea ports, but whilst the precarious situation on the French front continued the British and Canadian Armies were forced to maintain the offensive on the existing front, as not to do so would invite a German breakthrough in the Aisne sector. For this reason the Arras offensive, against the intentions of the British High Command needed to be extended for two to three weeks.
The offensive launched on 3rd May 1917, was to become known as ‘The Third Battle of The Scarpe’. It was the last formal action in the Battle of Arras, although according to the Official History the battle did not close until 16th May.
With the French out of the picture it was Haig’s desire to consolidate the Allied position on a line that was suitable for defence as well as offence. Thus it was decided that General Allenby’s Third Army supported by the First and Fifth Armies on either flank would attack the Hindenburg Line over a huge 16 mile wide front. Of the fourteen Divisions detailed to participate in the attack, only two, the 18th (Eastern) Division and the 31st Division were fresh into the fight. At the same time the British command knew that the German front had been reinforced with no less than seven fresh Divisions.
Thus it was that the 18th Division received its battle orders with just two days notice. They would enter the fray with only the most rudimentary understanding of the sector that they were to fight over, from the lie of the land to the strong points that they would face on their front on the day they were to attack.
Before switching to the contemporary localized accounts of Lance Corporal William Drage’s unit’s demise, gleaned from the War Diaries of the 6th Northamptonshire Regiment, I leave the last word on the ‘Third Battle of the Scarpe’ fought on the 3rd May 1917 to Captain Cyril Falls, author of the Official History of the British Army in France and Belgium 1917.
‘The day was considered by those who witnessed it to be the blackest day of the war.’
Report on the attack by 6th (S) Bn Northamptonshire Regt on FONTAINE TRENCH
By Lieut-Colonel R. Turner D.S.O.
On the night of May 23rd after a preliminary bombardment - a pause – and a rolling barrage re-opening 200 yards in front of our front line - the Northamptonshire Regiment attacked on a 2 Company front in three waves. They must have followed the barrage very closely having of course a certain percentage of casualties from our own barrage. Immediately they came into view over the crest they were under a very heavy Machine Gun fire and they covered the ground at the double.
The left Company seeing that the way was clear and that there was cover in the CABLE TRENCH O.32.a.3.8 got in this trench and bombed straight down FONTAINE TRENCH and were in this trench 10 minutes after barrage opened having a bombing post at O.32.a.5.7. to protect NORTH flank as the Company advanced down FONTAINE TRENCH they killed a few of the enemy and discovered a few dead from previous artillery fire and could observe from their position the right Company advancing to the attack. The right Company as they neared the trench did so in small rushes from shell-hole to shell-hole, when within 30 or 40 yards of enemy wire they were completely held up in shell holes by very heavy Machine Gun fire.
A vigorous resistance was made but the left Company Commander then seeing that the right Company could not possibly gain their objective and as the left attacking Battalion was not in touch with him although he was actually in their area - he retired along CABLE TRENCH back to their original front line.
Some of the right Company started a gradual retirement from shell-hole to shell-hole.
The Stokes Gun was of considerable assistance in clearing CABLE TRENCH before the infantry advance enabling the CABLE TRENCH to be quite clear for the attack and for forward carrying parties with bombs, grenades and S.A.A.
The Gun was placed at O.31.b.5.g. and fired down the CABLE TRENCH (CABLE and semicircular trenches) NORTH of CABLE TRENCH with great success keeping suspected Machine Gun in semicircular trench at O.26.c.5.2. quiet.
The barrage was a good one and the attacking companies speak very well of it. The bombardment and barrage also caused a certain amount of dust and smoke which rendered aim fire by the enemy only possible in places.
During and after the attack many men lying out of the previous attacking Battalions who were in shell-holes were enabled to get back – in one case about 50 strong of the Bedfordshire Regiment who had dug themselves in SOUTH of our area.
Position of Affairs:
Being in direct touch with right and left Battalions these Battalions were informed of every eventuality and they informed me likewise. When the attacking Companies got back to the front line trench they were immediately re-organised and assisted in taking up the front line system of defence.
6 Officers and
105 Other Ranks.
(Sgd) R. Turner
Commdg: 6th (S) Bn Northamptonshire Regt
This report and the War Diary extract below were written Lieutenant Colonel Turner pictured here with his fellow officers of the 6th Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment (pictured front row centre).
The War Diary adds some further chronological detail to the failed attack.
Original trench map showing the objectives of 6th Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment (not named on the map since they went into action in the second phase of the battle
Detail of the British trench map of March 1918 showing Cable Trench and Fontaine Trench of the Hindenburg Line attacked by the 6th Battalion on 3rd May 1917
In the trenches W of CHERISY
Weather fine. Quiet all day. Very little shelling.
2 Officers patrols went out at 9.30 p.m. and returned at 11.30 p.m.
Right patrol reported that the enemy were not strong in their front line, but judging from enemy very lights the trench further North was strongly held. On returning were fired at. No casualties.
The left patrol went along CABLE TRENCH where they were held up by an enemy patrol. Shots were exchanged. No casualties.
Later they went further – nothing to report.
The Battalion was relieved by the 12th MIDDLESEX Regiment and the 7th Bedfords and marched back to bivouacs at NEUVILLE VITASSE arriving there at 2 a.m. 2.5.17.
Orders received that Division would attack on a two Brigade front – the 54th on the right and 55th Brigade on the left. The 21st Division would attack on the right and the 14th Division on the left simultaneously. Objectives blue and red lines – map attached.
The Battalion were held in Brigade Reserve.
Preparations for battle made during the day. Only 20 Officers to go into action, the remainder to be with Transport.
2 p.m. Conference of Officers held at Battalion Headquarters. Details explained.
Battalion left NEUVILLE VITASSE by Companies. 1st Company at 12.30 a.m. remaining Companies 5 minutes interval and marched to trenches at N.29.C (Map 51.S.W.) arriving at 1.45 a.m.
Zero hour 3.45 a.m.
The Battalion was not engaged in the first part of the operations.
After retirement from positions W of CHERISY and FONTAINE-CROISILLE the Battalion was ordered to counter attack and occupy FONTAINE TRENCH from O.32.a.5.3. to O.26.c.2.0 and the circular trench in the rear of it.
Orders had been received that the bombardment would start at 5.30 p.m. for half an hour, then a pause for quarter of an hour and the rolling barrage would open at 6.15 p.m. 200 yards in front of our trench, but this was later postponed for one hour. Battalion was in position at 5.30 p.m. (all in front line trench) with the LEICESTERSHIRE REGIMENT (110 Infantry Brigade) on the right and 7th QUEENS (55th Brigade) on the left. These Battalions were to attack simultaneously after a preliminary bombardment as stated. The rolling barrage opened and the Battalion attacked with 2 Companies 2 platoons in the front line and 2 platoons 2nd line. A and D Companies were in support. Of the attacking Companies, B Company under Captain Mobbs were on the right and C Company under Captain Shepherd on the left. A Company were on the right, D Company on the left as supporting Companies. D Company furnished a bombing party (INCO and 8 men) who advanced down CABLE TRENCH with the leading wave of the assaulting Company. They also furnished carrying parties for bombs and S.A.A. for C Company, down CABLE TRENCH running towards CHERISEY from O.31.b.4.9.
B and C Companies advanced as close to the barrage as possible having several casualties from the barrage . The hostile Machine Gun fire which swept the area they had to cross was as bad as in the attack of the morning. B Company (right assaulting Company) having 50% casualties by the time they reached within 50 yards of the enemy wire – having covered nearly 900 yards. They found the wire intact, the bombardment not having touched it, and the Machine Gun fire from the right flank as well as from the front rendered further advance impossible.
C Company (left assaulting Company) were able to get down CABLE TRENCH owing to the Stoke’s Gun having totally cleared the trench of enemy. They started over the top but found Machine Gun fire rendered further advance in that way impossible.
They pushed their way by bombs and rifle grenades down CABLE TRENCH to the junction of FONTAINE TRENCH and worked their way along that trench for about 70 yards . After a severe bombing and grenade fight, where several enemy were killed , this Company finding its flanks in danger was compelled to get back to the original front line. No blame can be attached to the Company Commander, on the contrary, he personally, and the Officers of the whole Company, put up a very big fight. The right Company were then ordered to withdraw to original front line – One of the objects of this attack was to enable wounded men and others who were lying out since morning to get back. A considerable number of men did so.
No. of casualties 120 including 6 Officers – lack of success in this operation was due to intensive Machine Gun fire.
Two patrols were sent out at 12.15 am. The right patrol found nothing to report. The left patrol detected a Machine Gun on ridge point O.31.b.6.5.
Considerable shelling was done by the enemy on out front for three hours after the attack. Active rifle and Machine Gun fire was maintained throughout the night (3rd to 4th). The ground in front of the line was searched for wounded and although the task was rendered difficult by enemy fire, ten men were brought in and several wounded crawled back.
Weather fine throughout the day and front quiet.
All spare Lewis Gun drums, Machine Gun belt boxes, bomb buckets and spare ammunition was salved, dumped and handed over to the incoming Battalion.
At 9 pm the enemy were discovered to be working on the wire between our trench and FONTAINE TRENCH.
Our guides met the incoming Battalion (8TH SUFFOLKS) at Battalion Headquarters at 10 pm and conducted them to their positions. Relief was completed at midnight . The Battalion marched back to their Bivouacs at NEUVILLE VITASSE arriving at 1.30 am.
The Arras Memorial
William Drage has no known grave and is commemorated alongside his comrades on the Arras Memorial (Bay 7, if you are visiting). Whilst he is remembered on his Grandparent's headstone in the grounds of All Saint’s Church, his parents at the time of his death were living at 29, Stansted Road, the very same road upon which the Church and graveyard are situated.
As an aside, prior to the war and as recorded in the 1911 census, William was recorded as a fruiterer’s assistant in his father John’s shop at 29, Potter Street, Bishops Stortford (the location of Accessorise today, although not for much longer it seems).
The battle was a disaster for the 18th (Eastern) Division and this engagement on the infamous Hindenburg Line is at best a footnote in the Battle of Arras. Focus quickly shifted to the renewed efforts just weeks later on the Messines Ridge (Third Battle of Ypres). ‘The Third Battle of the Scarpe’ lasted one day, a day that resulted in high casualty numbers. In fact, the daily casualty rate in the 39 days over which the engagements that made up ‘The Battle of Arras’ were fought was an astonishing 4,076 killed, wounded or missing, that is higher that the daily losses in the Somme (2,943) and Passchendaele (2,323) making Arras the bloodiest campaign waged by the British Army in The Great war.
The reported action of the 6th (Service) Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment that cost Lance Corporal Drage his life was not spectacular. It was, it appears, another run of the mill engagement, but it had all of the elements that we so freely associate with the Great war and the Western Front in particular. The War Diaries generally report the events and outcomes of the fighting in very dispassionate terms and in 2020 it is for the reader to imagine the reality of such an attack. The slog through support and communication trenches to get into the front line, the prayers muttered under soldier’s breath or the splash of vomit on the duck boards as nerves took hold in the minutes before zero hour. The crescendo of noise as the artillery opened up and the shrill peep of the whistle signifying the the moment to go ‘Over the Top’. The advance behind the smoke, flame and showers of earth ever mindful of the inevitable ‘shorts’ that could and did fall among the infantry. The realisation that the German wire was uncut. I do not know how men endured the strain of it all but they did.