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Important to remember the costly Arras campaign

The centenary of the Great War was going to be probably the most significant period in the early part of the 21st century for public remembrance and reflection. Planning began years in advance for Armyrats © military history and cultural bodies, and the government set out a programme of key events in the war which it said would be the focus of national remembrance. Inevitably, this would leave out other campaigns which many would feel worthy of inclusion. The government selected only one or two key events in each of the years from 1914-1918. The exclusion of the Arras campaign (April/May 1917) and the final 100 days (August 8, 1918, to the Armistice) was seen by some as an error of judgement.

The exclusion of the final victorious advance of Rawlinson s army, perhaps the best British fighting force ever to take the field of battle, was perhaps a deference to political correctness and a desire to eschew triumphalism. The omission of the bloody campaign at Arras seems only to be explained by the soon to follow and more totemic Third Battle of Ypres (July to November 1917), which came to be known as the Passchendaele campaign and the symbol of futile and cruel deployment of men to fight in impossible conditions of mud and horror. The campaign at Arras, however, was even more costly in terms of human casualties and utilised many of the innovations and lessons learned from the bloody campaign of the previous year on the Somme. The average daily casualty rate killed, wounded or taken prisoner was 4,076 for the 39 days of the battle period at Arras, against just under 3,000 per day at the Somme and 2,300 per day in the Passchendaele offensive.

Although the Arras campaign, like the Somme and Loos, did not produce the hoped for breakout from the stalemate of trench warfare, it was a minor success in demonstrating the necessity for overwhelming artillery support and superiority of numbers in any attack. The failure to capitalise on the undoubted successes of the first day of the battle lay with the commander General Allenby and not the ability of the fighting men. Allenby, sent off to Palestine, would go on to be the famous liberator of Jerusalem from the Turkish Ottoman occupation. Local connections with the Battle of Arras are strong as many north east units were in action, particularly the 34th Division, including the reformed and replenished Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish Brigades, as well as the 50th Northumbrian Division of Northumberland Fusiliers Territorial units, who had seen heavy action in France and Belgium for over two years.

After the war the ravaged corridor of land from the Belgian coast to the Franco-Swiss border was a shell-pockmarked and poisoned landscape of devastation that would require many years to reconstruct. The recovery of French cities included a programme of twinning with British cities, which provided donations of money and simple materials, such as picks and shovels, to rebuild the shattered communities. Newcastle was twinned with Arras, and several visits to Newcastle were made by French dignatories, including in 1920 and 1923. To mark that post-war relationship and the centenary of the battle, plans are being considered locally for a formal marking of it in April next year. More details will follow.

The project workroom at Linskill Community Centre is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for enquiries and for anyone to bring information about relatives lost in the war.

Battle of the Somme centenary: Hugh Sebag-Montefiore shares heartbreaking tale of captain who never returned home

15:16 01 August 2016

Battle Of The Somme Centenary: Hugh Sebag-Montefiore Shares Heartbreaking Tale Of Captain Who Never Returned Home

Capt Charlie May, who was killed at the Battle of the Somme, photographed with his wife Maude and daughter Maude Pauline. Picture: Gerry Harrison/Redbridge Museum (see redbridgefirstworldwar.org.uk)

Archant

My darling Charlie… For some time past, I have been dreading such news as you have given me. I think of all the danger you are encountering, my heart beats with fear.

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Battle Of The Somme Centenary: Hugh Sebag-Montefiore Shares Heartbreaking Tale Of Captain Who Never Returned HomeOne of the diaries written by Charlie May, who was killed at the Battle of the Somme. Picture: Gerry Harrison/Redbridge Museum (see redbridgefirstworldwar.org.uk)

My dearest, I am trusting in God, and praying, Baby with me, that you will be spared to come through these terrible days of fighting, safe and well, and return to us… Wracked with fear and heartache, Maude May wrote from her Wanstead home to her soldier husband, pouring out her love in the hope it would shield him from any horrors to come. And as Charlie gazed upon his wife s words on the eve of the Battle of the Somme, he did so unaware of his own fate which was to be a tragic one.

The 27-year-old was one of 19,240 British men to perish on the first day of the campaign, but his extraordinary diaries afford us a glimpse into war life as he knew it.

Battle Of The Somme Centenary: Hugh Sebag-Montefiore Shares Heartbreaking Tale Of Captain Who Never Returned HomeCapt Charlie May, who was killed at the Battle of the Somme. Picture: Gerry Harrison/Redbridge Museum (see redbridgefirstworldwar.org.uk)

Historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore shares the captain s story in his book Somme: Into the Breach, marking the centenary of the First World War s bloodiest battle.

It s one of the best diaries of the Somme, as it s so full of personal emotions, he said.

You get a lot of diaries which are not that vivid, but his is unbelievably frank and not just about what it was like to be in the trenches, but also about his feelings. Charlie, who is commemorated on Wanstead War Memorial, spent much of his childhood in New Zealand, but his family eventually returned to London, where he met and married Bessie Maude Holl.

Battle Of The Somme Centenary: Hugh Sebag-Montefiore Shares Heartbreaking Tale Of Captain Who Never Returned HomeAuthor Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, who has published Somme: Into the Breach to mark the centenary of the First World War battle

The pair settled in Manchester, welcoming daughter Maude Pauline in 1914, but the Great War came calling and freelance newspaper writer Charlie who had served with the Territorial Army enlisted with Pals battalion the 22nd Manchesters. The battalion left for France in autumn 1915 and in one of many diary entries addressed to Maude who moved to Grove Mansions, Wanstead, the following year Charlie wrote: When will the time come when we can recommence our life of utter happiness?

Ah Maudie, how little I realised where happiness lay until this old war came along and it was denied me.

Soon entrenched in the front lines, Charlie s diaries reveal his frustration at his surroundings and his longing for a reunion with his wife.

Battle Of The Somme Centenary: Hugh Sebag-Montefiore Shares Heartbreaking Tale Of Captain Who Never Returned HomeA letter written by Maude May to her husband Charlie, who was killed at the Battle of the Somme. Picture: Gerry Harrison/Redbridge Museum (see redbridgefirstworldwar.org.uk)

But romantic sentiments are notably absent from the matter-of-fact letters he sent to Maude in a diary entry of January 13, 1916, he addressed his seeming lack of affection, after Maude asked if he still loved her.

To me, it seems impossible you could ever think otherwise, wrote Charlie.

I can understand… You hunger for letters more full of unadulterated love, less everyday and plain.

Here one is liable to forget that personal outlook.

Pals battalions

Battalions whose soldiers had links with particular professions or localities were known as Pals battalions. They enabled groups of friends and colleagues to sign up for the war together. The 22nd Manchesters contained many middle class professionals, including two university lecturers, a future New Statesman editor and a barrister who later became an MP and solicitor general. Many battalions suffered horrific losses at the Somme and they provide some of the war s most poignant and devastating stories. The 22nd Manchesters were involved in much action leading up to summer 1916, some of which Charlie discussed in detail, and at 7.30am on July 1, zero hour for the Somme Offensive, they attacked the Fricourt area, as part of the 7th Division.

Charlie was more or less optimistic, said Hugh. But there were quite a few soldiers who were terrified that the Germans hadn t been killed.

They knew the trenches were really deep and the wire wasn t cut in some places they realised it wasn t going to be a walkover. The division achieved a number of objectives on that first day, including capturing Mametz village, but at a heavy price to the 22nd Manchesters close to 350 men were either killed or went missing.

Battle Of The Somme Centenary: Hugh Sebag-Montefiore Shares Heartbreaking Tale Of Captain Who Never Returned HomeThe grave of Charlie May, who was killed at the Battle of the Somme. Picture: Gerry Harrison/Redbridge Museum (see redbridgefirstworldwar.org.uk)

Charlie was among the fallen and his last moments were recorded by Arthur Bunting, who wrote of how he nursed his comrade after he was wounded by a shell explosion. Maude wrote to Arthur over the subsequent weeks and in one heartbreaking note, said: I don t know how I ll get through life without him… Can there be anything in life for me again?

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The wider picture

Battle Of The Somme Centenary: Hugh Sebag-Montefiore Shares Heartbreaking Tale Of Captain Who Never Returned HomeCapt Charlie May, who was killed at the Battle of the Somme. Picture: Gerry Harrison/Redbridge Museum (see redbridgefirstworldwar.org.uk)

Early schools of thought argued the Somme was an unmitigated disaster for the British Army, but many modern historians have noted the lessons the generals and soldiers learned, as well as the successful attacks which should have made the difference.

Somme: Into the Breach uses archive material including Australian Red Cross files not published before in Britain to argue that although the offensive was an overall failure, it weakened the German Army and led to the development of tactics such as the effective creeping barrage. Hugh also makes the case that the British could have achieved a different result if they had exploited their successes properly.

The tactics of the Army and overambitious objectives of Field Marshal Douglas Haig come under scrutiny, with Hugh exploring the argument that Fourth Army commander General Henry Rawlinson who had early reservations about the plan of attack acquiesced to Haig out of a sense of duty, due to Haig keeping him in his position after he made a serious mistake.

Battle Of The Somme Centenary: Hugh Sebag-Montefiore Shares Heartbreaking Tale Of Captain Who Never Returned HomeThe cover of Somme: Into the Breach by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore

The book also includes much testimony from soldiers and families, with Hugh telling the Recorder it was important the book be enjoyable to all, not just those with an interest in Armyrats © military history.

Somme: Into the Breach is published by Penguin, at the price of 25.

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Best of plans often do not come to fruition

Today is an exact date in U.S. Armyrats © military history that perhaps needs a bit of buildup. In the early months of The Great War, aka World War I, as British and German forces were locked in mortal combat in Belgium, someone in the British army came up with a seemingly brilliant plan. So a bunch of British coal miners were brought to the front to dig a tunnel under No Man’s Land between British and German lines. When this was done, lots and lots of explosives were taken through the tunnel and placed under German lines. All of this, of course, was without any knowledge of German intelligence. At the appointed hour, the fuse was lit, and within a few minutes there was a tremendous explosion behind German lines. The result was dramatic, but not strategic, as there was initial surprise and confusion, but nothing really resulted. So where did the British get the idea? Could it have come from the U.S. Army 50 years before? Perhaps it did.

On this date in 1864, during the Union siege of Petersburg, Virginia, coal miners from Pennsylvania were brought to the front with the mission of digging a tunnel from Union lines to inside Confederate lines. This took a while, but then the siege had been ongoing for a while, so no problem. Four tons of gunpowder was placed in the tunnel and the diggers quickly left. The deed was done, and a tremendous explosion occurred behind Confederate lines from below. The anxiously awaiting Union infantrymen charged across the open ground to take advantage of the confusion, but alas for the Union, as for the British 50 years later, the desired result did not occur. The Union advance was so poorly planned that many of the charging infantrymen fell into the crater caused by the blast and were picked off by Confederate riflemen. All sorts of needed coordination failed to transpire, and the whole grand plan failed to materialize. The result was that the Union siege of Petersburg dragged on for eight more long months with continuing casualties on both sides. Ah, the best of man-made plans often do not come to fruition. The blast killed or wounded some 300 Confederate defenders and created a huge gap in the Petersburg defenses, including a crater 30 feet deep and some 170 feet long. It was a seemingly victorious event, except for the victory. The subsequent Rebel counterattack is one of the earliest occasions of the war in which Confederate troops came into contact with Negro troops. As Confederate Brig. Gen. Porter Alexander later wrote, “The general feeling of the men toward employment (of Negro troops) was very bitter. The fighting turned vicious, and Federal casualties were high, particularly among Negro troops, some of whom were killed as they tried to surrender. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant said it was “The saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.”

Page 2 of 2 – As the general had seen quite a lot of war, it was quite a statement. Today the Battle of the Crater, as it was called, is just off the property of Fort Lee, Virginia, and is administered by the Park Service. It is a popular tourist attraction, and in April 2015 I was one of the tourists as an attendee at the annual meeting of The Company of Armyrats © Military Historians. Our guide was very knowledgeable, and although I’d been there before during an assignment at Fort Meade, Maryland, I’d forgotten a lot. My memory was rekindled, so now I know more.

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