After a further - and largely uneventful - tour in the forward lines of the Oppy subsector, the East Lancashires were withdrawn to camp near Ecurie where 94th Brigade practised an attack which was to be made alongside 15th Brigade, 5th Division on a front extending from north of Oppy Wood to Gavrelle. The attack had three objectives: to mislead the enemy into believing that the offensive east of Arras was being continued, to divert the enemy's attention from a simultaneous attack being made near Lens, and to capture ground from which the enemy had close observation over the British lines.
On the night of 26th/27th June, 94th Brigade moved into the forward lines in readiness to attack at 7.10pm on the 28th. It seems likely that the enemy was alerted to the imminency of an attack by the large increase in telephone and telegraph messages and, at 5.30pm on the 27th, the brigade front came under a short but heavy searching barrage which caused 50 casualties. As a result of shrapnel wounds to Lt. Harold Wilton, it fell to 2/Lt. John Lott to take command of "X" Coy. of the East Lancashires.
The enemy barrage was repeated at 5pm on the 28th but - as far as the East Lancashires were concerned - more casualties were caused closer to zero hour when British shells fired from a worn heavy artillery gun dropped short into the trench held by "Z" Coy.
The plan for the attack showed that much had been learned from the Somme offensive of the previous year. The artillery bombardment would begin only at zero hour - so as to retain some element of surprise - and would take the form of a double-banked creeping barrage designed to prevent enemy machine guns from firing through the curtain of shellfire. The infantry would be closely supported by Lewis gun fire, while the exposed right flank of the attack would be covered by a 300-round Thermite1 barrage.
At 7.10pm, British guns of all calibres began a systematic and devastating bombardment of the enemy positions. Machine gun posts and strongpoints were smashed, while some parts of the enemy trenches were completely obliterated. At the same moment that the artillery opened fire, infantry from the 11th East Lancs., and the 12th and 14th York & Lancs. scrambled up ladders into No Man's Land and moved forward, shells screaming close overhead, until they were as near as 60 yards from the closer barrage line. Two minutes later they were joined on their left by the 13th York & Lancs. The leading infantry paused momentarily to wait for the barrage to lift from the enemy front line, then pushed onward under cover of Lewis gun and machine gun fire.
Above: Map of 94th Brigade's attack at Oppy-Gavrelle, 28th June 1917. Click here for an aerial photograph of the ground over which the 11th East Lancashires attacked.
On the right of the brigade attack, the success of the Thermite barrage in completely suppressing flanking machine gun fire enabled the 14th York & Lancasters to reach their objectives with very few casualties. To their left, the 12th York & Lancasters remarkably reported no casualties at all in reaching all their objectives and taking 28 prisoners.
Next in line, the 11th East Lancashires attacked with "Z" Coy. (Capt. Frederick Heys) on the right, "X" Coy. (Lt. John Lott) in the centre, and "W" Coy. (Lt. Jackson) on the left. The battalion's left flank met with most resistance. 2/Lt. Frederick Wheeldon led his platoon into the enemy's trench to find himself confronted by four of the enemy, all of whom he killed, despite being severely wounded by a bomb thrown by one of them.2 Following closely behind, Sgt. Thomas Southworth killed three of the enemy, and took over command of the platoon from the wounded Wheeldon.3 The battalion gained all its objectives at a cost of 8 killed and 42 wounded.
On the left of the brigade attack, the 13th York & Lancasters reported taking the enemy's front line with only 2 killed, 36 wounded and 2 missing. To their left 15th Brigade was no less successful, all battalions reaching their objectives.
Enemy artillery fire opened up at 7.12pm and gradually increased in intensity over the next 18 minutes. At 7.30pm, heavy rain and thunderstorms began to sweep across the battlefield. By this time, consolidation of the captured positions was already underway; Lewis guns were being pushed forward to provide cover, strongpoints were being made and forward-leading trenches were being blocked. Lt. Lott was later commended for setting "a splendid example of coolness and disregard of danger, moving about on the top and encouraging his men."4 Another officer picked out for his actions was 2/Lt. William Lonsdale who "continued to set a fine example of pluck and determination until having to finally give in due to the effects of his wound."5
At 8.54pm, the 14th York & Lancasters fired an S.O.S. signal on seeing the enemy preparing to counter-attack. An artillery barrage was quickly brought down, and within 15 minutes the danger had receded. The threat of a counter-attack against the left flank of the brigade at around 10pm was soon dispersed by heavy fire from rifles, Lewis guns and machine guns.
Consolidation was continued throughout the night. Although the enemy hurried forward reserves, no further counter-attacks were attempted, and the following days were comparatively quiet. On the night of 2nd/3rd July, 94th Brigade was withdrawn to the vicinity of Roclincourt.
By any measure, 94th Brigade's attack at Oppy-Gavrelle has to be regarded as a complete success. All the objectives were met at the relatively light cost of 29 killed and 160 wounded.
The Battlefield Today
180° panorama taken from the bend in the D33 road from Gavrelle to Oppy. Oppy Wood and village are at the far left of the picture. The modern Electricity Station can be seen on the extreme right.
Starting from the historic town of Arras, take the N50 and D919, following signs to Bailleul-Sir-Berthoult. On entering the village, some 6 miles (10km) from the centre of Arras, a left turn (signposted) leads to Albuera Cemetery where 13 men of the 11th East Lancashires are known to be buried. From Bailleul, take the D49 towards Gavrelle followed by a left turn on to the D33 to Oppy. Although the road between Gavrelle and Oppy runs through the battlefield of 28th June 1917, there is now little to see. The ground over which the 11th East Lancashires and 12th York & Lancasters attacked is marked by an Electricity Station on the left of the road, the construction of which has altered the topography of the ground. Rounding the next bend, the village of Oppy comes into view. The fields to the left were the scene of the unsuccessful bombing attacks on the nights of 13th/14th, 14th/15th and 16th/17th May.
© Andrew C Jackson 2002
Compiled from TNA documents WO95/2342, WO95/2363, WO95/2365, WO95/2366, "The History of the East Lancashire Regiment in the Great War" edited by Major General Sir N. Nicholson, and with the kind help of David Ingham.