Posted by: michaeldaybath | April 17, 2017

Wessex bellringers at the Battle of Arras

Arras Memorial: DCLI panel

Arras Memorial: Part of DCLI panel

The Battle of Arras commenced on Easter Monday, the 9th April 1917. Like the Battle of the Somme the year before, the battle was part of a planned joint-offensive by both French and British forces on the Western Front. After the tough battles of 1916, German forces had in February and March 1917 withdrawn to a substantial new defensive line called the Siegriedstellung (known to the British as the Hindenburg Line). While this disrupted the planning of the allies, it was decided to proceed with the plan for a joint spring offensive.

The much-larger French offensive – which is generally known by the name of French commander-in chief, General Robert Nivelle – was planned to take place further south in the area known as the Chemin-des-Dames. While Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the British commander-in-chief, would have preferred to have attacked in Flanders, the focus of the British attack further north was based on the city of Arras, to the north of the old Somme front. The plan was for the British to attack a few days before the French in order to draw away German reserves. The French could then deliver the knockout blow and thus bring an end to the war. As with many such plans, the Nivelle Offensive did not long survive contact with reality.

The first phases of the Battle of Arras (Battle of Vimy; First Battle of the Scarpe) ran from  9th to 14th April 1917 and included the successful capture of Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Corps. The poet Edward Thomas, serving with 244th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, was killed on the opening day of the offensive. The Battle of Arras, however, continued through several other phases before its official end on the 16th May 1917. Amongst the many people that died in the early stages of the battle were two bellringers from the west country. Privates Henry Miller from Preston (Dorset) and Edgar Pulman from East Coker (Somerset) both died on the 17th April, on different parts of the Arras front.

Private Henry Arthur Miller, 1st Battalion, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry

Church of St Andrew, Preston (Dorset)

Church of St Andrew, Preston (Dorset)

The 1st Battalion of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry were part of the British 5th Division for the duration of the war. At the beginning of the Battle of Arras, most of 5th Division were in reserve on the Vimy front, although the division’s 13th Brigade fought under the command of the Canadian Corps in the Neuville-Saint-Vaast area [1].

On the 13th April, the Fifth Division began to relieve the 4th Canadian Division around Givenchy. The 15th and 95th Brigades continued the advance, but soon hit obstacles. The divisional history elaborates [2]:

[…] on the 14th [April] they were held up in front of a strongly-wired entrenched position running from the Electricity Works South of the Cite du Bois Moyen, through La Culotte, to Acheville. The left flank of our position rested on the Souchez River, and the right on the Arras-Lens road; immediately south of the Souchez River, in the left Brigade area, was the wooded spur of the Bois de l’Hirondelle, a locality subjected to very severe shelling by the enemy’s Artillery.

And [3]:

The German position was formidable, protected with three deep belts of barbed-wire entanglement; opposite the 95th Brigade was a strongly-fortified railway embankment and the buildings of the Electricity Works, transformed by concrete and steel into a veritable fortress […]

In due course as part of the Second Battle of the Scarpe (23rd and 24th April), the 95th Brigade — which included 1/DCLI  — would attack these positions. In the meantime, however, this sector of the line was far from quiet:

Between the 14th and 19th of April the Cornwalls had remained in the front line, subjected to much shell-fire, machine-gunning and sniping. The Bosche was exceedingly active and patrols were always met by fire whenever they went out to reconnoitre the enemy’s wire and positions.

Private Henry Miller was killed in action on the 17th April.  The war diary gives a brief overview of battalion movements on that day  (WO 95 1577-4) [4]:

17th April

From 1 A.M till 5.30AM German artillery very active on our trenches and lines in front of BOIS de RIAUMONT – During the morning BOIS de L’HIRONDELLE shelled
[…] Instructions were received that 5th Division would form defensive flanks and Brigades were slightly re-organised […]
Devons right front, DCLI left front near SOUCHEZ Road, 12 Gloucesters in support, E Surreys in reserve.
11th and 18th Bde R.F.A. covering our front. On the whole day quieter – heavy rain during night and sun during day made the trenches very bad indeed. Fires in houses in LENS pont to further withdrawal of Germans.

Henry Arthur Miller was born at Preston (Dorset) in 1893, the son of Charles and Elizabeth Miller. In the 1901 Census, Charles Miller was a 59-year old market gardener resident at Preston. Living with Charles and Elizabeth were the 12-year-old Bessie and the 7-year-old Henry as well as three of Elizabeth’s older children from a previous marriage: Mary, William and Frederick Ashford. By 1911, Elizabeth was a widow, and was living at Preston with the 17-year old Henry (by now a casual labourer), his step-brother Frederick, and a 5-year-old niece named Winifred Muriel Miller.

In July 1913, the 20-year old Henry Miller joined the Weymouth Branch of the National Union of Railwaymen as a labourer, working for the Great Western Railway. He married Lilian Baker in 1915.

Private Miller’s entry in Soldiers died in the Great War says that he enlisted at Weymouth and that he was killed in action. He has no known grave, so his name features on the Arras Memorial.

After his death, the Western Gazette published a photograph of Henry Miller and a short obituary.

PRESTON.
PRIVATE H. A. MILLER KILLED. — It is with deep regret that his friends heard of the death in action, on 17th April, of Private Henry Arthur Miller, of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. Deceased was a son of the late Mr. Charles and Mrs. Miller, and the husband of Mrs. Lilian Victoria Miller, of Preston, and before entering the Army was a worker on the G.W.R. He joined the Dorset Regiment, and was trained at Bovington Camp, proceeding to the Front in July last, being attached to the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. He will be much missed in his local village, where he was very popular. He was much attached to the church, of which his father was clerk for many years, and was a keen bell-ringer. He was also on the Committee of the Scout Memorial Hall, and took interest in all parish matters. Deep sympathy is felt with the widow and family in their heavy bereavement.

Preston War Memorial (Dorset)

Preston War Memorial (Dorset)

Private Miller’s name features on the war memorial at Preston (Dorset).

Private Edgar Tom Pulman, 1st Battalion, Middlesex Regiment

Church of St Michael, East Coker (Somerset)

Church of St Michael, East Coker (Somerset)

The 1st Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, were part of 98th Brigade in 33rd Division. On the 17th April, the division were based around Héninel, to the south-east of Arras. Héninel had been captured by 21st Division on the 12th April 1917, but had then taken over by the 33rd Division on the 14th and 15th. Unlike the 5th, the 33rd Division was a New Army unit — although 1/Middlesex was itself a regular battalion. As part of the Second Battle of the Scarpe, the 33rd Division would attack Hindenburg Line positions in strength on the 23rd April.

Like Private Miller, Private Edgar Tom Pulman died in the days leading up to the start of the Second Battle of the Scarpe on the 23rd April. He died-of-wounds, and is buried at Bucquoy Road Cemetery at Ficheux, which was close to the VII Corps Main Dressing Station.

Edgar Tom Pulman had been born at North Coker in 1891. His parents were Tom and Mary Pulman, who in the 1901 and 1911 Censuses, lived at Chantry House at East Coker. In 1901, Tom was a 38-year-old master baker. At that time, Tom and Mary had four children living at home: Henry, Edgar (aged 10), Richard and Marjory. All were still living there in 1911, when the 20-year-old Edgar was working as a railway clerk. Private Pulman’s entry in Soldiers died in the Great War states that he was resident at Oxford and that he enlisted there.

East Coker War Memorial (Somerset)

East Coker War Memorial (Somerset)

After his death, Private Pulman’s name appeared in the “local casualties” column of the Taunton Courier [6]. His name also appears on the war memorial in the Church of St Michael, East Coker as well as on a separate brass plaque in the north aisle:

Edgar Tom PULMAN, Pte. 1st. Middlesex Regiment, for many years a choirboy and ringer in this church,died of wounds received in action in France near Monchy le Preux, 17 April 1917, aged 26.

References:

[1] Jack Sheldon and Nigel Cave, The Battle for Vimy Ridge 1917 (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Military, 2007, pp. 94-95.

[2] A. H. Hussey and D. S. Inman, The Fifth Division in the Great War (London: Nisbet, 1921), p. 157.

[3] Ibid., p. 158.

[4] The National Archives, WO 95 1577-4.

[5] Western Gazette, 18 May 1917, p. 6, via British Newspaper Archive.

[6] Taunton Courier, 23 May 1917, p. 1, via British Newspaper Archive.

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Responses

  1. […] couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Private Henry Arthur Miller, a bellringer at St Andrew’s Church in Preston (Dorset), who died on 17th April 1917 while […]


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