No sooner had Pat Armstrong returned from Hesdin to his duties as Brigade Major to the 86th Brigade than the Battle of Arras was under way. The first two actions of its first phase, the First Battle of the Scarpe and the Battle of Vimy, were fought on 9-14 April and were a tactical success for the British troops. In the first two days, they advanced 5 kilometres and captured 12 villages, most notably Monchy-le-Preux which owing to its high-lying situation had been turned into a strategic fortress by the Germans. However, as was common with British efforts during the First World War, the success of the first days of battle did not translate into a breakthrough. By 15 April, fresh German reinforcements had begun a vigorous counteroffensive which halted the British advance. Jess Armstrong followed the progress of the battle intently through newspaper reportage while holidaying at Cantreyn.
Monday 9 April
I mended all morning & Rosie came up, & sat with us for a bit, then did business things with Jimmy, & stayed for lunch, & afterwards we all went in to the town in the waggonette & dropped Rosie, & then went to the Bakers, but they were out, so Zooie & Jimmy went to tea with Mrs Welch, & we came back here. It was very cold. Zooie & Jimmy went out to shoot, when they came back. After dinner Mr Hodson came in, but didn’t stay long.
Zero 5.30 am. First two lines taken along whole front. At 12.15 attack on Brown line commenced. All successful N of Scarpe. Attack held up in front of Brown line from S of FAINPOUX to E of HENIN SUR COJEUL. Total prisoners up to 6 pm 6100 and 30 guns. At 2.50 2nd & 3rd Cav Divs had orders to move against allotted objectives and if opportunity arose to push on against green line without waiting for the infantry. Doubtful if they get far. Went to XVIII Corps Hd Qrs with Gen de Lisle. Heard news. Everybody very pleased. Got back about 4.30 went to a conference at Div Hd Qrs at 5.30 pm. G O C1 explained situation and said that it was hoped to keep XVIII Corps intact with a view to its attacking CAMBRAI. He expected the Corps at present in the line to attack the green line in a day or twos time and then advance to the line QULERY LE MOTTE – VITRY-EN-ARTOIS – QUEANT. Corps however may be broken up and Divs sent to reinforce other corps. 29th Div to be kept in Corps till the last. Rang up G. who was at Beauquesne. Col Morris came to dinner.
A great day for the Army. The attack was carried out on an 18 mile front. The first two lines were taken everywhere. To the north of the river the third line was taken but South of it we are held up in front of it. However we expect to hear to-morrow that it’s taken. I do hope it is. Up to the present we have 6100 prisoners & 30 guns. However you’ll see more than I can tell you in the papers & I don’t want to mention names just yet. We did a short march yesterday and are now in very comfy billets. I talked to G. to-day on the phone but couldn’t get away to see him. He is about 10 miles from here. His Div is coming to this Corps. So I expect to see him soon. He seemed in great form.
“A great day for the Army”
I have sent you several parcels lately. I sent you two to-day. One a pair of boots, the other a pair of breeches. I am afraid all these things will be a nuisance to you, but I want to get rid of them. Good clothes aren’t much good now one stands a chance of losing them. That life of Robertson2 must be very interesting I quite see what you mean. It’s good advice mother dear. I went off with Gen de Lisle this afternoon to try to see the Regt. We went to Corps Hd Qrs first & spent some time there & then had to come back as he was going to have a conference. I wouldn’t have gone there in any case as they had gone forward. I don’t expect they will have done much to-day. I’ll tell you if I hear any more news of them. Tim was beside me in that photo. Pickering on my left & Breesling [?] on his left. Yes! I agree with you about Rene. It was far more Bunty’s fault but she ought to be able to get over little difficulties like that to see you. Suppose the same thing happened to Pokes & I. If the Duchess wired that she was coming to town for one day. Do you think I’d miss her? After all she & Bunty are on the same footing as Pokes & I. Surely she ought to have been able to get away. It would be quite different if she was staying with strangers. But after all she & Bunty are as near sisters as makes no difference. I was rather annoyed as it was a case of taking the line of least resistance. Which is weak. I think my letter will do good. But I hate hurting the child. Is she going to stay with you next week end? You didn’t say anything in your letter about it. I’d like Zoo to meet her & see how she likes her. So I hope you have her up there. Do if you can manage it. I must be off to bed as it’s after 12. Best love dear wee Mus.
Your loving Pat.
Tuesday 10 April
Helped Zooie to pack, & then they went by the 12 train, they stay in London tonight, & then Folkestone tomorrow night, & he crosses over on the 14th. It is awfully lonely without them. Muz wrote letters, & Tom & I read. After lunch we read again, & I finished my book “Wanderer & King”.3 We had dinner in daylight for the first time, & Muz & Heppie went out for a walk afterwards, I went up & talked to Tom for a bit, & then went to bed at about 9-30, & Muz came up later.
BAVINCOURT. Very cold. Showers and snow with bright intervals. Gen & Dearden went to Gomiecourt. Went round billets all morning. In afternoon rode Whiteface over to Mercatel. Couldn’t see very much things seemed quiet. Came back by Gouy and saw the prisoners. 11 thousand and 106 guns reported. Cavalry on Orange hill and hill to south of it. Infantry held up most of Monchy le Preux.
Wednesday 11 April
We have taken the Vimy Ridge, & have reached the outskirts of Monchy, & have cleared Farbus & the wood, we have taken 11,000 prisoners, since the beginning of the attack – Monday – & taken over 100 guns, 60 trench mortars, & 163 machine guns. Wrote letters, & so did Muz. Heppie worked at the mats. We wrote again after lunch. After tea Muz & Heppie walked in to Bridgnorth, & I sewed & Tom read.
BAVINCOURT. Went round billets and went to the G.S. Office.4 Corps Commander held conference at 2.30 P.M. Got orders to move to SIMONCOURT. Tried to start at 5 P.M. but couldn’t get away till about 6 P.M. Snowing hard. Last units got in about 11 P.M. Wrote orders etc eventually went to bed at 4 am. Wally was very useful.
Thursday 12 April
We have taken Monchy-le-Preux, & La Bergere. Heppie & Tom worked at the mat. Muz wrote, & I sewed. After lunch Muz & Heppie walked in to the town. Tom read & I sewed. After tea Muz & I went for a walk.
Going for a walk!
SIMONCOURT. A fine morning turned to rain about 2 P.M. Marched to ARRAS starting at 12.30 P.M. Road dreadfully blocked. Column didn’t get in till about 6 P.M. Very cold. Had difficulty in getting Bde under cover in the Citadel. Eventually everybody had a good night. 88th Bde went up to MONCHY LE PREUX to attack to-morrow. It was a long march for them from GOUY. 87th Bde to be in support and lend their 2 Battns.
Friday 13 April
We have taken Henmel [sic, Héninel] & Wancourt. Mrs Taylor came up in the morning. Then Muz, Tom & I walked in to the town. Tom read in the afternoon, & Muz & I went to call on Mrs Robson, & then went to tea with the Welches, as she was out.
CITADEL. ARRAS. Head of Column moved off at 6 am. Went forward at 5.45 am with Dearden to select an assembly area. Settled them in fairly comfortably. Established H.O in HAUCOURT Tr.5 Got orders about 4 to send the Battn forward to ORANGE & CHAPEL hills. Went for a walk with Magniac & had a ride on a [—]. Saw 88 and 87 Bdes. 88th going to attack the following morning.
Saturday 14 April
Captain and Mrs Grant
Our prisoners now exceed 13,000, & 166 guns. Dus: had a bit of a cold, so I took her & Pat down to the Dingle, & we went over to the other side of the river, & had a lovely walk, then it began to rain, so I brought her in & dried her, & kept her in her house all day. Sewed some of the morning, & again after lunch. Tom & Heppie went in to the town, & after tea Muz & I went in to church, & saw a wee baby being christened. Charlie – the man who comes to hang the pictures – was godfather. Then we went round to the Welches, for a few minutes. Tom went to bed straight after dinner, & Muz read to us, Heppie worked at the mats & I worked at the caps, & got the seventh finished. We went to bed at about 11-30. It is in the paper today that Betty Stuart-Wortley is engaged to a Capt. Grant, in some lancers. We have had gains & successes, over a front of approximately forty miles, from Hargicourt to the South of Loos. The villages of Bailleul, Willerval, Vimy, Petit Vimy, Givenchy-en-Gohelle, & Angres have been taken, & we have gained a footing in the enemy’s trenches N-E of Lens.
TILLOT. 88h Bde attacked at 5.30 am in front of MONCHY LE PREUX. Gained their objective but were counter attacked and forced to retire. Ordered forward to resist counter attack if necessary. March off at 2 P.M. Established Hd Qrs at H 3 B 8/3. MONCHY was heavily shelled. About 5 P.M. Pearson came & told me we had to retire 88th Bde. Took over from 88th Bde. Dreadful hd Qrs absolutely no room. Went up to line. Got back about 6 am. Fairly quiet night. Ordered to attack next day but Bosch left Hampshire trench.
Sunday 15 April
Muz, Tom & I walked in to church, & then went in to the Welches. Rosie walked some of the way back with us. After lunch Muz & I wrote letters, Tom read, & Heppie worked at the mat. It was lovely sunshine all day, but quite a cold breeze. Wrote letters again after lunch. After tea Muz & Heppie walked in to church, & I wrote more letters & Tom read. I sewed after dinner, & finished the eighth cap, & Muz read, Tom & Heppie went up to bed. Muz heard from Jimmy this morning. Ione had dined with him on his way over. We went to bed at about 10-30.
H34 central. Found Percy here when I got back. Reports of relief not in. Was very tired, slept till about 12 o’c. Went to a conference at 87th H.Q at 3.15. Had to organise the defence of MONCHY. Detailed Dubs to Dig the C.C’s. Went round with the orders about 5 o’c. Had dinner with Magniac & then went round with him. Sited strong baits [?]. R.E6 were up this evening. Then went on and saw Middlesex.7 Walked home along Arras road.
Pat Armstrong to Mrs Armstrong
My dear wee Mus.
[—] We moved our Hd Qrs four times yesterday and at last got to ground in a Bosch machine gun compartment. We have the whole of Bde Hd Qrs in a place where there is about room for two people. However we are very happy but absolutely filthy. I got in at 6 am this morning had a few hours sleep under a bit of tin pushed over a hole in a bank. It has been raining all day so I haven’t been able to wash yet as one has to do it outside. I feel perfectly filthy. We took over from Percy last night. He was very tired and had a four days beard on him. He has gone back now. I hear that my horses have arrived but haven’t seen them yet. I expect I will in a few days time. I am awfully disappointed that Rene has made no effort to stay with you. I wish I hadn’t said I was sorry for writing that letter. I felt that it would hurt her very much & then if I said I was sorry it would have the desired result. But not atall she now thinks she was quite right & that I didn’t understand.
Sir William Robertson
April 16. I couldn’t finish this yesterday so will make another attempt now. I went up to the line about 6 pm and got back this morning at 3 am & had a real good sleep till about 12 o’c. You’d laugh at my house. I can’t stand up in it or lie full length. I just curl up. I haven’t had my clothes off for 4 days but had a good wash this morning which made me feel better. I’m where the Regt lost most of their horses. I have never seen so many dead horses in my life. In one street it’s so blocked one has to walk over them. John Cowan got a crok on the leg to-day but I’m glad to say isn’t bad. He will only be away for a few days and old Gee is coming in his place. What better could you want. Much as I like John I wish Gee could stay with us. He is the best Staff Captain there has ever been in this Div. I will be very interested in Robertson’s book. Thank you so much wee Mus. But there isn’t much time to read these times. However better days will come. De L sent in my name my gun was at home. It went through the army. Yes I’m sure you are right it was all for the best I wasn’t there. That’s rather what I feel about the G.S.O2 business. I’ll bide my time. Is the name you want to know MONCHY-LE-PREUX?8 How extraordinary you knowing about the fighting at Arras so long before it came off. Was it a dream or did you see it all? I wonder what will happen about L[—]. It will be very interesting to see if your prophesy comes true.
Yes! we are quite close to Snow I haven’t seen him though as he doesn’t exactly live in these parts. I hope you got my papers from the school. There is a map there we did schemes on which will interest you. How splendid about the garden. It is great getting all the spuds sown. You were right about the 3rd row of the stalls. One sees much more from there than in the 4th row. In that theatre there is a big job between the two rows about room for the 5th row. The 5th row was a tiny thing only held about 5 people. I heard from Bonny9 to-day she seems to be enjoying life. Well wee Mus I must be off to bed. Bless you dear wee Mus.
Leask, G. A. Sir William Robertson. The Life Story of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne: Cassell and Company, Ltd., 1917. Robertson served as Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1916 to 1918⇑
Wanderer and King (1903), a novel by Oliver Vernon Caine ⇑