Arras – London Cemetery, Neuville Vitasse

How about we start the New Year with a random cemetery visit?  I happened to find myself here last summer, at this burial ground a few miles south east of Arras – I’ll show you a map in a while – and peering over the boundary wall (the cemetery entrance on the far right), that looks an interesting layout, does it not? 

For future reference, these four rows of headstones, the first two of which stretch the length of the cemetery, make up Plot I,…

…and while we’re here, and because I have no better photograph, these headstones are, nearest the camera, the final headstones of Plot I Row B, and behind, numerically, the first headstones of the much shorter Rows C & D.  The burials in both Rows C & D are concentration burials, men once buried elsewhere brought here for reburial at a later date, and buried beneath the fifth headstone from this end in the centre row of the three, Row C, is Private Samuel H. Cunnington, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, executed for desertion on 19th May 1917, aged 20.  It was not the first time he had gone missing; on this last occasion he had apparently been shopped to the authorities by a suspicious French lady who lived near his lodgings, wherever they were.  He had a brother, David, who was killed in September 1915, his name to be found on the Loos memorial.

To be honest, despite stating as fact that Samuel Cunnington is buried beneath the fifth headstone, because that headstone bears his name, I actually think that may well be stretching the truth somewhat.  His name can be found among the red corrections made on this Concentration of Graves form, which also says ‘Graves to be amalgamated & a collection cross erected’.

The same eight men are once again listed on this GRRF, and all are given the grave number of Plot I C1; I think we actually have a mass grave here, above which the eight headstones have been placed in exactly the same order as the men’s names are listed on both this and the previous form.  Thus Connington’s headstone is the fifth one in line.

And we haven’t even gone in yet!  Continuing on to the cemetery entrance,…

…the Cross of Sacrifice immediately beyond,…

…the two rows of Plot IV, which we shall visit at the end of our visit, over on our right,…

…and the headstones of Plot I that include that of Samuel Cunnington now on our left.

Beyond the Cross, the neat headstones of Plot II (left) and Plot III (right), neat because all the burials within both plots are concentrations.  We’ll wander through them later,…

…but we’ll begin by heading over there, round the other side of the bush,…

…where we once again encounter the four rows of Plot I, the concentration burials of Row D in the foreground, Cunnington’s headstone in Row C behind.  The structure in the background…

…contains the ‘In Perpetuity’ tablet in English & French.

Plot I Row A, with Row B behind, the two longest rows in the cemetery.  The burials in Row A, all of them, and a dozen at this end of Row B, are the cemetery’s original burials, with all the remaining burials being concentrations.

Royal Berkshire Regiment casualties at the end of Row B, all three men killed on 7th May 1917.  The middle of the three headstones…

…marks the grave of Regimental Serjeant Major* Henry James Bartholomew D.C.M., Royal Berkshire Regiment, killed on 8th May 1917 aged 37.  The citation for his Distinguished Conduct Medal says, ‘For conspicuous gallantry during operations, when he organised and maintained a constant supply of ammunition and bombs, and on many occasions went fearlessly through the enemy’s heavy barrage, utterly indifferent to personal danger.’  A very brave man, clearly, but not one you’d put your money on to survive the war.

*his citation refers to him as Company Serjeant Major (Acting Regimental Serjeant Major).

12th Bn. London Regiment (The Rangers) burials towards this end of Row A, the names of Corporal Gooch and Riflemen Rassell, Godley & Fenestre to be found on the right hand GRRF below.

The vast majority of the men buried in Row A are either 12th Bn. London Regiment (The Rangers), as on the GRRFs above, or 14th Bn. London Regiment (London Scottish), and of the eighty two identified men in the row (just two burials in Row A are unidentified), no less than seventy six died on 9th April 1917.

And what happened on 9th April 1917?  Two early March 1917 maps (above & below) showing the front lines around Arras.  The site of the cemetery is marked in green, with the village of Neuville Vitasse in mauve, bottom right above.

Despite the strong German defences (in red – note the various British names given to the German trenches – click to enlarge – and the Hindenburg Line marked on the right) protecting the village, Neuville Vitasse would fall to the 56th (London) Division on the first day of the Battle of Arras, which was, as you might by now have guessed, if you didn’t already know, 9th April 1917.  The preliminary bombardment, during which over a million more shells were fired than had been expended during the pre-Somme bombardment the previous year, certainly helped.  This cemetery (and, sadly, many others) was begun that same day.

R.F.A. driver who died in late June 1917.  There are twelve original burials in Row B, including this one, all at this end of the row,…

…the remaining burials in the row,…

…split into groups of nine or ten,…

…all being concentrations.

Concentration burials in Row B, from left, Durham Light Infantry private, unidentified man of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, and a 3rd (City of London) Battalion, London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) private, another of the 9th April 1917 casualties.  I’ll show you the Concentration of Graves form that includes these three men,…

…although Bougher on the form is Boucher on the headstone, and likewise Gabett on the form is Gobbett on the headstone.  None of which is the real reason I show you this form, which will be revealed later.  In the meantime,…

…further down the row, again from left, a serjeant of The King’s Liverpool Regiment, a Post Office Rifles second lieutenant whose name was Sergeant, and another subaltern, an unnamed man of the Middlesex Regiment, on the right.

Looking back up the cemetery across Plot I Row A,…

…and more headstones at this end of Row A, a private of the Middlesex Regiment on the left, two 12th Bn. London Regiment (The Rangers) riflemen in the centre, all original 9th April 1917 burials, and a rifleman of the London Rifle Brigade on the right, one of the six men in the row given a date of death other than 9th April 1917, in this case 12th April.

One of the many 14th Bn. London Regiment (London Scottish) burials in the row.  This man’s brother, a decorated captain in the London Rifle Brigade who died on 28th March 1918 at Gavrelle, only half a dozen miles north east of here, and whose name can be found on the Arras Memorial, is mentioned at the base of the headstone.

The two headstones nearest us at the end of the row mark the graves of an unknown Canadian and a Black Watch private who died in August 1918, and both are original burials, added to the row for expediency’s sake.

Looking north east, Plot I Row B nearest the camera, and Plot II behind, and it is Plot II we shall look at next, which necessitates heading back up towards the Cross at the far end,…

…past these basking French bugs,…

…back to the first row of the plot.  These headstones are Plot II Row A 1-10 (Plot I Rows A & B crossing the picture in the background), and if we head to the far end,…

…we find two of one hundred and twenty unidentified burials in Plot II alone, more, by twenty, than are identified (whisper it, Royal Navy Commander in the background, and I don’t mean the bloke on the left).  However, as we continue along the row,…

…a closer look at the identified burials reveals seven more men (above & below) killed on 9th April 1917.

The last three headstones…

…are again visible here on the left, as we look across towards the second part of Row A,…

…where the burials, those that are identified,…

…are all from later in the year.  The grass corridor on the right separates Plot II from Plot III, as can be seen if you check out the cemetery plan by clicking here.

Three 13th (Kensington) Bn. London Regiment burials in Row B, again all 9th April 1917 casualties,…

…and another here on the far left (as well as a man who died the following day).

Other than the first three headstones at the far end, all the burials in the first part of Row C are unidentified,…

…as are all those in the second half.  Behind, in Row D,…

…three of eleven Canadians, all 1918 casualties, buried in Plot II.

Machine gunners in Row H, five of the six identified, all bearing the date of 7th May 1917.

Row K & Row L, behind, are slightly shorter rows than the rest in the plot; despite appearances, all the men in the front row, and most of those in Row, are unidentified.  Sneaking into the picture in the right background…

…is the screen wall in the centre of the cemetery’s south west boundary,…

…which consists of five panels remembering one hundred and thirty eight men originally buried in four other cemeteries ‘whose graves were destroyed in later battles’.

The majority of the names are men who were buried in Wancourt Road British Cemetery No. 2, their names covering the first two panels,…

…and most of the third.  Near the bottom of this panel the names of men buried in Neuville Vitasse Mill Cemetery begin,…

…continuing on Panel 4 and the start of Panel 5.  The fifth and final panel ends with eight men buried in Beaurains Road British Cemetery No. 2, and a single man buried in Beaurains German Cemetery.  The strange thing is that I can find little, almost no, trace, mention, or anything else for that matter, of a Neuville Vitasse Mill Cemetery,…

…apart from here, on this document dated 1927,…

…and this GRRF, which has a slightly earlier date of 1923.  Not even on early maps that purport to show all the British cemeteries across France, a considerable number of which would, sooner or later, disappear when the burials within were concentrated in larger cemeteries elsewhere.

I do know that Beaurains Road British Cemetery No. 2, where eight men whose names are now on the screen wall were buried, was once located beneath the orange circle on this May 1917 map extract.  And I also know the location of Wancourt Road British Cemetery No. 2, where the first eighty four men remembered on Panels 1, 2 & 3 were buried, and have marked it as a pink circle.  I even know where Neuville Mill once stood – highlighted in blue – which doesn’t help one bit.  The mill, the map shows, was on top of a hill, or rise, which is a sensible place for a mill in peacetime, and a frankly unlikely place for a cemetery in wartime.

Unlikely until you consider that maybe the walls of the ruined mill buildings provided a safer place than many for nighttime burials.  It then occurred to me that there might be men who once lay in Neuville Vitasse Mill Cemetery whose original graves had not been lost, and whose bodies had been recovered and reburied here.  Which would mean the map reference for their original graves should be on the relevant Concentration of Graves form.  Remember the form I showed you earlier, with Bougher (Boucher) & Gabett (Gobbett) on it?  The map reference given for their original burial site on the form is M.24.d.5.2., which, for your information, corresponds with the red dot I have now added to the above trench map.  I think we have found the location of Neuville Vitasse Mill Cemetery.

With the screen wall now on the far right, and the headstones of Plot III Row L nearest the camera,…

 

…only two of which are named,…

…this view looks north east along the length of Plot III.

There are, according to the CWGC, 747 burials or commemorations in this cemetery.  138 are names on the screen wall, and of the remaining 609, a total of 318 are unidentified.

Plot III contains 206 headstones,…

…only sixty seven of which are of identified men,…

…and all, don’t forget, concentration burials.

Plot IV, as seen before we even entered the cemetery.  All are concentration burials, and of the twenty four headstones, only three in the front row, Row B, are identified,…

…all twelve burials in Row A behind, despite known regiments in eight cases, being unidentified.

Back to the Cross, and back to the coach.

As we leave – hurry up Dee* – I ought to tell you a little story about this place that occurred some years after the creation of this cemetery.

*as if I’d ever have the nerve to tell her to hurry up……

The fields surrounding the cemetery saw action on 21st May 1940 during the Battle for France,…

…as the German Blitzkrieg swept across France & Belgium towards the Channel ports.  Only at Arras (beneath the orange dot) was an Allied counterattack attempted,…

…a mixed force of British & French tanks (blue arrows) attacking Rommel’s panzers (in red) as they moved westwards just to the south of Arras.  The Neuville Vitasse area is again marked with an orange circle, and you can see that it was right here, in these fields, that the Allied counterattack was turned by the Germans and forced to withdraw under cover of darkness for fear of encirclement.

And yet this failed counterattack did succeed in one important aspect; fearful that more Allied counterattacks might cut the fast-moving panzers off from the non-motorised infantry following along some way behind, Hitler ordered the panzers to halt until order was restored in the Arras area and the infantry had caught up, and it was this pause that allowed the Allies to strengthen the approaches to Dunkirk and the channel ports, which in turn, as we know, eventually allowed some 330,000 soldiers, British, French & Belgian, to escape across the channel to Blighty.  For more information on the actions on 9th April 1917 to the east of Arras, you might consider joining me on a Walk to Observation Ridge.

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18 Responses to Arras – London Cemetery, Neuville Vitasse

  1. Alan Bond says:

    Happy New Year. Thank you for this post. It has sent me scurring down a rabbit hole as I can not understand how any officer of an identified Regiment and a known date of death can be buried as “Known unto God”. Having looked at CWGC forms there seems no doubt in them that a 2nd Lieutenant of 8th Middlesex died on 9/4/1917. Although I have seen it reported that more subalterns were killed than any other officer rank I can’t believe that in this case he is unidentified. More burrowing I think.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Happy New Year to you too, Alan. Might it be worth checking the 8th Middlesex war diary?

      • Magicfingers says:

        …and see if any second lieutenants were posted as missing?

        • Alan Bond says:

          373 Middlesex Regt. 2nd Lieut. are commemorated by CWGC a fair number on memorials to the the missing which would indicate that they have no know grave. On Arras Memorial WILLIAM AUGUSTUS PENGELLY 8th Bn. Died 19 May 1917 is the most likely candidate with lagging a year behind HAROLD RICHARD HOLLAND 1st/8th Bn. Died 12 April 1918. Have to find the War Diary as you suggested

          • Magicfingers says:

            Hmmm. Well he’s definitely a 9/4/1917 casualty according to the Concentration Form, assuming they got it right at the time the form was typed. More digging, methinks.

      • Alan Bond says:

        373 Middlesex Regt. 2nd Lieut. are commemorated by CWGC a fair number on memorials to the the missing which would indicate that they have no know grave. On Arras Memorial WILLIAM AUGUSTUS PENGELLY 8th Bn. Died 19 May 1917 is the most likely candidate with lagging a year behind HAROLD RICHARD HOLLAND 1st/8th Bn. Died 12 April 1918. Have to find the War Diary as you suggested

        In fact I now believe that it was neither of these 2.

        Having download and read the the War Dairies from the National Archives it appears that 2 2nd Lts were killed on the 9/4/1917. 2nd Lt R H Attwater and 2nd Lt C H Aschew. They are both now recorded on Memorial Panels in the London Cemetery which purport to show graves lost due to battle damage. Attwater being buried in Neuvilles Vitasse Mill and Askew in Wancourt Road. However the CWCG records show that the graves from the Mill were not all lost but some were concentrated to the London Cemetery and reburied in Plot 1 including the Unknown 2 Lt of the 8th Middlesex whose is remains are buried in B32. It would seem almost certain that this unknown officer Reginald Henry Attwater

        • Magicfingers says:

          Then what more information do the CWGC need to add his name to his headstone, do you think Alan? Come in here please Nick! Because the two 2nd Lts were originally buried in different places, and because we know which one (our one) was at Neuville Vitasse Mill, surely we therefore know it must be Attwater?? Or have I missed something?

          • nicholas Kilner says:

            superb! the only possible fly in the ointment would be if there were any other 2nd Lt’s from 8th middlesex reg that were also buried in Neuvilles Vitasse Mill cemetery, recovered or otherwise. That aside I’d say there is a very strong case for putting in an application to the CWGC for a named headstone. Excellent work Alan!

          • Alan Bond says:

            Thank you It would good find more information on the the Mill cemetery I.e there must be some documentation that lead to the memorial panels being created. I happy to pursue this but not sure where Nstional Archive or CWCG any pointers would be gratefully recieved

          • Nick Kilner says:

            Hi Alan,
            I would drop this squarely in the lap of the CWGC. From the GRRF, it appears that Attwater was the only 2nd Lt from the 8th Middlesex to have been buried in Neuville Vitasse Mill, and if you can provide evidence that the bodies from there were reinterred in plot 1 (shown on the Burial return), and there is a headstone stating an unknown 2nd Lt of the 8th Middlesex in that plot and row, then there can be no doubt it’s him. Just to be absolutely certain, I’ve checked burial returns for men from the regiment who were originally buried in Wancourt, and the were all reinterred in plot 2, which illuminates the possibility of it being 2nd Lt Askew. In the words of the great Arthur Conan Doyle “if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth!”. I’d send them a copy of the GRRF, a copy of the burial return and an explanation of your findings ASAP.

  2. nicholas Kilner says:

    Excellent! A splendid start to the New year. I hope you’ve both had a very enjoyable festive season.
    It was funny reading down, I looked at the concentration form for Boucher and the rest and on noticing they all had the same original burial location, skipped back up to the map you kindly provided to see where that was. Little did I know at that moment, its significance to the later aspect of the post.
    Great piece of detective work locating Neuville Vitasse Mill Cemetery too. It would be nice if there was some kind of marker there, to the men who’s remains were never recovered.
    Very nicely done MF.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Happy New Year Nick. You are most kind. Well done checking out the map location! Funny how Neuville Vitasse Mill Cemetery is not marked anywhere – not even the White Cross Touring Atlas of the Western Front (every home should have one) from the 1920s. Cheers mate!

  3. Alan Bond says:

    I have not forgotten this just need to come back to current world to catch up. Please email directly at bondalan@orange.fr if anything new comes up. Thanks Alan

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