yeovil at War

Arthur Edward Parsons

Killed in action during his fourteenth major engagement

 

Arthur Edward Parsons was born in Yeovil in 1898, the youngest of the three children of brewer's traveller Isaac William Parsons (b1863) and Norah Emily (known as Emily) née Hunt (b1869). In the 1901 census Isaac and Emily were listed at 86 Earle Street with their children; Margaret Louise (b1892), John Lewis William (b1895) and Arthur. The family also had a live-in servant. The family were at the same address in the 1911 census, albeit without the servant.

After leaving school, Arthur worked in the engineering department of Petter's Nautilus Works.

Arthur enlisted at Dorchester, probably during early 1915, joining the 2nd Battalion, Suffolk Regiment. His Service Number was 36878.

Following his basic training, Arthur was sent to France to join his battalion at the Front. The 2nd Battalion were part of 8th Brigade, 3rd Division.

The first major action in which the 2nd Battalion were engaged was the Battle of Bellewaarde (24-25 May 1915), part of the wider Second Battle of Ypres that was fought from 22 April until 25 May 1915 for control of the strategic Flemish town of Ypres in western Belgium after the First Battle of Ypres the previous autumn.

On 24 May the Germans released a gas attack that hit Shell Trap Farm and to the area around the north west, which was affected the most by the attack. Although British troops defended against initial German attacks, they were eventually forced to retreat north and south. Failed British counter-attacks forced a British retreat to the north.

The battalion was next engaged in what became known as the Actions at Hooge. On 19 July 1915, the Germans held Hooge Chateau and no man's land either side was 70–150 yd (64–137 m). Inside the German salient was a fortification under which the 175th Tunnelling Company had dug a gallery 190 feet (58 m) long and charged a mine with 3,500 lb (1,600 kg) of ammonal but waterlogged ground required the explosives to be loaded upwards. The mine was sprung at 7:00 p.m. and left a crater 120 feet (37 m) wide and 20 feet (6.1 m) which was rushed by two companied of the 8th Brigade, 3rd Division.

The battalion saw action in the Battle of Hooge (30–31 July 1915) which saw the first use of German flamethrowers. There then followed a relatively calm period before the battalion was again involved in a major engagement; the Second Attack on Bellewaarde. This attack, on 25 September 1915, was on the trenches held by the Germans in the vicinity of Hooge and Bellewaarde Lake and was made with the object of distracting attention from a major attempt to break through at Loos, to the south, and to contain the enemy's reserves. Like so many similar attacks, it entailed heavy losses to the attacking infantry. The preliminary bombardment was to open at 3.50am and Zero hour for the attack itself was fixed for 4.20am. Ultimately the attack failed and there is little doubt that the Germans were expecting the assault.

On 22 October 1915, the 2nd Battalion, Suffolk Regiment were transferred to 76th Brigade, 3rd Division.

The 2nd Battalion next took part in the Battle of St Eloi Craters, fought from 27 March to 16 April 1916. The attack took place over the muddy terrain of Belgium and was a disaster for the Allies.
Since late 1915, armies on both sides had been using extensive mining as a part of trench warfare. Sappers dug tunnels across the battlefield to plant explosives under enemy positions and would then retreat and blow them up. The fields near the Belgian village of St Eloi, located five kilometres south of Ypres, were pockmarked with craters as shown in the Gallery below from repeated underground explosions.

In the spring of 1916, 2nd Battalion was sent to fight Germans on the front line at St Eloi. The fighting started at 4:15am on 27 March with heavy gun fire. Six British mines were set off one after the other, shaking the earth “like the sudden outburst of a volcano” and filling the sky with yellow smoke and debris. The explosion was heard in England as German trenches collapsed into the craters. British troops fought from inside the craters, crouching in mud or standing in waist-deep water, unable to sit. High winds, sleet and mud created nightmarish conditions. Hundreds of men were killed on either side in a week of chaotic shooting and shelling. The exhausted British were relieved by the Canadians on 4 April 1916. The entire front line came under constant bombardment on 4 and 5 April, and hundreds more men were killed.

The 2nd Battalion, Suffolk Regiment was part of 3rd Division and took part in the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The first day on the Somme, 1 July 1916, was the opening day of the Battle of Albert (1–13 July 1916). Nine corps of the French Sixth Army, as well as the British Fourth and Third armies, attacked the German Second Army from Foucaucourt on the south bank to Serre, north of the Ancre and at Gommecourt 2 miles (3.2 km) beyond. The objective of the attack was to capture the German first and second positions from Serre south to the Albert–Bapaume road and the first position from the road south to Foucaucourt. The German defence south of the road mostly collapsed and the French had 'complete success' on both banks of the Somme, as did the British from Maricourt on the army boundary, where XIII Corps took Montauban and reached all its objectives and XV Corps captured Mametz and isolated Fricourt.

Arthur next fought in The Battle of Bazentin Ridge (14–17 July 1916) which was a part of the Battle of the Somme. The British Fourth Army made a dawn attack on 14 July, against the German 2nd Army in the Braune Stellung from Delville Wood westwards to Bazentin le Petit Wood. Dismissed beforehand by a French commander as "an attack organized for amateurs by amateurs", the attack succeeded.

After the two weeks of carnage from the commencement of the Somme Offensive, it became clear that a breakthrough of either the Allied or German line was most unlikely and the offensive had evolved to the capture of small prominent towns, woods or features which offered either side tactical advantages from which to direct artillery fire or to launch further attacks.

Delville Wood was one such feature, making it important to German and Allied forces. As part of a large offensive starting on 14 July, General Douglas Haig, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, intended to secure the British right flank, while the centre advanced to capture the higher lying areas of High Wood in the centre of his line. Delville Wood was a battle to secure this right flank. The battle achieved this objective and is considered a tactical Allied victory. However, it was one of the bloodiest confrontations of the Somme, with both sides incurring large casualties.

The battalion next fought in the Battle of the Ancre from 13 to 18 November 1916. This was the final large British attack of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. It involved an attack on the German front line as it crossed the Ancre River, a sector of the front that had first been attacked on the first day of the Battle of the Somme without success. This was a strong sector of the German front. The first British objective involved an advance of 800 yards and would require the capture of at least three lines of trenches. The next target was the German second line, from Serre south to the Ancre. Finally it was hoped to capture Beaucourt, on the Ancre. All the early successes on the Ancre achieved was the creation of a British held salient on the Ancre, which proved to be a very dangerous area to be posted over the winter of 1916-17.

After the Battle of the Ancre, British attacks on the Somme front were stopped during inclement weather and until early January 1917 military operations by both sides concentrated on surviving the rain, snow, fog, mud fields, waterlogged trenches and shell-holes.

During 1917 the 2nd Battalion, Suffolk Regiment, including Arthur Parsons, were involved in an inordinate amount of fighting including the First, Second and Third Battles of the Scarpe,  the Battle of Arleux, the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge and the the Battle of Polygon Wood.

As part of the Arras Offensive the 2nd Battalion took an active part in the First Battle of the Scarpe (9 to 14 April 1917) that was part of the overall Arras Offensive. Zero-Hour for the First Battle of the Scarpe had originally been planned for the morning of 8 April (Easter Sunday) but it was postponed 24 hours at the request of the French, despite reasonably good weather in the assault sector. Zero-Day was rescheduled for 9 April with Zero-Hour at 05:30. The assault was preceded by a hurricane bombardment lasting five minutes, following a relatively quiet night. When the time came, it was snowing heavily; Allied troops advancing across no man's land were hindered by large drifts. It was still dark and visibility on the battlefield was very poor. A westerly wind was at the Allied soldiers' backs blowing "a squall of sleet and snow into the faces of the Germans". The combination of the unusual bombardment and poor visibility meant many German troops were caught unawares and taken prisoner, still half-dressed, clambering out of the deep dug-outs of the first two lines of trenches. Others were captured without their boots, trying to escape but stuck in the knee-deep mud of the communication trenches. Most of the British objectives had been achieved by the evening of 10 April.

After just a couple of weeks of relative calm the 2nd Battalion were involved in the Second Battle of the Scarpe (23-24 April 1917). At 04:45 on 23 April, following two days of poor visibility and freezing weather, British troops of the Third Army attacked to the east along a nine mile (14 km) front from Croisilles to Gavrelle on both sides of the Scarpe. On the left of the main British attack the 63rd Division made rapid progress against Gavrelle and secured the village. Several determined German counter-attacks were made and by the morning of 24 April, the British held Guémappe, Gavrelle and the high ground overlooking Fontaine-lez-Croisilles and Cherisy.

The battalion were quickly involved in the next phase of operations, the Battle of Arleux (28 to 29 April 1917). Although the Canadian Corps had taken Vimy Ridge, difficulties in securing the south-eastern flank had left the position vulnerable. To rectify this, British and Canadian troops launched an attack towards Arleux-en-Gohelle on 28 April. Arleux was captured by Canadian troops with relative ease, but the British troops advancing on Gavrelle met stiffer resistance from the Germans. The village was secured by early evening but, despite achieving the limited objective of securing the Canadian position on Vimy Ridge, casualties were high, and the ultimate result was disappointing.

The Third Battle of the Scarpe, the last of the Battles of Arras, 1917, which opened on 3 May, was of a similar nature to the operations of 28 and 29 April. The French had planned a heavy attack on Chemin des Dames to take place on the 5th and, in order to distract the attention of the enemy and hold his troops east of Arras, Sir Douglas Haig considerably extended his active front. While the Third and First Armies attacked from Fontaine-les-Croisilles to Fresnoy the Fifth Army was to launch a second attack upon the Hindenburg Line in the neighbourhood of Bullecourt - a total of over 16 miles. Zero hour was timed for 3:45am on 3 May.

The 2nd Battalion next took part in the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge (20 to 25 September 1917). This battle marked a change in British tactics during the Third Battle of Ypres. The first part of the battle had been commanded by General Sir Hubert Gough (Fifth Army). That choice had forced a delay of six weeks while the Fifth Army moved into place, replacing General Herbert Plumer’s Second Army. Gough had performed no better than earlier commanders on the Western Front. The Germans had perfected defence in depth. Their front lines were lightly defended. Behind the front line scattered German strong points disrupted any Allied advance. Once the British or French attackers were disorganised, the Germans would launch a counterattack with specially trained divisions kept out of range of Allied artillery. A series of Allied attacks on the Western Front had penetrated the German front line but failed to get past the second. In the aftermath of the earlier failures at Ypres, Plumer suggested an alternative plan – his “bite and hold” strategy. This was designed to use the German plan against them. The British would pick a small part of the front line, hit it with a heavy bombardment and then attack in strength. The advancing troops would stop once they had penetrated 1,500 yards into the German lines. At this point they would have overrun the German front line and perhaps some of the strong points behind the lines. The attacking troops would then stop and dig in. When the German counterattack was launched, instead of finding a mass of exhausted and disorganised men at the limit of the Allied advance, they would find a well organised defensive line. Plumer was given permission to try his new plan, and three weeks to prepare. His men received detailed training. The battle began with a creeping barrage 1,000 yards deep, which protected the attacking infantry. The British attacked with four divisions – from north to south the 2nd Australian, 1st Australian, 23rd and 41st Divisions. The attack was a great success. The majority of Plumer’s objectives were captured on the first day of the attack, only the 41st Division needed to follow up on the following day. German counterattacks were repulsed the first and second days of the attack.

The Battle of Polygon Wood, 25-27 September 1917, was part of the wider Third Battle of Ypres. It came during the second phase of the battle, in which General Herbert Plumer’s Second Army was given the lead. Plumer replaced the ambitious general assaults that had begun the battle with a series of small attacks with limited objectives – his “bite and hold” plan. These attacks involved a long artillery bombardment followed by an attack on a narrow front (2,000 yards wide at Polygon Wood). The attacks were led by lines of skirmishers, followed by small infantry groups. German strong points were to be outflanked rather than assaulted. Each advance would stop after it had moved forward 1,000-1,500 yards. Preparations were then made to fight off any German counterattack. The attack on Polygon Wood was the second of Plumer’s “bite and hold” attacks, after Menin Road. It was carried out chiefly by the 4th and 5th Australian Divisions but the 2nd Battalion, Suffolks also played a part. The site of Polygon Wood was captured on 26 September, the target line on 27 September. The attack then stopped, and Plumer prepared for the next attack. The two Australian divisions lost 5,471 men during the Battle of Polygon Wood. The three “bite and hold” attacks brought the front line to the foot of the Passchendaele Ridge, which would be come the target of the First and Second Battles of Passchendaele, and give its name to the entire battle.

Despite being only nineteen years old, Arthur Parsons had been engaged in no less than fourteen major engagements during his time on the Western Front. He was killed in action on 26 September 1917 during the Battle of Polygon Wood.

The Western Gazette reported "The sad information has been received by Mrs W Parsons, of Roseville, Mudford Road, that her son Private Arthur Edward Parsons, of the Suffolk Regiment had been killed in action during the recent fighting in France. Deceased who was only 19 years of age, enlisted shortly after war broke out. Prior to that he was employed in the engineering department of Messrs. Petters’ Nautilus Works."

Arthur Parsons is remembered on the Tyne Cot memorial and his name is recorded on the War Memorial in the Borough.

 

gallery

 



The Battle of Hooge (30–31 July 1915) saw the first use of German flamethrowers.

 

The battlefield of St Eloi Craters, April 1916.

 

British troops rest in a trench during the Battle of Arleux, April 1917.

 

British troops during a lull in the fighting during the Battle of the Menin Ridge Road, 1917.

 

The battlefield of Polygon Wood, 25-27 September 1917.

 

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission certificate in memory of Arthur Parsons.

The Tyne Cot Memorial is one of four memorials to the missing in Belgian Flanders which cover the area known as the Ypres Salient. The memorial now bears the names of almost 35,000 officers and men whose graves are not known. The memorial, designed by Sir Herbert Baker with sculpture by Joseph Armitage and F.V. Blundstone, was unveiled by Sir Gilbert Dyett on 20 June 1927.