Paul Reed is a military historian with particular expertise in the battlefields of the Western Front. He is the author of several books, including Great War Lives and Walking the Somme. In this blog post he discusses how to interpret the discovery in Arras in 2001 of what appears to have been the bodies of members of the Grimsby Chums, arm in arm, but with one of their number buried at arm’s length …
The Point du Jour is a piece of high ground north-east of Arras which formed part of the Brown Line objectives of 34th Division on 9th April 1917, the opening day of the Battle of Arras. It was captured that day by units of 101st Brigade; 10th Lincolns (Grimsby Chums) and 15th Royal Scots among them. The position was consolidated, and overlooked the neighbouring village of Gavrelle. Fighting for that area was conducted by the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division in late April, then the Pals battalions of 31st Division in May. Although Gavrelle was captured, the line never moved much beyond here that year, and fighting returned in March 1918 when the German breakthrough was stopped by 56th (London) Division only a few hundred yards short of Point du Jour. There was further action in August when Gavrelle was retaken.
It can be seen that even in this tiny part of the Arras battlefield there was a great deal of fighting, and a large number of units which served here. Common to most parts of this battlefield, there are few cemeteries – the majority of soldiers who fell at Arras are commemorated on the Arras Memorial and have no known grave. Following the war the land was reclaimed, trenches filled in and it returned to its pre-war use as farmland. the 9th (Scottish) Division who fought in the area to the south on 9th April erected their divisional memorial here, and many years later, in the 1980s, the main Arras-Douai road was expanded to act as a feeder to the nearby A1 motorway. The memorial was placed in an island, and the nearby Point du Jour CWGC Cemetery (made permanent in the 1920s) was built round, and now stood back from the road. Sometime in 2000, the farmland north of the Douai road was sold to developers and the BWM car company proposed to build a large factory on the site. Work for the foundations of this began in the Spring of 2001, and it was during this that the Arras Archeological Service was called in following the discovery of human remains.
Alain Jacques and his colleagues probably thought they might find a few bodies, but work un-earthed a complete mass grave of twenty soldiers, buried in a line (see photo above). They had all been properly buried, and as was common practice equipment and helmets had been removed; with a couple of exceptions. Jacques later said,
Can you imagine the friendship and dedication of those who went about laying down the remains in this way? To go and get a leg and position it in the line – what a remarkable act. They must have died within hours of each other.(1)
A lot was made of the fact that they had died ‘with their boots on’, but again it was common practice to do this – at least it appears so from interviews with veterans and other first hand accounts. While battle injuries are obvious on some bodies, on others there appears little sign of how they died. Some unit insignia was discovered with the remains, three or four shoulder titles of the Lincolnshire Regiment. No identification disks were found; official ones, made of compressed fibre, would have perished anyway and while wearing the aluminium ‘French’ style was common in 1917, none were discovered.
Research immediately showed that it was the 10th Lincolns (Grimsby Chums) who had served here, and press speculation concluded that this was a mass grave from that unit. This was further enforced by the statement in some papers that twenty-four men from the unit had died on 9th April, and that this twenty accounted for those missing. We shall look at that statement in due course. What is clear is that the association with 10th Lincolns is speculation. As we have seen a large number of units served in this area, and as only a small number of unit titles were found, it is impossible to be conclusive about the bodies with nothing. However, having said that Operation Orders for Arras often demanded that regimental titles be removed before the attack, in some cases along with ID or ‘dog’ tags(2). At best the connection with the Lincolns could be called circumstantial, but that there is such a connection might be supported by further research.
Assuming that this is a grave of 10th Lincolns, what might we make of the statement that these burials account for the missing of that unit? It is certainly true that according to Soldiers Died in the Great War (SWD), twenty-four men died on 9th April 1917. However, what is often overlooked, and is confirmed in Peter Bryant’s history of the battalion (3), is that following the capture of this position, 10th Lincolns remained here until April 14th, and that during this period in fact the battalion lost forty men killed according to SWD. Another factor overlooked is that not only did forty Other Ranks die, but in addition there was one fatal officer casualty. This was Lieutenant Wynard Fleetwood Cocks. Cocks was originally commissioned in the 3rd Lincolns, and attached to the 10th. In fact he is recorded on the CWGC Debt of Honour register as 3rd, which is why I suspect even MOD have overlooked him. However, his death is confirmed in Bryant and the unit’s War Diary. One officer later wrote,
… a zig-zag pathway through the wire was found. It was here that Cocks was mortally wounded, and he died propped up against the enemy wire pickets while trying to smoke his pipe, and encouraging his men to push on – a very fitting death for a very gallant gentleman, beloved by all who knew him.(4)
Wynard Cocks was the son of Mrs F.A.Cocks of Jesmond, Ryde, Isle of Wight. He was age 25 when he died of wounds on 9th April 1917. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial.
Given this evidence – look again at the photo above. While the majority of burials are close together – Alain Jacques felt they were actually ‘arm in arm’ – the one on the extreme right is slightly apart from the others, with his arms by his side. This distance, although slight, might perhaps be intentional. Could it indicate that this soldier was something apart from the others – perhaps an officer? If so, and if this is the Lincolns, he must be Lieutenant Cocks. Nothing in any of the reports I have seen so far, or in the BBC programme made even a hint at this. Cocks seems to have been overlooked. Forensic evidence might also confirm the age, and given his social background, one might not suspect the same level of under-nourishment, or bone changes due to physical labour, that one could expect to see with a working class soldier.
As previously stated, the 10th Lincolns lost 40 Other Ranks up to 14th April, 24 of them on the 9th. Of these 11 have graves, and 28 are on the Arras Memorial. For one man, there is no trace: Private George Bedgood, who died on the 9th (he does not appear in the CWGC Debt of Honour register). For the casualties on 9th April 1917, 19 are on the Arras Memorial and four have graves.
Weather conditions during the battle were harsh, and Bryant’s history records that several men died of exposure. At one point they came under a gas attack, and several were killed in this. These statements seem to further support that these burials are from 10th Lincolns; the lack of physical damage to the bodies would be consistent with gas and weather related deaths, and perhaps there might be some trace of this from a forensic point of view? This appears to be another factor overlooked by MOD.
In conclusion, there is a weight of circumstantial evidence to suggest that the remains found at the Point du Jour are of men from 10th Lincolns, including one of their officers. The CWGC will rebury them all at Point du Jour cemetery sometime in 2002. A MOD case conference, filmed for the ‘Body Hunt’ programme, indicated that they felt there was nothing to ensure anything more than an ‘unknown soldier’ headstone would be erected for each man. No names it seems; but no regimental details? For a unit like the Chums that seems a sad ending to a tragic tale.
(1) From ‘Grimsby Chums are found in war grave’, The Times 20th June 2001.
(2) I have seen such orders in the 14th (Light) Division war diaries, for example, in PRO WO95.
(3) Bryant, Peter – Grimsby Chums: The Story of the 10th Lincolnshires in the Great War (Humberside County Council 1990)
(4) ibid. p.92-94.
Chapman, Peter – Grimsby’s Own: The Story of the Chums (Grimsby Evening Telegraph 1991)
Falls, Cyril – Military Operations France & Flanders 1917 Vol I (HMSO 1940, reptrinted 1992)
Simpson, C.R. (Ed) – The History of the Lincolnshire Regiment 1914-1918 (Medici Society 1931)
[This post first appeared on Paul Reed’s ‘Battlefields of WW1’ website in 2002 and is reproduced here with permission.]
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