Volume 3, Chapter 25
A large-caliber shell exploded near the command post, causing the ground to tremble underneath their feet. A rush of hot air mixed with debris and gravel filled the air. The explosion and shock-wave blown the staff onto their knees.
“God, forgive me.”
Montgomery desperately looking at everything that was happening, his heart full of great anger and regret. Everything started about 10:30 last night.
Montgomery led his army to finally reach the scheduled position within Gort’s scheduled time. He confirmed from the reconnaissance reports that were indeed no German units hidden within the next ten kilometers. Finally, he could throw away that major concern that weighed on his heart. Allowing him to wholly focus on the upcoming battle.
He ordered the troops to immediately follow the arrangements set beforehand. The locations of the offensive entrenchments and the command post were already pre-determined. The artillery would be placed two kilometers behind the offensive positions and guarded by an infantry regiment. His plan was to ensure that the vanguard would have the greatest fire support possible. After all, their ammunition was inadequate for a prolonged battle. Only the artillery would be able to make up for the lost firepower.
After all this was arranged, Montgomery went to his command post. The staff were already assembled and already at work observing the German situation.
For such a large force, it would be impossible for the Germans to not notice them. The whole city of Arras was enveloped in darkness, only by the moonlight could they make out the buildings. Besides the vague and distant shouts, the whole city was in dead silence. This strange atmosphere made people’s hairs stand up straight.
“Why don’t I hear any of the inhabitants? This city is giving me a bad feeling, like it’s….” A staff officer said lowly to Montgomery.
“Don’t say that word, I have the same feeling. Is it unusual for the Germans to relocate the civilians?” Montgomery interrupted the staff officer. He also felt that the atmosphere of the city was ominous.
“Come with me to the forward command post. I’m going to see what the Germans have prepared for us.”
After Montgomery and his men arrived, he picked up his binoculars and peered into the dark city.
After waiting for a long time, he still saw no movement. However, the dreary silence still troubled him. So, he prepared a small skirmish to test the enemy.
“First, send a regiment and begin an attack on the city. Don’t let them engage too much, this is only to test the enemy’s capabilities.”
The officer saluted and backed away and began to issue orders for deployment. After a few minutes, he reported back to Montgomery.
“General, the troops have been made ready. They will attack from the three offensive positions. The 5th, 50th, and 3rd Divisions will each send a battalion, the artillery has prepared to provide immediate fire support.”
With Montgomery’s order, the British front immediately turned into a boiling cauldron. A variety of light and heavy weapons fired upon the German position. The tracer fire shone brilliantly in the dark sky. Appearing like a whip as it went back forth along the German trenches.
Then a whistling sound came as the first of the artillery shells exploded in the city. The churning of dirt into the air could be seen in the moonlight. The destructive scene left the British officers with heartfelt praise.
Although the Germans seemed to have been hit squarely they still showed no response. The entire German positions seemed to be quietly bearing the onslaught.
After three rounds of shelling against the German forward positions, the artillery adjusted their aim for the fortifications on the edge of the city. Meanwhile, the first of the British infantry came out of their trenches, their rifles armed with bayonets. They began their charge. Seeing those men rush in, Montgomery and his staff looked nervously at the German lines.
As the infantry approached the half-distance mark, the Germans were still silent. No signs of a counterattack. For a moment Montgomery even doubted if there were any Germans still alive in their trenches. But he immediately realized the absurdity of that thought, he knew full well how impossible that would be. In the previous war, he had personally witnessed even more terrifying artillery bombardments, however even then, the Germans survived. So, what now are the German’s planning? An ominous premonition filled his heart.
As the British approached the five-hundred-meter mark, the soldiers started to show a puzzled expression. Causing them to feel a sense of unease as they clenched their rifles harder. Suddenly, a sharp whistle came from the Germans and countless helmets emerged out of the trenches. Causing the British to roar and frantically accelerate.
The entire German trenches lit up with a burst of bright flashes. Then that was accompanied by the sharp buzzing of a Mg34 firing. Cutting through the first row of soldiers like nothing. Then the second row, the third row. German mortars and artillery shells continued to explode in their ranks, mutilated bodies and equipment fell with each consecutive explosion.
Although the British were brave enough to continue, this horrific scene still deeply shocked them. After the front rows of soldiers were gunned down, those that followed subconsciously slowed. The officers were rapidly contemplating if they should order the troops to lay down or to retreat. However, even something more horrible was coming for the British infantry.
A dull whistling sounded above their heads.
An officer shouted in his loudest voice over the chaos of the battlefield. A second later, a shell exploded at his side. An explosion that sent tremors through the dirt. Within a radius of 50 meters, it was complete desolation. The soldiers near the explosion were all blasted to bits. As one ventured further, shapes that resemble human body parts start to appear. Gun, uniforms, and backpacks were thrown a full thirty meters into the sky. The shell left a crater in the ground a meter deep and five meters wide.
“Good God! Heavy artillery!” Montgomery and a few of the officers gasped as they looked from the command post.
There was no way two ordinary infantry regiments would carry such large-caliber guns. Typically, the largest gun an infantry regiment would carry is a 105mm field gun. However, judging from the blast radius, the shells must be at least 150mm. However, even more shocking, was that the German large-caliber shells began to fall like rain on the infantry.
“They have more than ten guns!” Montgomery exclaimed.
“It’s a trap! The Germans have long prepared for this. Immediately contact headquarters, I need to personally report this situation to General Gort!” He yelled at the officers. “Immediately withdraw the infantry, order the front lines to immediately strengthen their defenses. Have the trenches deepened three to four feet! Order the artillery to start shelling the German lines. Send scouts! We must find the location of those German artillery!”
“Yes, General!” The officers and staff finally woke from their shock. Then they quickly rushed to fulfill their tasks and issue orders.
Montgomery rushed out of the forward command post, toward the division headquarters. The situation here must be reported to Gort as soon as possible. From the German’s unusual firepower, their solid fortifications, accurate and deadly shelling. All these factors point to the fact that the Germans were prepared. This was all a trap. If they don’t order a withdrawal then without tank support, they will likely exhaust their last drop of blood on this damn field.
Montgomery anxiously circled around at headquarters but after an hour, there was still no response. Without orders, the group still cannot be withdrawn. Leaving them to be decimated by the enemy artillery, the scouts have not found the artillery positions, however there were signs that the shots were coming from inside the city. The Germans must have concealed their artillery in the city. Which would explain why those reconnaissance aircraft never discovered them these last two days.
From the current situation, they also seemed to have other caliber guns. At least during the initial attack, they used four different calibers of heavy artillery. From the rate of fire, the Germans must have plenty of ammunition. The British trenches are also experiencing sporadic shelling. However, this was still the darkness of night. Hence, the reason why they were not completely wiped out yet. But within several hours, the morning light will expose their positions to the Germans. When that happens, what will they do?
“Reporting, General Gort’s reply, General.” A messenger ran into the division headquarters.
“Quickly bring it to me!”
Montgomery rushed and hastily grabbed the telegram.
“To British Army, 3rd Division commander, Major General Bernard Montgomery.
Currently, our information states that the Germans are only comprised of two regiments. Combined, their artillery would be few. The command puts your report of the enemy possessing heavy artillery into question.
Furthermore, if your report was accurate, it proves that the Germans have attached great importance to Arras. It would be natural to strengthen its defensive capabilities. Hence, it is no indication that the enemy has set a trap.
As such, headquarters is asking for you to continue your attack and break their line of defense. If you cannot do this then find ways of consuming the enemy’s ammunition and strength. This must be adhered to; those at headquarters believes in your ability. You are now the key to the success of our plan. The 2nd and 4th Infantry Divisions are moving towards your position.
Finally, headquarters orders you to not retreat. You must understand that any price for victory is acceptable. If your troops withdraw from that position, you will face the harshest punishment of the military court.
— British Expeditionary Force Commander, General Gort.”
Montgomery could not help but grow furious as he read the message.
“‘Consuming the enemy’s ammunition? Bullshit! Consumed with my soldiers’ blood! What two regiments? What no heavy artillery? What do those idiots know!?”
Montgomery angrily crumpled the message and tossed it out. His staff and officers stood in silence.
Montgomery vented his anger after a few more minutes and finally calm down. Looking back at the map, his mind was overburdened thinking of how to get out of this mess.
On May 27th at about 5:30 AM, the Germans suddenly stopped their shelling. Finally allowing the British to get a moment of peace.
The soldiers quickly took advantage of this time to repair the damaged entrenchments and fortifications.
“If they stop, then it is time for me to start. Order the artillery to harass the enemy positions.”
Montgomery decided that although they were unlikely to succeed at breaking the enemy line, he could at least destroy some of their energy. Perhaps re-inspire his troop’s morale a bit also.
The artillery teams faithfully carried out his orders. From the rear came the loud blasts of howitzers as the rounds as they traveled over their heads towards the enemy.
Suddenly an even duller whistling came from the direction of the city. The sound traveling over the command post. Causing the officers to raise their ears to identify the direction of the shell.
“It’s flying towards the rear of our position.” An officer shouted.
“What, that’s our artillery positions!” Montgomery jumped up and ran out of the command post, his gaze looking towards the rear.
The moment he ran out, a dozen explosions sprouted. The thunderous roar finally reaching him along with a shock-wave that rustled the grass at his feet.
“How did this happen! How did the Germans know our positions, the sun has not risen yet!?” Another officer cried out.
Montgomery was looking at the artillery positions as pillars of smoke rose into the sky. His face void of expression. However, one could see his hands trembling violently.
“Command your troops! Prepare for retreat.” Montgomery solemnly turned and said to his officers.
“But the orders from headquarters…”
“Do not worry about what the commander said. I will see to the responsibilities. However, I will not allow my soldiers to die in vain because of foolish decisions.”