The Battle of Gavrelle Windmill
Unit/ Formation: Royal Marines
Period/ Conflict: World War I
Date/s: 28th to 29th April 1917
The battle of Gavrelle saw the highest number of Royal Marine causalities in a single day in the history of the corps, with 846 recorded as killed, missing or wounded.
27 April 1917
B Company of the 1st Battalion Royal Marine Light Infantry reconnoitered the area and found that extensive barbed wire defences in front of a major defensive position they were scheduled to attack the next day were still intact.
28 April 1917
An attack on the Oppy Gavrelle Line which was a series of German trenches north of the village. Due to uncut wire, the area to the north of Gavrelle had not been attacked on the 23rd April, this meant that the capture of the village had created a salient (a bulge) into the German lines. Two battalions of the 188th Brigade were detailed to carry out the task of advancing the line.
Coming out of Gavrelle, the 2nd Bn RMLI were to advance northwards along the Gavrelle - Fresnes Road whilst on their left the 1st Bn RMLI had to advance up as far as the German trenches in the Oppy Line and then continue eastwards until they met up with their fellow marines. Behind them the 1st Bn Honourable Artillery Company were held in reserve and the Anson Battalion were to push slightly forward out of the village to complete the new defensive position.
At 0425 hours on the 28th April the two Marine Battalions launched their very separate attacks. The 1st Battalion were to all intents and purposes never heard of again. They had advanced headlong into a strongpoint (where the German trench system crossed the railway line) and although some of them managed to fight their way through, the flanking units never made contact with them. The only form of news was from the few wounded whom managed to get back to their own lines.
29 April 1917
The 2nd Battalion RMLI managed to gain some territory including the all important windmill but by the evening the captured ground was back in the hands of the Germans with the exception of a small garrison who were hanging on for grim death at the windmill. Towards the village centre, the communal cemetery on the immediate right. This street was the defensive line held by the pioneers. A strong German counter attack was launched against Gavrelle itself and this was only repulsed by the timely arrival of the 14th Bn Worcestershire Regiment, the divisional pioneers, who had been ordered forward at short notice. The battle raged through the night and an attempt by the Anson to take the German position outside the village failed completely.
The German counter attack being held off by the steady firing of the pioneers. By the evening of the 29th April the situation at Gavrelle was pretty much the same. The village was solidly in the hands of the Naval Division and the Windmill defenders were holding out. The following day the 31st Division took over the line.
Extracts from The War Diary of the 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers for April 1917
BATTLE OF GRAVELLE – APRIL 1917
BY TIM MANSFIELD (ARTICLE BY IWM LONDON BRANCHES VOLUNTEERS)
On 23rd and 24th April 1917, during the Battle of Arras, the 63rd Royal Naval Division attacked the village of Gavrelle with the 189th and 190th Brigades of the Division. The objective of the attack was the village of Gavrelle and the high ground beyond. The assault was largely successful, but when on the night of 24/25th April when the assault brigades were relieved in place by 188th Brigade, which included 1st and 2nd Battalions Royal Marine Light Infantry (RMLI)(1), the Division was in a pronounced salient.
To push forward into the salient from the line of the 24th April was impossible until the flanking formations moved forward, but it was hoped that something could be done about the dominating German position on the high ground northeast of Gavrelle, which included the Windmill position.
1 RMLI attacked from the 2nd Division lines on the left of the salient, but was held up in the German wire or in the German front line trench by enfilade fire from a position that had held up the attacks on the 23 April.
2 RMLI, fighting independently on the right, were initially more successful and the Gavrelle Windmill was captured by a platoon commanded by Lt Newling RMLI. They held the windmill position throughout the day against multiple counter attacks by the Germans even though the remainder of the battalion was forced back to their starting positions.
The capture, defence and holding of the Windmill was described as a “very brilliant operation”
which significantly strengthened the hold of the Division on Gavrelle. However, the strength and determination of the Germans had been underestimated and both Royal Marine Battalions paid the cost, suffering disastrous losses.
There were more than 500 casualties in 1 RMLI, including the Commanding Officer and six other officers; in 2 RMLI, 10 officers and 200 other ranks were killed and the total casualties for the battalion were nearly 600.
The casualties of both battalions represent the greatest loss of men on land in a single day by the Royal Marines throughout the Great War, (the deaths at Jutland on 31 May 1916 totalled 589 officers and men). The total casualties for the Division between 15 April and 29 April were 170 officers and 3,624 other ranks of which 40 officers and 1000 other ranks were killed.
Extracted and adapted from Article for the Royal Marines Association © RMA 2017