The ‘Arleux Loop’ just North of the village of Gavrelle was a German defensive trench system in front of the partially completed Siegfried Line.
'Oppy Wood' by John Nash (IWM Collection)
An attack on the Northern sector of the Loop was to be carried out by the188th Brigade with 1st Battalion Royal Marine Light Infantry (1RMLI) as the first assault unit. 1RMLI were to start their attack from just north of Gavrelle on the Oppy/Gavrelle line, with their left flank in contact with 6th Brigade and their right flank astride the railway line.
On the evening of the 26th April 1917 B Company 1RMLI moved into its jumping off trenches at the Northern end of their sector and began patrolling the area. They soon discovered that despite a huge artillery barrage, the German barbed wire defences were all still intact.
Nevertheless the attack started at 0425am on 28th April 1917.
Almost immediately all communication with the battalion was lost. Eventually at At 0940am an overflying aircraft spotted a flare signal coming from the 1RMLI second objective. The Royal Flying Corps could see isolated pockets of Marines behind the Germany lines and continued to report various signal flares in the 1RMLI sector of attack.
But gradually these reports tailed off as one small group after another was overcome, either being killed or forced to surrender when their ammunition ran out. Eventually it was obvious that the attack had failed.
Later reports from the wounded stated that the only way through the wire had been to the north of the 1RMLI sector. A few Marines had managed to get through the wire and reach their objective. But they were then hit by a massive counter attack from the direction of Oppy Wood and suffered very heavy casualties. The remainder of 1RMLI were unable to get through the barbed wire and became bogged down in a fire fight in front of the German trenches.
By the next morning things were back where they had started, except that 1RMLI once again ceased to exist as a fighting unit. 1RMLI lost most of their officers and more than half of their men.
Lt Col Cartwright who had commanded 1RMLI during the terrible fighting at both Beaucourt and Miraumont was wounded in the stomach whilst climbing out of a trench to direct Lewis gun fire and later died of his wounds. His death resulted in Major Harold Ozanne being promoted to Lt Col and taking over command of 1RMLI.
The Royal Marines suffered more casualties at the Battle of Gavrelle than in any other single engagement in their history.