The Battle of Arras (April 1917)


The Battle of Arras took place in the spring of 1917 and was one of the principal offensives undertaken by the British Army on the Western Front, similar in scale to the Battle of the Somme and the Third Battle of Ypres.

Under Allied control but situated just a few kilometres from German lines for the whole of the war, the town of Arras formed a salient in the front and as such, from October 1914, was a regular target for German artillery. The medieval town hall and its belfry were completely destroyed and much of the centre was severely damaged.

By February 1916, with very little of its civilian population remaining, Arras had become a British town and conducted its affairs in both French and English.

The Allies' plans for 1917

After the Chantilly Conference of 16 November 1916, where the military leaders decided Allied strategy for the following year, General Nivelle, newly promoted to the post of commander-in-chief of the French Army, and his British counterpart, General Haig, drew up plans for a combined action to breach the German line.

The town of Arras, situated in the British zone, was picked to be the theatre of a diversionary offensive. This operation, combined with a large-scale attack in the French sector, was to draw in German reserve troops several days before the start of the French assault and thus facilitate the much hoped for breakthrough at Chemin des Dames Ridge in Champagne.

Once the British began to prepare their plan of attack, which was to begin in early April 1917, the main worry for the high command was how to concentrate a large number of troops near to the front without arousing the suspicions of the enemy. Anxious to avoid a repeat of the slaughter inflicted on the Allied troops in the battles of Verdun and the Somme the previous year, the British general staff elaborated an innovative plan whereby New Zealand engineers would create a vast underground network of tunnels through which the troops could pass to come up directly in front of the German front line without having to face the deadly machine gun fire of no man's land.

Preparing the spring offensive

By the end of March the tunnelling works, the largest ever undertaken by the British Army, were complete. On the eve of the Battle of Arras the caves and quarries under the town contained more than 24,000 soldiers, as much as the civilian population of the town prior to the war. The network of tunnels was divided into two main sections. The first, situated under the Cambrai Road, was the domain of the Scots of the 9th infantry division, who baptized their galleries with familiar names such as Carlisle and Glasgow, and the English of the 35th division, who likewise named galleries after their home towns of Manchester, Liverpool and Chester. The network of tunnels under the Ronville district of the town was, from 12 February 1917, the exclusive territory of the New Zealanders who named their galleries after home towns such as Wellington. The total length of the tunnels amounted to nineteen kilometres.

The soldiers had to spend prolonged periods in the tunnels and so the latter were equipped with kitchens, water supplies from the mains or wells, and electric lighting throughout. Latrines for officers and highly-ranked persons were installed in every room. Although not quite coming up to the standards usually required by the strict health policies of the British Army for their temporary camps, the tunnels under Arras did provide a high degree of safety compared to the trenches at a comparable distance from the front and this was of some comfort to the men as they waited to go into battle.

Harbouring no illusions about the battle to come the British Army also installed a hospital capable of treating 700 wounded in a quarry known as "Thompson's Cave", named after its architect, under the crossroads between rue du Temple and rue de Saint-Quentin. It was fitted out like a normal hospital with waiting rooms for the wounded, an operating theatre, a rest area for the stretcher-bearers and the reserves, and a mortuary. It was even equipped with signposts to ensure users could find their way around and had electric lighting throughout.

The tunnels would be the key feature of the offensive however the battle plan also called for an exceptionally intensive preliminary bombardment. Targets were methodically identified through aerial reconnaissance missions and raids into enemy territory which had been carried out since late 1916. The larger ground raids deployed several hundred men to test the resilience of the enemy and gather as much information as possible on the structure of the German defences. The missions allowed for the construction of large models so that the officers, including the company leaders, could familiarize themselves with the terrain they were expected to conquer.

New weapons were also to be deployed such as tanks, which were being used for only the second time after their unconvincing trial on the Somme, and a recent innovation called the Livens Projector. Named after its inventor Captain F.H. Livens of the Royal Engineers, the projector was a steel tube, similar to a mortar, which could fire cylinders great distances so poison gas could be delivered to the enemy without fear of the wind blowing it back.

On 6 April troop morale was given a major boost when the announcement was made that the United States was entering the war.

Z Day

On Monday 9 April 1917 at 5.30 a.m., after an intensive bombardment lasting four days to preclude any retaliation from the enemy, the British 1st Army comprising four Canadian divisions under the command of General Henry Horne set out to conquer Vimy Ridge. Wresting control of this height from the Germans would allow the 3rd Army under General Edmund Allenby to advance on Douai, an important road and rail junction, and liberate the coal-mining region. Allenby was also expected to take Monchy-le-Preux, a village lying a few kilometres to the east of Arras which gave a commanding view over the Scarpe Valley and, because of this, could hinder the second arm of the offensive directed at Cambrai, another vital base for the German military apparatus. The 5th Army under General Hubert Gough, placed on the southern wing of the offensive, was given the task of taking the village of Bullecourt, a powerful strategic base of operations for the Germans and part of the Hindenburg Line.

The first two days of the Battle of Arras were a clear tactical success for the British who, advancing five kilometres along both banks of the river Scarpe, took the villages of Thélus, Farbus, Saint-Laurent-Blangy, Feuchy, Athies, Fampoux, Tilloy-les-Mofflaines and Neuville-Vitasse. The securing of Vimy Ridge enabled the British artillery to drive the enemy from the villages of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, Vimy, Willerval and Bailleul-Sire-Bertoult which, up until that time, had been very effective gun batteries. The high-lying village of Monchy-le-Preux, which had been turned into a fortress by the Germans, fell on 11 April after much bitter fighting. The next day Wancourt and Héninel also fell into Allied hands.

This rapid advance forced the Germans to fall back on to their second line of defence but the subsequent arrival of large numbers of reinforcements enabled them to mount vigorous counter-attacks, starting on 14 April, which checked the British advance. Thus, as happened with the previous Allied offensives, the breakthrough of the first day could not be exploited. From then on the Battle of Arras deteriorated into local but nevertheless bloody battles at Arleux (28-29 April), Fresnoy (3-4 May), and Rœux (13-14 May). Meanwhile the British learned of the unfolding disaster on Chemin des Dames Ridge. All hope of a decisive victory was gone.

Despite suffering many reverses, Field Marshal Haig persevered for several weeks with attacks on the German line before Arras, in a section which ran from Gavrelle through Rœux and Guémappe to Fontaine-les-Croisilles. These operations were supposed to hold back as many German soldiers as possible in an effort to relieve the French and also to establish a new front which would be easier to defend.

A costly offensive

At first glance the Battle of Arras could be considered a British success: 20,000 prisoners had been taken, a large quantity of munitions had been captured and much important ground had been won, pushing the combat zone back about ten kilometres and relieving the pressure on the town of Arras which had suffered incessant German shelling since October 1914.

But these promising results were obtained at a great cost: more than 100,000 British soldiers were put out of action in the fighting at Arras between April and May 1917. Total losses for the Germans are unclear as sufficiently reliable sources are not available however it is to be presumed that they were equal to those of the Allies.

Yves Le Maner
Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France

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