Friday, 28 April 2017

The Battle of Arras

To visit the magnificent Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge, looking east across the plain of industrial northern France, is to appreciate the huge significance of this position
Perhaps surprisingly, both Churchill and Buchan make the ironic point that had the politicians not resolved to remove Joffre and appoint Nivelle, the usual battering ram attritional approach launched early in 1917 might have caught the Germans on the hop. Joffre and Haig had agreed in late November 1916 that the next big push would start in February – the British from Vimy to Bapaume, and the French from the Somme to the Oise. Could it have succeeded? We shall never know, for as we have seen Joffre was removed and replaced by the white tornado of Nivelle. Instead of working with a man he had come to trust and respect, Haig now had a new opposite number, and it made life difficult for him. Although his own preference was for a decisive action in Flanders later in the year, he was committed to an attack to support Nivelle’s new plans for the Aisne – what would become known as the Third Battle of Arras. It was to commence eight days before Nivelle’s own main stroke.

In stark contrast to 1914, when the entire British Expeditionary Force amounted to two army corps, Haig was now in command of five armies on the British section of the Western Front*. Of the five, the 1st and 3rd were mainly involved at Arras. It wasn’t just the numbers that had changed. In materiel and in artillery tactics the BEF was now a formidable force, backed as it was by growing numbers of tanks and increasingly effective air support.
This battle had a clear beginning (on 8th April) and a fairly clear end some eight weeks later. It had two distinct phases. The first of these had great initial success, which continued against strong resistance until the end of April. This phase saw the most impressive co-ordinated action by the British military in the war to date. The second was a more attritional secondary action. It was less successful and suffered greater losses. It included one of the war’s most heroic and bloody actions at Bullecourt.
Arras had been like a ghost town since the ravages of 1915. Buchan likens it to Ypres, as a frontline town that was required as a funnel for all men and machinery moving to the east, between the two rivers, Scarpe and Cojeul (see map). However, it was not as devastated as Ypres, and beneath its streets a subterranean network created from drainage and quarry works allowed up to 50,000 men to assemble protected from sight or fire. It was the French who had died here in their thousands in 1914 and 1915, and in fighting for Vimy Ridge, but it was new terrain for the British, who had lost their own thousands at Loos, Neuve Chapelle and Aubers Ridge to the north in 1915, and to the south on the Somme in 1916. They faced the same resolute German opponents, although the latter were somewhat preoccupied with their own strategic withdrawals to the Hindenburg positions. In particular, the Germans needed to reach and fortify the Drocourt-Queant ‘switch’ line immediately north of the Siegfried line, known to the men as the ‘Wotan stellung’ (see map).
The Third Battle of Arras - April-June 1917
The British front line for the battle ran for twelve miles (compared with nineteen at the Somme) from Givenchy-en-Gohelle at the northern end to Croisilles in the south. Nearly 200,000 British troops (but including large numbers of Canadians and Australians) would attack, with several divisions in reserve positions. Three weeks of careful preparation preceded the attack, with bombardment, wire cutting and ‘spotting’ of German artillery positions - all carried out more effectively than at the Somme. So, when zero hour came – at 5.30am on Easter Monday, 8th April – the troops were able, at last, to advance almost with ease behind a protective barrage of artillery. They took all of their first positions within an hour, and by 9am the Canadian corps had swarmed on to the plateau of Vimy Ridge. By the evening the attackers had carried a number of formidable German defensive positions, and breached their third lines on a front of 2.5 miles. They held the villages of Bailleul-sur-Bertholte, Athies and Feuchy. The next two days brought further advances against the German rearguard actions, until another familiar enemy – bad weather – intervened to take the impetus out of their attack. After the enforced regrouping and consolidations, major actions soon returned. Firstly, the main French assault on the Aisne began on the 16th, prompting supporting and distracting activity at the British southern areas. Then on 23rd April a new attack from the centre of the front, from Gavrelle to Guémappe, was launched. In four days the infantry pushed right up against the Wotan line, which had not yet been completed.
By this stage, the failure of Nivelle’s great plan to the south was impacting on this battle. As we will see in the next post, the French were nowhere near their targets at the lower end of the Siegfried line. An Allied conference in Paris on 4-5th May signalled the end of Nivelle’s influence,  and agreement for Haig to pursue his preferred option of a major attack through Flanders. Haig’s satisfaction at this outcome would have been tempered by the difficult position in which he now found himself. Firstly, he was in a major battle, and must hold what he had, while simultaneously switching resources northwards towards Ypres. Secondly, he had to keep applying pressure to the Drocourt-Quéant switch line (Wotan) in order to provide some relief to the French to the south, in danger of collapsing. This second, more attritional, phase of the Battle of Arras was launched along most of the front on 3rd of May. It soon resolved itself into three costly actions at points of high importance to the Germans. These were: Fresnoy (held by the Canadians); Roeux, and Bullecourt (held, just, by the Australians), and in each place fierce fighting brought heavy casualties to both sides. The most severe fighting raged for four weeks around Bullecourt, with ground repeatedly taken, lost and re-taken.  The Germans brought their crack storm-trooper tactics into play against the dogged and formidable Australians. The battle came to a standstill in early June, with Bullecourt in firm control of the Australians.
Now the centre of gravity changed. The Germans became aware of Haig’s moves towards Armentières and Ypres, and responded accordingly. To the south, the French army was on the verge of mutiny, and placed into purely defensive mode. The third battle of Arras was over.

The battle was a win for the British in terms of their performance; their tactics; the numbers of German prisoners and heavy guns captured, and their fracture - in two places - of the new ‘impassable’ Hindenburg line. However, (again) it had not produced the strategic breakthrough towards Lens and Douai that Joffre and Haig hoped for in their November plans. Neither (through no fault of Haig or his men) had it enabled Nivelle’s own breakthrough. British and Empire casualties exceeded 150,000 (German losses were similar). If this figure was mercifully lower than the horrific numbers of the Somme campaign, it is sobering to realise, nevertheless, that this was equivalent to losing the entire BEF of August 1914.

* They were: the 1st (led by General Horne); the 2nd (Plumer);  3rd (Allenby); 4th (Rawlinson), and 5th (Gough)

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