The Battle of Arras
April 09 to May 16 1917
This was a major British offensive during the First World War. From 9th, troops from the four corners of the British Empire attacked trenches held by the army of Imperial Germany to the east of the French city of Arras. The ground and date chosen for the battle was dictated by a desire to cooperate with the French, whose forthcoming offensive, planned by their General Nivelle, was to fall on the German positions topping the Chemin-des-Dames ridge, an area of high ground north west of Rheims. Closer cooperation with the French was ruled out, as the devastation of the Somme battles in July to November 1916 had so destroyed the infrastructure behind the lines that another offensive physically linked to the right flank of the French armies was judged unlikely to succeed. However, an attack in the Arras region was not the choice of the British Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Haig, who wanted the main effort of his armies to be directed north, around the Ypres salient. He hoped to clear the Belgian coastline, increasingly important to the Germans’ submarine offensive, and capture the strategically important railhead of Roulers, whose loss to the Germans would seriously hamper their war effort on this sector of the Western Front. However, Haig’s plan was overruled by Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, who also made attempts to have Haig put under the direct control of Nivelle.
April 09 1917 Infantry leaving trenches
Following heavy losses in the fighting on the Somme, the Germans had taken the decision to shorten their lines. For the preceding nine months, Russian prisoners and support troops of the German army had been engaged in building a fearsome new defensive position, called by the British ‘The Hindenburg Line’. Beginning with local retirements, by the 18th March 1917 the German army had completed their withdrawal behind this line. This created serious complications for the British, dislocating their battle plans on the eve of the offensive. For the French the problem was even more acute, as their forthcoming attack was intended as a breakout from a salient that no longer existed. However, Nivelle decided to proceed with the attack. The British were to begin their operations a few days before those of the French, the intention being that the German reserves would be transferred north to counter their attack around Arras. With these now committed to battle, the much larger French force would punch through the German lines to the south and roll up the German army unopposed from the rear. This was to be the knockout blow on the Western Front, and Nivelle had boasted that his offensive would end the war. This was proved not to be the case.
Geographically, much of the battlefield of Arras is relatively flat. However, to the north of the city rises Vimy ridge, held by the Germans and dominating the local countryside. Capture of this ridge formed one of the major British objectives of the battle: so long as it was held by the Germans, the British lines of communication were under constant observation.
The Arras offensive has been divided into ten distinct actions, comprising battles, and flanking, subsidiary and subsequent attacks. The first two actions of the first phase, The Battle of Vimy and the simultaneous First Battle of the Scarpe, took place during the 9th –14th April. These are considered to have been a great success for the British and Imperial troops.