9 April marks 100 years since the beginning of the Battle of Arras, lasting until 16 May 1917, when British troops attacked German defences near the French city of Arras on the Western Front. With large gains along the broad front between Vimy and Bullecourt made on the first day, the conflict quickly turned to stalemate, causing nearly 160,000 British and about 125,000 German casualties.
Preparing for the Battle
Prior to opening of the battle it was planned that the concentration of troops had to be concealed from the Germans. The Royal Engineers, along with other Commonwealth Engineering Units, had been working underground from October 1916 in constructing tunnels for the troops and supplies so that they could remain unseen.
The area in and around Arras is chalky and was therefore easily excavated. Under Arras itself there was a vast network of caverns (called boves), which consisted of underground quarries, galleries and sewage tunnels. It was decided that the Sappers were to add new tunnels to this network so that troops could arrive at the battlefield in secrecy and in safety, an enormous undertaking. In just one sector alone four Tunnel Companies worked around the clock in 18-hour shifts for two months.
The end result was around 20 kilometres of tunnels, with tramways installed in some with rails for hand-drawn trollies to take ammunition to the Front Line and bring back casualties, and a light railway for larger logistical movements. Just before the assault the tunnel system had grown big enough to conceal 24,000 men, with electric lighting provided by its own small powerhouse, as well as kitchens, latrines and a medical centre with a fully equipped Royal Army Medical Corps operating theatre. Working alongside the Royal Engineers were New Zealanders, including Māori and Pacific Islanders from the New Zealand (Māori) Pioneer Battalion, and Bantams from the mining towns of Northern England.
Assault tunnels were also dug, stopping a few yards short of the German line, ready to be blown open by explosives on April 9. In addition to this, conventional mines were dug under the front lines, ready to be blown immediately before the assault, although many were never detonated for fear that they would churn up the ground too much. In the meantime, German engineers were actively conducting their own underground operations, seeking out Allied tunnels to assault and counter-mine.
The preliminary bombardment started on 20 March at Vimy ridge and the bombardment of the rest of the sector on 4 April. Limited to a front of only 24 miles the bombardment used 2,689,000 shells, over a million more than had been used on the Somme.
9 April 1917 saw the assault open directly east of Arras, with the 12th Division attacking Observation Ridge, north of the Arras to the Cambrai road, and pushing on towards Feuchy, and the second and third lines of German trenches. At the same time, elements of the 3rd Division began an assault south of the road, with the taking of Devil’s Wood, Tilloy-lès-Mofflaines and the Bois des Boeufs as their initial objectives. By the evening of 10 April, though the Germans were still in control of large sections of the trenches between Wancourt and Feuchy, particularly in the area of the heavily fortified village of Neuville-Vitasse, the battle was going well. The following day, troops from the 56th Division were able to force the Germans out of the village: the British were able to consolidate these gains and push forward towards Monchy-le-Preux, although they suffered heavy casualties in fighting near the village.
At roughly the same time, in perhaps the most carefully crafted portion of the entire offensive, the Canadian Corps launched an assault on Vimy Ridge. Advancing behind a creeping barrage and making heavy use of machine guns in the same way as artillery, the Canadians were able to advance through about 4,000 yards of German defences, and capture the crest of the ridge on the first day.
The Germans put pressure on the Canadians over the next few days, although the Canadians were able to still make gains at a cost. The night before the Canadians planned their final attack, artillery harassed German positions while Royal Engineers of the Special Brigade, employing Livens Projectors, fired more than 40 rounds of gas directly into the town of Givenchy-en-Gohelle to cause confusion. The 10th Canadian Brigade attacked once again at 5:00 am, this time supported by a significant amount of artillery and the 24th British Division of I Corps to the north. The German defensive artillery fire was too late to aid the forward troops and too light to cause the assaulting troops great difficulty, allowing the Canadian Corps to exploit wide gaps and break into the German positions and capture the ridge.
At Arras the battle opened into a second phase. Due to logistical problems there had been a halt in the sector of the battle as the artillery had churned the ground up slowing down supplies, meaning the Sappers became heavily involved in building temporary roads across the churned up battlefield.
After securing the area around Arleux at the end of April, the British determined to launch another attack east from Monchy to try to break through to reach the Wotanstellung, a major German defensive fortification. This was scheduled to coincide with the Australian attack at Bullecourt to present the Germans with a two–pronged attack and split their forces. British commanders hoped that success in this would force the Germans to retreat further to the east. However, neither attack was able to make any significant advances and the attack was called off the following day after incurring heavy casualties. Although this part of battle was a failure, the British learned important lessons about the need for close liaison between tanks, infantry, and artillery, which they would later apply in the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917.