2nd Battle of Arras

In December 1916 Robert Nivelle replaced Joseph Joffre as Commander-in-Chief of Allied forces on the Western Front. Nivelle immediately began to plan a major offensive on the German front-line. An essential part of what became known as the Nivelle Offensive, was an attempt to capture Vimy Ridge. As the ridge was 60 metres high, Nivelle argued that if Allied forces could control this area, they would have a commanding view of the German activities behind the front line.

On the evening of 8th April, 1917, 30,000 members of the Canadian Corps began to move to the front line. At 5.30 the next morning, 2,800 allied guns began pounding the German trenches and soon afterwards the Canadian infantry went over the top into No-Mans-Land. Supported by a creeping-barrage, the 1st Division, led by Major-General A. W. Currie, captured the Zwolfer Graben trench system within 30 minutes. After another hour had passed, the intermediate line south-east of Thelus was also under Canadian control.

Major-General L. J. Lipsett and the 3rd Division took the huge Schwaben Tunnel. However, several concrete Machine Gun Posts had survived, and these were causing heavy casualties. The Canadian 4th Division was especially badly hit. One battalion, the 87th, incurred losses of over 50% in less than a few minutes.

General Edmund Allenby and the British Third Army attacked on either side of Arras and the Scarpe and managed to advance 3km on the first day. However, progress was much slower south of the river and the Germans were able to hold the village strongpoint of Monch-le-Preux, against repeated British attacks.

In an attempt to stretch German defences, General Hubert Gough and the British Fifth Army launched an attack further south. Even though Gough used tanks in the attack, it was repulsed by the Germans at Bullecourt. The Australians, also took part in this operation and suffered its worst day's losses on the Western Front.

The Canadians was still making good progress and by 12th April they were firmly in control of Vimy Ridge. Forced to the bottom of the hill, the Germans were unable to launch a successful counterattack. That night, under the cover of darkness, the Germans withdrew from the area.

On 14th April, Sir Douglas Haig called a halt to British attacks to await news of the French Aisne Offensive. When this ended in failure, the First and Third Armies were ordered to try and move forward again. After two days heavy fighting another 2km was gained.

By the time the offensive was halted at the end of May, the British had suffered heavy losses: First Army: 46,826; Third Army: 87,226; Fifth Army: 24,608. The Canadian Corps lost a total of 11,297 men killed, missing or wounded.

Primary Sources

(1) William Beach Thomas reported the offensive at Arras in the Daily Mail (10th April, 1917)

Near Arras our troops leapt to the attack in the midst of such artillery fire as the world has never seen. It was accompanied by an onslaught of strange engines of war, while overhead, as soon as the clouds allowed, our aeroplanes, moving at 130 miles an hour, rushed to tackle any German machines they could find.

From this vantage-point, where the full panorama from Vimy to Tilloy was etched in flames, I write immediately after watching the first storming. It is too early to give more than partial news, but the famous divisions directly in front of me, both of which I had before seen throw themselves on an entrenched and buttressed enemy, went straight through to their goal.

(2) The Times (10th April 1917)

I have just returned to the telegraph base from seeing as much as the opening phase of the battle as it is possible to see of the action on a wide front. Details of the progress of the fighting after our first assault are yet lacking, but we know that we have broken the German lines everywhere and the prisoners in good numbers are already coming in.

It was like the days of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme again, and the Battle of Arras, if that is what it is to be called may prove no less disastrous to the Germans. Such a battle as has begun this morning cannot be fought without heavy casualties. We must be reconciled to that in advance. But the enemy will suffer more than we, and we shall break him here as we broke him on the Somme.