Three Unusual Facts About the Battle of Arras

The World War I battle proved unique

One hundred years ago, on April 9, 1917, the Battle of Arras began on the Western Front during World War I.

By 1917, World War I was a stalemate. The war that was predicted to be over quickly had dragged on for nearly three years. The British and French, entrenched against the Germans on the Western Front, continued to look for a path to victory.

When General Robert Nivelle took command of the French army in 1916, he and his British counterpart, Sir Douglas Haig, developed a plan for a breakthrough on the Aisne at the Chemin des Dames ridge.

The town of Arras, 80km to the north, was chosen as the site of a British diversionary offensive. Nivelle and Haig hoped that German reserve troops from the south would be moved to Arras at the first sign of fighting, thus thinning the German ranks and allowing the French an easy breakthrough at the Second Battle of the Aisne.

The battle of Arras was unique to World War I in many ways. Three unusual facts follow:

1. A war underground

Machine gun fire from no-man’s land cut down scores of troops approaching the front in the battles of Verdun and the Somme. Allied commanders, therefore, sought innovative ways to mass large numbers of troops outside of the knowledge of the German army. Engineers from New Zealand created a network of underground tunnels that then allowed soldiers to exit directly onto the front line.

For four months, workers dug in 18-hour shifts, 24 hours a day. By the morning of battle, 20 km of electrically-lit tunnels were complete and included light rail, galley kitchens, wells, latrines and hospitals. 24,000 soldiers lived underground the night before the battle.

2. Success of the “Creeping Barrage”

The Battle of the Somme in 1916 saw the implementation of a “creeping barrage” for the first time in World War I. Artillery cannons fired a wall of explosives and shrapnel in front of advancing soldiers to shield them from enemy machine guns. At that time, success was mixed due to an unacceptable number of friendly-fire casualties. One year on, modifications were made. The movement of troops at Arras was strictly timed, scheduled and rehearsed so that the artillery fire landed ahead of them as they advanced. Artillery officers worked on solutions to erratic and inaccurate fire caused by wear on cannon barrels. By compensating mathematically, better accuracy was obtained and fewer deaths from friendly fire were noted.

3. The Red Baron

As part of the planning for the battle of Arras the Royal Flying Corps, under the command of Richard Trenchard, flew aerial reconnaissance missions, low and slow, over German positions. The work was dangerous and became treacherous in “Bloody April” with the arrival of Baron Manfred Richthofen and his flying circus. From April 4–8, over 125 British aircraft were lost both to German air superiority and to the inexperience of new pilots brought in to replace those shot down by the Red Baron.

Like most of the battles before it, the outcome was not as anticipated. The British made important territorial gains at Arras but at the cost of over 150,000 lives. Though the battle was a British success, the Nivelle campaign at the Aisne failed, eventually leading to French mutinies and Nivelle’s ouster. World War I would continue to rage on for another year and a half.

“Good morning, good morning,” the general said,
 When we met him last week on our way to the line.
 Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
 And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
 “He’s a cheery old card,” muttered Harry to Jack
 As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
 -Sigfried Sassoon
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