Seven Days' Fighting at Arras

[The New York Times/Current History, May 1917]

The well-kept secret of where the British proposed to make a new thrust in the Spring was suddenly disclosed on the morning of Easter Monday, April 9. It was an offensive along a front of forty-five miles, having for its immediate objective Lens at one end and St. Quentin at the other. This is the struggle which has become known as the battle of Arras, although at the end of seven days' fighting the scene has shifted considerably to the east of the city which has given its name to the battle. The Hindenburg line, on which the Germans were relying when they fell back from the Somme, was pierced within a week, leaving them in the awkward position of having to form a new defensive line without adequate preparation. The bombardment of the German positions during the four days preceding the opening of the offensive on April 9 was as intense and as sustained as the artillery fire before and during the other great battles on the western front. Eyewitnesses even declare that it has been more concentrated and destructive than at the Somme and Verdun. The British guns were very numerous, of great calibre, and supplied with such vast quantities of ammunition that their "curtains of fire" were terrible realties.

Fierce Aerial Fighting

The battle of Arras has eclipsed all previous battles in aerial operations. During the four days before the battle began British airplanes literally swarmed in the sky, and the fighting in the air was on far the largest scale up to date. The German aviators were outnumbered many times over. Throughout the battle the British airplanes were constantly active despite the most unfavorable weather conditions, with snow, sleet, bitterly cold wind, and rain. The whole week's fighting was carried out, not in pleasant April sunshine, but in wintry weather which added its own gloom to the horrors of war.

The principal object of the aviators was to photograph the enemy's new positions, and, incidentally, to bombard strategic points behind the German front. Other squadrons, protecting those whose business was reconnoitring and observation, also went up for fighting purposes only. Duels, skirmishes, and engagements of all kinds took place between the British and German airplanes for the mastery of the air. In the numerous fights that ensued, the British, according to their own reports, had twenty-eight machines missing, most of them shot down behind the enemy's lines. According to the German reports, the number of British airplanes destroyed was forty-four. On the other hand, the Germans lost fifteen airplanes and ten balloons, while the British drove to the ground thirty-one additional machines, which, according to Sir Douglas Haig's report on April 7, "must have been totally destroyed." That the British Flying Corps achieved its purpose was indicated by the statement that large tracts of the enemy's country for many miles in the rear had been photographed, over 1,700 photographs having been taken behind the lines.

The bombarding squadrons also were successful. Seventeen raids were carried out, and over eight tons of bombs were dropped on enemy aerodromes, ammunition depots, and railroads. The air fighting was wholly over enemy territory, and in one instance the British airmen penetrated fifty miles behind the German lines. The British established beyond question their supremacy in the air by reason of the much larger number of machines at their disposal and the greater dash and resourcefulness of their aviators.

Beginning of British Offensive

The British opened the battle on April 9 with a terrific offensive on a twelve-mile front north and south of Arras, penetrating the German positions to a depth of from two to three miles and capturing many important fortified points, including the famous Vimy Ridge, where the Canadians led the attack. In this first onset nearly 6,000 prisoners, mostly Bavarians, Württembergers, and Hamburgers, were taken, as well as large quantities of artillery and war material. The line of advance extended from Givenchy-en-Gohelle, southwest of Lens, to Henin-sur-Cojeul, (the village of Henin on the Cojeul River,) southeast of Arras. All the fighting was against dominating positions on high ground, some of which had been held by the Germans for two years and were protected by wide belts of barbed wire.

The capture of Vimy Ridge was particularly important, because it protects the French coal fields lying to the eastward. Along the greater part of the front the advance of the British infantry was strenuously opposed. Near Arras the Germans made a determined stand. The famous redoubt known as the Harp was captured with virtually the whole German battalion defending it. Several "tanks" figured in this operation. Along the railroad running through the valley of the Scarpe the British made good progress, while on the Lens branch of the line they captured Maison Blanche Wood.

The first day of the battle ended with the British having accomplished their most successful day's work on the western front since the beginning of the war. The attack had hit the hinge of the recent German retreat from Arras to the Aisne and upset the plans of the German General Staff, who had expected the offensive to be renewed in the valley of the Somme. The capture of Vimy shifted the pivot of the whole German retreat and placed the enemy in a position of danger.

The second day of the battle, April 10, saw the British, despite heavy snowstorms and bitterly cold weather, continuing their advance along the greater part of the twelve-mile front from Givenchy to Henin, capturing many more prisoners and guns, with quantities of all kinds of war material. The infantry pushed forward as far as the outskirts of Monchy-le-Preux, five miles east of Arras, capturing a height protecting Monchy and threatening the entire German line south of the Arras-Cambrai road. Monchy was for a while the central point of interest in the whole world war.

Further north the British captured defenses on both sides of the Scarpe River. They also took the remaining positions on the northern end of Vimy Ridge, thus clearing it entirely of the enemy, and progressed in the direction of Cambrai and St. Quentin. The northern pivot of the Hindenburg line was now turned. The artillery support for the British infantry attacks was so thorough that casualties were proportionately light. The British artillery also made a record for long-range firing. Aided by information from the aviators, the gunners were able to concentrate their fire on German reinforcements ten miles away and so prevent them from helping to counterattack.

The prisoners, who numbered 11,000 at the end of the second day, were penned up behind barbed wire fences till they could be sent rearward. British troops waiting their turn to go up to the front congregated outside the fences and chatted amicably with those Germans who could speak English, and gave them chocolate and cigarettes. One observer says that all animosity between the soldiers disappeared the moment they were no longer trying to kill one another.

Unusually cold weather for the time of year, with a heavy fall of snow, greatly impeded operations on the third day, April 11. Nevertheless, the British kept on pushing forward and captured the village and heights of Monchy-le-Preux and the neighboring hamlet of La Bergère. Cavalry and a "tank" contributed to the capture of Monchy, one of the key positions between the Scarpe and Sensee Rivers, which the Germans had strongly organized. Fierce fighting took place in the village streets. The Germans fired from the windows and rooftops of houses, and made every effort to hold this vital position. The British made satisfactory progress at other points. They repelled two vigorous counterattacks and pressed forward down the eastern slopes of Vimy Ridge. The chief result at the end of the third day was that the British had been able to consolidate their gains and move forward their artillery.

Germans Beaten Off

On the fourth day of the battle, April 12, the British made substantial progress east of Arras, capturing the villages of Wancourt and Heninel to the southeast, some positions north of the Scarpe River, and driving the Germans from their last foothold on Vimy Ridge to the northeast. The work of straightening the new line was continued by clearing the enemy out of a number of "pockets." Monchy remained the central point of the battle. There the British attack and the German defense converged. The German troops were ordered to stop the British advance at all costs, and it was not until large numbers of British field batteries were brought into play that the Germans were definitely beaten off.

On the fifth day, April 13, a new turn was given to the battle of Arras. By a sudden sweep northward from their new positions east of the city the British drove the Germans back on a twelve-mile front, capturing six villages and seriously threatening the important coal-mining centre of Lens. This new line of advance extended from the Scarpe River to Loos, north of Lens. The town of Vimy was captured, as well as Ancre, which, with Lieven, protects Lens from the southwest. The depth of the advance was about a mile. Sir Douglas Haig's bulletin at the end of the day's fighting reported that the number of guns captured during the five days' operations had reached 166, and the aggregate prisoners 13,000. But the most significant statement by the British Commander in Chief was that the British were "astride" the Hindenburg line, which the Germans had believed impregnable.

The Germans were now forced to fall back in the direction of an emergency auxiliary line from Drocourt to Queant, endeavoring at the same time to complete the new defensive positions on which they were compelled to rely once the Hindenburg line failed them. On April 13 the British also attacked on a wide front west of Le Catelet, from Metz-en-Couture, south of the Bapaume-Cambrai railroad, to north of Hargicourt, a distance of about nine miles.

On the French section of the front during the first five days of the battle there was no attempt at an offensive, the chief business of the French being to keep the Germans occupied while the British were making their great thrust at the Hindenburg line between Lens and St. Quentin. The French maintained a constant artillery fire between the Somme and the Aisne until the sixth day of the British drive. Then they launched a fierce offensive south of St. Quentin and, despite the desperate resistance by the Germans, succeeded in carrying several lines of trenches between the Somme and the railroad running from St. Quentin to the Oise. This was followed by a vigorous attack in co-operation with the British, who were advancing on the city from the northwest.

The battle of Arras had by the sixth day, April 14, really become the battle of Lens and St. Quentin. The Germans had now brought up large reinforcements to prevent the rolling up of the Hindenburg line, but the British pushed forward unchecked toward both Lens and St. Quentin. In the morning the town of Lievin, southwest of and adjoining Lens, was captured, with considerable quantities of war material. In the afternoon the British seized Cité St. Pierre, northwest of Lens, and advanced along the whole front from the Scarpe River to the south of Loos, and reached points two to three miles east of Vimy Ridge. South of the Scarpe attacks and counterattacks alternated all day. The British made further progress on a wide front north and south of the Bapaume-Cambrai road. At the southern end of the front the British fought their way forward south and east to within a few hundred yards of St. Quentin and carried the village of Fayet at the point of the bayonet. The French to the south of St. Quentin bombarded the German positions in front of the city and between the city and the Oise. At the end of the day's fighting the fall of both Lens and St. Quentin was imminent.

The battle raged with undiminished fury throughout the night and all next day, April 15, when between 4 and 5 in the morning the first British troops entered Lens. The occupation of the district around Lens marked the recovery for France of the country's most valuable coal fields. At the other end of the forty-five-mile line the British had practically won their way into the suburbs of St. Quentin, with the Germans making a stubborn last stand in the city itself.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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