Today is the 96th Anniversary of the Battle of Arras, the first British offensive against the Hindenburg Line and something of a forgotten battle. It was very much a British and Commonwealth battle, with Canadians attacking to the North at Vimy Ridge, New Zealand tunnellers working beneath Arras and Australians on the flank at Bullecourt. Amongst the British divisions were all three Scottish formations: 9th (Scottish), 15th (Scottish) and 51st (Highland), so like Loos in 1915 it was also something of a ‘Scottish battle’ too. Arras turned into a bloody struggle, despite early success on this day in 1917 but aside from the success of the Canadians at Vimy and the terrible loss of Australians at Bullecourt – often wrongly seen as separate battles by some – it is little remembered and aside from books like my Walking Arras, Jeremy Banning & Peter Barton’s Arras 1917 and Jon Nicholl’s Cheerful Sacrifice it has rarely attracted the attention of Great War historians in print. As we move towards the WW1 centenary, hopefully that will change.
This image comes from a special collection of Canadian images from the fighting at Arras that belonged to a CEF staff officer and shows Canadian troops on the slopes of Hill 145 looking down in the Douai Plain; it certainly emphasises how important a terrain feature was to both sides.
Today is Cambrai Day: the anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 when a force of more than 400 Mark IV Tanks broke the defences of the German Hindenburg Line and finally showed what tanks were capable of. Cambrai turned from a battle of great success to failure, but it heralded a new type of warfare and changed the nature of the battlefield forever.
This photograph was taken after the conclusion of the battle in December 1917 at the railway marshalling yard at Cambrai. When the battle had turned to disaster for the British, a large number of Mark IV Tanks were captured and taken away by the Germans for analysis and eventual incorporation into their own tank force. Many of these tanks were used against the British in the German Offensives of the Spring of 1918, and against the French near Reims.
At the time of Cambrai Britain’s tank force was known as the Tank Corps which later became the Royal Tank Regiment. On this Cambrai Day we recall their unofficial motto, inspired partially by the experience in 1917 and remember Tankies of all nations.
From Mud, Through Blood to the Green Fields Beyond.
The Hindenburg Line was a system of defences built by the German Army during the winter of 1916/17. They officially called it the Siegfried Stellung (not to be confused with the Siegfriend Line) but the British believed it was called the Hindenburg Stellung – and the name Hindenburg Line adopted.
It was built as a response to the outcome of the Somme and the Germans believed that with a model system of defences with deep and wide trenches to stop tanks, thick belts of wire and bunkers, it would be impregnable. The battles of 1917 and 1918 proved otherwise as the British Army showed it was capable of dealing with
This image shows the Hindenburg Line around the village of Le Tronquoy on the Aisne; as yet untouched by shell fire. A sense of the depth of the trenches can be seen and the thick black marks are the belts of barbed wire, showing what a formidable obstacle they were. This section of the Hindenburg Line did not see serious fighting until the final stage of the war when it was breached in October 1918.
The village of Monchy le Preux was scheduled to be captured on the first day of the Battle of Arras but was not taken for several days after heavy fighting and a costly – and rare – cavalry charge. The men of the Newfoundland Regiment took over the village and defended it against a German counter-attack on 14th April 1917, it becoming one of their major battle honours and one of the reasons leading to them becoming a ‘Royal’ regiment.
This image comes from a small album of photographs taken by a British Gunner veteran who returned to the Arras battlefields where he had fought in the 1920s. It shows the Newfoundland Memorial – a Caribou – mounted on a British observation pillbox, itself built into an old house. Around the memorial the village is rising from the ashes – beyond it the as yet incomplete mairie can be seen, for example. The memorial is one of five similar Caribous placed on the key battlefields where the regiment fought in WW1; a sixth is in Newfoundland itself.
During the Great War the Germans produced a vast amount of images depicting the conflict; unlike in the British Army, German soldiers were not punished if they had cameras and every German division appears to have had a photography unit that took images which were put onto postcard as souvenirs for the soldiers. In addition, many German units published photo books while the war was still on and these give us a valuable insight into the battlefields as they were at this time.
An example of this is Die Schlacht bei Arras which was published in Munich in 1918. It contains 350 printed images of the German Army in the Arras sector. Some of the photos date from 1916 but many were taken during the 1917 operations. They show the villages in a varying state of destruction, trench life for the Germans, British prisoners, shot down aircraft and numerous other scenes.
The above image shows British prisoners taken during the fighting in May 1917 being marched to the rear. The worst day at Arras was 3rd May when there were huge casualties with many prisoners of war; it is likely these men were captured at this time. The image is taken at one of the villages in the rear area close to Douai, which was the main logistics and supply centre for the German Army at Arras.
The fighting at the village of Bullecourt to the south of Arras did not start until two days into the battle and 95 years ago today men of the 62nd (West Riding) Division and Australian troops assaulted the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt with limited success. The fighting at Bullecourt continued into May with the West Ridings and Australians losing heavily on 3rd May 1917; the deadliest day of the Battle of Arras.
This image is from a German photograph and shows British dead from the 62nd (West Riding) Division left behind in the German trenches after one of the failed attacks. These Yorkshire Territorial troops took heavy casualties in the fighting of both April and May 1917. Among those who fought at Bullecourt with the division was author Henry Williamson, who later wrote the classic Tarka The Otter.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge, part of the northern operations of the Battle of Arras, which took place 95 years ago today, was one of the defining moments for Canada in the Great War. Up against formidable objective, all four Canadian Divisions – men from every part of Canada – took the ridge in five days at the cost of just over 10,000 Canadian casualties. Together with success in the British sectors at Arras, the sort of advance experienced on 9th April 1917 had hitherto only rarely been experienced and reflected the change in approach to battle not only in the Canadian Corps but in the British Army on the Western Front as a whole.
For a post-war Canada coming to terms with the lost of more than 66,000 Canadian soldiers in the Great War the fighting at Vimy took on a symbolism hard for others to understand; many felt that it was almost as if Canada as a Nation had come together on the slopes of Vimy Ridge. The French government gave the battlefield to Canada who turned it into a memorial park which today is one of the most visited sites on the Western Front battlefields, and one of the largest areas of preserved WW1 battlefield.
Today’s photograph is an official photograph but taken from a special album of photographs published during the war as part of an exhibition of Canadian war photographs. The photographs were printed in landscape format in quite large scale direct from glass negatives, so the quality is very high. This dramatic image shows Canadian troops going into action 95 years ago today on 9th April 1917 – they are men from the 29th Battalion Canadian Infantry who were operating on the southern end of the Vimy front.
Continuing with the images from the collection of post-war stereo-cards today’s photograph shows ‘Gouzeaucourt Cemetery’.
Gouzeaucourt is a large village on the Hindenburg Line battlefields reached by the British in early 1917 and fought over in the Battle of Cambrai that year and in much of the fighting of 1918. There are a number of cemeteries in the area but a good clue here is the grave visible towards the front, where a name is clearly visible. Research shows this is the grave of L/Cpl B.S. Allen of the 2nd Lincolnshire Regiment who died here on 2nd April 1917 and is buried in what is now Gouzeaucourt New British Cemetery.
The cemeteries remained in this original state well into the mid-1920s and in some cases well into the 30s. The majority of the original crosses were burned when replaced with headstones but some families came to claim them and others did so by post; many exist as war memorials in parish churches around Great Britain.
The use of British Cavalry regiments in the Great War is something that the War Horse film recently highlighted. In 1914 the British Army still placed a heavy importance on the role of cavalry not only in an offensive role to attack an enemy, but also in a reconnaissance one. This was certainly a task cavalry was used for in the early battles of the war although occasionally there were full scale charges such as that of the 4th Dragoon Guards and 9th Lancers at Audregnies on 24th August 1914. When the war went static cavalry had less of a chance to be directly involved but entire regiments still went into battle on horseback at High Wood on the Somme in July 1916, Monchy at Arras in April 1917 and during the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, as just a few examples. In 1918 the war became more mobile and the use of cavalry in the front line became more commonplace again,with famous actions at Moreuil Wood and on the Hindenburg Line.
This image shows a soldier of the 5th Lancers during training before he departed to France in 1916. This is very much the sort of attire the regiment would have gone to war with in 1914. By the time this soldier joined the regiment on the Western Front they had been dismounted and were being used as infantry in the trenches, but like all cavalry in 1918 they returned to fight on horse back with the last British casualty of the war being a 5th Lancer killed on horseback near Mons on 11th November 1918, George Edward Ellison.
Another image from the Ron Short collection, this shows officers and men of the 2nd Battalion Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment out at rest in the village of Berles-au-Bois, between Arras and the Somme, in early 1917. At this time the battalion had moved into forward positions at Ecoust St Mein opposite Bullecourt, and used Berles as a rest billet when not in the line.
Berles-au-Bois had previously been on the front line before 1917, it being a sector taken over by Brotish troops in 1915 and well described in I.L. Read’s Of Those We Loved. In 1917 the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line suddenly placed the village behind our lines and largely out of the range of most artillery.
On the walls of the house occupied by the Queen’s are Billet Officer’s chalk marks; they would mark buildings up so that when a new unit came in they knew which buildings were theirs and how many soldiers each dwelling could hold.
Also of interest is the Strombos Horn on the wooden crate next to one of the officers: this was a very loud gas alarm and was increasingly used instead of gas rackets and gas gongs so that it could be heard above the sound of gunfire. It was powered by a compressed air cylinder that activated the klaxon noise. From 1916 onwards twenty of these were issued for every mile of front.
Unicorn Cemetery close to the village of Vendhuile is on the Hindenburg Line battlefields which saw fighting in 1917/18. It gets its name as some original burials were made by the burial officer of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division whose insignia was the head of a Unicorn. It contains the graves of nearly 600 British and Commonwealth casualties of the Great War who fell here in the last two years of the war.
This photograph shows the family of one of these casualties visiting the cemetery in the early 1920s. The cemetery has not been made permanant and a wooden signboard bears the cemetery name and map reference. The plots have already been laid out and a little fence placed round with a gate; at the time this image was taken, the decisions about how to make these cemeteries permanant were in fact still being made.
Who these early battlefield pilgrims were is sadly not noted on the photograph; it would appear perhaps to be a sister on the left and mother on the right – perhaps father took the photograph? Given the cost and difficulty in getting to these places at that time for many families like this it was a once in a lifetime visit; that this photograph was special to those in it is clear from the fact that it remains mint; well hidden and well stored for decades until I found it in a Sussex junk shop in the 1980s.
This photograph is from the same gunners photo album that yesterdays came from; the owner was an officer in the 218th Siege Battery Royal Garrison Artillery on the Hindenburg Line in 1918.
The image of ‘The Major’ who is not named, gives a good insight into the way officers dressed in the last phase of the war. The old ‘cuff-rank tunic‘ with the officer’s rank on the cuff, which had cost some many young officers their lives in 1914 and 1915 had seen a resurgence and the Major is wearing his here. He has a sandbag covered helmet to reduce the shine in bright conditions, and straps indicate a map case on one side. Nearest the camera the Major has the container tin of a French gas mask held in a leather sling, with a first field dressing attached to it. The British gas mask could not fit in this tin, so we can only speculate what might be in it – perhaps a whisky flask?!
This image comes from an album belonging to an officer who served in 218th Siege Battery Royal Garrison Artillery. The pictures are all small, which may indicate a Kodak pocket camera which seem to have been fairly common in the late war period. The officer served with the unit in the final months of fighting on the Western Front and took a number of photos of battlefield areas on the Hindenberg Line.
This image shows a German MG08 on the lip of a sunken lane somewhere near the St Quentin canal area in October 1918. This was the standard heavy machine-gun of the German Army in the Great War capable of firing 400 rounds a minute. An ammunition tin is seen on the far left and next to it nearer the gun is the condenser tin; this was connected to the gun by a leather hose and condensed the steam in the guns water-cooling jacket back into the tin where it could be used to refill the jacket for the next shoot. The positioning of the gun suggests a good field of fire beyond the lane, but it’s less than permanent position is also typical of German defences in the last phase of the war as the Germans were being defeated and thrown back, and could not rely on the sort of entrenchments they had prepared earlier in the war.
This image games from the same source as one of the first I posted here; it was taken by Lieutenant Ron Short MC of the 2nd Battalion Queen’s Regiment, who had an illicit camera with him on the Western Front in 1917.
The village of Ecoust St Mein was captured by the 7th Division in the Advance to the Hindenburg Line in the Spring of 1917. It then remained in British hands until the following March, and became a staging post for the fighting in front of Bullecourt. By war’s end it was completely destroyed; an insight into that destruction can be seen here.
The two officer’s servants – batmen – are standing at the entrance to one of the officer’s dugouts; in this case the cellar of a partially destroyed house. While they are relaxed and out of view of the Germans here, the presence of war is not far away and both men are carrying their Small Box Respirator; the latest bit of kit at the time the photo was taken in early 1917 that helped to protect the British Tommy against gas attacks. The soldier on the right is wearing a Leather Jerkin, issued in cold periods as a piece of cold weather gear and often all that soldiers had to protect themselves from the extreme temperatures in Northern France.
This photograph is from a small collection owned by Ron Short, a Great War veteran I knew and interviewed in the 1980s. Ron was from Eastbourne and served in the ranks of the Royal Sussex Regiment until he was wounded in 1916. He was then commissioned in the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment and served as a platoon commander at Arras, in Flanders and Italy; he was awarded an MC for bravery at Passchendaele in 1917.
The photograph was taken during the advance to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917. The 2nd Battalion Queen’s Regiment, with whom he served, had advanced on positions just short of the village of Bullecourt. At this point there were no British trenches to occupy; in the background men from his company are digging in and in the foreground the officers are sheltering in a fold of ground. It was cold in March 1917 and they are all wearing leather jerkins. They have all attempted to blend in with the men in their style of dress. Ron himself is in the photo, second from the left, smiling. It was taken by his batman. All of those featured in the photograph fought in the Battle of Arras in April-May 1917, including the advance to the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt itself.