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.
The Western Front at its peak was over 450 miles long, stretching from the Belgian coast at Nieuport to the Swiss border near the village of Pfetterhouse. The terrain along that front varied widely from the flat plains of Flanders to the rolling downland of the Somme, through forests like the Argonne and into mountains when it reached the Vosges.
On the Belgian end of the front, at Nieuport, the trench system ran right up to the beach, with that end of the Western Front literally petering out in the sand. For most of the war it was held by the Belgian Army but in 1917 British troops took over the sector in the lead-up to what was eventually an abandoned plan to make seaborne landings further up the coast. However, in July 1917 the Germans went on the offensive here and attacked the forward positions held by British units around the town of Nieuport.
This photograph, from a German source, dates from that period and shows an overrun British trench following the fighting in July 1917. The bunker was in the extreme northern positions on the Western Front and directly overlooked the beach and indeed the sea; both of which are visible in the background on this image. It is probably not how most people think the Western Front came to an end on this Northern end of the battlefield!
This image comes from the same collection as the trench scene featured yesterday and shows three British officers of the 11th Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment (Hull Tradesmen) in their dugout at Hébuterne in December 1916. This system of trenches had been taken over from the French in the summer of 1915 and despite attacks here during the Battle of the Somme, the line had remained unchanged.
Very few images exist taken inside WW1 British dugouts and this one shows it is a basic construction with solid timber supports. The occupants have salvaged a table from a nearby house and all are dressed for the cold; the officer on the right is wearing a goat or sheep-skin jacket, common in the winter but prone to being a breeding ground for lice. That particular officer is Second Lieutenant John ‘Jack’ Harrison. Harrison was a prominent local Hull rugby player; he had joined the Hull Pals in 1914 and served with them in Egypt and on the Somme. He would later be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his bravery in the fighting at Oppy Wood on 3rd May 1917.
This image comes from a small collection relating to the 11th Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment, the second Pals battalion raised in Hull in 1914 and otherwise known as the Hull Tradesmen’s battalion as it drew many of it’s original recruits from those who worked in various trades across Hull. As part of the 31st Division the battalion had moved from England to Egypt in December 1915, where it occupied defences along the Suez Canal which was then threatened by the Turkish Army. In March 1916 the battalion moved to the Western Front where it spent the next year on the Somme, aside from a short period in Northern France, taking part in the fighting for Serre in November 1916.
This photograph was taken in December 1916 after the first major snowfall on the Somme had melted, flooding the trenches. This particular trench was close to the village of Hébuterne and on the left of the image flexible tubing is visible which was part of a British trench pump system. The problem with alleviating this flooding is evident here. The soldier from the 11th East Yorks has a woollen cap comforter on under his steel helmet, a common practice during the winter months on the Western Front.
Working in the snowy conditions of winter on the Western Front was a hard task for all soldiers. While the work kept you warm, the frozen conditions on the battlefield often made such work near impossible in the first place.
This French image from La Guerre Documentee shows a group of French Poilus working on their trenches in a wooded area with picks; so hard is the ground it seems that shovels are not enough. There has been a heavy snow fall and one man keeps watch over the far parapet, but this is likely to be a reserve position away from direct observation otherwise the soldiers would not risk getting up in the open like that. The soldiers are all wearing their great coats, have gloves and scarves, and the image gives us a good insight into how difficult life was on the Western Front during the winter months.
This contemporary illustration from La Guerre Documentee shows a typical French Poilu in a front line trench in winter garb. The French soldier was issued with a substantial greatcoat worn over his tunic which did offer some protection from the cold, but as this illustration demonstrates they also had to result to make do and he has a pair of woollen gloves and a scarf to help make long periods in the front line during the winter at least bearable. The artist, Guy Arnoux, was a well known French illustrator of the period whose work appeared in many magazines and children’s books
The Argonne Forest lies between the battlefields of the Champagne east of Reims and the ground at Verdun. The fighting here in 1914 established the lines around the forested area of the Argonne, where it would remain for much of the rest of the war. Still a forested area, it contains to this day much evidence of the war with trench lines still visible in many places.
This German image dates from the winter of 1915/16 and shows a well constructed trench in the Argonne Forest, where a lone German officer looks out across the snow. The lack of damage and the fact that he has no problem about popping his head above the parapet would indicate this was a reserve trench line, some distance back from the actual battlefield. Much of these reserve lines in the Argonne were finally taken by American troops in the final battles of the autumn of 1918.