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.
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.
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.
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 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.