Great War: The Battle of Arras – the Overlooked Campaign

By Jim Smithson

Having spent many years visiting the Great War battlefields and being fascinated by the subject, I was always puzzled by the apparent lack of material on the Battle of Arras in April and May 1917.  Whilst still working in Germany with British Forces’ schools, I began some research into the battles (the campaign is split into several separate smaller elements) around that city. When the opportunity arose to take early retirement from my post as Deputy Headteacher, I decided the time was ripe for an additional work on the subject and ‘A Taste of Success’ was born.

It soon became apparent that as well as a dearth of material on the subject, much of the early work on the period had faults and had perpetuated myths that carried down into the present century. I also began to perceive a reason for the battles being less studied than those it was sandwiched between – namely The Somme and 3rd Ypres (Passchendaele). The general line of argument was that after a highly successful first day (including the longest advance in a single day of any unit since trench warfare had begun), mud and bad weather stopped the attack and it turned into the typical slog seen in 1916. Thus, it was not perceived as a particularly ‘interesting’ campaign to those that mattered at the time and this view has persisted.

Battle of the Scarpe. British cavalry resting alongside the Arras-Cambrai road, April 1917. [Imperial War Museum]

My research within primary material from British, Canadian and German sources gave me a detailed look at the first six days of the Battle of Arras (the period I wished to concentrate upon). Comprehensive planning for the first day (9th April 1917) led to many successes; the best known being the almost complete taking of Vimy Ridge by mainly Canadian forces on the first day.

Elsewhere, one British division, the 4th, successfully passed through another, the 9th, in a hitherto unknown manoeuvre – leading to that famous longest advance. That said, things began to go wrong even on that first day and the 10th of April was a fiasco; much of which was put down to not being able to get artillery and supplies forward. On closer examination, I found that this view arose because of reports that had filtered down from higher level commanders both at the time and in post war analyses, which in many ways hid the truth of what had happened. Poor weather certainly played its part but so did the ineptitude of some senior leaders and their staff in their handling of events after the first day.

I have attempted to give the book a dual role. On the one hand, it gives a background to the Battle of Arras from early French battles around the city, the political context, lessons that had been learned from the battles on the Somme and the planning and narrative of the first part of the battle itself. On the other hand, by careful and critical analysis of some of the command decisions, it tries to show that serious errors of judgement were made. Many of these errors were either not recognised at the time or simply hidden in reports of difficulties due to not being able to get artillery forward or similar logistical problems.

The Official History volume dedicated mainly to the Battle of Arras even goes as far as to put the blame on the troops and junior leaders in their inability to cope when speedy decisions were required. I feel I have thoroughly discredited this analysis in my book – demonstrating instead that those men performed admirably when given the conditions to do so. This is not a ‘lions led by donkeys’ approach, however. Problems in command are discussed in the context of the phenomenal growth of the British Army and consequently, the problems of finding suitable commanders and staff officers in the required numbers.

I hope that the publication of ‘A Taste of Success’ will lead to more interest in this pivotal battle in the development of the British Army of the Great War. Work has already begun on a comprehensive guide to the battles around Arras throughout the whole war to be published in 2018 – adding to the meagre offerings available at present for the battlefield visitor to the area.

A Taste of Success. The First Battle of the Scarpe can be ordered here.

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One Response to Great War: The Battle of Arras – the Overlooked Campaign

  1. Steve Corbett says:

    Congratulations on the publication of your book… A very worthy addition to anyone’s library of WW1 books.

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