Tuesday 5 June 2018

We had got away so well and we had taken thousands of German prisoners. So we felt this is it. We are just getting ready now to make the final push, which was going to sweep the Germans before us…

By spring 1917, the heavy casualties of the previous year were putting the German Army under considerable strain. In March, German forces on the Western Front withdrew to a shorter defensive line that required fewer men to hold it. It was known to the Allies as the Hindenburg Line. British gunner Philip Sylvester described the reaction to this move.

We heard that the Germans had begun to retire onto the Hindenburg Line. We didn’t know how far he was going back but we were pretty elated to feel that we were going towards victory. We sensed that we were making at last real progress and were very happy to be involved in this part of the war, to fulfil the ambitions that we’d had a couple of years ago that we’d really be in it and that it shouldn’t be over by Christmas and deny us our opportunity of a fight.

As the Germans retreated across several miles of long-held ground, they destroyed all they could – as Edmund Williams of the King’s Liverpool Regiment discovered.

The Germans had departed and of course they’d booby-trapped everything. You were not to touch a latrine, a German latrine, you were warned not to do it; not to pick up any objects in trenches or dugouts ’til they’d been properly defused or whatever, because he left explosive pens. Somebody had found out he’d booby-trapped a German officer’s latrine. The Germans were experts at booby-trapping, this was the German cunning and the German terror. After they had departed, they’d cut down… they’d razed cottages; they’d razed everything; they’d cut down the trees. They even cut down the gooseberry bushes in the cottage gardens: they were there lying dead when we went down in March.

The British and French had been planning a spring offensive targeting much of the ground that had now just been given up by the Germans. But, after some adjustment, the Allied attack went ahead as planned. Spearheaded by French general, Robert Nivelle, it was to begin with a British attack near Arras in early April. The Allies made solid preparations – including subjecting the German defences to a lengthy bombardment. Kenneth Page served with the Royal Field Artillery.

In the middle of March we went into action at the Rue d’Achicourt and our division – the Third Division – took over the front immediately south of the Arras-Cambrai road. There we had a week’s – at least a week’s – artillery preparation before the attack. The majority of the 4.5 howitzers was gas shelling. On the actual night before the attack, on 9 April, we fired more than 500 rounds per gun of gas shell at German batteries and we were by no means the only battery who were doing this. There is no doubt whatever that a lot of the early success on that first day at Arras was due to the fact that we had really got the German artillery right down.

Battle of Vimy Ridge. British cavalry riding through Arras, 11th April 1917.
Battle of Vimy Ridge. British cavalry riding through Arras, 11 April 1917. © IWM (Q 2825)

The assaulting troops were well-prepared for the coming battle. Charles Ward was a private in the Middlesex Regiment.

We were told everything that they could tell us about the German trenches and our own trenches and that – we were told. At night time we went, carried stuff up to the front line: bombs and ammunition; ladders for jumping out of when you advanced. Everything that was possible to be needed in the front line ready for the attack.

This careful planning and preparation yielded considerable success on the opening day, the 9th of April. Alfred Razzell of the Royal Fusiliers was one of the British troops who went into battle at Arras that day.

On Easter Monday we came out in the dark, early morning – very early morning – and we went from the town and we went out and we went straight into the attack. After we’d passed the front line, I suppose we’d got about 100 yards in front and the barrage had opened – beautiful timing, it opened just as we got to the front line. That was the creeping barrage we were to advance… they lifted their sights 100 yards every 4 minutes. The thing we had to do was not walk into our own barrage. Just before the barrage opened, a lone machine gun opened, but just then the barrage opened and of course you couldn’t hear any machine gun then. We went on and we got to our objective with very few casualties, we jumped into the trenches right on top of the Germans but we had to go on, leave them for the mopping up.

The weather was appalling, but it didn’t affect NCO Jim Davies.

We went up to Arras and it was bank holiday – April 9 1917 – it was bank holiday. We did a show at Arras and it snowed. It was pretty good, we didn’t have many casualties. I don’t remember what my objective was, I had a platoon objective which was easy. It was a walkover. My platoon had quite an easy time of it, didn’t have many casualties. That was April 9th.

British private Victor Polhill went into action for the first time at Arras.

It was Easter time – Easter Friday and Easter Saturday – they were terrible days of fighting and that sort of thing. And I thought what a funny time to start an offensive, Easter time, you know, it seemed all wrong to me. Then we were involved, we were marched up to take over from the Middlesex Regiment who’d been knocked about pretty well. And that was when we first saw our first Tommies dead. They were propped up on the side of a little hammock and they’d obviously taken shelter there and then they must’ve been shot from the back or somewhere. They were covered with snow. We said ‘Oh dear,’ you know, ‘We might be like that one day.’ It gave us a bit of a shiver to see them.

Impressive gains were made on 9 April – several miles in some areas – and as a result the Allied soldiers were buoyant. Bertram Neyland was a signaller with the Royal Engineers.

During the time at Arras we mingled with infantry people in the streets of Arras, the ruined streets of Arras. And we met them at estaminets and so forth. And there was an air of confidence. We had got away so well and we had taken thousands of German prisoners. So in Arras – when we went back then, we felt this is it. We are just getting ready now to make the final push, which was going to sweep the Germans before us. So there was this great optimistic air.

Battle of the Scarpe. German prisoners carrying one of their wounded at Arras, April 1917.
German prisoners carrying one of their wounded; Arras, April 1917. © IWM (Q 1997)

A major success on the opening day was the attack launched by the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge. A combination of new tactics was used to great effect – including careful rehearsal of the assault and tunnels to bring the troops forward. British signaller William Muir described these underground passageways.

The Canadians held the ridge, all this side of the ridge and the Germans were on other side of the ridge but to reach the Canadians we had to use the tunnels through the ridge. They were works of art; they were well-made tunnels, made by pitmen and that sort of thing. And there was a waggon line into them, a railway line. And we signallers had to go down with an officer and went through the tunnels for miles upon miles and landed at the other side. The tunnels were covered with people, hundreds and hundreds sitting with their backs to the wall. Sitting with their backs and their rifles all held there, ready to come out.

The Canadian assault was preceded by a devastating, week-long barrage on the German positions. Tom Bromley of the Army Service Corps was stationed nearby in Arras and clearly recalled its impact.

Whilst I was in Arras itself at that time the noise, the sound of the bombardment was terrific. In fact the intensity – to me – the intensity of the bombardment was greater than anything I’d heard on the Somme; that was my impression of it. It was terrific! The ground was shaking with all this, it was terrible. Of course the Germans they hadn’t a chance there because the operation had been well planned and well carried out and the objectives were achieved.

The four Canadian divisions fought together for the first time at Vimy. It became a defining moment in Canada’s history. George Hancox served with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and went over the top on 9 April.

As we moved forward we had to thread our way amongst the shell-holes; the ridge was a mass of shell-holes from the heavy preliminary bombardment. The German trenches were almost obliterated. The first objective was the German mainline trench, which was taken quite easily. From then on we moved into a position just over the crest of the ridge and when we reached the top of the ridge a remarkable panorama unfolded itself. We could see all the red brick mining villages around Lens and, in the immediate foreground, the villages of Vimy and Petit Vimy. There was also the elaborate German concrete gun positions which were ranged on either side of the Lens-Arras road which ran through there. The Germans held on to some trenches at the bottom of the ridge and they caused quite a few casualties from rifle fire, from snipers. There was also…they also managed to hold on for some time to a position on our left called The Pimple and they also caused quite a lot of trouble from there.

Despite a high number of casualties, the assault on Vimy Ridge was a stunning success. Within a matter of days it had been captured from the Germans. Canadian NCO Michael O’Leary remembered reaching the German dugouts on the first day of the battle.

The weather was heavy with rain and a real snowstorm at times. Late that afternoon, the Canadian troops had reached the crest of the ridge, went on down the other side and captured lots of German artillery guns and prisoners. Now, the Germans had dug a long tunnel under Vimy Ridge with four outlets of stairways by which the soldiers could come and go into their trenches above ground. It had all modern conveniences: electric lights; ventilation and a large bathroom for the soldiers. There were three tiers of beds on each side of the tunnel and plenty of space to walk and have tables in the middle. When our gun-crew went over the top that morning, our objective was to control any movement of troops trying to come up that first opening or stairway from the tunnel below. When we arrived there we found the entrance had been partially blown in by shell-fire from our own artillery. We could see a light at the bottom of the stairway and we shouted, ‘Kommen aus!’ But no answer.

The Battle of Arras was planned in conjunction with a large French assault in the Aisne area further south to start a week later – known as the Nivelle Offensive. But the breakthrough Nivelle had promised did not materialise, and the French suffered huge losses. Feeling they were being ordered into futile attacks again and again, demoralised French soldiers began to voice their discontent. Georges Pilliet witnessed such unrest during attacks on German positions near the Chemin-des-Dames.

We were taken again on the plateau for a second attack – which was a failure as well as the first – and then for a rest and we were told we had to go for a third attack. Of course the men were not very satisfied to have to go for a third time, they imagined and they thought that it was for others to take the part of this heavy duty. The officers urged them to go to bed and have a rest, but they didn’t want to, they wanted to argue. There was a lot of arguing but it never went any further and at about midnight or one o’clock in the morning they went to bed and all was quiet. And the next morning everybody went into the attack.

In some parts of the French line, the indiscipline turned into full-blown mutiny. French officer Pierre Gautier was ordered to suppress mutinying troops at Romigny in May 1917.

My men told me we’ll follow you anywhere but we shall not go against French troops with bayonets on. Looking at the crowd who was coming towards us we could see the Champagne bottles had been emptied but they were unarmed – they had no guns, nothing. So I ordered the bayonets to be put back in the sheaths. And they got to us: they were shouting and one of them had a frying pan and was hitting it as hard as possible with a poker. He told me, ‘Come on with us, we are fed up.’ So I told him he may do whatever he likes but we weren’t of that opinion.

As the mutinies began to affect the French Army, other Allied troops had to keep the Germans occupied. British soldiers were engaged in a series of smaller attacks which did not match the initial success around Arras. Harold Bashford was ordered to take part in one such operation at Oppy Wood.

We’d now been in France several months and not taken part in an attack, never been ‘over the top’. Then we learnt that we were to make an attack on Oppy Wood. Having heard that previous attacks had been unsuccessful, it sounded rather ominous. Previous to the attack we were moved up to a forward position and joined by a draft just arrived from England who would be taking over our trench when we went into the attack. It was obvious the Germans were aware that an attack was imminent and they subjected our position to a heavy bombardment. How fortunate we had been not being thrown in at the deep end. These newcomers, they couldn’t have arrived at a worse time and they just went berserk. A case of mass shell shock. It was one of the most distressing scenes I’ve ever witnessed. You know they just… haywire. The whole lot. They just went haywire.

The casualties mounted as the Germans recovered from the initial assault. On 19 April, W Rowse of the Lincolnshire Regiment took part in an attack on the German lines.

We passed through the first line, that was the German front line of trenches, and our front line were holding them, or what was left of them. We passed through them and we went up and gradually progressed towards the German support lines. But we didn’t… we couldn’t get there: they were heavily manned and we were up close to the German artillery and they were firing more or less point blank at us. Things got very, very hot. And we had to hold our position in shell-holes in front of the line of trenches which it was intended that we should take and we had to stay there and wait until dark.

The Allied attacks around Arras continued into May, as they tried to achieve the original objectives of the first attack. On the 3rd of May, in a particularly brutal encounter, British and Australian troops attempted to capture German-held Bullecourt. Lewis gunner A Wilson remembered the large number of casualties that day.

At four o’clock in the morning, the attack started at four o’clock in the morning, we all had to go over, of course. And I had a Lewis gun – and that was quite a work of art to carry a Lewis gun over conditions like that – but I had my Lewis gun, and I was right opposite a big gap in the wire and I got through without much trouble and I got installed, and I got my machine gun down inside one of the trenches. But afterwards there was such a congestion on that gap and there was such a slaughter went on, because the Germans they sprung up all over the place with machine guns. And I believe that the historians will know the amount of men that we lost that day, but my battalion there was only five of us left.

On the same day, an attack was launched at Chérisy. It was taken from the Germans – but lost again that night. British officer Alfred Irwin was frustrated that the initial gains made by his regiment weren’t consolidated.

This ought to have been a very successful attack. It was made on a very wide front and we were one of the assaulting battalions to the north of Chérisy. We reached our objective but the troops on either side did not. For a whole morning we were out in front with nobody near us or nobody coming near us at all. Just turning our machine guns onto parties of Boche whenever we saw them. But we had no instructions to go further and it would have been useless to go further: we were already too far. So from our point of view it was a very great success, the Battle of Chérisy, but then the whole army started coming back and somebody said the order was given, I don’t know I didn’t hear it. But all our troops came back from, oh, I should think half a mile or more in front of anybody else as far as I could judge. So it was a great pity; we got our objective and had to come back out of it again.

The Arras Offensive drew to a close in mid-May. Although Allied troops had made significant advances in some areas, the promised breakthrough hadn’t happened. Arras demonstrated that Allied tactical understanding was improving – but at the price of high casualties. This was one aspect of the battle that clearly remained in the memory of Royal Fusilier, Leonard Gordon-Davies.

We had to occupy a place called Oppy Wood, where there was a frontal attack took place, with desperate fighting and a fixed-bayonet charge. I’ve never experienced anything so ghastly and I hope that I shall eventually forget it. The bodies about the place and the filth of the place and the smells… It’s quite extraordinary. When one lives for years on this sort of horror condition with parts of bodies being about all over the place and groans from the dying and dead bodies and how casual one gets about it. One goes on doing what you’re supposed to do and you do not know it and certainly perhaps not caring very much. You become careless about these very serious things.

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

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