9 April - 16 May 1917
First World War
In late February 1917, having suffered heavy losses in the protracted battles of the previous year, the German Army on the Western Front withdrew to the Hindenburg Line. This defensive system, reinforced with concrete bunkers and machine gun emplacements, became a focus for Allied operations throughout 1917 and into 1918.
Voices of the First World War: Arras And Vimy
Episode 27: 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, known to the Allies as the Hindenburg Line.
The events of 1916 also brought about changes for the Allies. For his part in the French victory at Verdun, General Robert Nivelle was promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the French Army. In early 1917, Nivelle presented his plan for a huge offensive that he claimed would defeat the German Army in a matter of days. Despite a lack of support from military commanders, including Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Nivelle's plan was approved.
The Nivelle Offensive called for a French attack in the Aisne region, supported by British action at Arras, Vimy Ridge and Bullecourt on the Hindenburg Line.
The British operations at Arras achieved impressive advances in the early stages but the French action ended in catastrophe. Their struggle for the Chemin des Dames Ridge resulted in heavy casualties and proved so damaging to the army's morale that there were mutinies. Nivelle's grand promises had ended in disaster and he was replaced by Philippe Petain.
5 Facts About the Battle of Arras
Discover more about the Battle of Arras and a few highlights from our collection.
1. An attempt to break the deadlock
The Battle of Arras was part of the wider Nivelle Offensive, a plan masterminded by French General Robert Nivelle, which aimed to break the deadlock on the Western Front in 1917. The French Army launched an attack a few days later near the River Aisne.
2. The bombardment was heavier than the Somme
The preliminary bombardment at the Battle of Arras saw German positions pulverised by more than 2.5 million shells, about 1 million more than at the Somme. When troops attacked, they were supported by a creeping barrage. Artillery support was more effective at Arras than at the Somme thanks in part to improvements in training and scheduling, and the new 106 fuse, which made high explosive shells more reliable.
3. The battle began with a Canadian victory
On the first day of the Battle of Arras, the Canadian Corps made up the bulk of the force that attacked Vimy Ridge. It was the first time that all four divisions of the Corps had fought together and the battle holds a special place in Canadian history.
CANADIAN FORCES IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR
The Vimy Ridge attack provided a blueprint for future successes on the Western Front. Lieutenant-general Julian Byng and Major-general Arthur Currie planned the attack to the letter. The soldiers rehearsed their roles over and over again, practising working with the creeping barrage. The preliminary bombardment lasted several weeks and mines laid in tunnels dug beneath the ridge were detonated just before the attack. By noon, three of the four divisions had taken their objectives.
4. The initial advance was impressive
The opening days of the battle saw significant gains. The British attack south of Vimy Ridge advanced up to 3.5 miles - further than any attack since the end of 1914. At Bullecourt however, the German defence held firm.
German reinforcements then began to arrive in significant numbers and the battle descended into a familiar attritional struggle that was finally called off on 16 May.
5. Casualties were high for no strategic gain
The Battle of Arras featured some notable successes. The opening advances, particularly at Vimy Ridge, achieved impressive gains with a relatively low casualty rate. The battle also succeeded in drawing German forces away from the French attack at the Aisne. Beyond the first few days however, casualties rose exponentially and the battle ground to a halt. The French offensive achieved little and ended with the disintegration of the French Army. There was no breakthrough - the battle had failed to win any strategic objectives and the Western Front remained in deadlock.
Watch Archive Film
This archive footage from our collection features wounded soldiers and prisoners returning from the front line on the Western Front, possibly during the Battle of Arras.
Please note: This video has no sound.