Arras – 9th April 1917: A Walk to Observation Ridge

The spire of Arras church rises tallest on the horizon in this photograph, taken using the zoom, as we look west towards the city from what was once known as Observation Ridge.

Observation Ridge was one of the British objectives of the first day of what became known as the (Second) Battle of Arras.  But, as happens on occasions, we are getting ahead of ourselves.  We need to be down there, where the fields end and the outskirts of the city begin, to start this post.

And by the magic of photography, here we are, the main road between Arras (behind us) and Cambrai, and the village of Tilloy-lès-Mofflaines, on the right in this shot, with the start of Observation Ridge in the left background.

These are the front lines east and north of Arras, on a trench map corrected to October 1916, six months before the events we have come to trace would occur, and near the bottom of the map, immediately east of the city,…

…a close-up from the same map of the area in which we find ourselves this fine May morning, the road in the previous photo the diagonal line across the bottom half of the map.  It’ll all become clear in a minute, trust me.  Between October 1916 and the spring of 1917, however,…

…the German defences would be considerably strengthened, as this next trench map from March 1917 shows.  Note Observation Ridge, marked in the centre of this map, although not on the previous one, and Tilloy-lès-Mofflaines, at the very bottom of all three maps.

Our walk actually starts where the German front line trenches once crossed these fields (I’ll show you exactly where on another map shortly), this view, taken from a position at the rear of the trenches, looking west towards Arras.  The German front line at this exact point consisted of seven (if you don’t believe me, check out the maps again) lines of trenches, the seventh trench, where we are, some 600 yards behind the first trench, which crossed the field beyond the coach – the building you can see to the immediate left of the coach is built right on the first German trench, No Man’s Land, about 200 yards wide at this point, the British front line and the outskirts of Arras beyond.

Leaving the good ship Première behind…

…we begin our walk east towards Observation Ridge in the distance, and as we go, I shall explain what’s going on.  In other words,…

…as we pass pieces of rubble, more than likely from the remains of German strongpoints that once stood around here, it’s time for some history.

In November 1916 the British & French commanders, Generals Haig & Joffre, had agreed that their strategic plans for 1917 would centre around a dual attack in the spring, with the French attacking between the Rivers Somme & Oise, and the British attacking between Arras & Bapaume.  By the time of the attacks, April 1917, things had changed, and they had changed significantly.  At the end of 1916 Joffre had been replaced by General Robert Nivelle, who had his own ideas on the coming attacks, and, beginning in February 1917, the Germans had begun preparations for a strategic withdrawal to the pre-constructed defenses of the Hindenburg Line, which would involve retiring east some twenty five miles just a little to the south of Arras, shortening their front line by nearly thirty miles, and leaving the area through which they were withdrawing intentionally devastated as they went.  In early March Nivelle was urged to attack the Germans as they prepared to withdraw, but, approving only a limited attack, he perhaps lost a significant opportunity to disrupt the German retirement, which duly took place between 16th & 20th March.

Which left the French & British somewhat non-plussed and asked serious questions over the suitability of their plans for the spring of 1917, as they were now faced with far stronger German positions, the new line also releasing fourteen German divisions for use elsewhere.  All of which resulted in a new French plan, Nivelle now deciding to attack the Germans on the Chemin des Dames.  And thus the British attack at Arras and the Canadian attack at Vimy Ridge to the north of the city, both due to take place on 9th April, would become subsidiaries to the Nivelle Offensive, and would now be fought as much as anything to draw German reserves away from the French front, although always with the ultimate aim, if both attacks succeeded and could be exploited successfully, of meeting up with the French forces and encircling vast numbers of German troops.  And perhaps ending the war.

First Army and the Canadian Corps would attempt to take the high ground of the Vimy Ridge, from which the Germans had observed everything the British & Canadians were up to for the last two and a half years.  Third Army would attack east of Arras, and further south, Fifth Army would make a limited attack on the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt.  Third Army’s objective, tactically, was to improve the British positions to the east of Arras by pushing the Germans back beyond the high ground from which they overlooked the city (see first photos again).  This would entail breaking through the German front line, the Black Line as the British referred to it, hardly more than 1500 yards east of Arras, as the maps show, then a second line a further 1000 yards east on Observation Ridge, known as the Blue Line, then the third set of defenses, the Wancourt-Feuchy, or Brown Line, and finally the fourth line, the Green Line, a further two and a half miles east, on which sat the fortified village of Monchy-le-Preux, which the Germans had held since October 1914, and which was the eventual objective of 9th April: ‘Monchy-le-Preux should be in our hands by nightfall on the first day.’

Here we have a map of the course of our walk, which is marked in pink, our starting point in orange.  The Black, Blue & Brown Lines are marked, the yellow shapes show German strongpoints, once in the fields on either side of us, and the short mauve line in the centre,…

…shows the line of trees in the right half of this picture, the same ones we saw from up on the ridge in the first two photos.  The Black Line crossed this field roughly where we are standing, and reaching the Black Line meant that the first line of German defenses had been breached.  It was the task of VI Corps to break through the German positions immediately east of Arras, and more specifically 12th (Eastern) Division, which was tasked with attacking immediately to the north of Tilloy-lès-Mofflaines, on a frontage of just 900 yards, across these very fields where we are now walking.

Prior to the attack, just over a mile to the west of our current position, behind the British lines, two and a half thousand men began filing into the subterranean caverns and ancient chalk tunnels beneath the ruins of Arras, oblivious to the snow falling outside, safe, for the time being, from rifle and shell fire.

British and New Zealand engineers had dug new tunnels such as this one which extended past the British front line into No Man’s Land, and in a couple of places actually reached the German front line, which would not only allow the attacking troops to reach their starting points in safety, but would also allow, it was hoped, complete surprise on the morning of the attack.

As the snow fell and the British climbed these rough-hewn steps, appearing like phantoms from their underground chambers, the precisely coordinated creeping artillery barrage passing above their heads, the terrified Germans manning the front line trenches, those who were not still hunkered down in their dugouts (proving easy pickings for the advancing troops), fled or surrendered.  Note the rusting Brodie helmet in the foreground of the photo.

The Black Line was taken and the men began to advance across these fields towards Observation Ridge, or the Blue Line, attacking and neutralising the German strongpoints marked on the earlier map, slight depressions and shadows in the field to our right nearer the ridge still showing some of their positions (although easier to spot in real life).

Up on Observation Ridge, our party playing the part of the advancing British troops,…

…the German positions were overcome all along VI Corps’ front,…

…and the Wancourt-Feuchy Line, the Brown Line, could now be seen* crossing the hills in the distance away to the east.  The First Battle of the Scarpe, as the attack east of Arras is now known, continued, and the possibility of achieving the longed for breakout seemed, for a brief moment, to be in sight.  Further north, the attack by the Canadians at Vimy Ridge was also initially a successful one, the advance of three and a half miles being the farthest so far achieved since trench warfare began, but Vimy is a story unto itself, and need not concern us here.  Cavalry were brought up close to the front lines, waiting for the chance to pour through the gap in the German defenses that would soon be opened, and to spread out into the untouched land beyond.  However here to the east of the city, although the Wancourt-Feuchy Line was reached on that first day, it was only partially captured, sections remaining in German hands overnight, and progress slowed.  Over the next few days the terrible weather conditions made the ground underfoot impossible for any thought of using the cavalry, and more crucially made it impossible to bring up artillery to exploit the infantry’s gains.

*a touch of artistic licence here – the weather and the smoke of battle would have prevented the attacking British seeing anything very much at all.

Two maps from April 1917, the Arras – Cambrai road cutting diagonally across the centre, and the Green Line, the final objective of 9th April, now marked, just beyond Monchy-le-Preux.  The yellow shaded area in the bottom map shows the very start of the recently constructed Hindenburg Line.

Rubble up on the ridge.  For the next two days the attack continued.  Monchy-le-Preux, a further 2,500 yards east, was taken during a midnight attack on 10th April, the Green Line falling to the British on 11th April, but as German resistance stiffened and reinforcements arrived, it was already becoming clear that the chances of the hoped for breakthrough were diminishing.  The French Army attacked on the Chemin des Dames on 16th April, failed to break through the German lines, and within days was facing the prospect of utter failure.  Although Nivelle would continue the offensive for another five weeks, he would call a halt on 9th May, and would himself be dismissed within days.  During much of this time the Arras operations were continued mainly to keep as many German troops away from the demoralised and soon-to-be-mutinous French Army further south as possible.  So Haig was forced to fight the Second Battle of the Scarpe between 23rd & 24th April, again in freezing weather with poor visibility, where a further 1000 yards of ground was gained, and a final major attack on 3rd May, the Third Battle of the Scarpe, which failed to achieve its objectives, incurred heavy casualties, and was called off the following day.  3rd May also saw the Australian subsidiary attack on the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt, five miles to the south, which ended in stalemate after fifteen days of fierce fighting, after which the Battle of Arras could be said to have ended, the fighting on the Arras front thereafter reverting to the trench warfare of the previous years.

There would be no breakout.

Looking due south along the crest of Observation Ridge towards Tilloy-lès-Mofflaines,…

…and then panning to our left,…

…once more looking towards the Wancourt-Feuchy Line on the horizon,…

…and now looking north east, as our field walkers do their thing.

And they did indeed find evidence of the fighting up here, evidence of the saddest kind……

Anyway, just before we finish, and to make final sense of the whole thing, this last trench map from late May 1917 shows the final extent of the British advance to the east and north east of Arras.  The German trenches no longer overlooked the city, as they had done for so long, but the hoped for breakthrough still seemed as far away as ever.  British casualties during the battle amounted to almost 160,000 – Third Army’s share in the three Battles of the Scarpe and the intervening fighting being over 87,000  –  with the Germans probably losing almost as many – official German figures peak at 79,418 but this covers only two of the three Army Groups involved in the battle, and German casualty records do not include those who were deemed to be ‘lightly wounded’.

The inevitable spread of industry is encroaching these fields now, and in time I guess the walk to Observation Ridge will be buried beneath a hive of industrial activity and the views up to and from the ridge will be much different, to say the least.

So how do you gauge success and failure in Great War terms?  The Battle of Arras is often perceived as a British victory, and there is no doubt that the first two days, particularly at Vimy, saw some spectacular advances and the tactically significant Vimy Ridge in Canadian hands, their troops now overlooking the Germans and the entire Douai Plain away to the east.  Significant numbers of German troops were indeed drawn away from the French sector to bolster the defenses at Arras, but the failure of the French offensive, and the lack of British progress and ever higher casualty lists after the advances of 9th & 10th April, meant that, despite the early successes, the Arras front reverted to stalemate and trench warfare.  We shall allow Ludendorff the final say, when he commented that, ‘no doubt exceedingly important strategic object[ive]s lay behind the British attack, but I have never been able to discover what they were.’

If you would like to see more, including the rest of our earlier visit to the underground caverns beneath Arras, then click here: The Battle of Arras Memorial & La Carrière Wellington.

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6 Responses to Arras – 9th April 1917: A Walk to Observation Ridge

  1. Andrew Brennan says:

    Great write-up, really enjoyed this. And the devastating understatement by Ludendorff wrapped it up on a poignant note. This entire series is fabulous, a real treasure.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Well thank you Andrew. What can I say? I take it, from your comments, that this one makes sense, too; I have read the damned thing so many times, changing this, changing that, that sometimes, although I reckon that the post has worked, I really do need you guys to confirm it for me (or otherwise!). So I thank you, as always.

  2. Nick Kilner says:

    Superb. I was looking at observation ridge in detail earlier this year as theres a tunnel system almost directly underneath the road there. one day perhaps….

    • Magicfingers says:

      Cheers Nick. I think I got all my facts right, did I not? Course I did (lol). The whole place is riddled with tunnels, I suppose, and presumably no one actually knows exactly where they all are.

      • Nick kilner says:

        Indeed, the tunnelling there was very significant, although most will be badly flooded now. I have an idea where there might be access into part of the system through a drainage channel, but no time to investigate further at the moment. Another project looms 😉

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