We Have Our Lives

The Battle of Arras

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Once stalemate and (literal) entrenchment of positions became the defining features of the war after Mons, the Allied objective was to break through the German defences into the open ground beyond and engage the numerically inferior German army in a ‘war of movement’. Arras was one of the largest attempts to do so, alongside the catastrophes of Loos, the Somme and the Nivelle Offensive, and the slightly more successful introduction of tanks in 1916.

The battle was a broad British assault around the important town of Arras. After considerable bombardment, Canadian troops advancing in the north were able to capture the strategically significant Vimy Ridge, and British divisions in the centre were also able to make significant gains over the River Scarpe. Following these initial successes, British forces engaged in a series of small-scale operations to consolidate the newly won positions.

When the battle officially ended on 16 May, British Empire troops had made significant advances but had been unable to achieve a breakthrough. While the initial assault was a success, albeit with high casualties on both sides, the ultimate aim of recommencing a war of movement was unsuccessful. The area quickly reverted to the stalemate that typified the Western Front until the last couple of months of the war.

One of the most significant developments at Arras was the introduction of new British tactics and technology – the creeping barrage, graze fuze and counter-battery fire all made their first major appearance. The creeping barrage aimed to keep a steady rate of artillery fire a fixed distance in front of advancing infantry, which proved highly effective, if somewhat prone to friendly fire. The graze fuze was a more reliable and sensitive mechanism for detonating a shell on impact, the earlier mechanisms relied on heavy physical impact to detonate, and were more prone to failing when hitting something relatively soft, like mud. Counter-battery fire simply means using indirect fire to take out enemy artillery positions, but this relies on excellent reconnaissance to be effective.