One week before the great offensive commenced, the British were to launch their attack at Arras. Strategically, this was to be a diversionary attack, designed to draw German reserves from the main French attack to the south.

If successful, the British would be in a position to outflank the Hindenburg Line. Knowing this, the Germans were busy constructing the Drocourt-Queant switch line about seven miles in rear.

The immediate British tactical objective was to be Vimy Ridge, which dominated the surrounding terrain and gave the Germans the great advantage of superior observation. This observation made it difficult for the British to conceal their preparations.

Strong German Defences

The German defences in this sector were unusually strong, consisting of three trench systems comprising twelve lines of trenches. German intelligence was fully aware of the British plans and estimated with remarkable accuracy the strength, location, and time of attack.

Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, who commanded the group of German armies on this front, determined to hold Vimy Ridge at all costs, because he considered that its loss would make the entire Douai plain untenable.

Consequently, he greatly strengthened the defending force, packing eight divisions into his lines and holding nine more in reserve immediately behind the threatened sector.

29th Infantry Battalion advancing over "No Man's Land" during the battle of Vimy Ridge. Dead comrades, or enemy, lay at left. (National Archive of Canada PA 1020)

Vimy Ridge can be seen in the map above between the salient formed by the German Lys and Somme offensives of 1918.

The entire British Third Army (Allenby), the Canadian Corps of the British First Army (Home), and a cavalry corps, a total of eighteen infantry and five cavalry divisions, were allotted to the attacking force, which was to assault on a front of fifteen miles.

Power Play

As surprise could not be achieved, the attack was designed as a power play, with ample artillery to blast a way through. Supporting artillery was massed until there was one gun per eight yards of front.

The preliminary bombardment began three weeks in advance, pounding the German trenches, reserve positions, and communications, and literally smothering all located enemy batteries with high explosive and gas shells.

As D-day approached, the intensity of the bombardment was so increased that it did not seem possible for a single human being to survive the inferno of steel.

For the first time the new 106 fuze, which burst on impact, was used; and it proved to be a very effective casualty agent and wire cutter. To add to the discomfort of Rupprecht’s troops, the British employed the new Livens projector to send large canisters of gas into the enemy trenches.

A battery of 1,600 projectors could in a few seconds deliver forty tons of gas to targets up to 1,200 yards away. One concentration that was delivered without warning against an enemy strong point produced 460 casualties.

29th Infantry Battalion advancing over "No Man's Land" during the battle of Vimy Ridge. Dead comrades, or enemy, lay at left. (National Archive of Canada PA 1020)

29th Infantry Battalion advancing over “No Man’s Land” during the battle of Vimy Ridge. Dead comrades, or enemy, lay at left. (National Archive of Canada PA 1020)

"Byng Boys" returning from action after defeating the Bavarians at Vimy Ridge. May 1917. (National Archives of Canada PA1270).

“Byng Boys” returning from action after defeating the Bavarians at Vimy Ridge. May 1917. (National Archives of Canada PA1270).

Aerial supremacy

There developed a fierce contest for aerial supremacy over the battlefield. Owing to their superior planes and better-trained pilots, the Germans at first had the advantage and inflicted severe losses on the Royal Flying Corps. The most publicized air unit on the Western Front at this time was Baron von Richtofen’s famous “Circus.” His aggressive pilots, flying fast, highly maneuverable, single-seater planes (painted a bright red) took a heavy toll of British aircraft. Eventually, the British airmen won the air battle by concentrating their superior numbers and by bombing the German airfields immediately behind the front.

The tactical plan called for short advances to a series of objectives in turn, the objectives corresponding to the enemy’s successive lines of trenches. The assaulting troops were given intensive training behind the lines until they had learned to follow closely behind a rolling barrage. After a considerable pause on each objective for consolidation and reorganization, the advance would continue to the next objective, with the barrage creeping forward at the rate of fifty yards every two minutes. It was a rigid schedule that would provide almost no opportunity for manoeuvre by the attacking units.

The Earth Shook

Promptly at Zero Hour, 0530, 9 April, the attack jumped off with an ear-splitting roar as every gun on the fifteen-mile front opened up. The earth shook from the explosions, and the grey dawn was brightened by the coloured flares sent up by German front-line units appealing for help. The assaulting infantry moved out through an icy drizzle of rain and snow, the men struggling with their heavy weapons across muddy ground so frightfully torn by the bombardment that few landmarks were recognizable.

The first two lines of trenches were taken with very little opposition and few casualties. Most of the German survivors were so stunned that they gladly surrendered to the advancing Tommies. The German artillery, with its communications cut to ribbons, was so badly hit that it could make only a feeble reply.

On the left the Canadians captured Vimy Ridge, and by nightfall of the first day all assigned objectives had been secured. After that, resistance stiffened as the German reserves began to counterattack; and a virtual stalemate developed.

Ground torn to pieces

The supporting British artillery found the ground so torn by the bombardment that it was unable to displace forward. Other supporting weapons were largely ineffective. Of sixty tanks available, only forty-eight jumped off in the attack; and these had been parcelled out to the infantry for use against strong points. Three cavalry divisions were committed in an effort to exploit the success; but they had been held too far behind the line initially, and the mounts were tired when they reached the battlefield.

The horses became further exhausted as the cavalry units strove to wake their way through the heavy battlefield traffic and pass through the infantry. Two or three squadrons finally got into action, but they were promptly shattered in a futile charge across the mud against machine guns and barbed wire. Arras had been designed as a short battle.

By 14 April the major fighting had ceased, though small local attacks continued for some time in order to maintain pressure on the enemy. British success in this limited-objective attack was due primarily to thorough preparation. One feature was having fresh divisions pass through assault divisions and continue the attack when the latter began to lose their combat effectiveness. Haig’s losses were smaller than in previous battles.

Huge losses

Up to 3 May the British lost 84,000 men; estimated German losses were 75,000. The only important gain was Vimy Ridge, which provided a firm northern anchor for the British during the first great German drive of 1918.