Sir Douglas Haig’s fourth Despatch (Battle of Arras 1917)

The fourth Despatch of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander in Chief of the British Armies in France and Flanders. It covered the Arras Offensive.

Sir Douglas Haig

25th December, 1917.
My Lord,
I have the honour to submit the following Report on the operations of the Forces under my Command from the opening of the British offensive on the 9th April 1917 to the conclusion of the Flanders offensive in November. The subsequent events of this year will form the subject of a separate Despatch, to be rendered a little later.

The General Allied Plan

1. The general plan of campaign to be pursued by the Allied Armies during 1917 was unanimously agreed on by a conference of military representatives of all the Allied Powers held at French General Headquarters in November, 1916. This plan comprised a series of offensives on all fronts, so timed as to assist each other by depriving the enemy of the power of weakening anyone of his fronts in order to reinforce another.A general understanding had also been arrived at between the then French Commander-in-Chief and myself as to the roles of our respective Armies in this general plan, and with the approval of His Majesty’s Government preparations based upon these arrangements had at once been taken in hand.

2. Briefly stated, my plan of action for the Armies under my command in the proposed general offensive was as follows:-

In the spring, as soon as all the Allied Armies were ready to commence operations, my first efforts were to be directed against the enemy’s troops occupying the salient between the Scarpe and the Ancre, into which they had been pressed as a result of the Somme Battle. It was my intention to attack both shoulders of this salient simultaneously, the Fifth Army operating on the Ancre front while the Third Army attacked from the north-west about Arras. These converging attacks, if successful, would pinch off the whole salient, and would be likely to make the withdrawal of the enemy’s troops from it a very costly manoeuvre for him if it were not commenced in good time. The front of attack on the Arras side was to include the Vimy Ridge, possession of which I considered necessary to secure the left flank of the operations on the south bank of the Scarpe. The capture of this ridge, which was to be carried out by the First Army, also offered other important advantages.It would deprive the enemy of valuable observation and give us a wide view over the plains stretching from the eastern foot of the ridge to Douai and beyond. Moreover, although it was evident that the enemy might, by a timely withdrawal, avoid a battle in the awkward salient still held by him between the Scarpe and the Ancre, no such withdrawal from his important Vimy Ridge positions was likely. He would be almost certain to fight for this ridge, and, as my object was to deal him a blow which would force him to use up reserves, it was important that he should not evade my attack.

3. With the forces at my disposal, even combined with what the French proposed to undertake in co-operation, I did not consider that any great strategical results were likely to be gained by following up a success on the front about Arras and to the south of it, beyond the capture of the objectives aimed at as described above. It was therefore my intention to transfer my main offensive to another part of my front after these objectives had been secured. The front selected for these further operations was in Flanders. They were to be commenced as soon as possible after the Arras offensive, and continued throughout the summer, so far as the forces at my disposal would permit.

4. The positions held by us in the Ypres salient since May, 1915, were far from satisfactory. They were completely overlooked by the enemy. Their defence involved a considerable strain on the troops occupying them, and they were certain to be costly to maintain against a serious attack, in which the enemy would enjoy all the advantages in observation and in the placing of his artillery. Our positions would be much improved by the capture of the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge, and of the high ground which extends thence north-eastwards for some seven miles and then trends north through Broodseinde and Passchendaele. The operation in its first stages was a very difficult one, and in 1916 I had judged that the general situation was not yet ripe to attempt it. In the summer of 1917, however, as larger forces would be at my disposal, and as, in the Somme Battle, our new Armies had proved their ability to overcome the enemy’s strongest defences, and had lowered his power of resistance, I considered myself justified in undertaking it. Various preliminary steps had already been taken, including the necessary development of railways in the area, which had been proceeding quietly from early in 1916. I therefore hoped, after completing my spring offensive further south, to be able to develop this Flanders attack without great delay, and to strike hard in the north before the enemy realised that the attack in the south would not be pressed further.

5. Subsequently, unexpected developments in the early weeks of the year necessitated certain modifications in my plans above described. New proposals for action were made by our French Allies which entailed a considerable extension of my defensive front, a modification of the role previously allotted to the British Armies. and an acceleration of the date of my opening attack. As a result of these proposals, I received instructions from His Majesty’s Government to readjust my previous plans to meet the wishes of our Allies. Accordingly, it was arranged that I should commence the offensive early in April on as great a scale as the extension of my front would permit, with due regard to defensive requirements on the rest of my line. The British attack, under the revised scheme, was, in the first instance, to be preparatory to a more decisive operation to be undertaken a little later by the French Armies, in the subsequent stages of which the British Forces were to co-operate to the fullest extent possible. It was further agreed that if this combined offensive did not produce the full results hoped for within a reasonable time, the main efforts of the British Armies should then be transferred to Flanders as I had originally intended. In this case our Allies were to assist me by taking over as much as possible of the front held by my troops, and by carrying out, in combination with my Flanders attacks, such offensives on the French front as they might be able to undertake.

6. My original plan for the preliminary operations on the Arras front fortunately fitted in well with what was required of me under the revised scheme, and the necessary preparations were already in progress. In order to give full effect, however, to the new role allotted to me in this revised scheme, preparations for the attack in Flanders had to be restricted for the time being to what could be done by such troops and other labour as could not in any case be made available on the Arras front. Moreover. the carrying out of any offensive this year on the Flanders front became contingent on the degree of success attained by the new plan.

7. The chief events to note during the period of preparations for the spring offensive were the retirement of the enemy on the Arras-Soissons front and the revolution in Russia. As regards the former, the redistribution of my forces necessitated by the enemy’s withdrawal was easily made. The front decided on for my main attack on the Arras front lay almost altogether outside the area from which the enemy retired, and my plans and preparations on that side were not deranged thereby. His retirement, however, did enable the enemy to avoid the danger of some of his troops being cut off by the converging attacks arranged for, and to that extent reduced the results which might have been attained by my operation as originally planned. The role of the Fifth Army, too, had to be modified. Instead of attacking from the line of the Ancre simultaneously with the advance of the Third Army from the northwest, it had now to follow up the retiring enemy and establish itself afresh in front of the Hindenburg Line to which the enemy withdrew. This line had been very strongly fortified, and sited with great care and skill to deny all advantages of position to any force attempting to attack it. The adjustments necessary, however, to enable me to carry out the more subsidiary role which had been allotted to my Armies since the formation of my original plans, were comparatively simple, and caused no delay in my preparation for the spring offensive. My task was, in the first instance, to attract as large hostile forces as possible to my front before the French offensive was launched, and my forces were still well placed for this purpose. The capture of such important tactical features as the Vimy Ridge and Monchy-le-Preux by the First and Third Armies, combined with pressure by the Fifth Army from the south against the front of the Hindenburg Line, could be relied on to use up many of the enemy’s divisions and to compel him to reinforce largely on the threatened front. The Russian revolution was of far more consequence in the approaching struggle. Even though the Russian Armies might still prove capable of co-operating in the later phases of the 1917 campaign, the revolution at once destroyed any prospect that may previously have existed of these Armies being able to combine with the spring offensive in the West by the earlier date which had been fixed for it in the new plans made since the conference of November, 1916. Moreover, as the Italian offensive also could not be ready until some time after the date fixed by the new arrangement with the French for our combined operation, the situation became very different from that contemplated at the Conference. It was decided, however, to proceed with the spring offensive in the West, notwithstanding these serious drawbacks. Even though the prospects of any far-reaching success were reduced, it would at least tend to relieve Russia of pressure on her front while she was trying to reorganise her Government j and if she should fail to reorganise it, the Allies in the West had little, if anything, to gain by delaying their blow. Preparations were pushed on accordingly, the most urgent initial step being the development of adequate transport facilities.

The Spring Campaign
Preparations for the Arras Offensive

8. When transport requirements on the front in question were first brought under consideration, the neighbourhood was served by two single lines of railway, the combined capacity of which was less than half our estimated requirements. Considerable constructional work, therefore, both of standard and narrow gauge railway, had to be undertaken to meet our programme. Roads also had to be improved and adapted to the circumstances for which they were required, and preparations made to carry them forward rapidly as our troops advanced. For this latter purpose considerable use was made, both in this and in the later offensives, of plank roads. These were built chiefly of heavy beech slabs laid side by side, and were found of great utility, being capable of rapid construction over almost any nature of ground. By these means the accumulation of the vast stocks of munitions and stores of all kinds required for our offensive, and their distribution to the troops, were made possible.The numberless other preparatory measures taken for the Somme offensive were again repeated, with such improvements and additions as previous experience dictated. Hutting and other accommodation for the troops concentrated in the area had to be provided in great quantity. An adequate water supply had to be guaranteed, necessitating the erection of numerous pumping installations, the laying of many miles of pipe lines, and the construction of reservoirs. Very extensive mining and tunnelling operations were carried out. In particular, advantage was taken of the existence of a large system of underground quarries and cellars in Arras and its suburbs to provide safe quarters for a great number of troops. Electric light was installed in these caves and cellars, which were linked together by tunnels, and the whole connected by long subways with our trench system east of the town. A problem peculiar to the launching of a great offensive from a town arose from the difficulty of ensuring the punctual debouching of troops and the avoidance of confusion and congestion in the streets both before the assault and during the progress of the battle. This problem was met by the most careful and complete organisation of routes, reflecting the highest credit on the staffs concerned.

The Enemy’s Defences

9. Prior to our offensive, the new German lines of defence on the British front ran in a general north-westerly direction from St. Quentin to the village of Thilloy-lez-Mofflaines, immediately southeast of Arras (vide Map No.3). Thence the German original trench systems continued northwards across the valley of the Scarpe River to the dominating Vimy Ridge, which, rising to a height of some 475 feet, commands a wide view to the south-east, east and north.

Thereafter the opposing lines left the high ground, and, skirting the western suburbs of Lens, stretched northwards to the Channel across a flat country of rivers, dykes and canals, the dead level of which is broken by the line of hills stretching from Wytschaete north-eastwards to Passchendaele and Staden.

The front attacked by the Third and First Armies on the morning of the 9th April extended from just north of the village of Croisilles, south-east of Arras, to just south of Givenchy-en-Gohelle at the northern foot of Vimy Ridge, a distance of nearly 15 miles.

It included between four and five miles of the northern end of the Hindenburg Line, which had been built to meet the experience of the Somme Battle.

Further north, the original German defences in this sector were arranged on the same principle as those which we had already captured further south. They comprised three separate trench systems, connected by a powerful switch line running from the Scarpe at Fampoux to Lievin, and formed a highly organised defensive belt some two to five miles in depth.

In addition, from three to six miles further east a new line of resistance was just approaching completion. This system, known as the Drocourt-Queant Line, formed a northern extension of the Hindenburg Line, with which it linked up at Queant.

Final Preparations
Fight for Aerial Supremacy

10. The great strength of these defences demanded very thorough artillery preparation, and this in turn could only be carried out effectively with the aid of our air services.

Our activity in the air, therefore, increased with the growing severity of our bombardment. A period of very heavy air fighting ensued, culminating in the days immediately preceding the attack in a struggle of the utmost intensity for local supremacy in the air.

Losses on both sides were severe, but the offensive tactics most gallantly persisted in by our fighting aeroplanes secured our artillery machines from serious interference and enabled our guns to carry out their work effectively. At the same time bombing machines caused great damage and loss to the enemy by a constant succession of successful raids against his dumps, railways, aerodromes, and billets.

The Bombardment

11. Three weeks prior to the attack the systematic cutting of the enemy’s wire was commenced, while our heavy artillery searched the enemy’s back areas and communications. Night firing, wire cutting, and bombardment of hostile trenches, strong points, and billets continued steadily and with increasing intensity on the whole battle front, till the days immediately preceding the attack when the general bombardment was opened.

During this latter period extensive gas discharges were carried out, and many successful raids were undertaken by day and night along the whole front to be attacked.

Organised bombardments took place also on other parts of our front, particularly in the Ypres sector.

The Troops Employed

12. The main attack was entrusted to the Third and First Armies, under the command of General Sir E. H. H. Allenby, and General Sir H. S. Horne, respectively.

Four Army Corps (the VII., VI., XVII. and XVIII. Corps, under command respectively of Lieut.-Generals Sir T. D’O. Snow, I. A. L. Haldane, Sir C. Fergusson and Sir F. I. Maxse) were placed at the disposal of General Allen by, with an additional Army Corps Headquarters (the XIX. Corps, Lieut.-General H. E. Watts) to be used as occasion might demand. Cavalry also (the Cavalry Corps, Lieut.-General Sir C. T. McM. Kavanagh) was brought up into the Third Army area, in case the development of the battle should give rise to an opportunity for the employment of mounted troops on a considerable scale.

The attack of the First Army on the Vimy Ridge was carried out by the Canadian Corps (Lieut.-General Sir I. H. G. Byng). It was further arranged that, as soon as the Vimy Ridge had been secured, the troops in line on the left of the Canadian Corps (I. Corps, Lieut.-General A. E. A. Holland) should extend the area of attack northwards as far as the left bank of the Souchez River.

An additional Army Corps (the XIII. corps, Lieut.-General Sir W. N. Congreve) was also at the disposal of the First Army in reserve.  The greater part of the divisions employed in the attack were composed of troops drawn from the English counties. These, with Scottish, Canadian, and South American troops, accomplished a most striking success.

My plans provided for the co-operation of the Fourth and Fifth Armies, under the command respectively of General Sir Henry S. Rawlinson, and General Sir H. de la P. Gough, as soon as the development of my main assault should permit of their effective action.

The Method of Attack

13. The attack on the front of the Third and First Armies was planned to be carried out by a succession of comparatively short advances, the separate stages of which were arranged to correspond approximately with the enemy’s successive systems of defence.

As each stage was reached a short pause was to take place, to enable the troops detailed for the attack on the next objective to form up for the assault.

Tanks, which on many occasions since their first use in September of last year had done excellent service, were attached to each Corps for the assault, and again did admirable work in co-operation with our infantry. Their assistance was particularly valuable in the capture of hostile strong points, such as Telegraph Hill and the Harp, two powerful redoubts situated to the south of Tilloy-lez-Moffiaines, and Railway Triangle, a stronghold formed by the junction of the Lens and Douai Lines east of Arras.

The Arras Battle

14. The general attack on the 9th April was launched at 5.30 a.m. under cover of a most effective artillery barrage. Closely following the tornado of our shell fire, our gallant infantry poured like a flood across the German lines, overwhelming the enemy’s garrisons.

Within forty minutes of the opening of the battle, practically the whole of the German front line system on the front attacked had been stormed and taken. Only on the extreme left fierce fighting was still taking place for the possession of the enemy’s trenches on the slopes of Hill 145 at the northern end of the Vimy Ridge.

At 7.30 a.m. the advance was resumed against the second objectives. Somewhat greater opposition was now encountered, and at the hour at which these objectives were timed to have been captured strong parties of the enemy were still holding out on the high ground north of Tilloy-lez-Moffiaines, known as Observation Ridge, and in Railway Triangle.

North of the Scarpe, North-country and Scottish Territorial troops (34th and 5ISt Divisions), attacking east of Roclincourt, were met by heavy machine gun fire. Their advance was delayed, but not checked. On the left, the Canadians rapidly over-ran the German positions, and by 9.30 a.m., in spite of difficult going over wet and sticky ground, had carried the village of Les Tilleuls and La Folie Farm.

By 12 noon men from the Eastern counties of England (12th Division) had captured Observation Ridge and, with the exception of Railway Triangle, the whole of our second objectives were in our possession, from south of Neuville Vitasse, stormed by London Territorials (56th Division), to north of La Folie Farm.

A large number of prisoners had already been taken, including practically a whole battalion of the 162nd German Regiment at the Harp.

Meanwhile our artillery had begun to move forward to positions from which they could support our attack upon our third objectives.

The enemy’s determined resistance at Observation Ridge, however, had delayed the advance of our batteries in this area. The bombardment of the German third line on this front had consequently to be carried out at long range, with the result that the enemy’s wire was not well cut.

None the less, when the advance was resumed, shortly after midday, great progress was made all along the line. In the course of this attack many of the enemy’s battery positions were captured,  together with a large number of guns.

South of the Scarpe, Manchester and Liverpool troops (30th Division) took St. Martin-sur-Cojeul, and our line was carried forward between that point and Feuchy Chapel on the Arras-Cambrai road. Here a counter-attack was repulsed at 2.0 p.m. by the 12th Division, and at about the same hour Scottish troops (15th Division) carried Railway Triangle, after a long struggle.

Thereafter this division continued their advance rapidly and stormed Feuchy Village, making a breach in the German third line. An attempt by the 37th Division to widen this breach, and to advance beyond it in the direction of Monchy-le-Preux, was held up for the time by the condition of the enemy’s wire.

North of the Scarpe our success was even more complete. Troops from Scotland and South Africa (9th Division), who had already stormed St. Laurent Blangy, captured Athies. They then gave place, in accordance with programme, to an English division (the 4th), who completed their task by the capture of Fampoux Village and Hyderabad Redoubt, breaking another wide gap in the German third line system.

The North-country troops (34th Division) on their left seized the strong work known as the Point du Jour, in the face of strong hostile resistance from the German switch line to the north.

Further north, the Canadian divisions, with an English brigade (13th Infantry Brigade, 5th Division) in the centre of their attack, completed the capture of the Vimy Ridge from Commandant’s House to Hill 145, in spite of considerable opposition, especially in the neighbourhood of Thelus and the high ground north of this village. These positions were taken by 1.0 p.m., and early in the afternoon our final objectives in this area had been gained.

Our troops then dug themselves in on the eastern side of Farbus Wood and along the steep eastern slopes of the ridge west and north-west of Farbus, sending out cavalry and infantry patrols in the direction of Willerval and along the front of their position.

The left Canadian division (the 4th), meanwhile, had gradually fought their way forward on Hill 145, in the face of a very desperate resistance. The enemy defended this dominating position with great obstinacy, and his garrison, reinforced from dug-outs and underground tunnels, launched frequent counter-attacks.

In view of the severity of the fighting, it was decided to postpone the attack upon the crest line until the following day.

At the end of the day, therefore, our troops were established deeply in the enemy’s positions on the whole front of attack. We had gained a firm footing in the enemy’s third line on both banks of the Scarpe, and had made an important breach in the enemy’s last fully completed line of defence.

During the afternoon cavalry had been brought up to positions east of Arras, in readiness to be sent forward should our infantry succeed in widening this breach sufficiently for the operations of mounted troops. South of Feuchy, however, the unbroken wire of the German third line constituted a complete barrier to a cavalry attack, while the commanding positions held by the enemy on Monchy-le-Preux Hill blocked the way of advance along the Scarpe.

The main body of our mounted troops was accordingly withdrawn in the evening to positions just west of the town. Smaller bodies of cavalry were employed effectively during the afternoon on the right bank of the Scarpe to maintain touch with our troops north of the river, and captured a number of prisoners and guns.

The Advance Continued

15. For some days prior to the 9th April the weather had been fine, but on the morning of that day heavy showers had fallen, and in the evening the weather definitely broke.

Thereafter for many days it continued stormy, with heavy falls of snow and squalls of wind and rain. These conditions imposed great hardships on our troops and greatly hampered operations. The heavy snow, in particular, interfered with reliefs, and rendered all movements of troops and guns slow and difficult.

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of the resultant delay in bringing up our guns, at a time when the enemy had not yet been able to assemble his reserves, or to calculate the influence which a further period of fine weather might have had upon the course of the battle.

North of the Scarpe little remained to be done to complete the capture of our objectives. South of the river we still required to gain the remainder of the German third line and Monchy-le-Preux.

Despite the severity of the weather, our troops set themselves with the utmost gallantry to the accomplishment of these tasks.

During the night English troops (37th Division) made considerable progress through the gap in the German defences east of Feuchy and occupied the northern slopes of Orange Hill, south-east of the village.

Throughout the morning of the 10th April every effort was made to gain further ground through this gap, and our troops succeeded in reaching the enclosures north-west of Monchy-le-Preux.

At noon the advance became general, and the capture of the whole of the enemy’s third-line system south of the Scarpe was completed. The progress of our right beyond this line was checked by machine gun fire from the villages of Heninel, Wancourt and Guemappe, with which our artillery were unable to deal effectively.

Between the Arras-Cambrai Road and the Scarpe, English and Scottish troops (12th and 15th Divisions) pushed on as far as the western edge of Monchy-le-Preux. Here our advance was held up as a result of the unavoidable weakness of our artillery support, and for the same reason an attempt to pass cavalry south and north of Monchy-le-Preux (3rd and 2nd Cavalry Divisions, Major-Generals I. Vaughan and W. H. Greenly) and along the left bank of the Scarpe (1st Cavalry Division, Major-General R. L. Mullens) proved impossible in the face of the enemy’s machine gun fire.

Meanwhile, on the left flank of our battle front the Canadians had renewed their attack at 4.0 p.m. on the portion of Hill 145 still remaining in the enemy’s possession, and captured it after sharp fighting, together with over 200 prisoners and a number of trench mortars and machine guns.


16. Heavy fighting, in which cavalry again took part, continued south of the Scarpe on the 11th April. Two English infantry brigades (37th Division), acting in co-operation with cavalry (3rd Cavalry Division), attacked Monchy-le-Preux at 5.0 a.m., and, after hard fighting in which tanks arrived at an opportune moment, carried the position.

As our men pushed through the village, the enemy was seen retreating eastwards over the open, and many casualties were inflicted on him by our machine guns. By 9.0 a.m. the whole of Monchy-le-Preux was in our hands, with a number of prisoners.

During the afternoon and evening several determined counterattacks were beaten off by our infantry and cavalry, assisted by the fire of our artillery.

On other parts of the front our attacks had to be made across open forward slopes, which were swept from end to end by the enemy’s machine guns. The absence of adequate artillery support again made itself felt, and little ground was gained.

In combination with this attack on the Third Army front, the
Fifth Army launched an attack at 4.30 a.m. on the 11th April against the Hindenburg Line in the neighbourhood of Bullecourt (4th Australian Division and 62nd Division, Major-Generals W. Holmes and W. P. Braithwaite).

The Australian and West Riding battalions engaged showed great gallantry in executing a very difficult attack across a wide extent of open country. Considerable progress was made, and parties of Australian troops, preceded by tanks, penetrated the German positions as far as Riencourt-lez-Cagnicourt.

The obstinacy of the enemy’s resistance, however, in Heninel and Wancourt, which held up the advance of the Third Army at these points, prevented the troops of the two Armies from joining hands, and the attacking troops of the Fifth Army were obliged to withdraw to their original line.

Heninel, Wancourt and the Souchez River

17. On the 12th April the relief of a number of divisions most heavily engaged was commenced, and on the same day the cavalry were withdrawn to areas west of Arras.

Great efforts were made to bring forward guns, and, in spite of the difficulties presented by weather and ground, several batteries of howitzers and heavy guns reached positions in rear of the old German third line.

On this day our attacks upon Heninel and Wancourt were renewed, and our troops (2lst and 56th Divisions) succeeded in carrying both villages, as well as in completing the capture of the Hindenburg Line for some 2,000 yards south of the Cojeul River.

North of the Scarpe attacks were made against Roeux Village and the chemical works near Roeux Station, and proved the commencement of many days of fierce and stubbornly-contested fighting.

On our left flank operations of the First Army astride the Souchez River met with complete success. Attacks were delivered simultaneously at 5.0 a.m. on the 12th April by English and Canadian troops (4th Canadian Division and 24th Division, Major-General J.E. Capper) against the two small hills known as the Pimple and the Bois-en-Hache, situated on either side of the Souchez River.

Both of these positions were captured, with a number of prisoners and machine guns. Steps were at once taken to consolidate our gains, and patrols were pushed forward to maintain touch with the enemy.

Withdrawal of the Enemy

18. The results of this last success at once declared themselves.  Prior to its accomplishment there had been many signs that the enemy was preparing to make strong counter-attacks from the direction of Givenchy and Hirondelle Woods to recover the Vimy Ridge.

The positions captured on the 12th April commanded both these localities, and he was therefore compelled to abandon the undertaking. His attitude in this neighbourhood forthwith ceased to be aggressive, and indications of an immediate withdrawal from the areas commanded by the Vimy Ridge multiplied rapidly.

The withdrawal commenced on the morning of the 13th April. Before noon on that day Canadian patrols had succeeded in occupying the southern portion of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, had pushed through Petit Vimy, and had reached the cross-roads 500 yards north-east of the village.

That afternoon English patrols north of the Souchez River crossed No Man’s Land and entered Angres, while Canadian troops completed the occupation of Givenchy-en-Gohelle and the German trench system east of it. Further south our troops seized Petit Vimy and Vimy, and Willerval and Bailleul were occupied in turn.

Our patrols, backed by supports, continued to push forward on the 14th April, keeping contact with the retreating enemy, but avoiding heavy fighting. By midday the general line of our advanced troops ran from a point about 1,000 yards east of Bailleul, through Mont Foret Quarries on the Farbus-Mericourt road, to the eastern end of Hirondelle Wood.

North of the river we had reached Riaumont Wood and the southern outskirts of Lievin. By the evening the whole of the town of Lievin was in our hands, and our line ran thence to our old front line north of the Double Crassier.

Great quantities of ammunition of all calibres, as well as several guns, and stores and materials of every kind were abandoned by the enemy in his retreat.

Meanwhile, on the 13th and 14th April, fighting south of the Scarpe continued, and some progress was made in the face of strong hostile resistance. On the right of our attack our troops (21st Division) fought their way eastwards down the Hindenburg Line till they had reached a point opposite Fontaine-lez-Croisilles, about seven miles south-east of Arras.

In the centre a Northumberland brigade of the 50th Division (Major-General P. S. Wilkinson), advancing in open order, carried the high ground east of Heninel and captured Wancourt Tower. Three counter-attacks against this position were successfully driven off, and further ground was gained on the ridge south-east of Heninel.

On other parts of our line heavy counter-attacks developed on the 14th April, the most violent of which were directed against Monchy-le-Preux. The struggle for this important position (held by the 29th Division, Major-General Sir H. de B. de Lisle) was exceedingly fierce.

The enemy’s attacks were supported by the full weight of his available artillery, and at one time parties of his infantry reached the eastern defences of the village. To the south and the north, however, our posts held their ground, and in the end the enemy was completely repulsed, with great loss.

Results of First Attacks

19. Our advance had now reached a point at which the difficulty of maintaining communications and of providing adequate artillery support for our infantry began seriously to limit our progress. Moreover, the enemy had had time to bring up reserves and to recover from the temporary disorganisation caused by our first attacks.

Both the increasing strength of his resistance and the weight and promptness of his counter-attacks made it evident that, except at excessive cost, our success could not be developed further without a return to more deliberate methods.

Already a very remarkable success had been gained, whether measured by our captures in territory, prisoners and guns, or judged by the number of German divisions attracted to the front of our attack.

At the end of six days’ fighting our front had been rolled four miles farther east, and all the dominating features, forming the immediate objects of my attack, which I considered it desirable to hold before transferring the bulk of my resources to the north, had passed into our possession.

So far, therefore, as my own plans were concerned, it would have been possible to have stopped the Arras offensive at this point, and, while maintaining a show of activity sufficient to mislead the enemy as to my intentions, to have diverted forthwith to the northern theatre of operations the troops, labour and material required to complete my preparations there.

At this time, however, the French offensive was on the point of being launched. It was important that the full pressure of the British offensive should be maintained in order to assist our Allies, and that we might be ready to seize any opportunity which might follow their success.

Accordingly, active preparations were undertaken to renew my attack, but, in view both of the weather and of the strength already developed by the enemy, it was necessary to postpone operations until my communications had been re-established and my artillery dispositions completed. The following week, therefore, saw little change in our front, though the labours of our troops continued incessantly under conditions demanding the highest qualities of courage and endurance.

So far as my object was to draw the enemy’s reserves from the front of the French attack, much had already been accomplished. In addition to the capture of more than 13,000 prisoners and over 200 guns, a wide gap had been driven through the German prepared defences. The enemy had been compelled to pour in men and guns to stop this gap, while he worked feverishly to complete the Drocourt-Queant Line.

Ten days after the opening of our offensive the number of German infantry engaged on the front of our attack had been nearly doubled, in spite of the casualties the enemy’s troops had sustained. The massing of such large forces within the range of our guns, and the frequent and costly counter-attacks rendered necessary by our successes, daily added to the enemy’s losses.

Subsidiary Operations

20. In addition to the main attack east of Arras, successful minor operations were carried out on the 9th April by the Fourth and Fifth Armies, by which a number of fortified villages covering the Hindenburg Line were taken, with some hundreds of prisoners, and considerable progress was made in the direction of St. Quentin and Cambrai.

Throughout the remainder of the month the two Southern Armies maintained constant activity. By a succession of minor enterprises our line was advanced closer and closer to the Hindenburg Line, and the enemy was kept under the constant threat of more serious operations on this front.

The only offensive action taken by the enemy during this period in this area occurred on the 15th April. At 4.30 a.m. on that morning the enemy attacked our positions from Hermies to Noreuil with considerable forces, estimated at not less than sixteen battalions.

Heavy fighting took place, in the course of which parties of German infantry succeeded in penetrating our lines at Lagnicourt for some distance, and at one time reached our advanced battery positions.

By 1.0 p.m., however, the whole of our original line had been re-established, and the enemy left some seventeen hundred dead on the field as well as 360 prisoners in our hands. During the attack our heavy batteries remained in action at very close range and materially assisted in the enemy’s repulse.

The Attack Resumed
Guemappe and Gavrelle

21. On the 16th April our Allies launched their main offensive on the Aisne, and shortly after that date the weather on the Arras front began to improve. Our preparations made more rapid progress, and plans were made to deliver our next attack on the 21st April.

High winds and indifferent visibility persisted, however, and so interfered with the work of our artillery and aeroplanes that it was found necessary to postpone operations for a further two days. Meanwhile local fighting took place frequently, and our line was improved slightly at a number of points.

At 4.45 a.m. on the 23rd April British troops attacked on a front of about nine miles from Croisilles to Gavrelle. At the same hour a minor operation was undertaken by us south-west of Lens.

On the main front of attack good progress was made at first at almost all points. By 10.0 a.m. the remainder of the high ground west of Cherisy had been captured by the attacking English brigades (30th and 50th Divisions), and Scottish troops (15th Division) had pushed through Guemappe.

East of Monchy-le-Preux British battalions (29th Division) gained the western slopes of the rising ground known as Infantry Hill. North of the Scarpe Highland Territorials (51st Division) were engaged in heavy fighting on the western outskirts of Roeux Wood and the chemical works.

On their left English county troops (37th Division) had reached the buildings west of Roeux Station and gained the line of their objectives on the western slopes of Greenland Hill, north of the railway.

On the left of our main attack the Royal Naval Division (63rd Division, Major-General C. E. Laurie) had made rapid progress against Gavrelle, and the whole of the village was already in their hands.

At midday and during the afternoon counter-attacks in great force developed all along the line, and were repeated by the enemy with the utmost determination, regardless of the heavy losses inflicted by our fire. Many of these counter-attacks were repulsed after severe fighting, but on our right our troops were ultimately compelled by weight of numbers to withdraw from the ridge west of Cherisy and from Guemappe.

North of the Scarpe fierce fighting continued for the possession of Roeux, the chemical works and the station to the north, but without producing any lasting change in the situation.

Not less than five separate counter-attacks were made by the enemy on this day against Gavrelle, and on the 24th April he thrice repeated his attempts. All these attacks were completely crushed by our artillery barrage and machine gun fire.

As soon as it was clear that the whole of our objectives for the 23rd April had not been gained, orders were issued to renew the advance at 6.0 p.m. In this attack Guemappe was retaken, but further south our troops were at once met by a counter-attack in force, and made no progress. Fighting of a more or less intermittent character continued in this area all night.

In the early morning of the 24th April the enemy’s resistance weakened all along the front of our attack south of the Arras-Cambrai Road. Our troops reaped the reward of their persistence, and gained their objectives of the previous day without serious opposition.

After twenty-four hours of very fierce fighting, therefore, in
which the severity of the enemy’s casualties was in proportion to the strength and determination of his numerous counter-attacks, we remained in possession of the villages of Guemappe and Gavrelle, as well as of the whole of the high ground overlooking Fontaine-lez-Croisilles and Cherisy.

Very appreciable progress had also been made east of Monchy-le-Preux, on the left bank of the Scarpe, and on Greenland Hill.

In the minor operation south-west of Lens Cornish troops (1st D.C.L.I., 5th Division) established themselves on the railway loop east of Cite des Petits Bois, and succeeded in maintaining their position in spite of numerous hostile counter-attacks.

In the course of these operations of the 23rd and 24th April we captured a further 3,000 prisoners and a few guns. On the battlefield, which remained in our possession, great numbers of German dead testified to the costliness of the enemy’s obstinate defence.

Policy of Subsequent Operations at Arras

22. The strength of the opposition encountered in the course of this attack was in itself evidence that my offensive was fulfilling the part designed for it in the Allied plans. As the result of the fighting which had already taken place, twelve German divisions had been withdrawn exhausted from the battle or were in process of relief.

A month after the commencement of our offensive the number of German divisions so withdrawn had increased to twenty-three. On the other hand, the strengthening of the enemy’s forces opposite my front necessarily brought about for the time being the characteristics of a wearing-out battle.

On the Aisne and in Champagne, also, the French offensive had met with very obstinate resistance. It was becoming clear that many months of heavy fighting would be necessary before the enemy’s troops could be reduced to a condition which would permit of a more rapid advance.

None the less, very considerable results had already been achieved, and our Allies continued their efforts against the long plateau north of the Aisne traversed by the Chemin des Dames.

In order to assist our Allies, I arranged that until their object had been attained I would continue my operations at Arras. The necessary readjustment of troops, guns and material required to complete my preparations for my northern operations was accordingly postponed, and preparations were undertaken for a repetition of my attacks on the Arras front until such time as the results of the French offensive should have declared themselves.

The Final Arras Attacks

23. The first of these attacks was delivered on the 28th April on a front of about eight miles north of Monchy-le-Preux. With a view to economising my troops, my objectives were shallow, and for a like reason, and also in order to give the appearance of an attack on a more imposing scale, demonstrations were continued southwards to the Arras-Cambrai Road and northwards to the Souchez River.

The assault was launched at 4.25 a.m. by British and Canadian troops, and resulted in heavy fighting, which continued throughout the greater part of the 28th and 29th April. The enemy delivered counter-attack after counter-attack with the greatest determination and most lavish expenditure of men.

Our positions at Gavrelle alone were again attacked seven times with strong forces, and on each occasion the enemy was repulsed by the 63rd Division with great loss.

In spite of the enemy’s desperate resistance, the village of Arleux-en-Gohelle was captured by Canadian troops (1st Canadian Division), after bitter hand-to-hand fighting, and English troops (2nd Division, Major-General C. E. Pereira) made further progress in the neighbourhood of Oppy, on Greenland Hill (37th Division), and between Monchy-le-Preux and the Scarpe (12th Division).

In addition to these advances, another 1,000 German prisoners were taken by us in the course of the two days’ fighting.


24. Five days later, at 3.45 a.m. on the 3rd May, another attack was undertaken by us of a similar nature to that of the 28th April, which in the character of the subsequent fighting it closely resembled.

In view of important operations which the French were to carry out on the 5th May, I arranged for a considerable extension of my active front. While the Third and First Armies attacked from Fontaine-lez-Croisilles to Fresnoy, the Fifth Army launched a second attack upon the Hindenburg Line in the neighbourhood of Bullecourt. This gave a total front of over sixteen miles.

Along practically the whole of this front our troops broke into the enemy’s position. Australian troops (2nd Australian Division, Major-General N. M. Smyth) carried the Hindenburg Line east of Bullecourt. Eastern county battalions took Cherisy (18th Division, Major-General R. P. Lee).

Other English troops entered Roeux (4th Division) and captured the German trenches south of Fresnoy (2nd Division). Canadian battalions (1st Canadian Division) found Fresnoy full of German troops assembled for a hostile attack which was to have been delivered at a later hour.

After hard fighting, in which the enemy lost heavily, the Canadians carried the village, thereby completing an unbroken series of successes. Later in the day, strong hostile counter-attacks once more developed, accompanied by an intense bombardment with heavy guns.

Fierce fighting lasted throughout the afternoon and far into the night, and our troops were obliged to withdraw from Roeux and Cherisy. They maintained their hold, however, on Fresnoy and the Hindenburg Line east of Bullecourt, as well as upon certain trench elements west of Fontaine-lez-Croisilles and south of the Scarpe (12th Division).

Nine hundred and sixty-eight prisoners, including twenty-nine officers, were captured by us in these operations.

This Despatch continues to cover Bullecourt, Messines and Third Ypres.


Other British field commanders’ despatches

The Battle of Arras, 1917

Sir Douglas Haig’s fourth Despatch (II – Bullecourt, Messines, Third Ypres)