A taste of success: the First Battle of the Scarpe: the opening phase of the Battle of Arras, 9-14 April 1917
by Jim Smithson
published by Helion & Company, 2017
ISBN 978 1 911096 40 5
Hardback, 274 pages plus appendices and index. lllustrated.
Cover price not stated but publisher says £29.95.
Reviewed by Chris Baker
We have recently commemorated the centenary of the Battle of Arras. Compared with the media attention lavished on the Somme, coverage was muted to say the least and most of that concentrated on the largely Canadian capture of Vimy Ridge. The encouraging, deep advance made by the ten British Divisions that took part in the initial attack got barely a mention. I’ve long since learned that British media and TV historians love to wallow in failure, so perhaps I should not be too surprised. Jim Smithson’s “A taste of success” is an excellent and much-needed corrective which fills the gap by bringing us a solid, deeply researched and well written modern account. What a pity that its balanced and sober assessment was not reflected in the attention paid to the centenary.
Arras is a curiously little-covered battle, considering its scale and the terrible casualty rate. It seems to get lost between the two blood-red juggernauts of the Somme and Third Ypres – a great shame, for in many ways it marks a turning point. British tactics were moving on from the stiff, top-down approach of the Somme; German tactics were developing the concept of elastic defence; tanks were involved in greater numbers; the April skies were dominated by the Germans. It was arguably also the last major battle of the Great War in which the British undertook an offensive they would rather not have fought, for it was the desire of the new, short-lived, French commander in chief Robert Nivelle.
Smithson’s study takes us through the background to the battle, from the German withdrawal from the Somme to the “Hindenburg Line”; Lloyd George’s political manoeuvring to subordinate Haig to Nivelle; and the thinking and preparations for attack. It reveals a huge, detailed effort but one which included flaws. Not least of these were what to do next in the event of an early success, a factor which would have baleful effects. With excellent maps, extracts from histories, war diaries and memoirs, the author pieces together the progress of the battle with commendable clarity. The level of detail – we are in places down to actions at company level – makes it a very good work of reference if not perhaps one suited to the general reader. The German side is considered well, and if read in conjunction with Jack Sheldon’s work on the Germans in the battle gives us a good all-round reading of the stresses, decisions and actions that drove the fighting. Smithson’s knowledge of the ground is also evident – and as any battlefield visitor will tell you, it’s a hard battle to understand without seeing those slopes, open stretches and woods. “A taste of success” makes no pretence at being a battlefield guide book but as a text to underpin any tour of this area, it is simply a must.
Once again, a word for Helion’s production: glossy, good quality paper; some colour photographs and great design for a very reasonable price. Well done. There are a few more typographical errors than usual in a Helion work but they do not detract from the overall standard of the book. Well done.
Other books to read
Jonathan Nicholls’ “Cheerful sacrifice”