A visitor’s guide – The Battles of Arras – North – Vimy Ridge to Oppy Wood and Gavrelle
By Jon Cooksey and Jerry Murland
Published by Pen & Sword Military in 2019
Paperback ISBN 978 1 47389 303 0
173 pages plus two brief appendices, reading list and index. Illustrated.
Cover price £14.99
Another work by the prolific pairing of Cooksey and Murland, both well-known authors of good and readable histories. This is the sixth in a series of battlefield travel guides – or, at least, it is the sixth in a sequence, for the first ones went under the banner “Battle Lines” and Pen & Sword appears to have dropped that in favour of “A visitor’s guide”. The previous books in the sequence have covered the Western Front from the North Sea down to Ploegsteert; the Somme; Mons and the retreat; and – geographically closest to the ground covered in “The Battles of Arras – North” – the fields of French Flanders (Fromelles, Neuve Chapelle, Festubert and Loos). This book follows the pattern in narrating six routes that could be followed by car or on a bike.
If we pick up from the same author’s work that covered Loos, the area covered by this book skips past the grim front line of the Lens sector and begins with the geographically more appealing hilly area of the Lorette and Vimy ridges. It then works its way down to the northern half of the area over which the 1917 Battle of Arras was fought. The opening chapter provides a brief summary of the multitude of important battles that took place for possession of this strategically important ground, from the arrival of fighting here in 1914 and the French counter-offensive of late December 1914 and early 1915 onwards. I am pleased to see that the French and Germans are covered to some extent in this book, for it was their battleground: it was not until March 1916 that the British moved into the Vimy sector. The visitor cannot fail to be impressed and moved by the sheer scale of the French cemeteries at Notre-Dame de Lorette and La Targette, and the German cemetery at Neuville-St-Vaast. Having said that, coverage of those two forces is limited and as with many works produced for English speakers it focuses much more on the doings of the British Army than any other. But perhaps I should add that British in this context also means, to a very great extent, Canadian: the book also includes details of the national memorial park of Vimy Ridge.
The six tours are good, sensible ones that pick up many of the highlights of the area. They vary in scope from the 35-mile car circuit of Tour 1 (the hills) to a 1.2-mile walking jaunt around Oppy in Tour 4. As such, I found the coverage of the area to be a little uneven, with Gavrelle receiving perhaps more than its fair share of page space. The reader is provided with step by step instructions and the various sights are explained putting them into battle context. The pages are well illustrated with photographs and there are good, clear maps and advice. Appendices list VC winners and British authors, poets and artists who were killed at Arras.
Overall, a useful work for anyone wishing to tour the area, particularly for the new visitor.
Although buyers are likely to be able to obtain the book at a lower price that the £14.99 stated on the cover and we can’t complain at that, I’m not sure that this represents quite the same outstanding value as the same publisher’s not dissimilar “Battleground Europe” series. Recent works under that imprint have been far more voluminous in terms of number of pages and in depth of content, for much the same price.
I note that a two volume, in depth, guide to the Arras battlefields is due for publication by Helion & Company in early 2020.