Review of new guide to Arras battlefields

Arras 1914-1918: a comprehesive guide to the battlefield: part 1: Arras South
by Jim Smithson and Tim Wright
published by Helion & Company in 2020
Paperback ISBN 978 1 912174 83 6
257 pages plus bibliography and index. Illustrated mostly black and white. Glossy paper. Colour cover and map section.

Many readers of this site will be familiar with the many titles from the “Battleground Europe” series of books from Pen & Sword, and the tour guides by the same publisher written by the late Jon Cooksey and Jerry Murland. They are handy, part-history, part-battlefield guide, books and “Part 1: Arras South” is written in a similar vein. It is a development from Jim Smithson’s acclaimed 2017 work “A taste of success”, a history of the first six days of the Battle of Arras in April 1917.

First impression is of the high standard of production that we have come to expect from Helion: good quality paper and binding, attractive typeface, and good clear maps. It is slightly larger in size than the “Battleground Europe” format: not quite so easy to put in your pocket, and I am not sure it would stand up to the rigours of too many battlefield trips. So perhaps one for reading before a trip or at your digs during the evenings of a battlefield tour.

The ground covered by the book is essentially that south of the River Scarpe and down as far as the flanking operations at Bullecourt. It is arranged into six chapters: the city of Arras; Tilloy and Observation Ridge; Neuville-Vitasse; Hénin Hill;  Monchy-le-Preux and Guémappe; Bullecourt and Croisilles. Places to send a shiver down your spine, for the fighting that took place within these areas was as horrific and costly as anything on the Somme or at Ypres.

Each chapter provides some history, although inevitably in a book where the average chapter is 40 pages which includes maps and photographs and where the font and layout is quite spacious, it is at a fairly high level. The reader should not expect the see the detail of the Official History or the microcosm of a personal memoir, but is given enough to understand the key events, why things took place, and what happened. The chapters, although focused on 1917, do also touch on the fighting that took place over the same ground, twice, in 1918. The descriptions are mainly from a British and Commonwealth viewpoint with relatively few references to the German units involved.

The chapters then go on from the history to provide a tour by visiting key locations: the sort of thing that a battlefield guide might call a “stand”, where the guide describes events at that particular spot. For example, the chapter on Neuville-Vitasse describes 14 key locations. There are good maps, photographs of the various cemeteries and memorials mentioned, and some present-day landscape photographs overlaid with battle lines and movement arrows. It all makes the battle understandable for the reader who is not on the ground and previoulsy knew nothing about this period and area. The chapters also end with short sections on other cemeteries nearby.

I found the book well written and a good read.

Publication of “Part 2: North” is expected during 2021.

Buy it


The Long, Long Trail’s guide to Arras

The 1917 Battle of Arras

Starter reading for Arras

Review of “The visitor’s guide – the Battle of Arras – North”