British and Canadian Forces Stymied by the Germans.

Outcome in France All Too Familiar.

Special to The Great War Project.

(16 April) A century ago, there are major developments on the Western Front in France.

Just a few days earlier, a combined British and Canadian force launches simultaneous offensives at Arras and Vimy Ridge.

The destruction at Arras, April 1917.

The destruction at Arras, April 1917.

The first stage is clearly successful. The German line is penetrated and 5600 German soldiers are taken prisoner.

The British and Canadian force, according to Gilbert, “overruns almost the whole of the German front-line trench system” in just forty-five minutes. And the second line just a short time later.

“By nightfall,” Gilbert adds, “even part of the third German line was in British control.”

“The Canadians were also successful in the first hours, taking 4,000 prisoners.”

Canadian troops at rest, near Arras , April 1917.

Canadian troops at rest, near Arras , April 1917.

But the result is not all roses for the Allied force. A third German line is much better defended.

In this offensive, the British employ a new tactic. They call it the rolling or creeping barrage. As historian Gilbert describes it, “the targets of the artillery would move steadily and systematically forward, while the infantry followed close behind it, taking advantage of the effect of the artillery in stunning the defenders and disrupting the defenses.”

But soon the Germans reverse the momentum of the attack.

As Gilbert describes it, “The German third line, so much better fortified than any previous line, held fast against the renewed assaults hurling against it, even when parts of it were taken.”

The British tanks cannot keep up with the infantry, and they fall behind, trapped by the mud and mechanical difficulties.

Canadian troops attack at Vimy Ridge, April 1917.

Canadian troops attack at Vimy Ridge, April 1917.

On the third day of the battle, a century ago, the British forces hit a snow storm. “At least one man died from exposure,” reports Gilbert.

The next day the offensive is resumed, after the British obtain intelligence that the Germans are bringing up re-enforcements.

Nevertheless, the British infantrymen are given orders to attack. This order is met with “incredulity,” although the British commanders “send in the cavalry which were sent forward to penetrate what seemed to be a widening gap in the German lines.”

But the battle continues for a third day, and now German reinforcements arrive. “For many of the British attackers, three consecutive days in action had brought them to the limit of their endurance.”

Nevertheless, the British commander orders another assault. On April 14th a century ago, at Vimy Ridge, “the Canadian contingent gains 4500 yards of the German line. They take 4,000 German soldiers prisoner, but at a cost of almost 3600 of their own men killed and more than 7,000 wounded.”

Grave at Vimy.

Grave at Vimy.

That day, reports Gilbert, “three British generals defied British army tradition by protesting directly to the British commander [General Sir Douglas Haig] at the mounting casualties.”

Finally on April 15th, Haig suspends the offensive. The result of the British attacks is tragically familiar: “A dent of four miles had been made along ten miles of the German front line.”

But at terrible cost. Nearly 36,000 soldiers killed. At Arras, 131 British aircraft are shot down

And at Vimy Ridge, 11,000 Canadian soldiers die, buried without identification. They are buried at 67 cemeteries there.

Cemetery World War One in France Vimy.

Cemetery World War One in France, Vimy.

And the following day, the French open their own offensive. Labelled the Nivelle Offensive, after the French commanding general, it too, according to historian Martin Gilbert, “is a disaster.