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Webmatters : Arras 1917 - Third Army Plans
Rough Map of Area

Arras

Third Army

Now that the Germans had pulled back to the Hindenburg Line, Third Army’s original instructions to carry out an attack between Bapaume and Arras were no longer relevant. The Germans had gone and 5th Army (in front of Bapaume) were dealing with a devastated area and would not be in a position to provide a great deal of support on the right.

The objective of the first day was basically the German trench positions in front of the villages of Monchy le Preux and Guémappe. If possible General Allenby, commanding the Third Army, would have liked to have taken Monchy as well.

These formed what were known as the Wancourt-Feuchy Line south of the Scarpe River and the Oppy-Mericourt Line to the north of it. To achieve this his three Corps: VII on the right, VI in the centre and XVII on the left would pivot slightly on the right and swing down the Cambrai Road and either side of the Scarpe.

The terrain over which they were about to fight consists of rolling hills with a few villages in the river valleys. This is crop country so there are few trees and little that could be counted as a wood — just wide open fields stretching across the horizon.

Running eastwards out of Arras the River Scarpe, along this stretch, qualifies more as a collection of ponds and marshes connected by a stream. As for the Cojeul and Sensée rivers which join it, these are in places, little more than drainage ditches.

 

Tilloy from the German second line

Tilloy from the German second line — across this open stretch was a maze of trench lines
In the trees to the right is Tilloy British Cemetery

 

The main Arras to Cambrai Road is a straight line and just off to the north is Monchy le Preux sitting high on its hill and dominating all around. To deal with the enemy’s trenches and barbed wire Third Army’s Artillery would put down a four day bombardment on a sector basis. Each section of the target area would be squared off and dealt with methodically.

The barrage was devised to ensure that trenches were destroyed and remained that way with the German support areas also coming under fire. The heavier guns would be used for counter battery work and then on Z Day itself the heavy machine guns would lay down their own barrage over the heads of the advancing infantry.

 

Monchy le Preux sitting high on its hill

Monchy le Preux sitting high on its hill

 

The soldiers would be protected during their advance by a creeping barrage that moved at a rate of one hundred metres every four minutes.

Pauses in the preliminary bombardment had been built in to allow observers to check the damage caused and to correct any shortcomings, but unfortunately the weather was not kind enough to lend assistance. Then by a stroke of luck General Micheler, who was also being plagued by bad weather on the Aisne, asked for a postponement and received 24 hours from Haig.

The original Z Day: 8th April, was a sunny day and the extra day gave the observers time to catch up on their work.

As Arras was well within the firing range of the German artillery she was not a particularly safe place in which to billet troops. A visit to the town could make you forget that what you are looking at has been rebuilt but photos of the period show the almost total destruction of the centre and the town is known as The Martyr to the French.

Beneath the two great squares in Arras (These days called the Grand’ Place and Place des Héros) there have always been a system of cellars — the famous Boves of Arras and these had been requisitioned and turned into accommodation.

To the east and south east there were a number of caves (the local word is boves) that had been tunnelled out as chalk quarries and it was decided that these should also be cleared and used to shelter 24,000 men.

With the town so dangerous to traverse it was decided to tunnel out from the town towards these suburban caves. The work was for the most part carried out by the New Zealand Tunnelling Company and explains such names such as Wellington and Auckland etc.

The St Sauveur tunnel ran out underneath the Cambrai Road and ended in five exits up into no man’s land. Following the Bapaume Road the Ronville Tunnel now in fact came up short of the British line following the German withdrawal.

Electricity was installed along with water pipes and the exits were protected by gas-proof doors.

Field Marshal Haig inspected his men and liked what he saw. These were not the enthusiastic but untried men of the Pals Battalions that had been destroyed less than a year before. Much had changed and mostly for the better.

The men were professional and quietly confident. All was looking well but ultimately Arras was about drawing the enemy away from the Aisne. That was where General Nivelle had assured everyone that he would break the Germans. It was also where General Ludendorff with prior knowledge was waiting on him.