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Webmatters : The advance from Arras to Cambrai in 1918

The Battle of the Scarpe

The Battle of the Scarpe

In August 1918 the Canadian Corps, under Lt General Sir Arthur Currie, was temporarily attached to the Fourth Army in order to take part in the British offensive to secure the city of Amiens, launched on 8th August 1918.

The front secured, the Canadians were posted north, back to their old hunting grounds around Arras as part of the First Army, commanded by General Sir Henry Horne.

Sir Douglas Haig now directed the First Army to strike eastward out of Arras. For its part in the coming offensive the Canadian Corps was given the task of forcing the Drocourt-Quéant Line (The Canadians call it the D-Q Line) south of the Scarpe and advancing to the line of the Canal du Nord.

About fifteen kilometres to the east of Arras, the Drocourt-Quéant Line was a heavily fortified system of defences extended northward as a switch-line from the main Hindenburg position. Fortified with bunkers, machine gun nests and dense thickets of barbed wire the Germans hoped that it would prove impregnable.

To achieve its objective the Corps would advance astride the Arras — Cambrai Road with the 51st (Highland) Division (temporarily under Currie’s command) forming the left flank, the 3rd Canadian Division in the centre between the river Scarpe and the road and the 2nd Canadian Division on the right, south of the main road.

The two remaining Canadian Divisions were at this stage still on their way back from the Somme.

Having used the tunnels under Arras as a shelter, the Canadian Corps launched its assault at 0300 hours (just before dawn) on 26th August. The early timing had been chosen to catch the Germans unaware. Dawn was a popular time for assaults to take place — not slightly before it.

Newfoundland Regiment Caribou at Monchy le Preux

The Newfoundland Regiment’s Caribou recalling their action
at Monchy-le-Preux in April 1917

The primary target for the day was the hillside village of Monchy le Preux which dominates the countryside. It can be seen from pretty much every part of the 1917 battlefield and immediately to the west of it are two smaller hills: Orange Hill on the northern side of the main road and Chapel Hill on the southern.

Both hills fell relatively easily and by 0740 hours Monchy was in Canadian hands. To the north the Highlanders had captured the infamous Chemical Works at Roeux where so much blood letting had taken place during the battle of Arras.

The Chemical works was demolished and the site is now occupied by a small Carrefour supermarket.

On the right the 2nd Division moved swiftly, recapturing the villages of Guémappe and Wancourt and by nightfall the front had been pushed almost a kilometre beyond Monchy.

The next stage of the offensive required the Canadians to pass through the Fresnes-Rouvroy Line. Some progress was made on the 26th and 27th but the fighting became ever more bitter on the 28th. The 3rd Division had used all three of its Brigades to maker a break through near Boiry Notre Dame but the 2nd Division wore itself out in the face of a determined German defence by the Württemberger Regiments.

The Canadians had advanced eight kilometres in three days of hard fighting, taking 3,300 prisoners, but for the loss of 6,000 casualties of their own; including Major Georges Vanier, a future Governor General of Canada, who lost his right leg near Chérisy whilst commanding the 22nd Battalion (which went on to lose all its officers in the action).

During the night of the 28th/29th August the 2nd Division was replaced by the 1st Canadian Division and the 3rd Division by the 4th.

Orange Hill Cemetery

Orange Hill Cemetery contains 43 casualties — all but one Canadian from 1918