During the Battle of Arras from 9 April to 16 May 1917, Artois was the theatre of terrible battles. From Vimy in the north to Bullecourt in the south, the British and their Commonwealth Allies were engaged in a diversionary enterprise. The objective: to help the French Army to lead an offensive on the Aisne front, a scheme advocated by General Nivelle. Today, numerous remembrance sites bear witness to this significant episode of the Great War.
05.30 am, as one man
Four thousand deaths per day for five weeks. The human toll of the Battle of Arras leaves one speechless.
On that day, 9 April 1917, at 05:30am (English time), over a 20-kilometre vertical line stretching from Vimy to Bullecourt, the Canadian, British, Scottish, Newfoundland and Australian forces under the command of Marshall Haig launched attacks on the German lines.
Prepared at the Chantilly Conference a year earlier, the Battle of Arras was intended to divert enemy attention towards Arras so as to facilitate the French offensive on the Chemin des Dames.
On the trail of remembrance
One hundred years on, the traces of the Battle of Arras can be seen across the territory, thanks to the Remembrance Trails.
A remembrance circuit which passes, in particular, through the Canadian National Memorial Park in Vimy and the Monument to the 37th British Division and the Newfoundland Memorial in Monchy-le-Preux. There are other iconic memorials along the route, such as the Australian Digger statue and the Jean and Denise Letaille Museum in Bullecourt, the Faubourg d’Amiens British Cemetery in Arras and the 9th Scottish Division Memorial in Athies.
Remembrance of the Battle of Arras is reaffirmed on a continual basis, as evidenced by the opening of the Wellington Quarry in 2008.
This takes us 20 metres below ground, down to where the New Zealand tunnellers excavated the kilometres of tunnels necessary for the British to launch their surprise attack on the German positions. Today, the descendants of those New Zealanders come here to walk in the footsteps of their forebears.
One such is Clare Mashiter whose grandfather, Robert Ronayne, was an engineer with the New Zealand Tunnelling Company assigned to Arras. Like hundreds of her Commonwealth compatriots, every year on 9 April at 06:30am (French time) she unfailingly attends the poignant Dawn Ceremony which honours the soldiers of the British Empire who came here to fight for peace.
In 2014, this episode was a source of inspiration for the illustrator Frédéric Logez. The author of La Bataille: Arras, Vimy, Bullecourt…1917 presents us with a gripping comic strip account which brings alive this key episode in the First World War.