Second battle of Arras, 9 April-17 May 1917

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The second battle of Arras (9 April-16 May 1917) was the British contribution to the Allied spring offensive of 1917. The original Allied plan for 1917, agreed at the Chantilly conference of November 1916, was for a second offensive on the Somme, but that plan was abandoned after General Nivelle replaced General Joffre as the French Commander in Chief. He preferred to return to the plan of 1915, for attacks north and east of the Somme, aimed at cutting off the German salient in France. The French would attack on the Aisne, the British around Arras.

The British attack would start first. It would involve troops from three armies. In the north the Canadian corps of the First Army would attack Vimy Ridge. In the centre of the line the Third Army (General Allenby) would attack from Arras. Finally, the British Fifth Army (General Gough) would attack on the right of the line.

The attack on Vimy Ridge was one of the best planned British offensives of the war. General Byng, the British commander of the corps, made sure that his men were well trained and knew their role in the upcoming attacks. Twelve tunnels, one 2.5km long, were built leading up to the front line to protect the troops during their approach to the lines. On 9 April the Canadians stormed out of their tunnels and captured the ridge on the first day of the battle. By 13 April the Germans had accepted the loss of the ridge and pulled back to their third line of defences, the III Stellung (the Oppy-Mericourt Line), four miles further east.

The Third Army had also constructed a tunnel system, taking advantage of the underground chalk quarries at Arras. The entire British attack was supported by 2,879 guns each of which had close to 1,000 shells. The German commander on the Arras sector, General von Falkenhausen, believed his position to be too strong to be taken in a single day, and so had placed his reserves some fifteen miles behind the front lines. When VI Corps of Third Army launched its attack on 9 April they were able to overwhelm the German front line, and in some places advanced more than three miles. Only to the south was progress limited.

The British attack had made impressive progress, but it had not achieved a breakthrough on the first day. This allowed the Germans to rush their reinforcements into the gap, launching a series of counterattacks and slowing down the British attack. A renewed British attack at Bullecourt (11 April) failed to make any progress and the attack was suspended.

The French offensive on the Aisne (Second battle of the Aisne, 16 April-15 May 1917), quickly bogged down. The British renewed their efforts around Arras on 23 April, but even a well planned second battle of Bullecourt (3-17 May) failed to make any real headway. Haig then cancelled the Arras offensive and turned his attention back to his favoured sector of the front in Flanders (Third Ypres).

The month of fighting around Arras cost the British 84,000 casualties and the Germans 75,000. Tactically it was a clear British victory and the seizure of Vimy Ridge was a significant achievement, but the overall plan had failed. Neither the British nor French had been able to achieve the breakthrough Nivelle had promised. Soon the famous mutiny would break out in the French army. 

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (24 August 2007), Second battle of Arras II, 9 April-17 May 1917 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_arrasII.html

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