On 9 April 1917, British Empire forces launched a major offensive around Arras. In the south some units advanced more than five kilometres into German-held territory, while to the north Canadian troops captured Vimy Ridge. During the following weeks, fierce German resistance and poor weather prevented any further significant advances. By the end of the offensive on 16 May, some 300,000 men on both sides were wounded, missing or dead.

Plans

After the battles of attrition at Verdun and the Somme, the Allies planned a new offensive for the spring of 1917 intended to break the deadlock on the Western Front. The French, under the new leadership of General Robert Nivelle, would launch a massive attack on the Chemins des Dames Ridge near the River Aisne. The British would support this by launching their own offensive at Arras, drawing German reserves away before the French attack.

Arras had been on the front line throughout 1914 and 1915 and there had been heavy fighting for the high ground to the north. The German positions were formidable with multiple lines of trenches, concrete blockhouses and deep dugouts manned by veteran German soldiers.

British infantry preparing to advance from their assembly trenches
British infantry preparing to advance from their assembly trenches, 9 April 1917. IWM (Q 5118)

The Battle

On 20 March 1917, hundreds of British guns opened fire around Arras. By 9 April, more than 2.5 million shells had fallen and German defences had been smashed, their occupants exhausted and traumatised. At 5.30am, before dawn on 9 April, British, Canadian and South African infantry suddenly launched their assault along a 30 kilometre front. It was icy cold and snowing heavily, but many German frontline positions fell before their defenders could mount any serious resistance. To the north the Canadian Corps took Vimy Ridge, while to the south some British units advanced more than five kilometres into the German defences.

The tank 'Iron Duke' moving through Arras on its way to the front, 10 April 1917
The tank 'Iron Duke' moving through Arras on its way to the front, 10 April 1917. IWM (Q 6418)

On 11 April, the German reserve divisions began to arrive at Arras. Poor weather and icy mud hampered all British movements and the Germans fought fiercely, resisting every attempt to push on and preventing the British from making any further significant advances. The fighting degenerated into a slow, tough infantry battle.

For many soldiers, the fighting they experienced during the Arras Offensive would be the most ferocious of the war. German positions were often defended to the last man, the British and German soldiers fighting a bitter and bloody close combat battle.

British prisoners, many of them wounded, being escorted by German guards to a dressing station after the attack at the Oppy Wood, 1 May 1917
British prisoners, many of them wounded, being escorted by German guards to a dressing station after the attack at the Oppy Wood, 1 May 1917. IWM (Q 23675)

Aftermath

The Arras Offensive ended on 16 May 1917. In 39 days of fighting, some 300,000 men on both sides were wounded, missing or dead. The British suffered on average more than 4,000 casualties every day, the highest average daily casualty rate of any of their First World War assaults.

To the south, the French Neuville Offensive failed from the outset. Very heavy losses for little gain contributed to an eventual collapse of French moral. Some French units mutinied, the men refusing to attack again until they felt their lives were not being wasted.

arras cemeteries map

related Cemeteries & Memorials

Faubourg d'Amiens Cemetery, the Arras Memorial and the Flying Services Memorial

In 1916 the British Army took over the defense of Arras. Medical units were based in the city to tend to the wounded who were brought back from the front. The cemetery was begun by the French and the first British burials were made by the staff of the medical units for the burial of those who succumbed to their wounds. After the Armistice this location was chosen for the Arras Memorial and the Flying Services Memorial.

The Arras Memorial commemorates more than 34,700 ‘missing’ men. They died in the battles of Arras from 1916 to 1918, but their bodies could not be recovered. Their graves were unrecorded, lost or destroyed in the fighting or their remains could not be identified. They are buried beneath a headstone bearing the inscription 'Known Unto God'.

Arras Offensive Battles

Collections Canada PA-001879 - Battle of Vimy Ridge

Battle of Vimy Ridge

In April 1917, Commonwealth forces launched an offensive against German lines around Arras. It was intended to support a major French attack along the Chemin des Dames ridge.