This article is an edited transcript of The Battle of Vimy Ridge with Paul Reed on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 19 April 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
In many ways the Battle of Arras is the forgotten battle of the middle of World War One. It was effectively an outcome of the Battle of the Somme because, at the end of the Somme, in November 1916, the Germans realised they couldn’t defend that front indefinitely.
They needed to withdraw because, while neither the British nor the French had broken through, they had pretty much destroyed the German defences. The Germans knew they couldn’t hold them forever.
The Hindenburg Line
Germany looked to pastures new, deciding to build a brand-new system of defences, which they called the Siegfriedstellung, otherwise known as the Hindenburg Line.
The Hindenburg Line was a massive system of specifically prepared defences running from Arras, past Cambrai, down to Saint-Quentin and beyond the Somme.
Deep, wide trenches were dug to stop tanks, which were now very much part of the battlefield, as well as dense belts of barbed wire – in some places 40 metres thick – which they thought were pretty much impregnable. This was supplemented with concreted machine gun positions with overlapping fields of fire as well as concrete mortar positions, infantry shelters and tunnels linking those shelters to the trenches.
It took the winter of 1916/17 to build the new defensive line before, in the early part of the year, the Germans were ready to withdraw to it.
The creation of the Hindenburg Line was the precursor to the Battle of Arras, which commenced in April 1917, after the Germans had withdrawn to their new positions. The conflict was essentially the British Army’s first attempt to breach the Hindenburg Line.
The first challenge that faced the British troops was the task of digging in and preparing new positions in the open fields that faced the Hindenburg Line.
But, if you look at any history of the Western Front in the Great War, you’ll see that the British never stood still. The German wire was always the British front line and there was a near constant attempt to attack it and push the Germans back.
This offensive instinct led to the Battle of Arras.
Arras becomes the site of an assault on the Hindenburg Line
Britain’s task was to test out this new German defensive belt and hopefully break through it. Having been forced to follow the Germans to their new Hindenburg Line positions, Britain couldn’t just let them sit there, because they were now dominating the battlefield.
More specifically, the British found themselves facing a battlefield that was dominated by Vimy Ridge.
If you look at any World War One battlefield, very often you’ll find a story of the possession and repossession of high ground. High ground is always important because anyone with an elevated position on a relatively flat landscape, as you find in northern France and Flanders, has an advantage.
Along with Notre Dame de Lorette, Vimy Ridge was one of two bits of high ground at Arras. The French had spent much of 1915 trying to take these two positions and succeeded in taking Notre Dame de Lorette in May of that year.
At the same time, French colonial troops had made an attempt on Vimy, breaking through the German lines and reaching the ridge. But the troops on either side of them had failed and they were pushed back. The French had a second go in September 1915, but were repelled with heavy losses.
The British inherited the situation in 1916 but the sector remained quiet until, in the spring of 1917, the Hindenburg Line connected to the area around Arras and it became the new battlefront.
In many ways it also proved to be the site of a new type of offensive. The Battle of Arras was the first time that the British Army really began to learn from its experiences on the Somme in 1916.
In the spring of 1917 the British began to utilise tunnels and artillery with more strategic acumen than ever before. Engagements like the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which saw all four divisions of the Canadian Corps successfully storm a near-impregnable position, proved to be landmark Allied victories.