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 April 1917, the British Army launched an offensive at Arras on the Western Front. The Battle of Arras initially saw the British achieve the longest advance in the history of trench warfare, but ultimately resulted in a bloody stalemate that cost both sides heavily.
The worst month the Western Front had yet seen
“Bloody April” refers specifically to the extensive casualties suffered by the Royal Flying Corps during the engagement. The Battle of Arras was a total bloodbath for Allied airmen and April 1917 became one of the worst months on the Western Front.
At that stage of World War One, the Germans probably had the upper hand in the air war – a lot of the aircraft they were using was superior to anything the British Flying Corps had access to. They were faster and more agile in the air than the relatively slow and vulnerable British aircraft, which were largely there to assist the artillery and take air photos at that stage in the war.
Consequently, there were tremendous losses among the Royal Flying Corps over the battlefields around Arras, where aircraft came down on an almost hourly basis.
When you go to the Arras Memorial now, which commemorates 35,000 British and Commonwealth troops who died at Arras and who have no known graves, there’s a separate section for the air services. Of the nearly 1,000 names a very high percentage are men who fell in Bloody April.
A spur for swift advances in airborne warfare
The memorial demonstrates the fact that, at that stage in the war, Britain needed to up its game as far as the war in the air was concerned. There was an urgent need to develop and introduce new aircraft that would be capable of taking on the German planes. Which is exactly what you see over the next phase of the war.
It’s important to remember that such aeronautical development was still a new science.
The aircraft taken to war in 1914 didn’t have any armaments; it was simply there to observe.
Initially, officers took up shotguns, rifles, pistols, even bricks to drop over the side of the aircraft in an attempt to punch a hole in enemy aircraft or even knock out the pilot.
By 1917, things were a bit more sophisticated but British aircraft were suffering because the Germans had the technological edge. It was a costly period for the Royal Flying Corps.
In the television series Blackadder Goes Forth, Lieutenant George (Hugh Laurie) reads out a section of the Book of the Air, which states that new pilots spend an average of 20 minutes in the air, an estimate that Wing Commander Lord Flashheart (Rik Mayall) later states is actually the life expectancy of new Royal Flying Corps pilots.
As with all good comedy it’s a joke that hits on aspects of the truth. While the average Royal Flying Corps pilot lasted a lot longer than 20 minutes, in April 1917 their life expectancy was indeed still pretty short.