Battle of Arras 9
02 min 10 s
British Topical Committee for War Films
British forces, chiefly 7th and 29th Divisions, on the first day of the Somme offensive, Western Front, 1 July 1916. The film shows the preparatory bombardment for the days before the attack. The bombardment, shown in the opening reels, is by a variety of guns from a giant 1 5-inch howitzer to trench mortars.
The classic First World War film in every sense, widely used for stock shots even today. The only British official film to have a major impact on the perception of the war, both at the time and in historical terms. Also the only official film of the war with a claim to be regarded as great art in its own right. The unprecedented and unexpected public success of this film established cinema as a remainder of the war.
Pieces of History
Military Logistics of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914–1919
Canadian military logistics is a dimension of the history of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) that is often overlooked. Yet just a few days after Canada’s entry into the First World War, it was obvious that there was no way of ignoring it. When huge numbers of military and civilian volunteers showed up at Valcartier, near Quebec City, in August 1914, logistical support services, which had only recently been established, were soon put to the test. Clothing and equipping the members of the first contingent turned out to be a real headache. Manufacturers had to be found and contracts drawn up in a hurry for the production of uniforms, boots, belts, weapons, vehicles and so on. From a logistical standpoint, mobilizing the first contingent destined for Europe was a nightmare.
Throughout the Great War, the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s logistical support system was an immense, complex operation. Of all the support services, the Canadian Army Service Corps (CASC) was the most diversified. Its main responsibilities were transporting combat troops, delivering equipment and materials, and providing the troops with fresh supplies. In addition to these essential tasks, the CASC also evacuated the wounded (ambulance drivers belonged to the corps), salvaged equipment that had been captured from the enemy or left behind on the battlefield and delivered mail. The CASC worked closely with the Canadian Ordnance Corps, the Canadian Army Medical Corps, and the Canadian Artillery Corps for the transportation of specialized ordnance.
The CASC operated from seaports located hundreds of kilometres from the battlefield, all the way to just behind the front lines. Its replenishment system could supply not only small groups of just a few men but also formations the size of an infantry battalion (approximately 1,000 men).
Resupplying front-line units was a multistep process. From ports and depots, supplies were first taken by railway to railheads. From there, CASC units were responsible for moving the supplies by truck or light railway to supply dumps. These operations took place in the third line of supply. Thanks to their small size, light railways could run and reach areas closer to the front lines more easily. It was also harder for enemy artillery to pinpoint them. The administrative area behind the front lines was crisscrossed by light rail lines that were built and maintained by Canadian railway troops.
From the supply dumps, the CASC’s divisional train and ammunition supply column, both of which were horse-drawn, were responsible for bringing supplies closer to the front lines, to their respective divisions or individual units. This was the second line of supply.
Lastly, operations to supply front-line units constituted the first line of supply. These units had to come back to the rear to get their own supplies of gear, ammunition, weapons, technical and communications equipment, water, medication and food. These supply expeditions were carried out chiefly at night so that the soldiers could not be seen by the enemy. But assigning combat troops to this task meant that a battalion’s defensive positions at the front would be short of manpower for a time and so vulnerable to enemy attack.
Toward the end of the war, however, a Canadian officer from Montreal proposed using the tumpline system — the method that Canada’s aboriginal people and coureurs de bois had used to carry large loads on foot. Before the introduction of this system, infantryman had to carry supplies in their arms, thus limiting the quantity of materials due to their size and weight. The tumpline system, which involved the use of a head strap, allowed the soldiers to carry more weight and freed up their arms, thus giving them more freedom of movement. With this system, each soldier was able to transport a greater quantity of supplies and so fewer men were required for the job, leaving more troops to ensure the defence of the front lines.
Besides regularly providing drivers and vehicles to other units, the CASC also maintained and repaired its vehicles. It also had to make sure that the troops were fed, which meant that fresh and hard rations had to be allocated and distributed properly; its military cooks oversaw the operation of field bakeries and butcheries.
The CASC was not the only logistical support corps to play a key role in the CEF. The Canadian Ordnance Corps was responsible for procuring, storing and distributing uniforms, boots, equipment, weapons, ammunition and shells to combat troops. Specialized supply depots, located in the second line of supply, helped ensure more effective distribution.
The Canadian Ordnance Corps’ other major role was to maintain equipment in the field. The repairmen in the specialized ordnance mobile workshops could get closer to the deployed units and repair their weapons, both light and heavy, as well as their equipment. If the mobile workshops were not able to do the repairs on site, the weapons and equipment were shipped to heavy or stationary workshops at the rear, where virtually anything could be reassembled or rebuilt. The small detachments of the Ordnance Corps worked closely with the various units of the Army Service Corps.
Despite the gradual mechanization of the war, horses remained a vital component of the CEF. The cavalry, the artillery and, of course, the Army Service Corps used huge numbers of horses right up to the end of the war. At one point, Canadians were using as many as 24,000 horses and mules in their overseas operations. Horses could often manage in places where motorized vehicles could make no headway! Inevitably, some horses suffered injuries or fell ill. The Canadian Veterinary Corps operated mobile sections to take care of horses; it also ran veterinary hospitals for horses, advanced remount depots and specialized basic provisions depots.
Other logistical support services also played a crucial role in enabling combat troops to get on with their job. The Canadian Postal Corps, for instance, helped maintain the morale of soldiers at the front, at the rear and also those convalescing in hospitals. Army chaplains, who constituted the smallest organized support group, provided religious services to Canadian soldiers of different faiths and offered moral support at difficult times. Lastly, despite the enemy’s efforts to maintain a naval blockade by submarines, the Canadian Forestry Corps ensured that Great Britain, France and the Canadian Expeditionary Force obtained all the timber they needed to carry out their military operations.
Thousands of men served in these various organizations. The Army Service Corps, for example, counted over 17,000 officers and non-commissioned soldiers in its organization. Even if these units were not combat troops, many of them, including the Army Service Corps, played important roles in all military actions. One hundred and four members of the CASC were killed, and 363 were wounded.
Brown, Ian Malcolm. British Logistics on the Western Front, 1914-1919. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1998.
Canadian Army Service Corps, 2nd Divisional Train: Record of Service of Officers, 1914-1919. Brian Pontifex, comp. Toronto: Carswell, 1920.
Davies, W.J.K. Light Railways of the First World War: A History of Tactical Rail Communications on the British Fronts, 1914-18. Newton Abbot, UK: David & Charles, 1967.
French, Cecil. A History of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps in the Great World War, 1914-1919. C.A.V. Barker and Ian K. Barker, eds. Guelph: Crest Books, 1999.
Jackson, H.M. The 127th Battalion, CEF; 2nd Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops. Montreal: Industrial Shops for the Deaf, 1957?.
Johnston, James Robert. Riding into War: The Memoir of a Horse Transport Driver, 1916-1919. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions and The New Brunswick Military Heritage Project, 2004.
Love, David W. “A Call to Arms”: The Organization and Administration of Canada’s Military in World War One. Calgary: Bunker To Bunker Books, 1999.
Phelan, Frederick Ross. “Army Supplies in the Forward Area and the Tumpline System: A First World War Canadian Logistical Innovation.” Canadian Military History 9, no 1 (Winter 2000): 31-45 [reprinted from the article published in the Canadian Defence Quarterly in October 1928].
To the Thunderer his Arms: The Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps. William F. Rannie, ed. Lincoln, ON: W.F. Rannie, 1984.
Warren, Arnold. Wait for the Waggon: The Story of the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1961.
Artillery: The Great Killer
Historian, Canadian War Museum
In 1914 and 1915, artillery proved it was the great killer. For those caught in the open, shrapnel and high explosive shells wreacked havoc. Thousands were left rotting on the battlefields. However, artillery guns were vulnerable to small arms fire, and they could be driven away from the front. But the guns were soon firing indirectly from hidden positions several kilometeres to the rear, still causing terrible damage. Soldiers were forced to find safety in trenches, digging beneath the ground to escape the murderous fire.
As trenches were strengthened with barbed wire, deep dugouts, and machine -guns, an enormous weight of fire was needed to smash the enemy defences and support the infantry. But there were not always enough shells in the early years to feed the guns. And so the infantry were killed in the tens of thousands as they attacked undamaged enemy trenches in frontal assaults. As the war lengthened, artillerymen received nearly unlimited supplies of shells through the enormous production of munitions factories. New tactics were also developed to improve the accuracy of the guns.
Artillery shells contained high explosives, shrapnel, and, later in the war, poison gas and smoke. Both the high explosive and shrapnel shells were timed to detonate in the air above a target. High explosive shells blasted holes in the trenches and the concussion alone could kill, as lungs collapsed under the force of the explosion. Shrapnel shells were equally deadly, consisting of more than 300 rounded metal balls that exploded downward in a cone-shaped rain of whirling metal. As well, the casing of the shell was designed to explode outward, creating jagged, uneven shards of steel that tore through flesh.
By 1916, commanders believed that massive artillery shoots, involving hundreds of thousands of shells, would annihilate the enemy defenders. This would allow the infantry to punch a hole through enemy lines and restore mobility on the Western Front.
However, it was often hard to hit, and then destroy, the narrow and well-fortified trenches. The problem also lay in the shell fuses. Earlier types were not sensitive enough to explode on contact, especially with shells tasked to clear barbed wire. As a result, many of the shells exploded in the ground, killing very few of the enemy, leaving the infantry to fight their way through defences-in-depth. By the end of 1916, newer, sensitive fuses that exploded on the slightest contact harnessed the destructive power of the artillery and, equally important to the infantry, cleared barbed wire from in front of enemy trenches.
Tactics again changed during the later phases of the bloody battles of the Somme in the last half of 1916. The gunners would never be able to destroy all of the German defences, and even one machine -gunner could kill hundreds of attacking infantry. Instead, the artillery sought to suppress enemy fire through a “creeping barrage,” and give their own attacking infantry enough time to cross the killing zone of nNo Mman’s Lland.
Gunners fired their shells to create a “creeping” wall of fire that slowly moved forward over the enemy lines at fixed intervals: 50 yards (46 m) every couple of minutes, less for muddy ground, more for open warfare. In effect, it was a screen of fire and explosives. As this moving wall of shrapnel and high explosives chewed up the ground in its path, the infantry were told to “lean into the barrage” and stay as close as possible. Although friendly fire was expected and occurred, the casualties would still be lighter than if the creeping barrage moved off and allowed German machine -gunners, waiting in the safety of deep dugouts, to get to the top of their trenches before the infantry crossed nNo Mman’s lLand.
At the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, the gunners had perfected the creeping barrage. Yet enemy gunners still took a fearful toll as they laid down their own counter-barrages to catch the follow-on waves of infantry. The enemy guns had to be stopped, or slowed, but it was exceedingly difficult to identify, target, and destroy camouflaged guns several kilometeres away.
Accurate intelligence was essential, and new and refined forms of science aided the gunners. The Canadian Corps was lucky to have Brigadier-General Andrew McNaughton, commander of the counter-battery office for much of the war, who embraced new technology and tactics. A prewar professor at McGill University, he turned to science to save his soldiers lives.
The Canadian Counter Battery Office (CCBO), established in February 1917, gathered intelligence and processed information on the enemy to assist in knocking out his guns. Aerial reconnaissance from the Royal Flying Corps (later Royal Air Force) was of great assistance as airmen photographed the front from great heights. Later in the war, observation aircraft circled the battlefield, passing real-time information to the gunners through letter drops and primitive wireless radio.
As the CCBO developed after April 1917, this information-gathering and target-selection became more sophisticated, with new technology, like sound-ranging and flash-spotting, assisting gunners to find and destroy enemy targets.
Flash-spotting involved the coordination of observers. At least three posts were needed, usually spread out along several kilometeres. When an enemy gun position was spotted by the revealing flash as the shell left the barrel, the observers were telephoned by headquarters to turn their attention to that spot. After studying the flash of the gun, the observers would hit a key that was connected to a lamp at headquarters. From the observers’ bearings, and by triangulating their estimates, enemy guns could be located with high precision.
Sound-ranging worked on a similar principle. Listeners sat two kilometeres behind the line with their microphones. Additional posts were manned well ahead of these positions. As long as there was not more than one shell per second being fired, on hearing the crash of an enemy gun, the forward listening post pressed a key that started an oscillograph, an instrument that recorded on film the sound of the shell in flight as it reached each microphone in turn. The time-intervals between the microphones allowed the CCBO to analyse the information and, if conditions were optimal, pinpoint enemy guns to within twenty-five 25 yards (23 m). All available counter-battery guns would be aimed on that spot to deliver a destructive shoot of 50-100 shells. Chemical shells were also used to kill or force the enemy gunners to wear debilitating respirators that severely affected the rate of fire.
In the last year of the war, artillery had perfected the creeping barrage and was steadily improving its counter-battery work. Further tactical refinement allowed gunners to fire more complicated barrages, like a box barrage. The box barrages set up a wall of fire and explosives around an enemy position —-- usually a trench —-- which effectively isolated it from reinforcements. It allowed assaulting Canadian infantrymen to capture and consolidate a position without fear of immediate counterattack.
By war’s end, 43,914 gunners had served in the Canadian artillery, and 2,565 had lost their lives from disease, injury, and battlefield wounds. They had fired tens of millions of shells, reducing the landscape to a desolate wasteland, and an estimated 60% of all wounds were inflicted by shell fire. The First World War was indeed a gunner’s war.
Cook, Tim. No Place to Run: The Canadian Corps and Gas Warfare in the First World War. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1999.
McNaughton, A.G.L. “Counter-Battery Work.” Canadian Defence Quarterly 3, 4 (July, 1926).
McNaughton, A.G.L. “The Development of Artillery in the Great War.” Canadian Defence Quarterly 4, 2 (January, 1929).
Nicholson, G.W.L. The Gunners of Canada: The History of the Royal Regiment of the Canadian Artillery, Vol. 1: 1534-1919 Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967.
Rawling, William. Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps, 1914-1918. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Swettenham, John. McNaughton, Volume I. Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1968.
The Withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line
none the less hard-fought engagements preparatory to larger operations, pushed the
enemy five miles up the Ancre valley on a four-mile front; and on the night of 22-23
February the Germans fell back three more miles across a front of fifteen miles. The
inability of his forces to withstand British pressure in their present positions strengthened Crown Prince Rupprecht's argument for a general retirement to the Hindenburg Line at an early date. On 30 January Ludendorff agreed, not only because the consequent shortening of the front would release thirteen divisions and many artillery units for the projected offensive in Italy, but also because a general retirement could be expected to upset French and British campaign plans. It was in the German interest to delay as long as possible any struggle on the Western Front, in order to allow time for results from the campaign of unrestricted warfare by submarine and cruiser which had begun on 1 February. The deciding factor, however, appears to have been the need for time to replenish supplies of guns and shells, deliveries of which had fallen far short of von Hindenburg's orders and expectations.
On 4 February the High Command issued an order over the Kaiser's signature for a
withdrawal of the Seventh Army's right wing, the Second and First Armies, and the left wing of the Sixth Army to the Hindenburg Line between 15 and 18 March. This operation was aptly code-named "Alberich", after the malicious dwarf of the Nibelungen saga,28 for it called for the devastation of the whole area to be abandoned - nearly 100 miles of front between Soissons and Arras, averaging almost 20 miles in depth. Under this "scorched earth" policy all military installations and useful war material were removed from the existing forward zone, townspeople and villagers were evacuated and their communities razed, livestock were carried away or destroyed, and all wells were either filled in or polluted. To delay an Allied advance the retreating Germans felled trees across the roads, blew large craters at main intersections, and everywhere beset the pursuers' path with ingeniously laid booby-traps. Well organized rearguards covered the German withdrawal, though these received orders not to counter- attack. The skill of the Germans in concealing their plans from the Allies and the success of their delaying tactics helped prevent any effective follow-up. By the morning of 19 March, 29 divisions had completed the withdrawal with a minimum of Allied interference.29 Four Allied armies found themselves out of contact - from north to south, the right wing of the British Third Army about Arras, the Fifth and Fourth Armies to across the Somme valley, and the left wing of the French between Roye and the Aisne. It took until 5 April to drive in the German outposts and establish a new Allied line in front of the Hindenburg Position.*
The enemy's retirement did not greatly affect the plan of Nivelle's main offensive,
which was to be made east of Soissons. But it seriously upset the preliminary offensive in the north, for the Germans in the salient which converging British and French thrusts were to have pinched out had now escaped containment. Time was lacking in which to build new communications across the devastated area, particularly on the French left, where the retreat had been farthest. Accordingly, the northern attack became an all-British operation, the principal aim of which was to outflank the Hindenburg Line from the north and advance towards Cambrai. General Nivelle was forcibly told by Painlevé and Pétain and other high French officers that his scheme was no longer practicable. Army group commanders opposed the plan as a reversion to the discredited pre-war and 1914 overemphasis on offensive action for its own sake. There were also strategic and political objections. Neither the Russians nor the Italians would be able to mount offensives in time to render assistance; and the prospect of America's early entry into the war seemed another good reason for postponing a major French offensive. At one point Nivelle offered his resignation; but this being refused, he continued with his preparations. After various delays the assault on the Aisne was ordered to open on 16 April, the British offensive a week earlier.
* Taking part in the Fourth Army's advance was the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. On 27 March, Lieut. F.M.W. Harvey, Lord Strathcona's Horse, ran into a wired trench and captured a machine-gun, for which daring act he was awarded the V.C.
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964, p.218-219.
The Canal du Nord and Bourlon Wood
On the Corps right, troops of the 10th Brigade, hugging their artillery cover, quickly crossed the canal on a two-battalion front between Inchy and Moeuvres. They overcame resistance from the Canal du Nord Line, and established them selves on Red according to schedule. The 11th and 12th Brigades, leading the 4th Division's attack on the right and left respectively, pushed forward but almost immediately met trouble from the south. Opposing General Watson's formations was the German 187th Infantry Division, with its 188th Infantry Regiment directly west of Bourlon Wood, flanked to north and south respectively by the 186th and 187th Regiments. Farther south was the dismounted 7th Cavalry Division; unused to infantry tactics they were quickly defeated. The 52nd Division, attacking on the Third Army's flank, had not achieved the same initial success as the 4th Division, and as a result the Canadian right suffered many casualties from enfilade fire.
In stiff fighting the 87th Battalion gained an entry into the southern part of Bourlon village by 9:45 a.m., and the 54th, passing through, skirted the north end of Bourlon Wood to reach the far side. The slower advance of the British troops to the south compelled the 102nd Battalion to form a defensive flank beside the Bapaume road and defeated the plan to encircle the wood from the south. This left the 54th in a pronounced salient, suffering mounting casualties. The battalion pushed on towards Fontaine-Notre-Dame, finally coming to a halt about 7:00 p.m. just west of the village, the 75th and 87th Battalions coming up on its left. Farther north the 12th Brigade also had stiff fighting throughout the day. The 85th and 38th Battalions, heavily hit by shelling and machine-gun fire during their advance, cleared their part of the Marquion trench system, allowing the 78th and 72nd Battalions to gain all but the extreme right of its Blue Line objective. It took a fresh attack mounted at 8:00 p.m. by the 78th Battalion to overcome the final pocket of resistance.
In the course of the 4th Division's operations on September 27 two subalterns had won the Victoria Cross. Lieutenant G.T. Lyall of the 102nd Battalion, and Lieutenant S.L. Honey, D.C.M., M.M., 78th Battalion, through their skilful leadership and courage in dealing with German strong points both significantly contributed to the capture of Bourlon Wood. Like many another recognition for brave deeds in the war, Lieutenant Honey's award came posthumously.
On the Corps left the 1st Division's success paid tribute to careful planning and well-directed and determined execution. Two guns of the 1st Battery C.F.A. gave the 1st Brigade a good start by moving in front of Inchy-en-Artois and firing point-blank into enemy positions along the canal. Thus aided, the 4th Battalion, having crossed the dry bed with little difficulty, was able to jump ahead to the north-east and capture its assigned portion of the Marquion Line. Here the 1st Battalion pushed through as planned and secured the Green Line in short order. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions now assumed the lead, only to be stopped by heavy fire from the embanked railway which curved north from Bourlon. With the aid of a timely flanking attack by the 72nd Battalion they overcame this resistance and swept on to the Blue Line. The action of the Commander of the 3rd Battalion's left support company, Lieutenant G.F. Kerr, M.C., M.M., in rushing single-handed a German strongpoint near the Arras-Cambrai road played an important part in the 1st Brigade's advance. Kerr, who captured four machine guns and 31 prisoners, was awarded the Victoria Cross.
The 2nd Brigade's role was to follow the 1st up to the Marquion Line and then extend to the left to capture the central portion of the Blue Line on the divisional front. By two o'clock the 7th Battalion was firm on its objective midway between Marquion and Haynecourt. During the afternoon the 5th Battalion went on to occupy Haynecourt and push patrols almost to the main Cambrai-Douai road. On the left, units of the 11th British Division passed through, headed for Epinoy. By the end of the day (September 27) patrols of the 10th Battalion-which had passed through the 5th just east of Haynecourtwere approaching the Marcoing Line, coming first to a heavy belt of uncut wire covered by enemy machine-guns. With mounting casualties the infantry cut the wire and pushed forward; but confronted by a second wire barrier, which marked the line itself, and with darkness approaching, the battalion consolidated on the east side of the Douai-Cambrai road.
On General Macdonell's left the 3rd Brigade had the important task of driving northward beyond the Canal du Nord and capturing in turn the villages of Sainslez-Marquion and Marquion, thereby freeing the eastern bank to permit crossings by the 11th Division. Leading the 3rd Brigade's advance the 14th Battalion crossed south of Sains-lez-Marquion, and swinging north behind the village, quickly captured its part of the Red Line. Four supporting tanks rendered good service in crushing wire barricades and in mopping up the village, but mechanical difficulties kept them from advancing past the Red Line. From Chapel Corner, south-east of Marquion, the German opposition, which had wavered before the initial rush of the 14th, rallied with heavy fire to stop the 13th Battalion, which was following up the initial assault. It took a joint effort by the 13th and 15th Battalions with tank assistance to clear Marquion. The 15th continued northward across the Arras road, mopping up the area east of the canal. By 2:00 p.m. it was firm at the Blue Line, just south of Sauchy-Lestrée.
Both Canadian divisions had received useful help from the tanks-each being supported by a company (of eight tanks) from the 7th Tank Battalion. The four allotted to each assaulting brigade successfully crossed the dry canal under cover of an artillery smoke-screen. Later they contributed to their own concealment by means of smoke dischargers fitted to their exhausts. During the day they gave good service in crushing wire entanglements and silencing with their fire enemy machine-gun posts. Of the sixteen tanks engaged in the first phase of the operation five fell victim to German fire.
About midday, when the 3rd Infantry Brigade had completed its assigned task of clearing the east bank of the canal, units of the 11th Division crossed at four places between Sains-lez-Marquion and the highway and moved smoothly into place on the left of the 1st Division to start the second phase of the attack. The advance to the north and north-east continued without serious interruption, and by dusk Epinoy and Oisy-le-Verger were in British hands.
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964, p.419-422.