Arras: The Forgotten Battlefield

During the late 1980s I interviewed several hundred British and Canadian veterans who had fought in the First World War. It will be no surprise that many of them served at Ypres or on the Somme, but a place that equally came up in these interviews was Arras. Veterans who had survived the Somme experienced Arras as their next major battle and many of them in fact almost felt that the 1917 battle was just an extension of what they had experienced the previous year. But as I began to do background research to these interviews it was clear that the historiography of Arras was severely lacking compared to those other famous battlefronts of the Great War. In fact it was while researching one of the veterans experiences in primary sources at the then Public Records Office I encountered historian Jon Nicholls. Nicholls became the first author since the official historian in the 1940s to write about Arras and following the publication of his Cheerful Sacrifice in 1990 the 1917 battle has attracted the attention of only two other authors, myself and Peter Barton. The 1918 operations when the German Army was halted on the Arras front have never been written about, and the final August operations have attracted the attention of a handful of Canadian academics. Why is Arras so forgotten?

In every respect, it shouldn’t be. Arras perhaps more than any other battlefield gives us the First World War in microcosm. When the British Army took over the Arras sector in 1916 it was very much a static front; typical of the attritional warfare taking place along all four hundred and fifty miles of the Western Front. In this it reflected well the experience of the typical British Tommy; monotonous day to day trench warfare, but with often a high daily casualty rate with losses from sickness in times of poor weather as much as from enemy activity. The 1917 battle clearly demonstrates lessons learned from the Somme in the early phase of the ‘Learning Curve’. Historians have yet to clearly explain why the Third Army commanded by Julian Byng – the hero of Vimy the previous year – was able to largely stop the German offensive when the lines buckled on the Somme at the same time, and the following month in the Battle of the Lys. The Canadian Corps operations taking them from Arras to Cambrai in the late summer and autumn of 1918 are the epitome of the skilful fighting force the BEF had become in the final stage of the war.

Yet despite the fact that the fighting at Arras reflects almost every aspect of the experience of the BEF in WW1 it remains under-studied, if not neglected. And it is not just among historians; visitors to the Western Front gravitate towards Ypres and the Somme. Both these areas are well set up for tourism, with clear trails, numerous guidebooks and even smartphone Apps. As such they both get visitors in the hundreds of thousands with sites like Thiepval and Tyne Cot edging towards half a million people passing through each year. Arras, with perhaps the exception of Vimy Ridge (which some think wrongly as a separate battlefield), has nothing like this yet has as much, if not more to offer. Visitor’s Books in the British cemeteries show that visits tend to be focussed; a family coming to visit a relative’s grave. Casual tourism is rarer. Part of that is probably because there is no focussed museum for Arras; no starting point. The Wellington Quarries have attempted to breach that gap but the very nature of that site means it is too focussed. Arras cries out for an Historial or In Flanders Fields.

As we approach the centenary of the Great War one of the debts we owe to the memory of that conflict is to move away from the notion of the Somme and Ypres dominating it all; Arras needs to find its place and historians need to explain what that place might be. Until then the rolling hills around the Scarpe valley will remain a forgotten battlefield of the Great War.

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About Paul Reed

Paul Reed is a military historian who works in television. In the past ten years he has acted as a consultant and contributor to BBC flagship history series like Meet The Ancestors and Timewatch. He is the author of six books on WW1 including Great War Lives and Walking Arras and is currently working on a new TV series following a major archaeological project on the Western Front.
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13 Responses to Arras: The Forgotten Battlefield

  1. Mark Banning says:

    Oh Paul, you have excelled yourself with this one. Like Jeremy, (and you) I am beginning to see this battlefield in a new light. Everytime I have been through parts of it, it is such a contrast to the more regularly visited spots; quiet, hardly any visitors, yet fascinating stories and lovely surroundings. Will be spending time there on Sunday and really looking forward to it.

  2. Kyle Tallett says:

    Paul, i agree with most of what you say, however other authors have addressed Arras, take BGE series for one deals with many unknown parts of the battle , but in my view Cheerfull sacrifice is the only, best and unsurpassable account.

    • Paul Reed says:

      Kyle – agree about the BGE titles but they are on specific areas rather than the battle as a whole, which is what I was talking about. Agree it will take a lot to surpass Cheerful Sacrifice.

  3. David P.Whithorn says:

    Yes, Arras is forgotten by tourists. Maybe this is also due to the lack of the very large well-known cemeteries e.g. Tyne Cot, though those that are there are quite small by comparison, though many, tucked away and hard to find are no less poignant and more rewarding when found. The same is true for the 1915 battlefields of Loos, Neuve Chapelle, Festubert. I drove through these last weekend – actually it can be a relief to walk these places that are now not tourist traps. I have to admit I sometimes do miss the days when all these battlefields were much more inaccessible and you had to put much more work in beforehand. Those that walk the modern-day Somme may find things much easier to visit and ‘understand’, but do not realise just how much has been lost (even in recent years). Maybe there should be an overall ‘plan’ for battlefield preservation before popular tourist ares are Disneyfied too much and the forgotten areas are lost for ever.

  4. Jim Smithson says:

    You know how much I share your feelings Paul and I am working hard (unfortunately not yet full time though) to bring to a greater audience some of the aspects of the area. It pains me to see, even today, references to Vimy Ridge as if it was the only event of April and May 1917. I often speak to visitors at Vimy and ask them if they are looking at the other areas of the battles in 1917 and I am met by puzzled looks and questions of ‘what other areas?’ and the like. Hopefully, by the time we are discussing Arras100 there will be both more out there and more people interested in visiting the area. With luck I will also be a more permanent resident to show folk around!

  5. Pingback: 10/West Yorks at Arras: An Overview of a Forgotten Battalion | World War One Centenary

  6. I have linked to some of your work already Paul and have joined the Ypres Forum. My interest in being in touch is my desire to shoot a drama based on events on the Passchendaele Salient. A highly polished 90 seconds might be the starting point, though over the last two decades I have worked on two longer scripts, ‘That’s Nothing Compared to Passchendaele’ for example written under the watchful eye of ITV in 1991 and based on conversations with a veteran as he watched members of the Durham Light Infantry prepare for the First Iraq War. I hope, in one way or another, to be closely involved with some aspect of commemoration during the centenary.

  7. Martin Thomson says:

    I would like to know more about Arras as my Grandfather was in the area in the second half of 1916 with the 2nd Btn London Scottish before they went off to Salonikia and I have struggled so far to find much information. I am working through his diary and the post cards he sent home to his girlfriend (my grandmother) showing her where he was and anything of interest. As part of this I am trying to visit as many of the places he went to as I can to try and get a better understanding of what he went through. Do you have any advice as to how best to follow in his foot steps?

  8. Paul Reed says:

    Martin – if he was 2nd London Scottish he was only in the Arras area for a brief period in 1916 before they moved to Salonika. There is both a regimental history of the London Scottish and another post-war history of the 2nd Battalion called ‘Kilts Across the Jordan’. There is a London Scottish Museum in London who might be able to help, too.

  9. Derek says:

    With all due respect you should read more Canadian based FWW military history. I can’t count the number of times that Canadian historians have referred/mentioned the significance of Arras area. Yes, there is a lot written about Vimy Ridge from the Canadian perspective and or good reason. It was a significant battle and capture of as you all know, a strategic site. An attempt to capture that both the British and French failed miserably at. Perhaps if the British were successful in expelling the enemy from Vimy Ridge or as the British call it the Battle of Arras, more attention would be given to the area. But they didn’t so it gets little attention.

    Looking forward to your series Paul.

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