In the spring of 1917, British Empire and French forces began a combined offensive against the German Army on the Western Front. British Empire troops attacked around Arras on 9 April. Far to the south, the French launched their attack on 16 April, along the Chemin des Dames ridge. Arras had been close to the front line throughout the war, and was dominated by the high ground of Vimy Ridge. The German defences were formidable, with several lines of trenches, concrete blockhouses and deep dugouts.
Preparations for the attack at Arras were meticulous. The infantry trained throughout the winter on replica ground, created using thousands of aerial photographs. Beneath Arras a cave system was expanded by British and New Zealand engineers to provide protection from German artillery and the bitterly cold weather. On 20 March, British artillery guns opened fire, and over the following weeks more than 2.5 million shells fell on the German defences, leaving many German soldiers exhausted and traumatised.
At 5.30 am on 9 April – Easter Monday – British, Canadian and South African infantry attacked in the icy cold and snow. Many German positions fell before their defenders could mount any serious resistance. In the north, the Canadian Corps, supported by the British 24th Division, took Vimy Ridge, while to the south some British units advanced over five kilometres into German-held territory.
German reinforcements soon began to arrive. The weather closed in and icy mud hampered all British movements, slowing the movement of guns, ammunition and reinforcements to the front. Ferocious fighting continued throughout April and early May. At Bullecourt Australian and British attacks were driven back with heavy casualties.
In the skies above Arras, the Royal Flying Corps suffered terrible losses. Over 250 aircraft were lost and some 400 servicemen were killed or wounded. For those who survived, the period became known as ‘Bloody April’.
The Arras Offensive officially ended on 16 May 1917. On the Chemin des Dames the French offensive led to very heavy losses for little gain.
In 38 days of fighting around Arras, some 300,000 servicemen on both sides were wounded, missing or killed. The British Army suffered an average of 4,000 wounded and killed every day: the highest average daily casualty rate of any British offensive on the Western Front. For many, the combat they experienced at Arras would be the most brutal of the war.