IN APRIL 2017 THE COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES COMMISSION IS MARKING THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BATTLE OF ARRAS.

IT WAS FOUGHT DURING THE FIRST WORLD WAR - FROM 9 APRIL TO 16 MAY, 1917 - BY TROOPS FROM ACROSS THE BRITISH EMPIRE.

BY THE END OF THE BATTLE, SOME 300,000 MEN ON BOTH SIDES WERE WOUNDED, MISSING OR DEAD.

The CWGC built and maintains the cemeteries and memorials of all those Commonwealth service personnel who died.

#Arras100

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.
— Edward Thomas, killed 9 April 1917

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.

British solders move up to the front near Arras, 29 April 1917

Ernest Brooks © IWM Q 2105

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.

Soldiers gather around a ditched tank near Fampoux, 9 April 1917

John Brooke © IWM Q 6434

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.

 

The CWGC Arras Memorial commemorates nearly 35,000 First World War servicemen of British, South African and New Zealand forces who died in the Arras sector during the First World War and have no known grave. It is located at CWGC Faubourg d'Amiens Cemetery.

Nearby is the Citadelle d’Arras, designed by the French military architect Vauban and completed in 1672. A French hospital was based in the fortress during the First World War, and the French army buried servicemen just outside the walls in 1914 and 1915. The British Army took over the defence of Arras in spring 1916, and continued to use this location to bury those who died in nearby medical facilities.

Today, there are some 2,700 British servicemen commemorated in CWGC Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery.  

In the 1920s the French graves were moved to Notre Dame de Lorette, and the cemetery was selected as the location for a memorial to those with no known grave.

By the end of the First World War, the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission estimated that of the ‘million dead’ of the British Empire, only half had identified graves. The rest were ‘missing’: their bodies had not been recovered; their graves had been unrecorded, lost or destroyed by battle; or their remains could not be identified and had been buried beneath a headstone bearing the inscription, ‘Known Unto God’. Across the world the Commission built and today maintains the memorials that bear their names.

Unveiled in 1932, the CWGC Arras Memorial was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, with sculpture by Sir William Reid Dick.

Explore a selection of CWGC cemeteries across the Arras battlefields with our interactive map.