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Home > What was trench warfare? > Arras and theattack on Gavrelle Trench
 

Arras and the attack on Gavrelle Trench

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Arras is situated in Northern France and was never very far from the front line. In the spring of 1917 it became the focus once more of an intended Allied advance. Key to this advance was the capture of Vimy Ridge. This had been in German hands since the start of the War and allowed them to keep control over the surrounding territory. The Germans were well aware of its strategic importance and it was extremely well fortified. However, if the Allies were to advance it was crucial that Vimy Ridge was captured. The task was given to the Canadian army with support from the British artillery.

It is clear that the lessons of the Somme had been heeded. Before the attack, a very effective three week long bombardment took place. Rather than being a general attack however, certain positions such as trench junctions, telephone exchanges, Machine Gun points and artillery positions were targeted using information gained from various intelligence reports. This bombardment was very successful and it has been estimated that around 80% of the German batteries were taken out before the Canadian advance. Moreover, supply lines to the German trenches were also very seriously affected leaving the enemy short of food, water and ammunition.

Troops moving across the battlefield near Arras, 1917.

Troops moving across the battlefield near Arras, 1917. Taken from The Times History of the War Vol XIV, (DUL ref: XX+355.9403)

 

It was as part of this offensive that 18 DLI participated in the attack on Gavrelle. Working in conjunction with the Royal Naval Division and three battalions of the West Yorkshire Regiment, 18 DLI were tasked with capturing the village which would then provide a salient into enemy territory. The attack started on 3 May but was met with a furious response from the Germans. The fighting was centred on a windmill which lay just outside the village and provided a very useful vantage point. At various points the Windmill fell into British hands only to be retaken by the enemy. In the end, however, C Company of 18 DLI managed to throw off the Germans and keep control. This was not the end of the action in this area. On the night of 17/18 May, 18 DLI were ordered to attack Gavrelle trench. Although some progress was made they were eventually forced back by the Germans. Both sides suffered casualties. 18 DLI suffered the loss of 1 officer and 8 men with a further 4 officers and nearly 60 men wounded.

 

 

 

British troops leaving the trenches at Arras, 1917.

British troops leaving the trenches at Arras, 1917. Taken from The Times History of the War Vol XIV, (DUL ref: XX+355.9403)

 

The advance began on 9 April, the Canadians being sheltered by a well-planned and very effective creeping barrage. Within two hours most of the Ridge had been captured. The exception was the area known as Hill 145 which had not been subjected to the same intense allied bombardment and consequently took longer to subdue. However, by April 12 the Allies were in command of the whole of Vimy Ridge and it remained under their control for the rest of the war. It had been hoped that further advances would be able to be made following the capture of Vimy Ridge. This proved to be a false hope. The French Commander-in-Chief, Robert Nivelle, launched a huge offensive involving over 1m men but they made very few gains and incurred massive casualties.

Report giving details of the barrage that was to accompany the attack.

Report giving details of the barrage that was to accompany the attack. (DUL ref: Lowe Papers, File B2)

 

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