Battle of Arras
The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 147th installment in the series.
October 1-6, 1914: Battle of Arras
Following the Battles of Picardy and Albert in late September 1914, as October began German and French forces clashed again at the Battle of Arras, leading to yet another bloody stalemate in the “Race to the Sea.”
With the fighting around Albert grinding to a halt, German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn rushed reinforcements to the Sixth Army under Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht at the far right end of the German line, in hopes of outflanking the French Second Army under General Édouard de Castelnau from the north. Meanwhile, French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre formed a new army subdivision with recently arrived troops (soon to be the new Tenth Army) under General Louis Maud’huy, standing in the way of the German Sixth Army at Arras.
On October 1, Rupprecht, unaware of the extent of French reinforcements, ordered Sixth Army to advance west from near Douai, while Maud’huy, believing he faced no more than a thin screening force of German cavalry, ordered an attack in the opposite direction. The result of these simultaneous moves was another head-on collision.
Over the next two days the German Sixth Army slowly pushed the French back towards Arras with assistance from the German First, Second, and Seventh Armies, but the Germans paid a heavy price for modest gains; on the afternoon of October 3, they gave up the direct assault on Arras and mounted a new attack from the north, without much more success. At the same time, the French attempted a flank attack from the north that also failed, while a German push for Vimy, north of Arras, made slow progress in the face of stiff opposition. Caught in the middle of all this, the town of Arras itself was soon battered into oblivion, with the loss of a number of historic medieval buildings.
On October 4, Joffre put the aggressive General Ferdinand Foch in command of a new northern army group including both Castelnau’s Second Army and Maud’huy’s Tenth Army, with instructions to hold off the Germans as new French reinforcements arrived to the north—repeating the now-familiar pattern of the Race to the Sea, which the French General Gallieni summed up with his judgment that “the Allies were always 24 hours and an Army Corps behind the Germans.”
The Germans managed to make some further gains on October 4, finally occupying Vimy and taking control of part of a ridge offering good defensive positions to the south and west of the village—but once again they suffered heavy casualties for small advances. In the days to come Foch ordered the Tenth Army to counterattack but the French push soon ran out of steam in the face of German defenses. Both sides were digging in around Arras (top, German trenches) and the focal point was shifting north once again.
British Move to Flanders
As the Race to the Sea approached the Belgian border, Joffre and Foch sought additional reinforcements to hold the lengthening front and hopefully turn the German flank. With fewer French troops available for redeployment from the south, they turned to the British Expeditionary Force, still dug in along the Aisne but now freed up by the French Sixth Army, which took over the British trenches.
Beginning October 2 the BEF began boarding trains, trucks and buses to redeploy to the far left end of the Allied line, north of the new French Tenth Army—an area just south of the Belgian border near the villages of St. Omer and Hazebrouck. The British infantry started to assemble west of Lille on October 10, screened by two British cavalry divisions under General Edmund Allenby, and reinforced by fresh troops from England.
However, at the same time, the German Sixth Army was also moving north towards Belgium, where it would clash with the British at the Battle of Messines beginning October 12. And unbeknownst to the Allies Falkenhayn was ordering the creation of a new German Fourth Army in western Belgium, setting the stage for one of the bloodiest battles in history—the inferno of Ypres.
Belgian Government Flees Antwerp
To the north the noose was tightening around Antwerp, where German siege guns were obliterating outdated fortresses and shattering any hopes the Belgians had of withstanding a long siege. As Belgian resolve began to waver, the British rushed to shore up Antwerp’s defenses and implored King Albert to hang on as long as possible. But the British plan was a textbook example of “too little, too late.”
In one of the stranger episodes of the war, on October 2 Foreign Secretary Grey and Secretary of State for War Kitchener agreed that First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill should visit Antwerp in person to convince King Albert to hold with promises of British help. Arriving in Antwerp the following day, Churchill managed to persuade the Belgian sovereign to stick it out for another week if possible, promising assistance from the British Royal Naval Division, an amphibious force composed of sailors and marines under the control of the Royal Navy.
As it turned out the Royal Naval Division wasn’t quite ready for service overseas: many of the troops were reservists and volunteers equipped with obsolete rifles, and the brigades lacked artillery or field ambulances. Nonetheless the first British units arrived in Antwerp on October 5, followed by a larger force of 22,000 British troops who arrived at Ostend on October 6—just as the Germans penetrated the first line of forts guarding Antwerp. That same day the Belgian government departed for Ostend, and King Albert prepared to order the Belgian Army to evacuate the city and retreat to safety while it still could. The final German assault was about to begin.
Turks Prepare to Join War
In the years leading up the Great War, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire desperately sought a European ally to protect their troubled realm against the other Great Powers while they implemented badly needed reforms. However the Europeans hesitated to enter into a formal defensive pact that would oblige them to fight for the decaying medieval empire; most were more interested in picking up some new territories when it finally fell apart.
All that changed with the outbreak of war, as both sides suddenly found new reasons to befriend the Turks. The French, British, and Russians hoped to at least keep the Ottoman Empire neutral in order to keep the strategic straits at Constantinople open, allowing the Western Allies to send critical supplies to Russia via the Black Sea.
Meanwhile the Germans hoped to recruit the Turks into active participation in the war; while Berlin had no great expectations for Turkish performance on the battlefield, the addition of the empire to the Central Powers would allow them to cut off Russia, threaten Britain’s Middle Eastern possessions including Egypt and the Suez Canal, and generally distract the Allies from the decisive theatre on the Western Front.
In the end the Germans won Turkish favor with a promise to guarantee the Ottoman Empire’s borders with a long-term defensive alliance, along with financial assistance to the tune of five million Turkish gold pounds, and the alliance was secretly signed on August 2, 1914. The Germans further cemented the deal by giving the Turks two powerful warships, the Goeben and Breslau, which replaced two Turkish dreadnoughts confiscated by the British admiralty at the beginning of the war. However to the Germans’ chagrin Constantinople didn’t declare war immediately; instead the Turks pleaded for time, pointing out how long it took to mobilize their forces over the empire’s vast distances and backwards infrastructure.
After two months the Turks were finally (almost) ready to join the Central Powers. On October 1, 1914, they revealed their intentions by announcing that they were abrogating the “capitulations”—the humiliating concessions that gave Europeans extraterritorial rights in Constantinople and the Turkish straits, impinging on Ottoman sovereignty. Their first act was to close the straits to international shipping, severing Russia’s supply line from the Western Allies.
This wasn’t the only place the Turks intended to roll back Western influence with German support. One of their main goals was to cancel the Yeniköy Agreement of February 8, 1914, which they correctly perceived as the first step in a Russian plan to undermine Turkish control of the Armenian provinces in eastern Anatolia. Fighting for the very existence of the Ottoman Empire, the Young Turk triumvirate of Enver Pasha, Djemal Pasha and Talaat Pasha believed that any measures were justified to settle the “Armenian question.” A horrific tragedy was about to unfold.