Brits Attack at Arras

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 273rd installment in the series.

April 9, 1917: Brits Attack at Arras 

The German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917 didn’t derail Allied plans for a massive offensive in mid-April, as drawn up by the new French commander-in-chief, Robert Nivelle, an ambitious artillery officer who had been promoted to the top spot because of his successes at Verdun, including recapturing Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux (the previous French commander-in-chief, Joseph Joffre, was kicked upstairs with an honorary position of Marshal of France, while General Petain, the architect of the original defense of Verdun, was sidelined for the moment).

Disregarding growing concern among French and British officers and civilians about the advisability of the strategy, Nivelle planned a multi-phased operation by four armies, depending on heavy artillery preparation and particularly a “creeping barrage” by French artillery, creating a curtain of destruction in front of the advancing infantry. Similar tactics had met with success at Verdun, prompting Nivelle to exclaim, “We have the formula!” But on the much larger scale of the Western Front, it proved a formula for disaster. 

The British were to play an important role in the “Nivelle Offensive” at the Battle of Arras (actually the second battle of that name), a major attack by the British First, Third, and Fifth Armies on the defensive lines of the German Sixth Army under Ludwig von Falkenhausen in the Pas de Calais region of northern France. The British attack was scheduled for April 9, 1917, a week ahead of the French attack, in hopes of pinning down German troops to prevent them from sending reinforcements. It included the famous advance by the Canadian Corps on Vimy Ridge from April 9-12, 1917, a stunning but costly victory; Vimy Ridge would come to be remembered as a key moment in the formation of Canadian national identity in some ways comparable to the impact of Gallipoli on veterans and civilians in Australia and New Zealand (whose ANZAC troops also fought at Arras).

The initial infantry assault was preceded by an unprecedented 19-day-long bombardment of German positions along 20 miles of front, ultimately expending around 2.7 million shells, including one million from April 2-9 alone. Philip Gibbs, a British war correspondent, described the bombardment on the final night before the battle: 

It was a beautiful and devilish thing… All our batteries, too many to count, were firing, and thousands of gun-flashes were winking and blinking from the hollows and hiding-places, and all their shells were rushing through sky as though flocks of great birds were in flight, and all were bursting over German positions, with long flames which rent the darkness and waved sword-blades of quivering light along the ridges. The earth opened, and pools of red fire gushed out. Star-shells burst magnificently, pouring down golden rain. Mines exploded east and west of Arras, and in a wide sweep from Vimy Ridge to Blangy southwards, and voluminous clouds, all bright with a glory of infernal fire, rolled up to the sky.

Gibbs also described the huge logistics effort and concentration of troops massing in the darkness for the offensive near Arras: 

… and then onwards there was the traffic of marching men going up to the fighting-lines, and of their transport columns, and of many ambulances. In darkness there were hundreds of little red lights, the glow of cigarette ends. Every now and then one of the men would strike a match, holding it in the hollow of his hands and bending his head to it, so that his face was illumined – one of our English faces, clear-cut and strong. The wind blew sparks from cigarette ends like fireflies. 

The first infantry assault was timed for 5:30 a.m. on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917. Minutes before the men went over the top, the British, French and Canadian engineers unleashed one final surprise, as the German trenches were rocked by 13 mines exploding under Vimy Ridge. R. Derby Holmes, an American serving as a volunteer with the Canadians, remembered the detonations: 

Then came a deep rumble that shook the ground, and a dull boom. A spurt of blood-red flame squirted up from the near side of the hill, and a rolling column of gray smoke. Then another rumble, and another, and then the whole side of the ridge seemed to open up and move slowly skyward with a world-wrecking, soul-paralyzing crash. A murky red glare lit up the smoke screen, and against it a mass of tossed-up debris, and for an instant I caught the black silhouette of a whole human body spread-eagled and spinning like a pin-wheel. Most of our party, even at the distance, were knocked down by the gigantic impact of the explosion. A shower of earth and rock chunks, some as big as a barrel, fell around us.

Now along miles of front, under the faint, growing light of early morning the Canadian and British troops advanced into the blazing chaos behind the creeping barrage of artillery fire (below, a map showing the timing of the barrage). The infantry attacks had been carefully rehearsed at the battalion level using full-size dioramas, while officers had trained with a large-scale model of the entire battlefield, and the preparation paid off – as did the decision to arm the attackers with mobile Lewis machine guns, a move towards “storm troop” tactics.

Click to enlarge Wikimedia Commons 

To the north, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps in General Henry Horne’s First Army surged forward and forced back the German defenders on Vimy Ridge again and again, occupying their first main objectives within an hour and had occupied the crest of the ridge by mid-morning – a remarkable success which left their commanders scrambling to maintain the momentum. 

The capture of Vimy Ridge gave the Allies possession of the strategic heights looking out over the plain of Douai to the east – a key advantage in the chess-like game of artillery and counter-artillery fire. The Canadians would ultimately advance almost four kilometers in places from April 9-12, but later attacks in the Battle of Arras would pit them against dug-in defenders; by the end of the battle the Canadians had lost 10,500 killed (a large figure in proportion to the dominion’s total population of around 7.9 million). 

As storm after storm descended dumped rain, sleet and snow on the battlefield, mud was inescapable, according to Gibbs:

In addition to the ordeal of battle they are enduring now a weather so abominable, when it is in the fields of battle, that men fight for days wet to the skin, lie out at night frozen stiff, and struggle after the enemy up to the knees in mud… Our men came back from this fighting like figures of clay, and so stiff at the joints that they can hardly walk, and with voices gone so that they speak in whispers. All over this lower slope of the Vimy Ridge is a litter of enormous destruction caused by our gun-fire. German guns and limbers, machine-guns and trench-mortars lie in fragments and in heaps in infernal chao of earth, which is the graveyard of many German dead. 

Meanwhile the British Third Army, attacking in the center, also scored a surprising victory from April 9-14, advancing up to three miles along a 15-mile front stretching on both banks of the River Scarpe – along with the Canadian advance, the single biggest advance in years of trench warfare on the Western Front. But the Brits soon ran into fierce renewed German resistance around the village of Monchy, as the defenders of the Bavarian 3rd Division dug in while German engineers worked feverishly on new defensive lines in the rear. 

Billy Bishop, a British pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, described the view from the air (often obscured by thick fog and snow) as British artillery fired at Arras on April 9: 

The ground seemed to be one mass of bursting shells. Farther back, where the guns were firing, the hot flames flashing from thousands of muzzles gave the impression of a long ribbon of incandescent light. The air seemed shaken and literally full of shells on their missions of death and destruction. Over and over again one felt a sudden jerk under a wing-tip, and the machine would heave quickly. This meant a shell had passed within a few feet of you. 

The British bombardment succeeded in splitting open barbed wire defenses and blowing enemy strongholds out of existence, according to Bishop, who next witnessed a shockingly easy advance by British troops: 

The waves of attacking infantry as they came out of their trenches and trudged forward behind the curtain of shells laid down by the artillery were an amazing sight. The men seemed to wander across No Man’s Land, and into the enemy trenches, as if the battle was a great bore to them… That is the way with clockwork warfare. These troops had been drilled to move forward at a given pace.

To the south the picture was much grimmer, however, as the troops of the British Fifth Army got their first harsh taste of German defenses at the Hindenburg Line. The offensive around the village of Bullecourt from April 10-11 got off to a bad start when some British units, not hearing about a last-minute delay, attacked early – suffering a bloody repulse and giving away any element of surprise. This battle later saw the second major attempt to employ tanks in offensive warfare, after the Battle of the Somme, but this time the Germans were expecting them – including new armor-piercing shells – and once again the new weapon proved prone to technical failures. 

Major W.H.L. Watson described the mixed performance of one section of tanks employed in the first attack: 

The first tank was hit in the track before it was well under way. The tank was evacuated, and in the dawning light it was hit again before the track could be repaired. Money’s tank reached the German wire. His men must have “missed their gears.” For less than a minute the tank was motionless, then she burst into flames. A shell had exploded the petrol tanks… Bernstein’s tank was within reach of the German trenches when a shell hit the cab, decapitated the driver, and exploded in the body of the tank. 

Although they captured the village of Bullecourt itself, the British otherwise mostly failed to advance in the south, frustrated by the new German tactics of “defense in depth” along the Hindenburg Line. Meanwhile chief of the general staff Hindenburg and his collaborator, quartermaster general Erich Ludendorff, were frustrated by Falkenhausen’s failure to grasp the tenets of the new defensive doctrine, and replaced him on April 23. To the north the British and Canadian advances soon slowed as well, leaving them in possession of Vimy Ridge and the lower Scarpe but still far from Lens or Douai, and the utter failure of the French Nivelle Offensive soon removed any reason to continue the attack.

The advance at Arras was still tremendous by the standards of the First World War, and British engineers were working feverishly to repair roads across newly-conquered territory behind the lines – in many cases, what used to be No Man’s Land. Coningsby Dawson, an officer with a British engineering unit, later recalled in a letter home: 

We ran across what had been No Man’s Land end entered the Hun wire… His frontline trench was piled high with dead. The whole spectacle was unreal as something that had been staged; the corpses looked like wax-works. One didn’t have time to observe much, for flames seemed to be going off beneath one’s feet almost every second and it seemed marvellous that we contrived to live where there was so much death. As we went further back we began to find our own khaki-clad dead. I don’t think the Huns had got them; it was our own barrage, which they had followed too quickly in the eagerness of the attack. Then we came to where the liquid fire had descended, for the poor fellows had thrown themselves into the pools in the shell-holes and only the faces and arms were sticking out.

As another icy storm swept the battlefield, Dawson felt a moment of sympathy for recently captured German prisoners-of-war, whose condition summarized all too clearly the human cost of the war: 

You never saw such a mess – sleet driving in our faces, the ground hissing and boiling as shells descended, dead men everywhere, the wounded crawling desperately, dragging themselves to safety. I saw sights of pity and bravery that it is best not to mention, and all the time my brave chaps dug on, making the road for the guns. Soon through the smoke gray-clad figures came in tottering droves, scorched, battered, absolutely stunned. They looked more like beasts in their pathetic dumbness. One hardly recognised them as enemies.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Jim Henson's Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas Is Returning to Theaters

The Jim Henson Company via Fathom Events
The Jim Henson Company via Fathom Events

For anyone who grew up with HBO in the 1980s, the holiday season meant two things: Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas and The Bells of Fraggle Rock. Though the beloved Jim Henson classics have been largely confined to home video-only screenings over the years, they’re making their way back to the big screen for the first time via Fathom Events when the Jim Henson Holiday Special arrives in theaters nationwide for a limited, two-day engagement.

More than 600 theaters across the country will host screenings of the Jim Henson Holiday Special on Monday, December 10 (4 p.m. and 7 p.m.) and Sunday, December 16 (1 p.m. and 4 p.m.), which will pair the two specials—both of which have recently been remastered—alongside an all-new featurette, Memories of the Jug-Band.

"Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas was a favorite project for my dad since it included such sweet characters, Paul Williams’s delightful music, and a timeless holiday message,” Cheryl Henson—Jim Henson’s daughter and president of the Jim Henson Foundation—said in a statement about the special, which is a music-filled twist on The Gift of the Magi.

“Also, the special was a great opportunity for him to experiment with puppetry techniques and effects that would be seen in his later works," Henson continued. "[It] is exciting for families to share this holiday classic along with the special episode The Bells of Fraggle Rock, a rare opportunity to see the Fraggles on the big screen, and to introduce these beloved characters to a whole new audience."

On December 18, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will release Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas on Blu-ray for the first time ever so that you can make the special a permanent part of your regular holiday movie marathon. This news comes on the heels of Emmet Otter's first-ever official soundtrack release, more than 40 years after its original premiere.

Click here to find out the Jim Henson Holiday Special is playing near you, and to pre-order your tickets today.

10 Filling Facts About A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Though it may not be as widely known as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has been a beloved holiday tradition for many families for 45 years now. Even if you've seen it 100 times, there’s still probably a lot you don’t know about this Turkey Day special.

1. IT’S THE FIRST PEANUTS SPECIAL TO FEATURE AN ADULT VOICE.

We all know the trombone “wah wah wah” sound that Charlie Brown’s teacher makes when speaking in a Peanuts special. But A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which was released in 1973, made history as the first Peanuts special to feature a real, live, human adult voice. But it’s not a speaking voice—it’s heard in the song “Little Birdie.”

2. IT WASN’T JUST ANY ADULT WHO LENT HIS VOICE TO THE SPECIAL.

Being the first adult to lend his or her voice to a Peanuts special was kind of a big deal, so it makes sense that the honor wasn’t bestowed on just any old singer or voice actor. The song was performed by composer Vince Guaraldi, whose memorable compositions have become synonymous with Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang.

“Guaraldi was one of the main reasons our shows got off to such a great start,” Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer who worked on many of the Peanuts specials—including A Charlie Brown Thanksgivingwrote for The Huffington Post in 2013. “His ‘Linus and Lucy,’ introduced in A Charlie Brown Christmas, set the bar for the first 16 shows for which he created all the music. For our Thanksgiving show, he told me he wanted to sing a new song he had written for Woodstock. I agreed with much trepidation as I had never heard him sing a note. His singing of ‘Little Birdie’ became a hit."

3. DESPITE THE VOICE, THERE ARE NO ADULTS FEATURED IN THE SPECIAL.

While Peanuts specials are largely populated by children, there’s usually at least an adult or two seen or heard somewhere. That’s not the case with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving may be the only Thanksgiving special (live or animated) that does not include adults,” Mendelson wrote for HuffPo. “Our first 25 specials honored the convention of the comic strip where no adults ever appeared. (Ironically, our Mayflower special does include adults for the first time.)”

4. LUCY IS MOSTLY M.I.A., TOO.

Though early on in the special, viewers get that staple scene of Lucy pulling a football away from Charlie Brown at the last minute, that’s all we see of Chuck’s quasi-nemesis in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. (Lucy's brother Linus, however, is a main character.)

5. CHARLIE BROWN AND LUCY STILL KEEP IN TOUCH.

Though they only had a single scene together, Todd Barbee, who voiced Charlie Brown, told Noblemania that he and Robin Kohn, who voiced Lucy in the Thanksgiving special, still keep in touch. “We actually went to high school together,” Barbee said. “We still live in Marin County, are Facebook friends, and occasionally see each other.”

6. CHARLIE BROWN HAD SOME TROUBLE WITH HIS SIGNATURE “AAARRRGGH.”

One unique aspect of the Peanuts specials is that the bulk of the characters are voiced by real kids. In the case of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, 10-year-old newcomer Todd Barbee was tasked with giving a voice to Charlie Brown—and it wasn’t always easy.

“One time they wanted me to voice that ‘AAAAAAARRRRRGGGGG’ when Charlie Brown goes to kick the football and Lucy yanks it away,” Barbee recalled to Noblemania in 2014. “Try as I might, I just couldn’t generate [it as] long [as] they were looking for … so after something like 25 takes, we moved on. I was sweating the whole time. I think they eventually got an adult or a kid with an older voice to do that one take."

7. LINUS STILL GETS AN ENTHUSIASTIC RESPONSE.

While Barbee got a crash course in the downside of celebrity at a very early age—“seeing my name printed in TV Guide made everyone around me go bananas … everybody … just thought I was some big movie star or something,” he told Noblemania—Stephen Shea, who voiced Linus, still gets a pretty big reaction.

"I don't walk around saying 'I'm the voice of Linus,'" Shea told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. "But when people find out one way or another, they scream 'I love Linus. That is my favorite character!'"

8. THANKS TO LINUS, THE THANKSGIVING SPECIAL GOT A SPINOFF.

As is often the case in a Peanuts special, Linus gets to play the role of philosopher in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and remind his friends (and the viewers) about the history and true meaning of the holiday. His speech about the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving eventually led to This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers, a kind of spinoff adapted from that Thanksgiving Day prayer, which sees the Peanuts gang becoming a part of history.

9. LEE MENDELSON HAD AN ISSUE WITH BIRD CANNIBALISM.

In writing for HuffPo for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’s 40th anniversary, Mendelson admitted that one particular scene in the special led to “a rare, minor dispute during the creation of the show. Mr. Schulz insisted that Woodstock join Snoopy in carving and eating a turkey. For some reason I was bothered that Woodstock would eat a turkey. I voiced my concern, which was immediately overruled.”

10. MENDELSON EVENTUALLY GOT HIS WAY ... THOUGH NOT FOR LONG.

Though Mendelson lost his original argument against seeing Woodstock eating another bird, he was eventually able to right that wrong. “Years later, when CBS cut the show from its original 25 minutes to 22 minutes, I sneakily edited out the scene of Woodstock eating,” he wrote. “But when we moved to ABC in 2001, the network (happily) elected to restore all the holiday shows to the original 25 minutes, so I finally have given up.”

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