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.

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10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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The Annual Festivals That Draw the Most People in Every State
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iStock

Every state has that one big event each year that draws residents from across the region or even across the nation. Louisiana has Mardi Gras. Kentucky has the Kentucky Derby. South Dakota has Sturgis. Genfare, a company that provides fare collection technology for transit companies, recently tracked down the biggest event in each state, creating a rundown of the can't-miss events across the country.

As the graphic below explores, some states' biggest public events are national music and entertainment festivals, like Bonnaroo in Tennessee, SXSW in Texas, and Summerfest in Wisconsin—which holds the world record for largest music festival.

Others are standard public festival fare. Minnesota hosts 2 million people a year at the Minnesota State Fair (pictured above), the largest of its kind in the U.S. by attendance. Mardi Gras celebrations dominate the events calendar in Missouri, Alabama, and, of course, Louisiana. Oktoberfest and other beer festivals serve as the biggest gatherings in Ohio (home to the nation's largest Oktoberfest event), Oregon, Colorado, and Utah.

In some states, though, the largest annual gatherings are a bit more unique. Some 50,000 people each year head to Brattleboro, Vermont for the Strolling of the Heifers, a more docile spin on the Spanish Running of the Bulls. Montana's biggest event is Evel Knievel Days, an extreme sports festival in honor of the famous daredevil. And Washington's biggest event is Hoopfest, Spokane's annual three-on-three basketball tournament.

Mark your calendar. Next year could be the year you attend them all.

A graphic list with the 50 states pictured next to information about their biggest events
Genfare

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