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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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Jim Henson's Labyrinth Is Being Adapted Into a Stage Musical
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Henson Company

More than 30 years after its cinematic debut, Labyrinth could be hitting the stage. In an interview with Forbes, Jim Henson's son and Henson Company CEO Brian Henson shared plans to transform the cult classic into a live musical.

While the new musical would be missing David Bowie in his starring role as Jareth the Goblin King, it would hopefully feature the soundtrack Bowie helped write. Brian Henson says there isn't a set timeline for the project yet, but the stage adaptation of the original film is already in the works.

As for a location, Henson told Forbes he envisions it running, "Not necessarily [on] Broadway, it could be for London's West End, but it will be a stage show, a big theatrical version. It’s very exciting."

Labyrinth premiered in 1986 to measly box office earnings and tepid reviews, but Jim Henson's fairytale has since grown into a phenomenon beloved by nostalgic '80s kids and younger generations alike. In the same Forbes interview, Brian Henson also confirmed the 2017 news that a long-anticipated Labyrinth sequel is apparently in development. Though he couldn't give any specifics, Henson confirmed that, "we are still excited about it but the process moves very slowly and very carefully. We're still excited about the idea of a sequel, we are working on something, but nothing that's close enough to say it's about to be in pre-production or anything like that."

While fans eagerly await those projects to come out, they can get their fix when the film returns to theaters across the U.S. on April 29, May 1, and May 2. Don't forget to wear your best Labyrinth swag to the event.

[h/t Forbes]

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10 Wild Facts About Westworld
John P. Johnson, HBO
John P. Johnson, HBO

The hit HBO show about an android farm girl finding sentience in a fake version of the old West set in a sci-fi future is back for a second season. So grab your magnifying glass, study up on Lewis Carroll and Shakespeare, and get ready for your brain to turn to scrambled eggs. 

The first season saw Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and her robotic compatriots strive to escape bondage as the puppet playthings of a bored society that kills and brutalizes them every day, then repairs them each night to repeat the process for paying customers. The Maze. The Man in Black. The mysteries lurking in cold storage and cantinas. Wood described the first season as a prequel, which means the show can really get on the dusty trail now. 

Before you board the train and head back into the park, here are 10 wild facts about the cerebral, sci-fi hit. (Just beware of season one spoilers!)

1. IT’S NOT THE FIRST TV ADAPTATION OF THE MOVIE.

Though Westworld, the 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton, was a hit, its 1976 sequel Futureworld was a flop. Still, the name and concept had enough cachet for CBS to move forward with a television concept in 1980. Beyond Westworld featured Delos head of security John Moore (Jim McMullan) battling against the villainous mad scientist Simon Quaid (James Wainwright), who wants to use the park’s robots to, what else, take over the whole world. It would be a little like if the HBO show focused largely on Luke Hemsworth’s Ashley Stubbs, which just might be the spinoff the world is waiting for.

2. THE ORIGINAL GUNSLINGER HAS A CAMEO.

Ed Harris and Eddie Rouse in 'Westworld'
JOHN P. JOHNSON, HBO

The HBO series pays homage to the original film in a variety of ways, including echoing elements from the score to create that dread-inducing soundscape. It also tipped its ten-gallon hat to Yul Brynner’s relentless gunslinger from the original film by including him in the storage basement with the rest of the creaky old models.

3. QUENTIN TARANTINO, ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, AND MANY OTHERS COULD HAVE REBOOTED IT.

Speaking of Brynner’s steely, murderous resolve: His performance as the robo-cowboy was one of the foundations for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s turn as the Terminator. Nearly 20 years later, in 2002, Schwarzenegger signed on to produce and star in a reboot of the sci-fi film from which he took his early acting cues. Schwarzenegger never took over the role from Brynner because he served as Governor of California instead, and the reboot languished in development hell.

Warner Bros. tried to get Quentin Tarantino on board, but he passed. They also signed The Cell director Tarsem Singh (whose old West would have been unbelievably lush and colorful, no doubt), but it fell through. A few years later, J.J. Abrams—who had met with Crichton about a reboot back in 1996—pitched eventual co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy on doing it as a television series. HBO bought it, and the violent delights finally made it to our screens.

4. IT COSTS $40,000 A DAY TO VISIT THE PARK. (AND THAT’S THE CHEAP PACKAGE.)

Thandie Newton and Angela Sarafyan in 'Westworld'
HBO

In season one, Logan (Ben Barnes) revealed that he’s spending $40,000 a day to experience Westworld. That’s in line with the 1973 movie, where park visitors spent $1000 a day, which lands near $38,000 once adjusted for inflation. Then again, we’re talking about 2052 dollars, so it might still be pricey, but not exorbitant in 2018 terms. But a clever Redditor spotted that $40,000 is the minimum you’d pay; according to the show’s website, the Gold Package will set you back $200,000 a day.

5. BEN BARNES BROKE HIS FOOT AND DIDN’T TELL ANYONE.

Once Upon a Time’s Eion Bailey was originally cast as Logan but had to quit due to a scheduling conflict, so Ben Barnes stepped in … then he broke his foot. The actor hid the injury for fear he’d lose the job, which is why he added a limp as a character detail. “I’m sort of hobbling along with this kind of cowboy-ish limp, which I then tried to maintain for the next year just so I could pretend it was a character choice,” Barnes said. “But really I had a very purple foot … So walking was the hardest part of shooting this for me.”

6. THE CO-CREATORS RICKROLLED FANS OBSESSED WITH UNCOVERING SPOILERS.

Eagle-eyed fans (particularly on Reddit) uncovered just about every major spoiler from the first season early on, which is why Nolan and Joy promised a spoiler video for anyone who wanted to know the entire plot of season two ahead of its premiere. They delivered, but instead of show secrets, the 25-minute video only offered a classy rendition of Rick Astley’s internet-infamous “Never Gonna Give You Up,” sung by Evan Rachel Wood with Angela Sarafyan on piano, followed by 20 minutes of a dog. It was a pitch-perfect response to a fanbase desperate for answers.

7. IT FEATURES AN ANCIENT GREEK EASTER EGG.

Amid the alternative rock tunes hammered out on the player piano and hat tips to classic western films, Westworld also referenced something from 5th century BCE Greece. Westworld, which is run by Delos Incorporated, is designed so that guests cannot die. Delos is also the name of the island where ancient Greeks made it illegal for anyone to die (or be born for that matter) on religious grounds. That’s not the only bit of wordplay with Greek either: Sweetwater’s main ruffian, Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro), gets his last name from the Greek eschaton, meaning the final event in the divine design of the world. Fitting for a potentially sentient robot helping to bring about humanity’s destruction.

8. JIMMI SIMPSON FIGURED OUT HIS CHARACTER’S TWIST BECAUSE OF HIS EYEBROWS.

Evan Rachel Wood and Jimmi Simpson in 'Westworld'
HBO

In season one, the show’s many secrets were kept even from the main cast until the time they absolutely needed to know. Jimmi Simpson, who plays timid theme park neophyte William, had a hunch something was funny with his role because of a cosmetic change.

“I was with an amazing makeup artist, Christian, and he was looking at my face too much,” Simpson told Vanity Fair. “He had me in his chair, and he was just looking at my face, and then he said something about my eyebrows. ‘Would you be cool if we just took a couple hairs out of your eyebrows, made them not quite as arched?’” Guessing that they were making him look more like The Man in Black, Simpson said something to Joy, and she confirmed his hunch. “She looked kind of surprised I’d worked it out,” he said.

9. THE PLAYER PIANO MAY BE AN ALLUSION TO KURT VONNEGUT.

One of the show’s most iconic elements is its soundtrack of alternative rock songs from the likes of Radiohead, The Cure, and Soundgarden redone in a jaunty, old West style. In addition to adding a creepy sonic flavor to the sadistic vacation, they also may wink toward Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, which deals with a dystopia of automation where machines do everything for humans, leading to an entrenched class struggle. The show’s resonant elements are clear, but Westworld also mentions that the world outside the theme park is one where there’s no unemployment and humans have little purpose. Like The Man In Black (Ed Harris), the protagonist of Player Piano also longs for real stakes in the struggle of life.

10. THERE ARE TWO JESSE JAMES CONNECTIONS.

Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright in 'Westworld'
HBO

Anthony Hopkins’s character Dr. Robert Ford is an invention for the new series, and he shares a name with the man who assassinated infamous outlaw Jesse James (a fact you may remember from the aptly named movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). The final episode of the first season flips the allusion when Ford is shot in the back of the head, which is exactly how the real-life Ford killed James.

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