Some notes on attrition at Arras – 1917

The Battle of Arras undoubtedly took its toll on many of the divisions that took part in it. When the 2nd Division took part in the Third Battle of the Scarpe on the 3rd May 1917 it was only able to do so with a composite brigade consisting of four battalions designated ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ as follows, each numbering around 400 men:

‘A’ Battalion                                                                       ‘B’ Battalion                                                                  

1 Company 17th Royal Fusiliers                                              2 Companies 1st King’s (Liverpool)

1 Company 24th Royal Fusiliers                                             1 Company 2nd South Staffs

1 Company 2nd Ox & Bucks Light Infantry                          1 Company 13th Essex

1 Company 2nd Highland Light Infantry

‘C’ Battalion                                                                           ‘D’ Battalion

2 Companies 1st Royal Berks                                                     1 Company 22nd Royal Fusiliers

2 Companies 23rd Royal Fusiliers                                            3 Companies 1st King’s Royal Rifle Corps

When the 9th (Scottish) Division carried out its attack on Roeux as part of the same battle it had to do so without the South African Brigade, which had still not recovered from the losses it had incurred three weeks earlier, mainly on the 12th April attacking towards Greenland Hill. Its place was taken by the 52nd Brigade, 17th (Northern) Division which acted as divisional reserve.

One divisional commander even remarked that out of a recent draft of 700 men the majority had only enlisted seven to nine weeks earlier. The job of turning such raw material into an efficient fighting unit was also beginning to fall on an increasingly dwindling body of experienced NCOs. The same was also true after the German offensives in spring the following year.

The Household Battalion’s war diary contains a narrative account of operations on the 11th and 12th May 1917 against Roeux. Compiled by Major J.H.M. Kirkwood, it lays bare the state to which many battalions had fallen. He notes that his own battalion line consisted of 5 officers and 177 other ranks. When his units on the right and in the centre became held up near the cemetery by machine- gun fire from nearby houses he asked permission to deploy a company from the 1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment. His request was approved and ‘B’ Company was sent forward to assist, but it numbered fewer than 30 men, in fact he goes on to point out that each of the Royal Warwickshire companies amounted to less than a full platoon, i.e. they were operating at less than 25% of normal strength.

Sir William Robertson, Haig’s Chief of Staff, had pointed out that 1917 would make huge demands on the British, a pressure that was already being felt on this sector of the Western Front. When the Arras offensive opened the Battle of Messines was just two months away, and that was just the precursor to a much bigger affair, the Third Battle of Ypres. As Arras dragged on, and attrition began to bite, the Battle of Messines drew ever closer and it became extremely difficult to replace tired divisions with fresh ones.

In all, twenty-six infantry divisions were used during the main phases of the Battle of Arras and a further seven during the main fighting at Bullecourt, although the 20th (Light) Division, the 33rd Division and the 21st Division were also deployed in actions against the Hindenburg Line between the 20th May and the 16th June. The following table shows which divisions were used at Arras and Bullecourt, as well as the number of times they were used in brackets, but excludes the minor phase between the end of May and the first half of June. The information is taken from “A Record of the Battles and Engagements of the British Armies in France and Flanders 1914-1918” by Captain E. James. It’s a very thin book that has lived on my bookshelf for quite a number of years. It’s not something I reach for very often, but it’s still a very useful reference book to have around.

The Battle of Arras – 9th April to 15th May1

3rd Division (4)                                                                          17th (Northern) Division (2)

2nd Canadian Division (4)                                                      21st Division (2)

2nd Division (3)                                                                        29th Division (2)

5th Division (3)                                                                          30th Division (2)

12th (Eastern) Division (3)                                                       50th (Northumbrian) Division (2)

34th Division (3)                                                                          51st (Highland) Division (2)

37th Division (3)                                                                          56th (London) Division (2)

1st Canadian Division (3)                                                          63rd (Royal Naval) Division (2)

3rd Canadian Division (3)                                                          18th (Eastern) Division (1)

4th Division (2)                                                                            24th Division (1)

9th (Scottish) Division (2)                                                          31st Division (1)

14th (Light) Division (2)                                                              33rd Division (1)

15th (Scottish) Division (2)                                                         4th Canadian Division (1)

1st Cavalry Division (1)

2nd Cavalry Division (1)

3rd Cavalry Division (1)

The 3rd Division, 12th (Eastern) Division, the 17th (Northern) Division and the 51st (Highland) Division were also involved in operations on the 13th and 14th May, often referred to separately as the ‘Capture of Roeux’. The 4th Division should also be included here, as is evident from Major Kirkwood’s account of the fighting referred to above. For some reason, Captain James makes no mention of the 4th Division’s role on the 11th and 12th May. According to the ‘Official History’, it could only muster 2,444 officers and men, exclusive of four companies used as carriers, and those battalions belonging to its 12th Brigade were attached to the 10th and 11th Brigades for the purpose of this operation. The 4th Division was therefore deployed at Arras on three occasions, not two as stated by Captain James.


The Battle of Bullecourt – 11th April – 17th May

62nd (West Riding) Division (4)                                                 1st Australian Division (2)

7th Division (2)                                                                             2nd Australian Division (2)

58th (London) Division (1)                                                           4th Australian Division (1)

5th Australian Division (2)

4th Cavalry Division (1)2

Some readers of my website may already have seen the article I posted earlier this year on the Canadian operation to capture Hill 70 on the old Loos battlefield. The operation took place in August 1917, and whilst it was principally a Canadian affair, the 6th Division and the 46th (North Midland) Division are also credited as part of the Order of Battle. Although this engagement isn’t really anything to do with the Arras battlefield, many of the Canadian dead can be found in some of the cemeteries featured in ‘Arras North’ and on the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge, which is why I wrote the article. The account didn’t include the role played by these two British divisions, but this is perhaps an opportunity to acknowledge that they did play a part.

1 The figures shown include the subsidiary operations known as the Attack on La Coulotte on the 23rd April, and the Battle of Arleux on the 28th and 29th April, but not subsequent operations, i.e. the Capture of Roeux on the 13th and 14th May (Third Army) and the Capture of Oppy Wood on the 28th June (First Army). This latter operation involved the 5th Division and the 31st Division.

2 Captain James does not include the 4th Cavalry Division in his order of battle. It was briefly involved on the 11th April and was ordered forward at around 9.35 a.m. with instructions to push on to Fontaine-les-Croisilles and Chérisy, albeit in the mistaken belief that Bullecourt and Riencourt had been captured. Whilst cutting lanes in the wire an advance party from the Lucknow Brigade came under machine-gun fire suffering around twenty casualties. The leading squadron of the 17th Lancers, having reached the line of the railway, came under shell fire shell fire and was forced to retire losing eight men in the process. The division’s involvement in the fighting was therefore minimal, which may be why he didn’t include it in his reckoning.