“The First Battle of the Scarpe had been fought in sure faith of victory, the Second in good hope of success, but the Third Battle, on the 3rd May, was mere charity.” As summaries go, this is probably as good a verdict on the Battle of Arras as you are likely to find anywhere. The quotation comes from Sir Archibald Wavell’s biography of Allenby first published in 1940. He goes on to say:“By the 3rd May 1917 it was practically certain that the French effort was spent, though the extent of the crisis was probably not fully appreciated by the British at the time.”
According to “Military Operations – France and Belgium 1917 – Volume One”, combined casualties for the British First and Third Armies during the month of May came to just over 37,000. To that total we need to add just over 8,000 for the three British Divisions involved at Bullecourt during May, then add the Australian losses during the Second Battle of Bullecourt, calculated at around 7,000 by the historian C.E.W. Bean. By any standards, the Third Battle of the Scarpe, and the two weeks that followed, truly represented charity on a grand scale. The cost of extending further support to the French was certainly not cheap.
However, we should also remember that the 9th April 1917, including the run up to it, must have seemed like a time of incredible possibilities. At the start of 1917, nobody had expected the Germans to withdraw to the Hindenburg Line, and yet they were forced to take such drastic action. The French offensive under Nivelle promised great things, though many had their doubts, and Haig was looking forward with optimism to major operations in Belgium later that year. On the opening day, Vimy Ridge was snatched from the enemy, and there was that momentous advance of three and a half miles against a well-established enemy trench system. On the 9th April things must have seemed pretty rosy.
When the Germans were seen hooking up their guns and heading east we can hardly blame men like Croft, Maxwell and Carton de Wiart for believing that great things were possible. They were reacting to the moment. However, a withdrawal of troops and other assets did not mean that the Germans were in full retreat. They were falling back, yes, but there was never any intention of retreating from the battlefield. This had been thought a real possibility, even before the 9th April, and numerous raids were carried out before the opening day at Arras to test this idea. However, the Germans never really considered falling back further than was tactically necessary. Holding Roeux meant that the Germans didn’t have to fall back any further on that central part of the battlefield. Other locations, such as Heninel and Wancourt, also bought vital time for the Germans to reorganise, as did Gavrelle and Guemappe once the former had fallen. Even after a desperate opening day, the Germans still had plenty to play for at Arras.
Arras started, not as the main event, but as the support act to Nivelle’s grand spectacle on the Aisne, and yet, purely by default, Arras did become the main event long before Nivelle’s show was finally ‘hissed off the stage’. In 2006, Gordon Corrigan published his book on Loos and called it the ‘Unwanted Battle’. For the British, the Battle of Arras was, in many ways, another unwanted battle. There was still a slight glimmer of hope when the Second Battle of the Scarpe began on the 23rd of April, but by the time it came to the 3rd May it was simply a case of trying to establish a decent defensive line before the fighting could be brought to a close and attention could be switched elsewhere. Once the French effort had failed, the Battle of Arras ceased to have any strategic purpose. The date on which that became apparent can be argued, but certainly by the 23rd April any hope of a French recovery was well and truly over.
‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ – it’s the sort of brilliantly succinct phrase that every historian of the Great War probably wishes he, or she, had coined.