Gateway to the Classics: The World at War by M. B. Synge
The World at War by  M. B. Synge

The Western Front—Arras, Ypres, and Cambrai

"Now all the youth of England are on fire,

And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies:

Now thrive the armourers, and honour's thought

Reigns solely in the breast of every man."

—Shakespeare (King Henry V.)

The beginning of the year 1917 found the Allies still hopeful of success on the Western Front. The French by the end of 1916 had regained nearly all the ground lost at Verdun. General Nivelle, under whose command these counter-attacks had been made, was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the French armies, and there was a general demand for an early offensive in 1917.

In England, Lloyd George had taken over control of affairs, and inspired the country with a new spirit of confidence and optimism, and, in addition, it was hoped that the ground gained during the Somme battle would provide favourable points from which to attack the Germans early in the year.

The entry of Rumania into the war on the side of the Allies had had little effect, owing to her swift destruction, beyond general disappointment. The fatal weakening of the Russians was not yet fully appreciated; in fact, it was confidently expected that they would become once more a great fighting force during the year.

Germany had, up to date, made enormous gains of territory, but had failed to win a decisive victory over her greater opponents. Her problem lay in the fact that her people were beginning to grow impatient at the delay in securing the promised rewards of victory. The people wanted a victory, yet, at the same time, it was necessary to hold on to the gains which had been made. In order to do this, enormous forces had to be maintained on all the fighting fronts, and there were not enough reserve troops left with which to launch a large offensive. As it was not possible on land, the desired offensive was made on the sea, and took the form of unrestricted submarine warfare. It was a grave risk to take, since thereby Germany became an outlaw among nations. The immediate result was the entry of the United States of America into the War on the side of the Allies.

Germany, therefore, began the year 1917 on the Western Front with the intention of holding on to what she had gained, and hoping for the success of her pirate policy on the sea. The Allies began the year with every hope of breaking through the Western Front, and marching to Berlin.

General Nivelle had devised a new plan for overcoming the hitherto impregnable German defence, and all the available French troops were being got ready to carry it out. Meanwhile, the British were to resume their attacks from Arras to Soissons, following up the advantage which they had already gained in this area. The plan was good, but the Allies had reckoned without Hindenburg and Ludendorff. These two amazing men had entirely anticipated events, and, having decided that there was no military advantage to be gained in holding this awkward salient, had begun as early as September 1916 to construct a new line of defence from the neighbourhood of Arras to that of Rheims. This line, originally called the Siegfried line, after the hero of Wagner, and later known as the Hindenburg line, was ready when the British renewed their attacks. The German withdrawal, aided by the weather, had been very skillfully made, and it was not realised at first that resistance was being offered merely by detachments left in the old positions. As the British made considerable gains, there was great exultation, and it was thought to be the beginning of a great German retreat. But suddenly the resistance stiffened, and the attackers realised that the new positions were stronger than those which had been abandoned. A desolate area of ground had been gained, for the Germans had systematically destroyed everything before they left, even to the extent of cutting down the fruit-trees. Cambrai and St. Quentin were still unattainable, and the German line was unbroken.


The Western Front The Battle Line, 1917.

The Allied plan had been dislocated at the start, but it was decided that the British should make a determined attempt to take this new position, if only to keep the enemy occupied while the French carried out their great attack. Accordingly on 9th April began the battle of Arras, which continued until May. Many heroic attacks were made between Lens and St. Quentin, and a few local successes, such as the capture of Vimy Ridge by the Canadians, were attained, but once more the casualties were too great, and the German positions remained unconquered. As soon as the battle of Arras had been developed, and strong German forces were being engaged, General Nivelle struck his blow.

On 16th April, the attack was delivered between Soissons and Rheims, and the opening success was spectacular, 17,000 prisoners and 75 guns being taken in the first three days. The French losses, however, in this second battle of the Aisne soon amounted to 100,000 men, only a small portion of ground had been gained, and the attack ceased. General Nivelle was relieved of his command, and General Petain, the defender of Verdun, took his place, with General Foch as Chief of the General Staff. The new system of defence, worked out by Hindenburg and Ludendorff from the lessons which they had learnt on the Somme, had proved unsurmountable. Both sides relapsed into trench warfare. The Germans willingly, since they were relying on their submarine campaign; the Allies unwillingly, because they could not devise a method of breaking the German lines, without incurring casualties, which they could not possibly stand.

On 7th June, however, took place an action which stands out during this period as being perfectly planned, perfectly executed, and completely successful, although its effect was purely local. This was the capture of the Messines Ridge by the British Second Army, under General Plumer. One million pounds of high explosive were used in the mines which were blown up under the German positions. The British advanced as far as they had planned to go, and, holding on to what they had gained, materially improved the uncomfortable position of the troops in front of Ypres. This battle was the one bright spot in what was otherwise a depressing period. The strain upon the Allied armies after so many unsuccessful attacks, coupled with the disappointment of the peoples at home, were having far-reaching effects.

Russia was in collapse, the Italians were unable to make progress, and the German submarine campaign was at its height. There was no longer anything in sight which promised to win a decision against Germany on the Western Front. Meanwhile, owing to the success of the under-water pirates' campaign, the ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend, from which the submarines were setting forth, became of increasing importance. Although the Allies had for the time being given up the idea of being able to break the Western Front, they thought, quite rightly, that they were strong enough to force the Germans back at any given point.

It was decided, therefore, to make an attack in Flanders, in order to make the Germans withdraw from this strip of coast, and so ease the situation on the sea. On 31st July, the offensive was launched from Dixmude to Armentieres. This, the third battle of Ypres, saw some of the most desperate fighting of the war, for the country was very difficult, and losses heavy; but although local successes were gained right up to November, the German positions were never sufficiently threatened to cause a retreat from the Belgian coast. Special preparations had been made for landing a force from the sea, and striking the enemy in the flank, but the favourable moment for this enterprise never came.

After failing to drive the Germans back from the Belgian coast, the British made one more attack before the end of the year. This was at Cambrai, on 20th November. Hitherto, before an attack was launched, it had been necessary to bring down a heavy bombardment of artillery fire on the enemy's front line, in order to destroy the masses of barbed-wire behind which he was entrenched. This preliminary bombardment always gave the enemy warning of what was going to happen, so that he was ready when the infantry started to advance. The British made a new plan, by which it was hoped to smash the enemy's front line and his wire, without giving him any warning. This was to be done by masses of tanks, which were to be followed by the infantry. The tanks were brought up under cover of darkness and mist, the noise of their engines being drowned by aeroplanes specially used for the purpose. At early dawn the attack was made, artificial smoke being added to the mist in order to make the surprise greater.

The success was complete, and the British infantry surged forward through the German positions to a depth of five miles on a front some twelve miles long. At last a real break had been made in the line, but unfortunately there was no army at hand to take advantage of it, and widen the gap. The advance stopped where the first victorious rush had taken it, and left merely a dangerous bulge into the German lines. The Germans were not long in taking advantage of this fact, and on 30th November they attacked the southern flank, and regained nearly all the ground which they had lost. In the end the losses on both sides were about equal, and, as Ludendorff states, "The action had given valuable hints for an offensive battle in the west, if we wished to undertake one in 1918."

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