Important to remember the costly Arras campaign

Travel piece: Scottish troops marching through Arras in WW1
Travel piece: Scottish troops marching through Arras in WW1

The centenary of the Great War was going to be probably the most significant period in the early part of the 21st century for public remembrance and reflection.

Planning began years in advance for military history and cultural bodies, and the government set out a programme of key events in the war which it said would be the focus of national remembrance.

Inevitably, this would leave out other campaigns which many would feel worthy of inclusion. The government selected only one or two ‘key’ events in each of the years from 1914-1918. The exclusion of the Arras campaign (April/May 1917) and the final ‘100 days’ (August 8, 1918, to the Armistice) was seen by some as an error of judgement.

The exclusion of the final victorious advance of Rawlinson’s army, perhaps the best British fighting force ever to take the field of battle, was perhaps a deference to political correctness and a desire to eschew triumphalism.

The omission of the bloody campaign at Arras seems only to be explained by the soon to follow and more totemic Third Battle of Ypres (July to November 1917), which came to be known as the Passchendaele campaign and the symbol of futile and cruel deployment of men to fight in ‘impossible’ conditions of mud and horror.

The campaign at Arras, however, was even more costly in terms of human casualties and utilised many of the innovations and lessons learned from the bloody campaign of the previous year on the Somme. The average daily casualty rate – killed, wounded or taken prisoner – was 4,076 for the 39 days of the battle period at Arras, against just under 3,000 per day at the Somme and 2,300 per day in the Passchendaele offensive.

Although the Arras campaign, like the Somme and Loos, did not produce the hoped for breakout from the stalemate of trench warfare, it was a minor success in demonstrating the necessity for overwhelming artillery support and superiority of numbers in any attack.

The failure to capitalise on the undoubted successes of the first day of the battle lay with the commander General Allenby and not the ability of the fighting men. Allenby, sent off to Palestine, would go on to be the famous liberator of Jerusalem from the Turkish Ottoman occupation.

Local connections with the Battle of Arras are strong as many north east units were in action, particularly the 34th Division, including the reformed and replenished Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish Brigades, as well as the 50th Northumbrian Division of Northumberland Fusiliers Territorial units, who had seen heavy action in France and Belgium for over two years.

After the war the ravaged corridor of land from the Belgian coast to the Franco-Swiss border was a shell-pockmarked and poisoned landscape of devastation that would require many years to reconstruct.

The recovery of French cities included a programme of twinning with British cities, which provided donations of money and simple materials, such as picks and shovels, to rebuild the shattered communities. Newcastle was twinned with Arras, and several visits to Newcastle were made by French dignatories, including in 1920 and 1923.

To mark that post-war relationship and the centenary of the battle, plans are being considered locally for a formal marking of it in April next year. More details will follow.

The project workroom at Linskill Community Centre is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for enquiries and for anyone to bring information about relatives lost in the war.