Arras in northern France at dawn on the morning of April 9, was a beautiful day with warm spring sunshine: A day on which we marked the events of 100 years earlier when, in unseasonal snow and wind, more than 120,000 British and Dominion soldiers of the British Empire would launch their bloodiest campaign of the Great War.
Of relatively short duration, this slogging match would only last six weeks but in that time it would see casualties averaging more than 4,000 killed and wounded each day.
Nearby, on the Vimy Ridge to the north, the Canadians would launch their famous assault that would force the German occupiers to surrender their command of the heights, which overlooked the Douai plain to the east, which had given them a strong advantage against any Allied attempts to dislodge them for more than two years.
The Battle of Arras began at 6.30am local time with a ‘coup de main’ by the British forces in Arras to the south of Vimy, who had the benefit of surprise when they emerged from tunnels constructed by the New Zealand Tunneling companies.
These extended beyond the German frontline wire entanglements to a series of exit points from which the improbable attack was mounted.
The defenders, unaware of the undermining, crumbled before the attack but as with many other campaigns it would stutter to a halt with later recriminations of a failure to press home the advantage gained on the first day.
Northumbria project volunteers, who went out to take part in the commemorations at the Wellington Tunnels (named after their New Zealand excavators) and at the Arras Memorial to the Missing, set off at 5am from Lille to the north for the ceremony at 6.30am, marking the start of the attack.
Large numbers of New Zealand descendants of the tunnellers were present to see the New Zealand representatives along with M Frederic LeTurque, the Mayor of Arras, unveil a new sculpture of a Kiwi Tunneller featuring the trademark ‘Lemon Squeezer’ hat of the New Zealand forces.
After that it was off to the Arras Memorial where the Scotland 100 group were to stage an impressive multinational service of commemoration.
The Northumbria group laid wreathes at the Stone of Remembrance on behalf of North Tyneside Council and the City of Newcastle and others for local military associations in front of the wall panels of the memorial, showing the names of the local men who died serving with the Royal Naval Division, Northumberland Fusiliers (including Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish) as well as the Durham Light Infantry in the Arras area; some of the 35,000 who have no known grave.