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A Battle Too Far – Arras 1917

A Battle Too Far – Arras 1917

Don Farr
ARRSE Rating
4.5 Mushroom Heads
I took this review on for two main reasons; to expand my burgeoning knowledge and interest of WW1 and to learn about a battle that I had heard of but knew virtually nothing about, so I looked forward to getting the book off Auld Yin. It arrived, and first impressions were good. A decent sized hardback book with 329 pages of fairly small print promising a detailed and informative read. I wasn’t wrong.

The author describes the objectives and order of battle for the various Armies, Corps, Divisions and Brigades in great detail and, to be honest, without a map or diagram to hand it was a little too difficult to follow the various battles which made up the campaign due to the size of the front being described; I found I had to keep going back and forwards between pages and sometimes chapters to keep abreast of who was to the left or right of a unit and who was supporting who, but I kept at it and eventually the picture became a little clearer but not much.

Farr goes to great pains to explain the personalities involved such as Field Marshal Haig, the various BEF Army commanders, Allenby, Gough and Horne as well as the French and German commanders. He also goes into great detail of the initial premise of the offensive based on plans drawn up by the French Commander-in-Chief, General Robert Nivelle, based on his successes at Verdun in 1916, though on a grander scale, and how it quickly began to unravel with disputes between Haig and Nivelle over rail transport availability for their respective forces and redeployment of elements of the BEF to take over a 32km length of the French line. He also details the meddling by politicians, both in London and Paris, causing further delays and problems (no surprise there).

Farr also details how the plans for the French part of the forthcoming offensive fell into German hands and, due to Nivelle’s indiscretions during conversations, it was widely known in French society. Despite this, he declined to change the plans to any great extent, if at all, to the cost of thousands of French soldiers’ lives.

As said above, the chapters dealing with the actual offensive were very detailed and I did get lost a couple of times before I could get a loose grip on who was doing what. Farr goes into detail regarding individual brigade and battalion objectives and the narrative does get confusing and the chapters on the French offensive make sad reading; I found myself becoming both frustrated and incredulous at the French Generals implementing a plan that they knew was already compromised. There is a very good description of the Canadians at Vimy Ridge which was one of the main successes.

As I knew virtually nothing of the battle other than the name, I started following the account of the British offensive with a sense of confusion about the title. The first day or two were very successful for them and signalled the start of what could have become a “war of movement”, though it quickly became apparent that the advances made were not exploited. Farr explains this well in the chapters in the “Conclusions and Epilogue” section of the book and how this was due to a number of factors; Allenby deploying the bulk of his troops south of the River Scarpe and “a mixture of disbelief at what was being achieved, an unfamiliarity with how to deal with a beckoning war of movement and an understandable anxiety to avoid outrunning artillery support”. He also cites the decline in “quality” (for want of a better word) of the average British soldier by this time, particularly when losses of experienced Officers and NCO’s mounted. Most of the soldiers had been in uniform a matter of months before being pitched into battle with no proper training in trench warfare, infantry tactics or the familiarity of the rifle and bayonet the professional army of 1914 enjoyed. Most of the junior officers had no time to get to know the men in their platoons and, as such, lack of initiative and leadership often made itself known. Farr also explains the difficulties faced by the artillery, namely the inability to provide support to the infantry due to being unable to move the guns forward over ground they themselves had made impassable and the mechanical unreliability of the new tanks, most of which broke down before or after the start as well as that played by the RFC. There is a very good chapter on the German Army at Arras and explains their adoption of new defensive tactics and how these helped boost German morale during the subsequent parts of the offensive.

The book was a good read, if a tad difficult at times due to the amount of detail contained but despite this I enjoyed reviewing it. It’s the sort of book to be taken time over in the evening with a glass of something dark and smooth to accompany it (Pussers or El Dorado mainly) and would appeal to any serious amateur historian of WW1; it’s not one to have as a bit of light reading.

I would give this book a rating of 4.5 Mr. Mushroom heads

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