17/5/1917 As the Battle of Arras ends, Haig’s thoughts turn to Ypres

The Battle of Arras is now over. The battle began as a diversion, an attempt to draw German attention away from the French offensive in the Chemin des Dames sector. Great initial successes were achieved but as the battle went on it became more like the typical Western Front meat-grinder battle.

The offensive should have been wound down once the French offensive began, but when it became apparent that the French were suffering a disaster in the Chemin des Dames Haig kept the attacks going. Now though the battle is at an end. The British and their Commonwealth allies have suffered just under 160,000 casualties. German losses are around 130,000.

With Arras over, Haig is now free to plan for his summer offensive, a planned major assault on the German lines at Ypres in Flanders. Haig hopes to break through the German lines and clear them from the Belgian coast, eliminating the German naval bases that have been threatening Allied shipping in the Channel.

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Canadian machine gunners, Vimy Ridge (Wikipedia)

7/5/1917 The last flight of Albert Ball

Fighting at Arras continues. The British have deployed a large number of aircraft to the sector, to observe enemy positions so that the artillery can better target them. The Germans in turn have deployed a considerable number of fighter planes, including Jasta 11, the Red Baron‘s squadron.

The British have sent their own fighter pilots to Arras, including Albert Ball, one of their star pilots. He only seems to have joined the battle late in April, but since then has managed to shoot down some 12 German aircraft. With the Canadian pilot Billy Bishop he hatches a daring plan to attack Jasta 11’s airfield at dawn, hopefully catching Richthofen’s squadron on the ground. The attack is to take place at the end of the month, when Bishop returns from leave.

Ball is not able to put his plan into effect. In the evening today his squadron encounters aeroplanes of Jasta 11 and a dogfight ensues. Ball is observed chasing the red aircraft of Lothar von Richthofen, younger brother of the Red Baron. Ball pursues the younger Richthofen into a cloud, perhaps thinking he is on the tail of the Red Baron himself. What happens next is unclear, but an observer on the ground sees Ball’s aeroplane fall from the skies. Ball is dead when Germans reach the crash site.

The night before his death Ball had written to his father, saying: “I do get tired of always living to kill, and am really beginning to feel like a murderer. Shall be so pleased when I have finished”. In his short career he has shot down some 44 German aircraft. The Germans bury him with full military honours, a few months short of his 21st birthday.

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Albert Ball (Wikipedia)

The Last Fight of Captain Ball, VC, DSO and 2 Bars, MC, 7 May 1917 by Norman Arnold (Wikipedia)

30/4/1917 Bloody April: the red skies above Arras

The failure of Nivelle’s offensive in the Chemin des Dames and the unrest emerging in the French army has put the spotlight back on the British. Haig‘s men are continuing their offensive at Arras, now the main Allied effort on the Western Front, for all that it was originally meant to be just a diversion for the French. British troops (and their allies from Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth countries) continue to struggle with the enemy, but there is no repeat of the spectacular successes of the first day.

The British have deployed a large number of aircraft to the Arras battle. Aerial observation is vital for ensuring accurate artillery targeting of German positions. To disrupt the British observers, the Germans have deployed a large number of their own fighters to the battle, including star pilots like Richthofen, the Red Baron. German aircraft still outclass the aeroplanes of their enemies, so the result is a one-sided battle.

Over the last month the British have lost 275 aircraft in the battle. 50% of their air crews have been casualties. Richthofen’s squadron shoots down some 89 of the Allied aircraft, with the Red Baron alone bringing down some 21 aircraft. The life expectancy of a newly deployed British airman drops to just 11 days.

German losses are not inconsiderable, with some 66 of their aircraft brought down. And despite German successes, the sheer number of British aeroplanes deployed to Arras means that they continue to be able to supply the artillery with accurate information on German ground deployments.

image source (rOEN911 on DeviantArt)

29/4/1917 The Red Baron kills

The British have deployed large numbers of aircraft to support their offensive at Arras. Knowing the importance of aerial observation to the Allies, the Germans have responded by sending many of their own fighter planes to attack the British airmen. One of these is Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. Flying his red Albatross D. III aeroplane, Richthofen leads his squadron as they hunt their British foes.

Richthofen is not just a leader of men. He is also a killer. Today the red hunter has a good day, downing four British aeroplanes, sending 5 British airmen to their graves (and one Canadian).

This has been a good month for the Red Baron. Including today’s bag, he has brought down 22 Allied aeroplanes since the start of April.

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Manfred von Richthofen (Wikipedia)

Aircraft of Richthofen’s squadron (Wikipedia)

23/4/1917 Arras: the British offensive resumed

French difficulties on the Chemin des Dames have put pressure on the British to resume their offensive at Arras. Allenby, the local commander, fears that the British troops will be throwing away their lives for no obvious gain. However, Haig, Britain’s western front commander, is only too happy to oblige the French and orders the attacks to be resumed.

British troops attack again today near the Scarpe river. Gains are made though the British face tough resistance from the Germans, who also stage strong counter attacks to try and recover their losses.

15/4/1917 Arras runs out of steam

The offensive at Arras notched up some impressive early gains, with the Canadians storming Vimy Ridge and British forces making the furthest one day advance of the trench war so far. Since then though the battle has bogged down. The Allied forces have exhausted themselves in the fighting and are suffering from the unseasonal blizzards that have covered the battlefield in snow and sleety mud. The Germans meanwhile have reinforced and reorganised their defences, with Ludendorff sending a trusted associate, Colonel Fritz von Lossberg, to take effective command of the battle.

Today the Germans are even so bold as to strike back against the Allies, with the Australians being hit hard by an assault at Lagincourt. However they stage their own counter-attack and restore the front line, albeit with both sides suffering heavy casualties.

Although the Arras battle has failed to break through the German lines, this was never something it was intended to do. Instead the British and their overseas allies were attacking here to draw German reinforcements away from the Chemin des Dames sector, where Nivelle‘s French offensive is due to begin tomorrow. This is to be the Allies main stroke on the Western Front this year, with Nivelle confident that he will be able to smash the Germans and drive them from French soil.

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Looking down from Vimy Ridge (Arras Battlefield Tours)

11/4/1917 Arras: failed British and Australian attempts to exploit earlier gains

At Arras British and Commonwealth forces are pressing on, trying to exploit their gains of the 9th. British and Australian troops were to attack the fortified village of Bullecourt yesterday but bad weather delayed the arrival of the tanks that were to support the advance, forcing the postponement of the assault to today.

Unfortunately the successes of the Canadians on the 9th are not repeated. The Germans are waiting for the renewed Allied offensive. The assault troops struggle to move forward over muddy ground, finding also that artillery has failed to sufficiently clear the barbed wire in front of the German positions.

Most of the tanks break down before the battle has even started. The Germans have lost the tank fright that gripped some units at the Somme last year. They inflict heavy losses on the British and Australians, even managing to capture two tanks in a counter-attack.

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German soldiers with captured tank