APRIL 1917

 

APRIL 1917

Battle of Arras

Prior to the Battle of Arras General John Gellibrand, acting commander of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac) advanced on the village of Noreuil on the 2nd April 1917. Noreuil is situated 13 miles (21km) southwest of Arras. Believing the Germans were withdrawing, Gellibrand launched an unauthorised attack on the village. The attack started well but it was badly planned and badly executed and was held up by hostile machine gun fire. A bombing party raid was sent to deal with the German defenders for which Danish born Anzac Private Jorgan Christian Jensen was awarded a Victoria Cross for capturing 40 German soldiers. Major Noel Murphy Loutit was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his actions of out-flanking the enemy and inflicting significant effective opposition.

As part of the Nivelle Offensive, the Battle of Arras began on Easter Monday the 9th April 1917, and ended in stalemate on the 16th May 1917. Arras is a French mediaeval town in the Pas-de-Calais region surrounded by high ground, held by the Germans, thus forming a salient closest to the German front line. The attack was to divert German troops away from the forthcoming French assault at the Chemin des Dames Ridge in the Champagne Region, known as the Nivelle Offensive, which was expected to break through the German lines. Preparationsfor the offensivewere arranged in such a way that New Zealand engineers created a vast underground network of tunnels to enable troops to exit directly in front of the German front line. The tunnel system was large enough to contain 24,000 soldiers who would not have to face deadly machine gun fire across no-man’s land enabling the losses to be minimal. However, losses were anticipated and a hospital was installed in the tunnel system. When the battle ended the British had made significant advances, and although victorious, did not achieve the desired breakthrough. The planned combined offensive was scheduled to last 48 hours and the British suffered losses of approximately 142,000 men while the German losses were in the region of 125,000 men. An awful lot of casualties for very little gain.

At 5.30 am on the 9th April 1917, four divisions of the Canadian army attacked Vimy Ridge in the Pas-de-Calais region of France. The Germans had defended this part of the line from the beginning of trench warfare during the race for the sea. The French and British had previously attempted to capture the ridge but both had been unsuccessful.  The attack was part of the opening phase of the Battle of Arras, which was a diversionary engagement for the French Nivelle Offensive. Prior to the attack British and Canadian artillery had bombarded the German defences with almost unlimited shells armed with the new fuses designed to explode on contact. Barbed wire and hardened defences were destroyed. The artillery operated a creeping barrage along the ridge north of Arras. Army Engineers had dug extensive tunnels under the battle field allowing the infantry to start the attack closer to the German lines.  By the end of the first day the Canadian infantry had the majority of the ridge under their control. However, the Germans were able to maintain their defensive position despite sustaining heavy casualties. Eventually after fighting in the bitterly cold weather for a further three days the Canadians captured the whole of Vimy Ridge on 12th April 1917. The German artillery evacuated from the ridge and transferred to the Oppy-Mérricourt line. The Royal Flying Corp’s observation and artillery spotting played their part in the battle by assisting the army. The success of the battle came at a heavy cost, with the Canadians suffering over 10,000 casualties of which nearly 4,000 were killed. The Germans suffered an unknown number of casualties and approximately 4,000   prisoners of war. Four Victoria Crosses were awarded to Canadian forces during the action. The Battle of Vimy Ridge has been celebrated as a military victory that gave “Birth to a Nation”.

Simultaneously on 9th April 1917 the assault at the First Battle of the River Scarpe was preceded by a “hurricane” bombardment lasting five minutes after a relatively quiet night. It was snowing heavily into German faces when the British troops exited the tunnels and consequently were able to take a number of prisoners as the Germans were unprepared for an attack. The first day of the assault was by the British with a direct attack east of Arras. Upon reaching the first German trench lines, the Germans conceded ground and the British pushed on to the second and third line of German trenches. The ultimate aim of the British was the German trench named Monchriegel which was a key component of the German defences. The trench ran between the villages of Wancourt and Feuchy with the village of Neuville-Vitasse being heavily fortified. Most of the objectives were achieved by the evening of the 10th April 1917 although the Germans still had control of sections of the trenches. The British were able to force the Germans out of Neuville-Vitasse on the 11th April 1917, Monchriegel was not fully in British hands until the 14th April 1917 enabling them to consolidate the gains and push forward to Monchy-le-Preux.

On the 11th April 1917 the First Battle of Bullecourt was an Australian attack on the German trenches east of the village of Bullecourt. They were expected to advance approximately 3km northwards, capturing the village of Hendecourt which is almost 2km northeast of Bullecourt. Artillery bombardments usually precede an attack on enemy lines, but the Australians attacked without artillery support. Assisted by a dozen tanks the attack was intended to surprise German defenders. Most tanks failed to reach the German lines but the Australian infantry continued their advance and seized two lines of German trenches. Increasing German resistance halted their advance and they were let down by the failure of allied artillery to fire on the German counter-attack. Although having held the enemy trenches for several hours the Australians were driven back to their starting line. The First Battle of Bullecourt was poorly planned and badly executed which resulted in disaster with the loss of over 3,000 men.

Lagnicourt, a village approximately 3 km in front of the Hindenburg Line which on the 15th April 1917 became the scene of a major German counter-attack. Part of The British front line was sparsely defended due to additional reserves required for the main British attack at Arras and the assistance required at Bullecourt. General Otto von Moser, the German XIV Reserve Corps commander decided to launch a counterattack against the 1st Australian division who were holding the 12 km of front line. Attacking at dawn the Germans advanced rapidly to overrun the village of Lagnicourt capturing several batteries of the Australian artillery. A vigorous counter-attack just after 7am, by four Australian divisions, recaptured the village and most of the guns and forced a German withdrawal.

On the early morning of the 23rd April 1917, British troops attacked eastward from Croiselles to Gavrelle on a 9 mile (14km) front on both sides of the River Scarpe. To the north of the Scarpe the 51st Division of the3rd Army, commanded by General Edmund Allenby, attacked the Roeux Wood and the chemical works. To the left of the 51st Division the building to the east of Roeux Station was attacked and taken by the by the 37th Division, as were the objectives on the western slopes of Greenland Hill. The rising ground known as Infantry Hill, south of the Scarpe and east of Monchy le Priex, was taken by the 29th Division. The Cojeul River runs south of the Scarpe and the village of Guèmappe, just north of the Cojeul, was taken by the joint efforts of the 15th and 50th Divisions. The main British attack was by the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division of the 1st Army, commanded by General Henry Sinclair Horne. The 63rd Division made rapid progress and secured the village of Gavrelle. On the 24th April 1917, the British held Guèmappe, Gavrelle and the high ground overlooking Fontaine-lez-Croiselles and Cherisy after several German counter-attacks. The fighting around Roeux was inconclusive.

The attack at the Battle of Arleux was launched the 28th April 1917 by the British and Canadian forces. The eight-mile attack was north of Monchy-le-Preux and was planned as a supporting action against German reserves in an effort to assist the French Nivelle Offensive at the Chemins des Dames. The battle continued for most of the 28th and 29th April 1917 with the Germans delivering determined counter-attacks. The Germans attacked the British at Gavrelle seven times but each attack was repelled which resulted in the Germans suffering great losses. The village of Arleux-en-Gohelle was captured by the Canadians after hand to hand fighting and further progress was made in the region of Oppy and Greenland.

During April 1917 the Royal Flying Corps entered the battle for the essential purpose of reconnaissance. The aircraft employed were inferior to those of the German air force but the British were able to carry out many aerial patrols. The RFC Rank Commander Hugh Trenchard had his aircraft acting in support of the ground forces by carrying out artillery spotting,  photographing the German trench systems and bombing raids. The missions were dangerous for the aircraft had to fly at slow speeds and low altitude over the German defences. When the “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen arrived with his highly experienced and better equipped Jagdgeschwader (JG 1 Richthofens’s Flying Circus) the British losses began to escalate. Between 4th and 8th April 1917 the RFC lost 75 aircraft and 105 aircrew which created a pilot shortage. Replacement pilots were sent to the front straight from the flying school where the average flying life of an RFC pilot was 18 hours. The RFC were to lose an additional 56 aircraft which were crashed by inexperienced pilots.

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Western Front

The Nivelle Offensive (the Second Battle of the Aisne) began on the 16th April 1917 at the Chemin des Dames in the Champagne region of France. After three postponements it started a week after the British began their offensive at the Battle of Arras. Robert Georges Nivelle was the French commander-in-chief who had proposed the plan for the British to take on an additional twenty miles of the French line. This proposal was designed to free up French troops for a surprise attack on the Aisne while Anglo-French forces carried out attacks between Arras and the Oise. However, the Germans had acquired a preliminary set of the attack plan as early as February 1917, and were alerted to the possibilities of a forthcoming offensive. Coupled with the indiscretion on Nivelle’s behalf rumours began to circulate and it was soon reported in the French press about the offensive. The Germans studied the press reports and consequently strengthened their already formidable defences. Consequently the German High Command were expecting a French offensive and when the artillery bombardment began on the 10th April 1917 the Germans were waiting for the attack. The Battle of the Hills commenced on the 17th April 1917 and was a frontal attack on an 11 km (6.8 m) front along the Moronvilliers Hills, east of Reims, in the Champagne region. The infantry advance began behind a creeping artillery barrage at 4.45am in heavy rain and snowstorms. The dark night favoured the French and they were able to achieve partial success in taking their objective. The Germans were well entrenched on the high ground around Mont Sans Nom and the Moronvilliers Ridge. The French objective was to take the ridge and deprive the Germans of observation and also to block German supply routes. Nivelle was the commander who had led counter attacks at Verdun and was considered the man who would achieve the break-through of the German Lines. Within 48 hours of the attack the bombardment against the Germans, especially the lack of sufficient French howitzers, meant the break-through was not achieved. Nivelle had predicted that success would be achieved within that timescale. The French sustained many casualties but Nivelle was convinced the attacks must continue and soon the offensive developed into a Somme-like action the politicians feared. Despite numerous attacks and counter-attacks a decisive break-through had not been achieved by the 25th April 1917, even though the French had taken 20,000 prisoners and 147 guns on the 20th April 1917. Owing, on the 25th April 1917, to the shortage of French shells, medical services breaking down and problems of transporting wounded troops, Nivelle was persuaded to reduce the offensive to secure the Chemin des Dames and to capture Reims. When the Nivelle Offensive ended on the 9th May 1917 the French had sustained 187,000 casualties, which was a lot fewer when compared to the Battle of Verdun.  Parts of the Chemin des Dames was captured therefore only partial success was attained, not the total success Nivelle had predicted. It has been considered that the attack on the Chemin des Dames was a disaster because of Nivelle’s “careless of casualties” attitude toward his men. However, his push for greater development of the tank was positive and that his creeping barrage tactics were innovative owing to the fact he was a “gifted artilleryman”. The creeping barrage was successful because the French guns fired their shells just in front of the advancing infantry and keep the German defenders deep in their dug-outs. Reservations were expressed by the French government about Nivelle’s optimistic forecast of a Surprise attack and victory for the offensive. A vote of no-confidence in Nivelle’s plan eventually resulted in the collapse of the French government.

The French army mutinies of the 29th April to the 20th May 1917 took place amongst the French troops on the Western Front in Northern France. They began immediately after the failed Nivelle Offensive during the Second Battle of the Aisne. Nivelle’s promised 48 hour war-ending victory over the Germans had not been achieved. On entering the battle the troops were ecstatic owing to the thought of victory, but overnight the mood soured owing to shock of failure. The losses of nearly one million men since the beginning of the war had deadened the French resolve to attack causing a collapse in the morale of the French infantryman. By the 25th April 1917, most of the fighting had ended resulting once again in stalemate, and at the beginning of May 1917 mutiny of the whole French Army was beginning to be a great possibility.

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Lieutenant Victor Richardson of the 9th King’s Royal Rifle Corps was badly wounded during an attack at Arras on the 9th April 1917. He had received a wound to his arm which was bandaged allowing him to continue with the attack and was wounded a second time with a bullet through the head. He was hospitalised in Britain where he received specialist treatment. He had his left eye removed with the possibility of also losing the sight in his right eye. His commanding officer recommended him for the Military Cross for his actions that day. Edward Brittain and Roland Leighton were at school with Richardson before the war and were introduced to Edward’s sister Vera Brittain, which began a four-way friendship. Leighton and Vera were eventually to become engaged to be married prior to Leighton’s death in December 1915.

At Monchy-le-Preux on 23rd April 1917 Second Lieutenant Geoffrey Thurlow was killed in action. Whilst attempting to find out what was causing the congestion in a partially captured German trench, Thurlow climbed out of the trench and was shot through the lungs by a German sniper. He was made as comfortable as possible but died about fifteen minutes later on a stretcher. At the beginning of the war Thurlow left Oxford University and obtained a commission with the 10th Sherwood Foresters. During training he became friends with Vera Brittan’s brother Edward, and was accepted in the overall friendship of Vera and the “Three Musketeers”. Thurlow arrived on the Western Front in June 1915, but was sent back to England in February 1916 suffering from shell-shock sustained at Ypres. Vera visited him in hospital and began regular correspondence with him. Upon recovering Thurlow returned to the Western in late 1916 and on the 20th April 1917 wrote to Vera that he had heard of the wounding of Victor Richardson, and questioned whether he would fail at the critical moment. Ironically that was his last letter to Vera.

On the 30th April 1917, Edward Brittain wrote to his sister Vera about the death of Geoffrey Thurlow. He stated that they had “lost almost all there was to lose and what have we gained? Truly as you say patriotism has worn very threadbare”. He was referring to the deaths of close friends Thurlow and Roland Leighton and the near fatal wounding of Victor Richardson. This letter from Edward was one of the experiences Vera endured during the Great War which began her journey toward pacifism.

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Various Fronts

On the 6th April 1917, the United States of America declared war on Germany. President Woodrow Wilson went to the joint session of Congress on the 2nd April 1917 to request a declaration of war against Germany. The violation of Germany’s pledge to suspend unrestricted submarine warfare in the north Atlantic and the Mediterranean were the main reasons for this request. The German navy had suspended unrestricted submarine warfare in 1915 after the sinking of the Lusitania. On the 4th April 1917, the U.S. Senate voted in support of the measure to declare war on Germany. The house agreed two days later and war was declared on the 6th April 1917. The U.S. would declare war on Austria-Hungary, Germany’s ally, in December 1917.

On the night of the 20th April 1917, British destroyers HMS “Swift” and HMS “Broke” intercepted six German destroyers in the Dover Strait. From the beginning of the war British destroyers were used to patrol the Dover Strait to Prevent the Germans having a southern access to the Atlantic Ocean. When “Swift” and “Broke” engaged the enemy, both ships were badly damaged by the action. The Rank commander of HMS “Broke”, Edward Evans RN, deliberately rammed one of the enemy destroyers which resulted in them becoming locked together. Close quarter fighting took place on “Broke’s” iron deck. The German destroyer sank when “Broke” managed to pull astern and extricate herself. In the meantime, HMS “Swift”, Rank commander A.M. Peck RN, had managed to sink a second German vessel leaving the other four to withdraw. Both “Swift” and “Broke” limped back to their home port accompanied by other British naval vessels. Both captains were awarded the DSO and earned them a great deal of respect from the British people for some well-deserved good news. “Evans of the Broke”, as he became best known was a much admired naval figure in the Great War. Evans was very fortunate to resume his naval career in the Great War. He had been second-in-command of Captain Robert Scott’s Antarctic Expedition of 1910. Evans led the last supporting party back to their base at hut point in 1912, but on the return trip he became dangerously ill and was not able to proceed. For 100 miles his two companions, Able Seaman Tom Crean and Stoker Bill Lashly hauled him on their sledge until they could not travel any further. Crean volunteered to walk the 35 miles to hut point to get assistance for Evans. Back at hut point Evans was nursed back to health and travelled back to Britain on the Dundee whaler “Terra Nova”. Crean and Lashly were awarded the Albert Medal for their gallant actions.

During the course of April 1917 U.S. Rear Admiral William Sims arrived in London as US Naval Liaison Officer and was dismayed to be informed by the Admiralty that Germany would win the war if its submarines went unchecked. Sims cabled Washington to have USN destroyers despatched to Queenstown (Cobh) in Ireland, from where they were to patrol to the west. Brazilian ships took over routes that were vacated when merchantmen from the Allied countries were sunk. Inevitably the Brazilian vessels were entering the area of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare, resulting in the loss of Brazilian ships.

 

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The Balkans

On the Macedonian front, Allied forces attempted a breakthrough against the well-fortified Bulgarian army in the Battle for Doiran. The assault began on the 22nd April 1917 with a four day artillery barrage in which the British fired approximately 100,000 shells. Some wooden structures and earthworks were destroyed. General Vladimir Vazov the Bulgarian commander ordered his defenders to fire day and night on the Allied positions. The British infantry began its attack on the Bulgarian 2nd Brigade on the night of 24-25th April 1917 and managed to capture ”Nerezov”, “Knyaz Boris” and “Pazardzhik” positions. The British were repulsed, sustaining heavy casualties, after a Bulgarian counter-attack. By 8pm they had retreated. The Bulgarian artillery also inflicted heavy casualties to the right and central fronts before they were likewise repulsed. The British withdrew to their original positions on the 27th April 1917 after being constantly bombarded by Bulgarian fire and counter-attacks. Criticised by the British high command, new attempts were made to instigate a break-through. On the 8th May 1917 they began another attack after a long artillery barrage. The main assault started at 9 pm with five waves of British troops attacking the Bulgarian positions. After four attacks during the night of 8-9th May 1917 the British were defeated and had to abandon all further attacks after suffering heavy casualties. The Bulgarians lost 2.000 men against the loss of 12.000 killed, wounded or captured British troops.

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 Eastern Front

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin) was a Russian citizen and a member of the Bolshevik Party living in exile in Switzerland. After the February Revolution in Russia, banned political parties were legalised. Although it was now possible for Lenin to return to Russia the war made it logistically impossible. German officials, recognising Lenin’s influence might weaken Russian resolve further they arranged for Lenin to pass through their territory and return to Russia. Lenin had agreed to travel in a sealed train and arrived in Petrograd in April 1917. The arrival of Lenin increased the popularity of the Bolshevik Party in an already revolution minded nation. The Bolsheviks were to prove most problematic to Alexander Kerensky, a young member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party who had recently joined the cabinet of the newly formed Provisional Government.

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The Caucasus and Middle East Campaign

The Second Battle of Gaza was fought between the 17th and 19th April 1917. At the First Battle of Gaza, Sir Archibald Murray had called off the attack against the defenders of the Ottoman forces in March 1917. The War Office in London, believing British troops were about to achieve a breakthrough, ordered Murray to renew the attack. The German General commanding the Ottoman forces was Friedrich von Kressenstein and he was well aware of British intentions to resume the offensive against Gaza. Although still out-numbered by about two to one, von Kressenstein had strengthened their defences and extended their forces along the road from Gaza to Beersheba. The British attack included eight heavy Mark-1 tanks and 4000 gas shells to ensure victory. However, the tanks proved to be unsuitable in the hot and dry desert conditions and three were captured by Turkish troops. Turkish defenders withstood the attack and after three days of heavy fighting and corresponding heavy losses Sir Charles Dobell, subordinate commander to Murray, was forced to call off the assault. Gaza was still firmly in the hands of the Turkish troops which ended the Second Battle of Gaza.

The stalemate in Southern Palestine was a six month standoff from, April to October 1917, between the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) and the Ottoman Army. The two hostile forces faced each other along the Gaza to Beersheba line during the Sinai and Palestinian Campaign. During the stalemate both sides contested mounted patrolling in the open flanks, together with continuous British attacks, trench warfare and a series of trench raids. The trenches were of similar construction to those on the Western Front but without the mud and open ground to both flanks. They also differed in that the daytime heat dictated most activity was performed at night. Each side took advantage to reorganise their defences, change commanders and generally prepare for future battles.

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