For the French army, 1915 was to be the worst year of the war for casualties: worse than Verdun and the Somme together. The total deaths for 1916 were 218,000, compared with 335,000 for 1915 during which the French attacked German positions in the Artois and in Champagne.
The French attacks during the year, coupled with British attacks further north, resulted in a new defensive system being dug with the first line close to Arras, the second line in front of Vimy ridge, running south through Athies, and a third line that ran south in front of Méricourt, Arleux, Oppy, Gavrelle and Fampoux. Later, a fourth defensive line was added – the Drocourt-Quéant switch.
The new year started as the old year had finished: both sides attacking and counter-attacking; positions being taken and re-taken or lost according to the whims of war; and, of course, the inevitable casualties. One German soldier recorded that it was not quite the New Year’s Eve that they had hoped for when they found themselves in the forward trenches – full of water – as they waited to go out into no man’s land. ‘We crawled out of our positions to repair the barbed-wire entanglements and a patrol went out. Instead of the church bells of Berlin, the New Year was heralded by salvo after salvo from the French artillery, and quite a number of our chaps did not live to see the dawn of New Year’s Day.’
Like the Somme later, units that had fought on the Arras front were proud of it. A portrait of a Landwehrmann from 39 L.I.R, a unit that had fought in the September battles around Arras in 1914 – Carency, Écurie, Neuville, Roclincourt and Souchez.
Much of the early fighting was small scale, with limited objectives and of short duration, but it was still heavy on lives and was generally hand-to-hand with only one winner. The intensity of the fighting, the feelings it induced in him, and the changes it brought about in people, were recorded after the war by Private Westman: ‘We got the order to storm a French position, strongly held by the enemy, and during the ensuing mêlée a French corporal suddenly stood before me, both our bayonets at the ready, he to kill me, I to kill him. Sabre duels in Freiburg had taught me to be quicker than he, and pushing his weapon aside, I stabbed him through the chest. He dropped his rifle and fell, and the blood shot out of his mouth. I stood over him for a few seconds and then I gave him the coup de grace. After we had taken the enemy position, I felt giddy, my knees shook, and I was actually sick.’
A 1915 view of Arras taken through a trench periscope.
Such fighting claimed lives on both sides. After the battle, Westman’s group of eight took stock of what had happened to them: ‘two had been killed…a tram conductor…an office clerk…of the others (one) was a chimney sweep, two were farmers, one a student and another a teacher – all ordinary peace-loving people who a few months ago would not have harmed anyone. Now they told each other what they had achieved: one had killed a Frenchman with a pickaxe, another had strangled an officer, and a third had crushed the skull of a Poilu with his rifle butt. Now we were all murderers.’
Westman noted that soldiers quickly became inured to such violence. ‘I saw a French soldier making ready to throw a hand grenade. I hit him so deeply between neck and shoulder with the sharp edge of a digging-tool that I had difficulty in extricating it. Soon afterwards I had to use it again. I no longer cared that my uniform was splashed all over with blood; I had become hardened.’ But such experiences left their mark on the soldier. ‘I saw the convulsions of my victim’, wrote Westman, ‘his face showing even in death the agonies I had inflicted on him, and his cramped hands held over the place where I had hit him. Long afterwards his glassy eyes stared at me in my dreams, and I woke up from my nightmare bathed in cold sweat.’ Such experiences won some soldiers promotion; others were pushed into insanity.
However, by April, the French were in the ascendant and a major offensive was expected. After a month of preparation by artillery and mines on 9 May, after a violent artillery bombardment lasting several hours, the French Tenth Army attacked on a four mile front, with the centre advancing rapidly, leaving both wings behind. The very speed of the French advance was its undoing. 77 French division was one of the rapidly advancing units; it had successfully taken Hill 119, Givenchy and the outskirts of Souchez, when it came under such an intense bombardment that it was forced to retire as far back as Cabaret Rouge on the hill above Souchez. Such a rapid advance had not been planned for, and reinforcements were not available in time to stop German reinforcements arriving to halt the advance.
To the north, on 9 May, the British attacked after a short barrage. In response, two divisions were ordered to stand to arms but by evening it was clear that the danger had been averted and both divisions were moved south to reinforce 6 Army between Lens and Arras opposite the French Tenth Army.
The aim of the French attack was to take Vimy Ridge: without this position the planned attack onto the plain of Lens and Douai would not succeed. This was the central part of the attack with subsidiary attacks against Bailleul on the right and Lorette on the left. The front attacked was held by only four divisions, but these were rapidly reinforced during the evening by two others, and, by 15 May, there were thirteen divisions opposite the French Tenth Army.
A captured French 12cm battery being inspected prior to being turned on its former owners.
The château at Monchy le Preux was used as a unit headquarters, here seen being guarded by a camera-shy guard. Printed on the wall are the ubiquitous road signs.
After a six day artillery preparation – the first real bombardment of the war - the French attacked with spirit and XXXIII Corps ‘overran in one rush the German front defences and pressed on to a distance of 21/2 miles on a frontage of four miles between La Targette and Carency. In less than two hours, the Arras-Souchez road was crossed and parties had pressed on to the crest of Vimy Ridge between La Folie farm and Souchez village’. As a result of this speed, there were no French reserves available, and within a few hours the advantages gained had been lost.
The battle reverted to the wearing-down process that was familiar from previous offensives. ‘On the flat plain, behind the steep eastern slope of Vimy Ridge, the Germans unobserved could bring up reinforcements and supplies to their front defences, whereas the French communications lay across the broad open plateau in full view of the German observation posts.’
It was the overwhelming necessity for the French to take the positions that resulted in a high toll in life on both sides, but they were disadvantaged as explained by the British Official History: ‘The fighting, mostly at close quarters in the trenches, was of a most desperate character. It developed into isolated encounters…with the stubborn German resistance, added to the natural advantages’ of their positions making progress for the French very slow and expensive in terms of life, with many of the villages being taken house by house. Although the plateau of Lorette was occupied, the crest of Vimy Ridge was not reached; ‘tactically the operation had ceased to offer any profit.’
To the French, the offensive ‘led to the belief that a break-through on a scale far greater than that almost achieved at Neuve Chapelle two months previously was a feasible proposition, given an attack on a sufficiently wide front with adequate and methodical artillery preparation.’ As a result, Foch decided to continue the attacks ‘with the object of securing a good base for a further carefully prepared effort against Vimy Ridge.’
In the southern sector of the Arras Front was the Labyrinth, a fortified position that, from the air, appeared to be impregnable. The Labyrinth was a complex of trenches with barricades, trapdoors and deadly traps that cost thousands of lives to defend and eventually take. A contemporary Entente report described it as a unique stronghold. ‘Inside it there is a complete and cunning maze, containing every species (sic) of death dealing device known to science, including numbers of gas and inflammable liquid engines. Underground tunnels, coupled with mines, compete with small fortresses containing guns’ to destroy the attackers. It was a maze with a difference. ‘In a maze one constantly turns corners to meet blank walls of hedge’ but in the Labyrinth the corners were death traps, and ‘from their subterranean refuge bodies of the enemy are liable to appear to the rear of the advancing attackers’. The Labyrinth was also linked to Neuville St. Vaast by underground tunnels.
A common method of movement across the flooded plains was the water ski or any piece of flat wood that was available and a paddle.
Troops out on rest needed entertaining and each regiment had its own band. Somewhere in enemy territory, resting soldiers of 15 Bavarian Infantry Regiment had nice surroundings and a full band to keep them happy.
Having gained only a tenuous hold on a small part of the Labyrinth, on 15 May the French again attacked the position as well as Neuville St. Vaast and Souchez, but even after a two-hour artillery barrage and three separate infantry attacks, little progress had been made. Against such stiff resistance, the French called off their attacks, except for minor assaults against Neuville and the Labyrinth, until 16 June, when, after two days of little gain, the battle was brought to an end. The conditions in which the fighting took place were clearly described by a French officer who had fought there: ‘The passages in which we were advancing were 18ft. deep, and often 24ft. or more. The water was sweating through in all directions and the sickly smell was intolerable. Imagine, too, that for three weeks we were not able to get rid of the dead bodies, amongst which we used to live night and day! One burrow, 120ft. long, took us thirteen days of ceaseless fighting to conquer entirely. The Germans had placed barricades, trapdoors and traps of all descriptions. When we stumbled we risked being impaled on bayonets treacherously hidden in holes lightly covered with earth. And all this went on in almost complete darkness. We had to use pocket electric lamps and advance with the utmost caution.’
By the end of the battle on 19 June, the French had made progress at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, Ablain St. Nazaire, Souchez and Neuville St. Vaast, but the commanding heights were still in the hands of the occupier. Any territory surrendered to the French contained the remains of the previous fighting and was a constant reminder of the ferocity of the battle to hold the area. A French soldier noted that the trenches they had just taken were unpleasant; ‘countless dead lay buried in the parapets of the trenches, dug in the thick of the battle during May. At every step, protruding through the wall, one saw here a hand or foot, there a tuft of hair or a piece of tunic.’ The living inhabited the world of the dead.
Throughout the investment of Arras it was shelled, at times with great fury; 6000 shells, mostly incendiary, fell on 9 July, setting fire to the Cathedral and the Abbey of St. Vaast, while on other days it suffered only a few shots designed to keep the French on their toes. By the time the siege was lifted, 962 buildings had been completely destroyed, 1595 were destroyed beyond repair, and 1735 badly hit. Out of the 4521 houses in the city, only 292 were undamaged.
The situation returned to normal with minor attack and counterattack until the joint Anglo-French offensive of 25 September. This was a two-part offensive in the Champagne region and around Arras – the latter being the more important. It required the French to take Vimy Ridge and then attack from Arras across the plain of Douai, advancing between fifteen and twenty miles to cut the lines of communication and retreat.
A table diorama created during the 1930’s to show the battle for Arras where the first drumfire barrage of the war occurred. It lasted for seventy hours.
The King of Bavaria was a regular visitor to wherever his troops were stationed; this is a parade in his honour on 6 February 1915.
A quiet moment in the trenches - whether fighting or not, everybody needed a haircut at some point.
‘At 7:00a.m. on 22 September, the French opened their Trommelfeuer (drumfire – a barrage designed to weaken or destroy enemy positions) in the Champagne and in Artois.’ This signalled the beginning of a 72 hour bombardment that in the end obliterated many positions, wiped out garrisons, swept away the wire, destroyed artillery observation posts and cut rearward communications. Extending far beyond the forward positions, the barrage was designed to hinder the movement of reinforcements to the front line. Despite the start of the French bombardment, Falkenhayn remained sceptical of French intentions; he did not believe that the French had the will to launch a major offensive, a belief that was reinforced by the easily repulsed French probing attacks on 24 September.
On 25 September, at 0915 hours, the French offensive began. In the southern sector of the attack, the French attacked at Vimy and Souchez while to the north the British attacked at Loos, on a six-mile front with six divisions supported by 114 heavy-calibre guns. The French force consisted of seventeen infantry divisions attacking on a twelve mile front with 420 heavy guns, 670 field guns and 260,000 rounds available, plus two cavalry divisions ready to press through any gap made in the German defences.
Joseph Wöss, a thirty-eight year old carpenter, of I Bavarian Reserve Corps who died after being shot in the lung near Gavrelle on 22 May 1915.
The attack moved forward rapidly and 6 Army reported to OHL at 1230 hours that the enemy had broken into its position in a number of places and all its reserves were now involved in the fighting. Rupprecht requested immediate reinforcement.
The success of the French offensive was very limited and even the successful units made little progress against determined opposition. North of Arras, the French XXI Corps (13 and 43 Division) had Angres and the Bois de Givenchy as their ultimate objectives. Although initially successful, the French gains were lost to counterattacks during the night. Further south the situation was similar: either French progress was slow, or any positions taken were later lost. At Army HQ, Admiral Müller confided in his diary the seriousness of the situation:‘from the Champagne and Arras sectors disastrous news of successful (French) attacks against us and of heavy losses, including guns’, this, coupled with news of the Greek Army mobilising, cast an air of depression over the officers working in the HQ.
Heavy artillery, because of the distance it could fire was generally well behind the lines; a gun troop pose with their mascot and two shells named ‘baby Bertha’ and ‘Our darling’.
The next day, the stout defence held the French attack, and, by 10am, General Foch was told not to think of forcing Vimy Ridge because it would be useful to conserve troops for the Champagne offensive. French attacks continued and, although some territory was taken, the situation was very confused. The news that British attacks might falter resulted in further French attacks to the north of Arras - again with little French gain, but one loss was Souchez that fell to General Barbot’s men. A soldier, Henri Barbusse, likened the state of the ground after the battle to a village that seemed to have disappeared. Another soldier described it more graphically as ‘a trickling purée of wood, stone and bones ground and kneaded into the mud.’ In his diary, Admiral Müller recorded a letter from Prince Eitel Friedrich (a son of the Kaiser) that reported the ‘appalling losses of the 1st Guards Division at Souchez (4,500 men)’. The next morning he left for the front to find out if the information was correct as it differed from the figures given by the General Staff. At Hénin-Liétard, near Arras, he conferred with two senior officers, Plettenburg and Schulenburg who were both ‘very concerned by the bitterness of the fighting at Souchez’ and the poor handling of the troops as they arrived to relieve 8 Corps. As a result the losses, particularly of the missing, were terrifying.
However, French Tenth Army attacks on 28 September achieved an important success when part of its 6 Division reached Point 140, the highest point on Vimy Ridge in the German third line. ‘Such alarm did this cause…that the greater part of the Guard Corps, which had been intended for use against the British, was diverted towards Vimy Ridge.’ Even though the French gains were held during the night, General Foch and General Sir John French decided, during the morning of 29 September, that the offensive would be recommenced on 2 October; after much desperate fighting, progress was halted by reinforcements and much of the liberated territory returned to its previous occupiers. By 14 October the battle was over and the Westheer (West army) had proved its defensive strength and survived the initial assaults using only local reinforcements; divisions brought back from the Eastern front did not arrive until 5 October, by which time the attacks had been held. Casualties were heavy – 17,000 officers and 80,000 men against 150,000 French.
The Arras battles produced a mass of information that resulted in the eventual development of new defensive techniques. One clear message was that ‘ a wellconstructed position, even one which has been subject to preparatory fire lasting for days, including the heaviest possible drum fire, can be held against repeated assaults, provided that the garrison remains absolutely calm and is led by energetic officers of iron will, who would prefer to die in the defensive line with their men rather than yield.’
With increasing troop numbers, at his first meeting with General Joffre on 23 December 1915, Sir Douglas Haig agreed to take over the twenty miles of front between First and Third Armies held by French troops; Arras was about to become part of the British front line. This would release French troops for use in other sectors – troops that would soon be needed at Verdun.
With food at a premium, many units were involved in crop production in one way or another.
As the shelling continued, Vimy suffered more and more damage, again recorded by keen photographer J Ripper.
On a good day, with no fighting, sniping, patrolling or shelling, life could be quite pleasant
Out on rest, soldiers could attempt to feel normal, especially when the canteen was well stocked.
Behind the lines regimental bands would play for passing troops and any villagers who had the time to listen.
As the war progressed telephonic communication became more important – a soldier phones from the telephone bunker; open lines meant that the enemy could tap in to the conversation.
Friedrich Kögel, of 3 Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment, who had fought in the early campaigns, was killed at Roclincourt on 13 June 1915.
April 1915, an Aunt Sally type stall for troops out on rest in Willerval.
Another unit proud of its contribution to the Arras battle was the Garde Jäger Battalion that had fought there during the October campaign.
Movement in daylight brought down enemy artillery fire. Mail was essential in keeping up morale; here a post wagon of 2 Garde Reserve Division, proudly displays some of the 100 shrapnel holes it received from an enemy shell.
Carefully camouflaged field gun to disguise it from aerial reconnaissance and the following artillery barrages when the photographs were analysed.
Thomas Ostermaier, who died aged thirty, on 12 August 1915 while serving with 1 Bavarian Reserve Jäger Battalion near Arras.
A Bavarian Maypole erected in Farbus near Arras in 1915.
Vimy town square in July 1915 showing the gradual increase in damage to the town’s buildings.
Two soldiers pay their respects to Lt Hebauer, who died on 2 October 1914 and was buried in the local church cemetery at Fresnes.
Aerial photograph of the trenches in the area known as the ‘Labyrinth’.
The king of Bavaria awarding medals to soldiers who have distinguished themselves in battle.
Aerial photograph of the trenches in the vicinity of Douai in early 1915.
Reading and writing room for 2 Garde Reserve Division and a tea room for 77 Reserve Infantry Regiment, part of the division.
An artist’s impression of the night sky during the French autumn offensive in Artois at the end of September.
Joseph Blöchl, the son of a farmer in Langfeld, died on 25 September 1915 fighting with 10 Bavarian Infantry Regiment near Arras.
June 1915 – an aerial view of the trenches near the Labyrinth complex, a hotly contested area.
Josef Stampfl, the twenty-four year old regular soldier from Dellenhausen who was serving with 1 Bavarian Infantry Regiment when he died in a field hospital at Avion on 12 October 1915.
French POWs taken during the September offensive to clear Lorettohöhe and its environs.
Josef Weinberger, thirty-two year old economist from Altenburg, serving with 3 Reserve Infantry Regiment, who died on 8 December from severe wounds and was buried in the military cemetery at Fresnes.
Three soldiers pose in a deep and secure front line trench armed with rifle and model 1915 grenade.