Tuesday 16 March 2010

Arras 1917

I find the campaign around Arras in April 1917 as a very attractive and challenging period of I WW for gamers.

Historical background
By the end of 1916, the Allied armies had taken the strategic initiative in the Western Front, thanks to a gradual build up of new divisions, an increasing number of mid & heavy artillery pieces and well replenished ammunition stocks.

Also very significant, the hard lessons learned by the British Army during the Somme campaign in 1916 brought significant changes to the tactical performance and organisation of its forces, with a shift of emphasis on the platoon as the main infantry fighting sub-unit. The British platoon of 1917 was organised around four sections or teams (riflemen, bombers, rifle-grenadiers and a light machine-gun section) with an HQ section including the senior leader (usually a lieutenant), a sergeant and two scouts/runners.

Different arms coordination was also improved, and more specifically infantry-artillery combined operations. Arras saw the introduction of the “creeping barrage” concept, a moving curtain of sustained artillery fire preceding the advancing lines of British infantry when approaching the enemy’s positions.

On the German side, at the end f 1916 the strain and attrition of the previous months battles (particularly the Somme) was taking its toll on the strength and fighting capacity of the Imperial army. As a result, the high command decided to maintain a defensive stance on the Western Front throughout 1917, introducing the concept of “flexible defence” in depth instead of the traditional single line, retiring into the so-called Siegfried Line also known as “Hindenburg Line” by the Allies.

The Hindenburg Line epitomized the German’s new defensive thinking. A very good description of this heavily fortified position can be found in Peter Simkins’ “The First World War (Vol.3)” of the Osprey’s Essential Histories series:

“Any force approaching (the Hindenburg Line) would first face an outpost zone around 600 yards deep, which contained concrete dug-outs sheltering small detachment of storm troops. The latter were deployed to mount instant counterattacks... Behind the outpost zone was a main ‘battle zone’ which ran back around 2,500 yards and included a the first and second trench lines as well as many concrete machine-gun posts with interlocking fields of fir. Counter-attack division were placed immediately to the rear of the battle zone... giving a depth of up to 8,000 yards. The trench lines were protected by thick belts of barbed wire, laid out in a zig-zag pattern nearest the front trench so that machine guns could cover the angles of exit.”

The rationale behind the decision of the German high command to move back the lines was totally aligned with the defensive stance taken but also it was a good way to reduce the total front-line length by around 25 miles, saving the equivalent to 14 infantry divisions that contributed to create a reserve force behind the lines.

Opening moves-The Battle of the Scarpe (9-14 April)
For those interested in the development of the battle, I provide a link and the text that can be found in the Wikipedia as well as a map from the period outlining the main moves of the British attacks.
"The major British assault of the first day was directly east of Arras, with the 12th Division attacking Observation Ridge, north of the Arras—Cambrai road. After reaching this objective, they were to push on towards Feuchy, as well as the second and third lines of German trenches.
At the same time, elements of the 3rd Division began an assault south of the road, with the taking of Devil's Wood, Tilloy-lès-Mofflaines and the Bois des Boeufs as their initial objectives. The ultimate objective of these assaults was the Monchyriegel, a trench running between Wancourt and Feuchy, and an important component of the German defences. Most of these objectives, including Feuchy village, had been achieved by the evening of 10 April though the Germans were still in control of large sections of the trenches between Wancourt and Feuchy, particularly in the area of the heavily fortified village of Neuville-Vitasse.
The following day, troops from the 56th Division were able to force the Germans out of the village, although the Monchyriegel was not fully in British hands until a few days later. The British were able to consolidate these gains and push forward towards Monchy-le-Preux, although they suffered heavy casualties in fighting near the village."

A total success, with the British piercing the German lines, achieving the longest advance in once day since the end of 1914 and with a relatively minor deadtoll (just over 8,200 casualties by 11th April).

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