Arras

SCOTLAND’S ROLE IN THE BATTLE OF ARRAS

Scotland’s role in the Battle of Arras continues to touch the nation’s heart as we prepare to commemorate thousands of war heroes for their bravery a century on.

The country played a significant part in the 1917 battle, which took place in France between April 9 and May 15. Arras had the highest concentration of Scottish soldiers fighting in a single battle during World War One. Forty Four of the 120 battalions that made up the ten British front line divisions were Scottish, with an additional seven Scottish-named Canadian Battalions. Of the approximate total 159,000 casualties, around a third were Scottish and of those Scots injured an estimated 18,000 lost their lives. The average daily casualty rate was 4,076 – higher than The Somme and the Third Battle of Ypres. Furthermore, casualties from 14 Scottish battalions that fought with other divisions at Arras should be added to the total injured.

The battle was part of a planned offensive by British and French forces. The main effort would be carried out further south by French divisions, but the British troops were asked the help with an attack on the Germans a week in advance to tie down their forces.

The first day of the battle was a success for the Brits, who advanced three and a half miles north of the River Scarpe in bleak and wintery weather, capturing the Point du Jour Ridge. Much of this was achieved by Scottish divisions. Most of Vimy Ridge was captured on April 9 by the Canadian Corps. The Germans still held ground east of these positions but had very little there in terms of organised defences.

South of the river, the 15th Scottish Division captured the village of Blangy but came up against strong opposition. The 7/8th King’s Own Scottish Borderers and the 10th Scottish Rifles then helped men of the 12th (Eastern) Division capture German field guns at Battery Valley.

The weather was appalling and conditions on the battlefield were treacherous. A handful of men froze to death overnight and many horses died from exposure.

Writer John Buchan, working at the time as the government’s Director of Information, noted that 38 Scottish battalions crossed the parapet on day one – more than the entire British force at Waterloo and seven times the number that Robert the Bruce commanded at Bannockburn.

Both triumph and disaster hit on April 11. The hilltop village of Monchy-le-Preux was captured and held. The 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers attacked towards the key positions of Greenland Hill, Roeux and the Chemical Works but came under heavy fire. The attack was a complete failure and out of the 1600 who participated, around 1000 became casualties.

Scottish divisions were again involved in major fighting on April 23, when the 51st (Highland) Division took part in an attack on the village of Roeux. Here, the Germans had free movement between important defensive positions via tunnels, a distinct advantage which resulted in the defeat of the Highlanders.

Meanwhile, the 15th Division succeeded in capturing the strategically important village of Guémappe, although it had changed hands several times as the Germans launched a series of heavy counter-attacks in a bid to recover it.

On the 3 May, the British launched a last attempt to secure the remaining objectives. But the only real achievement was the capture of Fresnoy by the Canadians on the northern part of the battlefield.

Roeux was subjected to further attacks by the 4th Division and the 17th (Northern) Division on May 11 and 12. The following night, the 51st (Highland) Division relieved the 4th Division along the village’s western edge to find that it had already been evacuated by the enemy. Four days later the fighting at Bullecourt came to an end; the Battle of Arras was finally over.

Once it became apparent that the French attacks on the Aisne had failed, the Germans were free to focus all their attention on Arras, which made the British task costly and difficult. After 39 days the Battle of Arras officially came to a close.

Read more about our Arras commemorations here.

FREE USAGE Alisdair Hutton, narrator for the royal edinburgh military tattoo, who's grandfather was gravely injured but survived the battle of Arras, was joined by singer Amy Hawthorn, young members of Cockenzie and port seaton pipes and drums Euan Williamson 13 and Carys Grieve 13 and cadets connor Mullen 14, Melissa Rodger 14 and Kimberley Dougal 16 from Glasgow and Lanarkshire Battalion Army cadet force as ww100 scotland launched it's commemorations at Edinburgh castle. PICTURES  - michael boyd
Alisdair Hutton, with a photo of his grandfather, Lieutenant George Hutton, who was gravely injured but survived the Battle of Arras