Book Review – J. Smithson, A Taste of Success, The First Battle of the Scarpe (Helion: Solihull, 2017)

Jim Smithson’s excellent book brings new understanding to the opening phase of the April 1917 Battle of Arras.

Jim Smithson’s book examines the opening five-day phase of the Battle of Arras which started on 9 April 1917. After the Great War, these five days were officially designated the First Battle of the Scarpe by the Battle Nomenclature Committee. Smithson’s book gives a chronological account over this time period of the activities for the 16 British and Canadian divisions of the First and Third Armies that took part in the action.

 

His book opens with the background to the battle and how it was planned to complement the French spring 1917 attack on German positions atop the Chemin-des-Dames ridge.[1] The Arras offensive was minutely planned, with a considerable artillery barrage, tunnels dug through cave systems around Arras to cover the transit of troops to their start points and extensive logistical arrangements.

 

The assault on German positions around Arras opened on 9th April and achieved far-reaching success. Canadian troops captured the strategically important Vimy Ridge and the Third Army’s attack was so successful that the advance reached depths of 5km into German positions. This was the deepest incursion into enemy lines of any attack in the war to that date. The attackers also captured 200 German guns and 13,000 POWs at a cost of 32,000 casualties.[2] However, after the progress of the first day, the forward momentum dissipated but attacks continued to be mounted against German positions over the following days up to the 13th April. These subsequent attacks resulted in a heavy toll of dead, missing and wounded.

 

Smithson’s book aims to examine a battle that has been largely neglected by historians. He pointed out the Battles of the Somme and Third Ypres have both received extensive focus, for example, achieving recognition with official ceremonies and public commemorations to mark their centenaries. Contrasting with this, the Battle of Arras is virtually unknown. Academic focus on the battle is consequently limited.[3] Some attention has been given to the Canadian Corps storming Vimy Ridge but there has been a paucity of scholarly addressing the whole battle.[4] For example, aside from battlefield guides, only four academic books on the Battle have appeared, of which Smithson’s publication is one.[5]

 

The question he seeks to answer is why the British military performance was initially successful in the opening 24 hours but then their attack failed to make any progress in the following days.[6] His book fits very much into the ongoing scholarly debate about the operational development and effectiveness of the British army during the Great War. Central to this discourse is the notion of a ‘learning curve’ amongst British army units. This process can be described as a progression of gradual improvement in tactical and operational ability and capability through a means of learning, change, and experimentation. It is suggested that over the four years of war the British Army became progressively more efficacious on the battlefield and was forged into a potent force that contributed to the military defeat of the German army in late 1918. There are two academic schools of thought on this topic, which have been termed the ‘West Midlands axis’ and the ‘Buffs’.

 

Battle of Arras, April-May 1917

The ‘West Midlands axis’ is composed of historians from Birmingham and Wolverhampton Universities. It includes academics such as Professor Peter Simkins, Professor Gary Sheffield and Professor John Bourne. They developed the idea of the learning curve, suggesting that the curve was upward, steady and sustained over the course of the war. The other school is based in East Kent at the University of Kent, located in Canterbury. They have been called the Buffs as this was the nickname of the East Kent Regiment in the Great War and include academics Professor Mark Connelly and Dr Tim Bowman. While the Buffs accept that a learning process took place, they are sceptical that it was as linear and neat as suggested by their West Midland colleagues. 

 

Smithson’s book places him strongly in the West Midlands Axis school of thought though he does not refer to the learning curve debate in detail. In his conclusion, he suggests that the performance of the British army at Arras demonstrated that it had learnt valuable lessons on the Somme but there were others still to learn. On the plus side, the set-piece attack had been mastered given the achievements of the opening advance. The initial artillery bombardment was highly successful and silenced the German guns.[7] Units had shown that they could move through each other on the ground to continue the attack.[8] Many units commented on the success of the Arras, compared to the opening day of the Somme, nearly a year earlier. Battalions had adopted the new weapons and new platoon tactics (set out in SS143) to improve their firepower and tactical efficiency with skill and effect during attacks.[9] On the negative side, the BEF still had considerable amount to learn about command, communication and control of units, especially about co-ordination between units. For instance, 88 Brigade (29th Division) was attacking east towards Monchy-Le-Prix on 14 April. It should have had flank protection from 17th Division to their left but, for some reason, did not.[10] As a consequence, the attacking infantry battalions, The Newfoundland Regiment and 1/Essex, suffered over 1,000 causalities between them as their attack was exposed on three sides.[11]

 

Another example was the attack of VII Corps, made by the 14th and 56th Division on 10th April. This attack was aimed towards Wancourt and Heninel; the 14th were on the left of the attack, the 56th on the right. Both divisions proceeded to attack in different ways. Major General Hull, 56th Division, insisted on bombing down trenches to clear them as they advanced rather than move over open ground for speed. This is what the 14th Division did and the 56th Division’s slow advance meant the 14th’s right flank was exposed during as they moved forward. Hull was ordered twice to attack points to cover the 14th’s flank but appeared to ignore these orders. The attack was not successful and both the 14th and 56th Divisions blamed each other for their collective failure to advance.[12] The other problem was co-ordination between infantry and artillery, especially where units had moved forward, artillery was often not ordered to follow to give support.[13]

 

Smithson suggests that the BEF had two managerial problems which were responsible for the issues as described above. The first was the lack of suitable staff officers. The BEF had rapidly advanced from a small professional army of 250,000 in 1914 to a continental citizen army of 2.5m in 1917 and the expansion of the army had not seen the training and preparation of men skilled to manage an army of the BEF’s size. This lack of officers led to simple things not being done. For example, after the 88th Brigade had left their trenches to attack the Germans on 14th April, no order was given for units to follow up and occupy these vacant positions. When the Germans counter-attacked later that day they found these trenches empty and moved on through to attack troops further back.[14]

 

The other problem  was the poor leadership material occupying senior positions. Smithson rates Hull, mentioned above, as the poorest example of leadership he found in his study.[15] Part of the problem was that there were few competent successors to replace the leaders deemed to be lacking. Indeed, Hull remained in command of his division until the war’s end.[16]

 

The final issue which the army was lacking was sufficient material to make the difference on the battlefield. Smithson points out the differences between Arras and the Battle of Cambrai in the types of weapons available. One example was the Type 106 instantaneous percussion artillery fuse which enabled high explosive shells to effectively cut barbed wire entanglements. At Arras these fuses were only available for heavy guns whereas at Cambrai all artillery units had them.[17]

 

In the end, Smithson argues that the BEF performance at Arras showed that though units developed tactically but problems remained in command and control. He suggested that developments in the former elements were pointless if the latter element was co-ordinating, directing and supporting soldiers men in battle. He concludes with the view that though ‘effective operational and tactical seeds were sown on the Somme, the roots of that imperfect, but the successful fighting force of summer and autumn 1918 were grown at Arras in April 1917’.[18]

 

Is the argument effective? The book is highly persuasive. His grasp of detail is considerable and his methodology of focusing on just five days of action allows a solid and forensic approach to the minutiae of what happened (or did not). He suggests that the ‘learning curve’ may have been a reasonably linear process. However, the natural downside of his detailed approach is that the book is very academic, dense and not one for a light holiday read. It deals with a highly confusing and chaotic situations in a dynamic and rapidly changing environment where elements of the action influence and shape events in unpredictable and unintended ways. Though this book is not a battlefield guide it does give a highly detailed analysis of the movement of units through space and time and is structured in headings to make the progress and actions of a given division or brigade relatively easy to follow. A final point to note is the quality of production from publishers Helion. The book is printed on high quality paper, the photographs are reproduced at high resolution and the maps are produced specially for this edition.

 

Notes: 

[1] J. Smithson, A Taste of Success, The First Battle of the Scarpe (Solihull, 2017), pp.63-75.

[2] Ibid., p.xvii.

[3] Ibid., p.xiv-vx.

[4] For example, P. Berton, Vimy (Barnsley, 1983).

[5] The other books are  J. Nichols, Cheerful Sacrifice (Barnsley, 1990), J. Walker, The Blood Tub (Staplehurst, 1998) and T. Harvey, An Army of Brigadiers (Solihull, 2017).

[6] Smithson, A Taste, p.xiv.

[7] Ibid., pp.259, 264.

[8] Ibid., pp.260, 266.

[9] Ibid., p.260.

[10] Ibid., pp.236-239.

[11] A. Rawson, The Arras Campaign (Barnsley, 2017), p.140.

[12] Smithson, A Taste, pp.184-189, 269.

[13] Ibid., pp.264-265.

[14] Ibid., p.269.

[15] Ibid., p.269.

[16] C.H. Dudley Ward, The Fifty-Sixth Division (London, 1922), p.315.

[17] Smithson, A Taste, p.261.

[18] Ibid., .274.