This episode is shorter than usual. The battle I am covering is often ignored as it is in the shadow of Vimy Ridge, and really, it was a relatively short battle but it still had many casualties and deserves to be covered.
After the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the work of the Canadians was not complete during the Arras Offensive, of which Vimy Ridge was just one part.
Canadians then began to push forward, taking out various outposts and advancing over the course of two weeks until mid-April. At that point, they met a large amount of German resistance.
Hoping to blast through this offensive, General Haig ordered a four-battalion attack by the Canadians on the Arleux Loop at Arleux-en-Gohelle.
“With a view to economizing my troops, my objectives were shallow and for a like reason and also in order to give the appearance of an attack on a more imposing scale, demonstrations were continued southwards to the Arras-Cambrai Road.”
The British continued to have trouble advancing the line during the overarching Battle of Arras and the Arleux Loop proved to be one of the most difficult parts of the line to crack through.
The Arleux Loop was part of a system of German defences that encompassed the village of Arleux-en-Gohelle. The system was fortified with concrete, belts of wire and a large amount of machine guns.
Needless to say, it was no easy task to break through this fortification and take the village.
The battalions assigned to take part in the attack was the Western Cavalry, Winnipeg Rifles, Canadians and Nova Scotia Rifles. They were also known as the Fifth, Eighth, 10th and 25th Battalions.
Supply problems were hampering various battalions but the Canadians were not going to allow that to be a problem. The Eighth Battalion hauled 40,000 rounds of ammunition itself to the front lines.
Prior to the attack, Canadian ground patrols were sent in to scout out the village, and the No. 16 Squadron of the Royal Air Force did air patrols.
With the knowledge they had regarding the defences in the village, the Canadians began to launch artillery barrages at the village along the German front. Believing that the Germans would launch quick counter-attacks, the First Canadian Brigade was placed in reserve to act as reinforcements if needed.
Advancing at 4:25 a.m. on April 28, the Canadians began to push towards the village along a 2,600 yard line. The Eighth Battalion was on the right, the Tenth in the centre and the Fifth on the left.
An unnamed Nova Scotia officer who was wounded in the battle wrote home, stating,
“The sky was all lighted up by the bursting shells. With the first gun, away we went. We lost a few on the road, but we got to the section we had to take.”
As they reached the village, they were met with hand-to-hand fighting.
The Eighth Battalion attacked Arleux over a low rise and were hit by heavy automatic fire from the town and from the woods to the south. The German counter-attack resulted in the death of all the officers of the Battalion, who were held up by barbed wire. The two flank companies in the battalion achieved their objective on schedule, while the centre company was able to clear the village and establish a strong point on the right flank.
The Tenth Battalion advanced through the northern outskirts of the village but were halted for a short time by German machine gun fire. After the delay, they were able to clear the Germans from the village and reached their objective on schedule. This allowed the battalion to establish a defensive position in the forest beyond the town.
The Fifth Battalion faced a great deal of resistance but were able to link with the other battalions to clear out their area of the village.
The 25th Battalion was stationed with the Second Division and only advanced 300 yards from the start line and took cover in a sunken road.
That unnamed Nova Scotia officer wrote in his letter,
“After taking the position, we had to dig in and hold it. This was difficult at first, as there was a temporary retirement on our right, though the ground was regained afterwards. Of the men of the battalion, I cannot speak highly enough. I wonder how many Victoria Crosses were earned on that day.”
The Germans began to see that the village was lost, and they ended all counter-attacks on April 29.
The village had been taken in only an hour and a half, with the Second Canadian Brigade achieving all its objectives. In the afternoon, reinforcements arrived to help resist any counter-attacks that may have come but the artillery helped prevent that from happening.
General Arthur Currie stated of his troops,
“They knew how to use the bomb, the rifle grenade and the machine gun, but best of all they knew the most effective combination of these weapons. They had trained for this particular job, they had rehearsed the attack many times and each and every man knew just exactly where he was going in the attack, and what he was going to do when he got there.”
The Nova Scotia officer wrote in his letter,
“Some of our men got hung up on the wire entanglement, and wounded there, and there were many splendid examples of heroism shown in rescuing them and bringing them into a place of safety. It is something to be proud of to serve in a battalion composed of such men.”
A British historian would say that the Canadian assault on the Arleux Loop was the only tangible success of the whole operation.
Back in Canada, newspapers painted the battle as a massive success, while vilifying the Germans. The Saskatoon Daily Star wrote,
“A group of the enemy threw down their arms and threw up their hands when the first wave of our assaulting troops came along. Afterwards, the enemy party picked up their rifles and began shooting our men in the back.”
According to the story, a Canadian soldier saw the action and shot ten of the men and bayonetted two others.
The newspaper continues,
“Sharing the honor for cool bravery with this avenger of treachery is a soldier who had been crippled by having to wear boots that did not fit him.”
The Calgary Albertan reported,
“In a brilliant assault the Canadians took the village. German counter-attacks failed to move them and in hand to hand fighting the attacking forces were driven back. Fierce encounters, in which the bayonet and rifle butt were used frequently, marked the fighting on the front.”
The Winnipeg Tribune wrote,
“The capture of Arleux has added to the feeling of confidence on the part of our troops that, with artillery support such as they have had in recent actions, they are better fighting men than Fritz, and can move him on steadily.”
Over the course of the two day battle, the Canadians suffered 1,255 casualties but they consolidated their positions that would allow for the next objective, the Village of Fresnoy.
One soldier killed was Archie Brown of Coronation, Alberta. He had joined the 89th Battalion when war broke out. He had worked for the Bank of Montreal during his time in the community.
Franklin Collins served in the battle. Born in Miami, Manitoba, he joined the army in June 1915 and was posted with the Winnipeg Rifles. During that battle, he was severely injured, losing a leg and in his words, being shot full of holes. In 1958, he was appointed to the Supreme Court of British Columbia.
Over 100 soldiers from the 10th Battalion had no known grave.
Private George Washington Hill enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1915, and took part in the battle with the 10th Battalion. He was killed, and his grave is now lost.
Another person who did not have a grave was Sgt. James Alexander Milne, who was reported missing and presumed dead on April 28, 1917.
He had been born in 1883 in Scotland and immigrated to Canada sometime between 1905 and 1911. Unmarried, he worked as a labourer in Calgary before he enlisted to fight in the war on Jan. 27, 1915 with the 50th Canadian Infantry Battalion. Eventually promoted to Lance Corporal on June 12, 1916, he survived the heavy fighting of the Somme and due to his leadership qualities was promoted to Corporal on Feb. 14, 1917. He fought at Vimy Ridge and was promoted to Sergeant on April 24, 1917.
Four days later, he was killed.
On May 5, 2013, 96 years after his death, an archeological team uncovered human remains while conducting excavation for the building of a housing estate in Arleux-en-Gohelle. Artifacts recovered suggested the remains belonged to a Canadian soldier with the 10th Infantry Battalion. An identification disc was found, and using that, along with historical, genealogical and archeological analysis, it was determined that the remains were that of Sgt. Milne.
On Aug. 25, 2017, he was buried at the Orchard Dump Cemetery by members of the Calgary Highlanders.
Information from Vimy Foundation, Canadian Soldiers, Wikipedia, Long Long Trail, Veterans Affairs, In The Beginning, Google Arts and Culture, Vancouver Sun, Saskatoon Daily Star, Calgary Albertan, The Winnipeg Tribune, The Evening Mail,
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