battle of arras
Despite it being early spring the weather at the start of the battle
was bleak and wintry, icy rain turning to sleet, then snow, with frequent
blizzards. Prior to the battle many thousands of troops were sheltered
in deep underground caves and tunnels, notably on Vimy Ridge on the
outskirts of Arras and in deep cellars in Arras itself, though protection
from the weather was not the primary motive.
This bitterly cold weather persisted for several days making conditions
extremely difficult. Even so, the opening day of the battle witnessed some
notable successes. In the centre of the battlefield, immediately north of
the River Scarpe, the British were able to advance three and a half miles.
Much of this was achieved by the 9
(Scottish) Division, supported later
in the day by the 4
Division. It represented the biggest advance to date
against entrenched positions on the Western Front.
One of the things that characterised the Battle of Arras was its sizeable
Scottish element. The writer, John Buchan, working at the time as the
government’s Director of Information, noted that 38 Scottish Battalions
had crossed the parapet on the opening day of the battle, which was more
than the entire British force at Waterloo and seven times the number
that Robert the Bruce had commanded at Bannockburn. The ‘Official
History’ also notes that 44 of the 120 Battalions that made up the 10
British front line Divisions on the morning of the 9
April were Scottish,
and even that total fails to take account of a number of Canadian
Battalions with affiliations to Scottish Regiments. The 13
Battalions of the Canadian Corps all had affiliations to
John Buchan’s brother, Alastair, died of wounds, aged 22, on the
opening day of the battle, serving as a Lieutenant with the 6
Scots Fusiliers. He is buried in Duisans British Cemetery. To compound
Buchan’s pain his close friend and business partner Tommy Nelson was
also killed in action that day.