A ‘Virtual Battlefield Tour’ from Fields of War: Fifty Key Battlefields in France and Belgium
Summary: Général Ernest Barbot’s 77th Division composed of alpine troops and chasseurs arrived at Arras on 30 September 1914 and immediately went into action east of the city to stem the German advance. Although under heavy pressure from General der Infanterie Friedrich Sixt von Arnim’s IV Corps, général Barbot ignored orders to withdraw and continued to defend Arras’ eastern suburbs. The Germans brought up their 280-mm guns, and after setting the city ablaze, German infantry moved to capture the ruins. Amid the burning houses of the faubourgs St-Nicolas and St-Laurent, however, the attacks were defeated by the stubborn resistance of the Alpine Brigade. Unable to enter Arras, the I Bavarian Reserve Corps executed a flanking maneuver to the north, capturing the communities of Lens, Souchez, Neuville-St-Vaast as well as the strategic terrain of Vimy Ridge and Notre-Dame de Lorette Ridge. The front line around Arras stabilized, and the Germans turned their attention northward, continuing the ‘Race to the Sea’ toward Ypres.
Arras was founded during Roman times, built upon a hill to protect trade routes in northern Gaul. Although briefly entered by German patrols on 6 September 1914, it remained unconquered throughout the war. Its proximity to the front and its position on critical transportation routes, however, made it a constant target of German artillery. Shells rained on the city while its inhabitants sheltered in a labyrinth of underground tunnels. The center of the city was in ruins by the end of the war. Postwar reconstruction followed the original plans, and today the city presents squares, both ancient and modern, for sightseeing, shopping, and dining.
The 15th century Gothic Hôtel de Ville and its Belfry were targets of German artillery during the frequent bombardments of the city. On 8 October 1914 the town hall was destroyed by incendiary shells; two weeks later the belfry collapsed. The damage necessitated a complete reconstruction after the war. The 75-meter-high bell tower can be accessed affording views across the city. The Circuit des souterrains tours the underground caves cut into the chalk since the 10th century. The galleries were used for military storage, hospital, and barracks during the war. (50.291086, 2.777238)
The Petite Place, (50.290879, 2.777823) also known as La Place des Heros, stands in front of the Hôtel de Ville and is joined by a short street to the larger Grande Place. (50.29207, 2.780335) Each is surrounded with Flemish-Baroque structures and columned arcades dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, although the oldest house, in the Grand Place, dates from the 15th century. The original wooden buildings were reconstructed after the war of brick, but designed to regain their Flemish style features.
British troops assumed responsibility for the Arras sector in the spring of 1916 and the Faubourg d’Amiens (British) Cemetery Arras was started shortly thereafter on the grounds of a previously French Military Cemetery. The French graves were later removed. Enlarged after the Armistice, the cemetery now contains 2,650 burials all but 10 of which are identified. Most of the deaths occurred during the 1917 Battle of Arras. The rear holds a special Muslim section and the graves of German prisoners who died during their captivity. (50.287411, 2.760112)
The Arras Memorial to the Missing lists the names of 34,726 British, New Zealand and South African soldiers who disappeared in fighting in this sector from 1916 to 1918. The 7 bays carry plaques which list the missing by regiment. A special section recognizes 13 recipients of the Victoria Cross. (50.287202, 2.760181)
The Arras Flying Services Memorial, located in the center of the Memorial to the Missing, commemorates 991 Royal Flying Corps airmen who were killed on the Western Front and who have no known grave. (50.286983, 2 .760387)
Defensive works have existed south of the city since the 13th century and they experienced numerous sieges, modifications, and reconstructions. The current Arras Citadel was constructed between 1667 and 1672 to the designs of Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban. Since the French border had extended north, the citadel may have been more to pacific restive inhabitants of Arras than protect the country from invaders. Much of work has been demolished. Access to the citadel is restricted to guided tours on Sundays afternoons as it remains military property. (50.282403, 2.759724)
The former ditch which surrounded the citadel now contains the somber Le Mur des Fusillés commemorating 218 patriots executed there by the Nazis during the Second World War. Plaques on the walls record the names, ages, professions, and home cities of the victims. (50.281317, 2.757561)
Fields of War: Fifty Key Battlefields in France and Belgium