Battle of Arras inspires new exhibition

IT was a battle that saw the heaviest day by day losses of the First World War. But have you heard of the Battle of Arras? Now twinned with Ipswich, Arras commemorated the battle earlier this year.

IT was a battle that saw the heaviest day by day losses of the First World War.

But have you heard of the Battle of Arras? Now twinned with Ipswich, Arras commemorated the battle earlier this year.

Today JAMES MARSTON finds out about an exhibition to honour those who were there.

WHEN you think of the First World War you think of the horror of the Somme, Paschendale and Verdun. But if you were asked about the Battle of Arras in 1917, one of the war's most bloody battles, there's a good chance you've never heard of it.

But military historian Taff Gillingham said the battle was one of the biggest actions of the war.

He said: “Arras came on the back of the more famous battles like the Somme. It was a massive offensive and Lloyd George hoped it would be the breakthrough needed to win the war. It was a significant battle which involved the 2nd and 7th Suffolk regiments. It hasn't been commemorated here in Ipswich and I think it is important to do so.”

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To mark the battle Ipswich Corn Exchange is to host an exhibition on the pivotal battle.

Organised by Ipswich Borough Council, the exhibition will feature displays from the Front, talks and memorabilia and information on the Victoria crosses won by Ipswich soldiers in the Great War.

Kevin Marsh, European officer for the council, said: “When we began to explore the history we found out that in 1921 Ipswich helped rebuild two villages not far from Arras.”

In 1921, the Mayor of Ipswich launched an appeal to help French refugees returning to Fricourt and Bazentin. Ipswich dug deep and raised the cash needed to help out - there is a Rue D'Ipswich in Fricourt to this day.

Taff, leader of the Khaki Chums which is among the exhibitors, said: “This is such an important exhibition and gives local people a chance to find out more about the Battle of Arras and how the soldiers lived in the trenches. This battle was one of the most important of the war but has been overshadowed by the battles of the Somme and Passschendaele.

“Over the past few decades we have built up close friendships with many people in and around Arras and we look forward to welcoming some of those friends to Ipswich later this month.”

There will also be a talk by author Jonathon Nicholls and British “Tommies” will patrol the town centre.

Visitors from Arras, which has an economic and cultural accord with Ipswich, will be shown around town and taken to the replica trenches near Ipswich which have been used in TV films about the conflict. It is also hoped the mayors of Fricourt and Bazentin will be among the visitors.

Accompanying them will be members of “The Khaki Chums”, a group of authors, collectors, historians and experts on British military history.

A display of newly discovered caves and tunnels around Arras will be made by the Durand Group and it is hoped to plant trees in Ipswich in honour of local men who were awarded the Victoria Cross during the Great War.

Councillor Judy Terry, Ipswich Borough Council's arts, culture and leisure portfolio-holder, said: “Many people from this area have grandfathers and great-grandfathers or great uncles who fought in the trenches. I hope many will come along to the Corn Exchange and find out more about one of the pivotal battles of that terrible conflict.”

The free Arras Exhibition runs from November 27 to 29.

Do you have a relative who was in the First World War? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send an e-mail to

AT a public meeting convened by the major of Ipswich Frank Mason on February 1, 1921, it was agreed that:

Ipswich, under the auspices of the British League of Help, would adopt the French villages of Fricourt, Bazentin-le-Petit and Bazentin-le-Grand, where some of our glorious Suffolks fought so bravely in the Great War. The Mayor would establish a fund that would give to everybody, in whatever walk of life, the chance to subscribe.

Fricourt and the Bazentins were chosen because many brave Ipswich lads were buried there and it was in that neighbourhood that the 4th Suffolks, their own gallant regiment, saw a good deal of its hardest fighting.

The aim was to assist the French people to carry on and to re-establish tolerable conditions of life and work. Above all, anything that they did must not be looked upon as a charity but rather as the fulfilment of a moral obligation.

Col Powney told the meeting: “Out of the feelings of gratitude, of charity - in the best sense of the word - and of safety, the people of Ipswich should give support to the scheme. The two nations of England and France could not better linked together than by the British showing towards the people of France and feeling of love and fellowship.”

The battle took place from April 9, 1917 to May 16, 1917

Arras was one of the most important towns behind the British front lines of 1914-18 and the battle commencing on April 9, 1917, in terms of a daily casualty rate, was the most lethal and costly British offensive of the Great War.

During the 39 days of battle the average casualty rate was far higher than either the battles of the Somme or Passchendaele.

A tremendous effort had been made in protective tunnelling under Arras that gave protection for many thousands of infantrymen prior to the battle. The incredible network of tunnels stretched for miles and was a tremendous feat of engineering never surpassed.

In September 1916 the French Army found an underground chalk quarry. It was known there were caverns under Arras that had been sued as quarries centuries earlier but the extent and size of them had not been appreciated.

During the prelude to the battle the infantry were formed up just feet from the front line and charges were placed in tunnels dug just below the surface across no-mans-land that when detonated created instant trenches known as saps from the allied front line direct into German trenches.

At 5.30am hours April 9 big mines were detonated and the infantry attacked with a breakthrough of up to three miles.

The vast numbers of war cemeteries and monuments in and around Arras give testament to the hardships and sacrifices made.

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