The year 1917 brought about a turning point in the relationship between the commanders of the French and British armies on the Western Front.
Up until May 1917 the great majority of British offensives had been conducted in support of the French attempts to break the German defensive system or in the case of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 to act as a relief to the French defending Verdun. To this end, battles had been fought along the Aubers Ridge and at Loos en Gohelle in 1915 in support of French assaults on the ridges of Notre Dame de Lorette and Vimy.
When Vimy and Arras became part of the British front Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, in command of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), found himself once again ordered to support a French initiative; this time along the Chemin des Dames a steep ridge held in depth by the Germans to the north-east of Soissons — The Nivelle Offensive.
For some time Haig had been looking for an opportunity to launch an offensive along the Belgian coast in order to clear the ports being used by the German U-Boats. This would require breaking the German line in front of Ypres (now Ieper).
Contrary to his wishes Haig was constrained to fight the Battle of Arras which opened on 9th April 1917. Although this was essentially fought by the British Third Army eastwards towards Cambrai, Haig had insisted that Vimy Ridge, on the front of the First Army, should be included in the battle plans.
General Sir Henry Horne commanding the First Army allotted the capture of Vimy Ridge to the newly formed Canadian Corps under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Julian Byng (An Englishman).
On the 9th April the Canadians stormed the heights of Vimy and continued to push the Germans back towards Lens over the next few weeks.
On the Chemin des Dames, Général Robert Nivelle launched his offensive on the 16th April despite grave misgivings by his subordinates and his government. The Germans were already aware of the plans and were waiting for the French who were massacred on the slopes of the ridge. Despite assurances that he would call off a failed offensive, Nivelle pressed on and the French casualties soared for little gain.
With the French crucifying themselves on the Aisne, Haig was obliged to continue his offensive in Artois despite the fact that it had run its course. French morale had been broken and the new commander, Général Philippe Pétain warned that it would take time to nurse the army back to health.
Haig now turned his attentions to Belgian Flanders intending to launch his own offensive during the summer. This did not mean though that operations in Artois were brought to a complete end, and throughout May the Canadians and British continued to press the Germans back towards the mining town of Lens.
At a conference at Doullens on 7th May 1917 the Field Marshal announced that his objective henceforth was to : “wear down and exhaust the enemy’s resistance”. The main thrust of his offensive would be at Ypres whilst secondary operations would threaten Lille and Lens.
On 7th June 1917 in the most dramatic battle of the war British and Anzac troops stormed the ridge at Messines (Mesen) to the south of Ypres. In addition to the standard bombardment General Plumer’s Second Army exploded nineteen enormous mines under the German positions.
With Ypres’ southern flank secure Haig continued his preparations for the next stage of his campaign due to start in July. In order to keep the Germans concentrated elsewhere he ordered General Horne to keep the pressure up along the Lens front.
On the night of the 24th/25th June the British I Corps and Canadian Corps assaulted German positions astride the Souchez River around the town of Avion. General Horne had also considered trying to take a position known as Hill 70 to the north-west of Lens but for the moment the imposing German defences made it necessary to wait for heavy artillery to be made available — and much of this was already on its way to Belgium to support the Ypres offensive.