This was to be the first of many attempts to try to dislodge the Germans from their commanding position on the Vimy Ridge (which was called Hill 140 by the French. Two years later it had grown to Hill 145 for the Canadians—in fact more accurate maps included a new contour line).
In the east the war was going badly and the Russians needed as much aid as possible. The 2nd Battle of Artois was thus as much about trying to keep Germans in the west as about trying to take this all important ridge and easing the pressure on Arras.
The assault was to be carried out by the French 10e Armée commanded by Général Victor d’Urbal. The intention was to attack Vimy Ridge from two directions. One assault launched from the north was intended to finally take the hill of Notre Dame de Lorette and Hill 119 on the far side of Souchez. The other from the south was intended to take La Targette, Neuville-Saint-Vaast and the fortified system of trenches to their south.
For those who may need to seek directions. Targette is pronounced Tar-zhette with a soft ‘j’. A local and popular Saint: Saint-Vaast is pronounced without the final consonants, so, San-Vaa. To confuse the issue, Arras does have the ‘s’ pronounced but Amiens doesn’t.
In front of them the French had a number of significant strongholds to conquer. The village of Carency to the south-west of the Notre Dame de Lorette ridge was incredibly well fortified by the Germans and was connected via underground passageways to Ablain St. Nazaire and Souchez. In similar fashion Neuville-Saint-Vaast had also been fortified and further south it was evident that a warren of trenches had been prepared by the German defence.
The French offensive was originally planned to take place on 1st May 1915 but was postponed to allow further preparation.
New trenches were dug to give the French infantry better lines of communication and a system of trenches from which to carry out their initial assault.
Even at this early stage of the war (not yet a year old, remember) the requirement for sufficient artillery to pummel the German positions was recognised and ammunition dumps were created to stock what at the time was considered a formidable array of shells. Command posts were built and new telephone lines were laid.
Training for the soldiers was carried out and each unit was given precise details as to what its objectives were and what was expected of it.
In the air, the French pilots were busy gathering aerial photographs of the German lines. By the time that the attack was launched the French were pretty much informed as to the exact nature of what they were up against.
The planning and preparation done, the date of the attack was set for 7th May 1915.
On 4th May 1915 the French heavy artillery opened up the greatest bombardment that the war had seen (indeed, the first real one). Their objective was to destroy the fortified positions held by the Germans.
A total of 293 heavy guns would later be joined by 780 field guns to batter the trench systems and other positions thought to be capable of holding reserves. As a final flourish trench mortars would be used to attack areas which were dangerously close to the French lines and therefore precluded a heavy bombardment by the French artillery.
The French Official History records that 342,372 heavy rounds were fired together with 1,813,490 lighter shells. In May 1915 this was thought to be war winning, by April 1917 such quantities of ammunition were considered lacking.
The Canadians had access (they were being assisted by I Corps artillery as well) to 377 heavy guns and howitzers and 720 field pieces for a shorter front and more importantly would be provided with 90,000 tons of bulk munitions and a daily ration of 5,000 tons. As a very rough comparison for the two different sets of figures; if each of the French light rounds was 18 pounds that would be 14,500 tons.
Just as all was ready, the weather turned sour and the decision was taken to put the infantry attack back by forty-eight hours to the 9th May. The cavalry was in the wings waiting to go and Général Joffre the French Commander in Chief brought his command post up to Doullens to be closer at hand.
To the north the British Under Field Marshal Sir John French would launch an attack on the Aubers Ridge.
After two miserable days 9th May turned out to be glorious and by dawn the French were in position waiting for the off.
For French units I have used their own abbreviations: 33e = 33rd; 149e = 149th. In general a regiment consists of three battalions. A reserve regiment of two battalions is numbered by adding 200 to the parent unit.
At 0600 hours the artillery bombardment of the German positions moved into its final phase of intensity.
At 1000 hours the 10e Armée left their trenches and the battle was begun.
On the left the 21e Corps d’Armée (CA) had the difficult task of trying to move along the ridge of Notre Dame de Lorette. Visitors to the site will be aware of the run of ravines to the southern side alongside Ablain St Nazaire which made progress particularly difficult.
On the right flank the 20e CA managed to take La Targette and get a toe hold in Neuville-Saint-Vaast but further south the French found themselves stopped in their tracks by a series of machine gun posts which had survived the bombardment—a recurring problem throughout the coming years.
In the centre of the offensive however Général Philippe Pétain’s 33e CA battered its way through all the German lines and advanced four kilometres on a six kilometre front between Carency and La Targette within the space of two hours.
This was home ground to Pétain who was born not far away at Cauchy-à-la-Tour, to the west of Béthune. He had already made quite a name for himself as a leader of men and had under his command three of the best Divisions in the French Army: the 70e Divison d’Infanterie (DI) who were attacking Carency, the 77e DI with its Alpine troops taking on Souchez and the Moroccan Division who were literally storming across the plain and up Vimy Ridge.
In under two hours the French were across the main Arras Road (The modern D 937) and were advancing up the southern slopes of the Vimy Ridge. Amongst them, and serving in the Foreign Legion was the Swiss poet and writer Blaise Cendrars.
Give me a Corps and tonight we will sleep in Douai.
Whilst Vimy was being stormed the 77e DI had made some progress led by the Alpine Brigade and battalions of Chasseurs à Pieds (BCP—Light Infantry).
The 97e and 159e RIA (Régiment d’Infanterie Alpine) had reached Souchez and Givenchy en Gohelle respectively, but the 159e RIA soon found that like the units up on Vimy Ridge that their position was becoming untenable under increasing counter bombardments and the arrival of German reinforcements.
Finally the 159e RIA were forced back across Hill 119 (The Pimple to the Canadians) towards Cabaret-Rouge.
Carency remained the thorn in the side of the Corps and the 70e DI were finding that every building was going to have to be fought for. The Germans knew that it was of enormous strategic importance as it blocked the French advance towards the coalfields of Lens.
Four lines of trenches protected the village, the buildings of which had been fortified and great use made of tunnels to house over four battalions of troops in what was considered to be an impregnable fortress.
On the right flank the French had discovered that a system called the Labyrinth, (now forming part of the German Military Cemetery) was much more extensive than they had thought and was well equipped with concrete bunkers and machine gun posts which had survived the bombardment intact.
The end of the first day had shown that a breakthrough was possible but a lack of immediate reserves and the extra weight of the German artillery were causing serious problems.
At about 1100 hours on 10th May Général Ernest Barbot of the 77e DI was killed dashing across open ground just behind where Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery stands today.
The following day it became evident that despite its bravery and tenacity the Moroccan Division could not sustain its offensive and the decision was made to retire off Vimy Ridge.
The only good news was that the 70e DI were slowly but surely eating into the German positions at Carency. The tide of Frenchmen surrounding the village had by the 12th May surrounded the German garrison; a Colonel and over a thousand soldiers were taken prisoner.
Carency had been reduced to rubble by the thousands of artillery shells poured into it. All that remained of old Carency was the 1749 church bell and that had been hidden away before combat had begun—it would return following the reconstruction of the village.
The fighting along the entire front of the French attack degenerated into one long hard slog as the Germans disputed every trench, shell hole, house and cellar.