Tuesday, 2 July 2013

'The sky behind us lit up with a sheet of flame'

Artillery firing from behind
Canadian lines, over Vimy Ridge
The explosive power of warfare on the Western Front was often nothing short of spectacular, and some soldiers could not help but be amazed by what they saw, despite the slaughter and devastation that resulted.

'A most wonderful sight never to be forgotten,' wrote one Bristol infantryman. 'Bombardment started four o'clock in the morning...Terrific noise. Guns take us off our feet.' His diary entry was made in the spring of 1917 during the Battle of Arras, a major British offensive that provided plenty of pyrotechnic brilliance.
It began on April 9 with a battle to win control of the strategically important high ground at Vimy Ridge. The attack was preceded at 5.30am by an artillery barrage of high explosives and gas. Then, as the day broke, 30,000 Canadian troops climbed 'over the top' and advanced across No Man's Land. The fighting cost a huge number of lives, but they secured a famous victory.
The action was vividly described by a Canadian medical officer in a letter to his sweetheart: 'We had some breakfast at 4.30am and afterwards waited for zero hour which was 5.30am. It began to drizzle rain just before the fateful hour. Promptly on the minute the whole sky behind us lit up with a sheet of flame from hundreds of guns and our barrage opened with a noise like a terrible peal of thunder. There was a wonderful display of fireworks for miles along the German trenches caused by the bursting of our shells and Fritz's frantic SOS signals. It looked as though the sky were raining fire.'

Adrenalin was still high when he wrote to his cousin: 'It was a wonderful battle, the best show I have been in...For miles we could see the artillery barrage sweeping like a blizzard across the German position and the whole country behind seemingly covered with our advancing troops. The sight must have struck a chill into the German hearts.'

The offensive continued until May, and afterwards the devastation was clear to see. 'Came through Arras, what was once a beautiful town is now a mass of ruins,' wrote the Bristol infantryman in his diary. 'Piano's mirrors etc smashed up and nothing but debris in roadway.'

You can read plenty more from soldiers at the battlefront in my book 'Letters From The Trenches', which is being published next year.

The city of Arras in ruins

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