Arras

Arras

… da most moving experience I ever had in my life, is when I came in an, just face da stone wi my brother’s name on it, in this far flung area. An I just seemed ta go into a trance and da whole family seemed ta come back ta me …  Alan Fraser, Crosbister, Unst, (1907-1999), interviewed 1983.

Alan Fraser had a powerful response to visiting his brother’s grave in France. Daniel Fraser was killed at Arras when Alan was only ten. The Arras Offensive (9 April – 16 May 1917) impacted on Shetland, not in the way Ancre had, over a single day, but over a period. The Shetland News produced a sheet of the lost, as it had for the previous battle. It included the proprietor’s son, Karl Manson.

Jack Peterson, who was wounded at Arras on 3 May 1917, explained it in a letter home.

That Shetland has suffered so heavily lies probably in the fact that in a space of two weeks the two Scottish divisions and the 51st (in which are the 1/7 Gordons) were in the thick of it.

Arras, or more correctly the Second Battle of Arras, was intended to be significant. Along with the Nivelle Offensive by the French it was hoped there would be a decisive result in 48 hours. The initial phases went well. Snowy weather favoured the British. There were new tactics, and the successful Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge is held to have been a model of them. Shetland soldiers, emigrants to Canada, died there.

The Germans had new tactics as well, "elastic defence", a variation on defence in depth doctrine. Yield ground initially and follow by later counter-attacks. It was attrition warfare. The Arras offensive became a series of battles, with small, but costly gains. The early successes were partly due to a German commander, Ludwig Von Falkenhausen, failing to deploy the elastic defence concept.

It was not only a brutal battle on the ground. The British deployed their air force in large numbers against a smaller but technically superior enemy to gain aerial intelligence. In the Royal Flying Corps it became known as Bloody April. Lieutenant George Ronald Yorkston Stout, whose grandfather came from Lerwick, died on the 30th, shot down by Lothar Von Richthofen.

On 5 January 1918, the Shetland Times commented:

So the war cloud grows thick and dark, for scarcely a mail reaches these islands but it brings ill-tidings to some fireside. The average death-rate has been about twenty-five men per quarter since the war commenced; and what that means, especially when it is considered that it is the young manhood of these islands, does not require to be stated. 

There had been no simple two day solution to the war in 1917.

In 2013 Jon Sandison compiled an exhaustive series of articles on what happened to Shetlanders in the Arras Offensive. They are available below as PDFs.

 

More info: 

Shetland News -- James Inkster, Arras
Shetland News -- James Inkster