Visiting Arras

The following is an extract from my local council’s website, the section being, ‘Streets of Significance’.

  • Arras
  • Relevant street
  • Arras Street,
  • Significance

Arras is a town in northern France. During much of World War One it was 10 kilometres from the frontline and numerous battles were fought around the town and nearby at the Vimy Ridge. During 1914, German troops invaded and were then repelled by the French army. The French handed the town to Commonwealth forces in 1916 and the New Zealand Tunnelling Company (warfare unit) readied the medieval tunnels on which the town is built, for a major offensive in 1917.

 I had been alerted that there was something slightly different about my street when I noticed one day it had a ‘Rising Sun’ badge attached to the new street sign. Why was there a military symbol on our street sign? I presumed it had some link with a memorial drive running through a local park up the hill, dedicated to the Anzac troops who died during World War 1. I got around to checking the Council web site to discover that my residential street had been named after a northern French City of some significance during the trench warfare of 1914-18. I mused to myself whether anybody else in my street knew anything about Arras and what took place there. I decided that if I ever got the chance, I would visit this city and find out what its significance was to the story of the ANZACs…that opportunity came in June 2019.

I would argue that if you visit an unknown city on your foreign travels, an understanding of the historical background of the place will enhance your stay there. Australians generally have quite a bit of background in the history of World War 1 because we are familiar with the ANZAC story starting with Gallipoli and then moving onto the trench warfare of northern France. I was surprised that with all my personal background with the wars of the twentieth century, my visit to Arras illustrated how much I didn’t know, particularly of the suffering of the local citizens on the sidelines of the war. The city of Arras sat on the perimeter of the trench warfare and its citizens suffered along with the troops going over the top into no man’s land. The following extract from a newspaper article preserved in a local museum explains all.

 While the city of Arras did not fall into the hands of the enemy, 75% of its perimeter was never the less surrounded. Arras became a major strategic point. The Germans made numerous attempts to take the city, which was a vital railway and interchange for Northern France. The network of trenches developed in the eastern suburbs. The railway station and the railway embankment marked the boundary between the city and the war zone.
 This situation led to daily bombing raids on Arras and its suburbs. There were hundreds of civil victims, and the city’s architectural heritage was also destroyed, particularly all the monuments that were being used as lookout posts for observing the front, like the belfry, a symbol of local freedoms, which collapsed when hit by the 69th shell on the morning of the 21st October 1914. Just like Rheims, Arras was extolled as a “martyr city” by the national and international press. Numerous articles were written, describing the ruins, the heroism of the population in the midst of shellfire, and life underground in the cellars.
 “Rheims! You are no longer alone: Arras is in ruins (…) the town hall has been shattered into pieces. It is as ragged as a Spanish beggar.”
Albert Londres, Le Matin Newspaper – 17th October 1914

The start to our visit to Arras wasn’t very encouraging. We parked our campervan on the edge of the city just as it started to rain. We donned our rain-gear, hoisted our bikes off the back of the van and headed up the hill to a bridge crossing the railway line where we turned left and headed down to the railway station, “the boundary line between the city and the war zone”. There was of course a large war memorial in the plaza across the road from the station. A translation of the inscription reads, “The French Soldier. Yesterday a soldier of God, today a soldier of humanity, will always be a soldier of law.” The B&W photo below was probably taken around 1914 somewhere near where the memorial stand today and puts some flesh on what the reporter meant by, “Arras is in ruins (…) the town hall has been shattered into pieces. It is as ragged as a beggar.”

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The rain stopped so from the station we rode towards the centre of the city. Like most of these French cities, the urban area for the most part is laid out like any city in Australia; wide roads designed for cars and occasionally bike paths. From Arras station you enter the old city and the roads are narrower, often cobbled and so the bike riding was very bumpy. We arrived for a short stop at the Church of St John the Baptist.

IMGP8098aWorld War 1 was far from the first civic crisis for Arras. At the height of the French revolution from 1789, the revolutionaries who instituted the ‘Reign of Terror’ on  confused citizens were very bitter about the role of the church in the life of the country. Fortunately or unfortunately, the most prominent advocate of the terror against all sides of the political spectrum was Maximillian Robespierre who is also the most famous citizen of Arras. He was executed himself in 1784, aged 34 but his impact on the Churches in France was immense. The cathedral de Notre Dame in Arras, built between 1030 and 1396 was Arras map4regarded as one of the most beautiful Gothic buildings in northern France. The Revolutionaries sold it and it was pulled down for real estate. According to the plaque outside Sant-Jean-Baptiste, this 1524 building was saved by being turned into a ‘Temple of Reason’. This church was also shelled during WW1 and two local firemen died while fighting the fire here.

From. Sant-Jean-Baptiste Eglise, we rode down to the beautiful Heroes Square which looked to be the centre of Arras. It is a simply beautiful space, surrounded by Flemish houses with one end filled by the beautiful Town Hall and its famous belfry that was felled in WW1 by the 69th shell of that day. The image on the left below shows the restored Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) and belfry in 2019 and the photo on the right shows the damage these buildings suffered during the war. These buildings were reconstructed identical to the originals by Pierre Paquet, architect in chief for historical monuments, finished in 1932.

IMGP8104a Arras-beffroiThere is a caption at the top of the B&W photo above referring to this area as ‘Petite Place’; this name was changed after World War 2. Underneath the arches of the Hotel de Ville there is another war memorial with the figure of a crushed naked man in chains as the centrepiece. Its title is borrowed from a similar memorial in Lille where large numbers of resistance fighters were shot by the invaders in both WW1 and WW2.


IMGP8133aThe translation, “Arras has its Executed”, does not quite capture the deaths by firing squads of 240 French Resistance Fighters in Arras between 1940 and 1944. Since 1945, this plaza has been called Heroes Square in tribute to these Resistance Fighters.

The Hotel de Ville and the Belfry were not the only buildings in the square that needed restoring. The 155 houses surrounding this square and the Grand Place were damaged by the bombardment of 1914-18 and so Pierre Paquet had a lot of work to do in Arras, restoring the Flemish, baroque facades of these beautiful houses.IMGP8103a

Inside the foyer of the Hotel de Ville we came acrossIMGP8114a a curious feature of local culture that we were unfamiliar with. Four giant dolls (two parents, two children) were stored there, ready to be carried in festival in the city. The plaque nearby explained…

In Northern France and Belgium, the tradition of giants goes back as far as the sixteenth century…in the nineteenth century, towns and cities identified themselves through these huge figures who represented a founding hero, a valiant protector, or who embodied a trade that was symbolic of the town’s history….the giants of Arras are market gardeners…

Of course, the town’s giants were destroyed in the bombing of 1914-18 and for good measure, they IMGP8124awere destroyed again in WWII. Being giants, they are both tough and resilient and they were reborn in 1981.

From Heroes Square we then moved on to Grand Place which is the main square of the city. It dates back to the 11th century. Grand Place was also devastated by WW1 and from 1919 to 1934, each house was systematically restored. As there had been no surveys of the area to use, the process depended on old photographs and other documents to assist returning the square to its status before the artillery bombardment reduced it to rubble.

On houses leading to the square, there are small pediment sculptures of figures informing the passers-by of the business of the

After our tour of Grand Place it was time to head back to our Camping Ground, 14 kilometres away in the small village of Boiry-Notre-Dame. The next day was our last full day in France so we decided to spend it by visiting, in the morning, the Carriere Wellington site in Arras which was a memorial to the Battle of Arras in 1917. The afternoon we decided to spend in a neighbouring town called Cambrai. The visit to Carriere Wellington would be my key visit in the area to make the link between my street name back in Australia and the story of the ANZAC troops who were sent to Arras in 1916, only 16 years in the case of the Australian troops after the formation of the Federation of Australian states. These were young men who often had not moved far from their home-town or suburb who had been sent to the other side of the world to fight in a European war of which they would have had little understanding of the causes or the purposes of their fighting. The copy below of a poster in this museum gives a good summary of the situation before the Australian and New Zealand troops were sent into the battles around Arras in 1917.

 In 1914, the British Army was a professional army. Following heavy losses suffered at the beginning of the war, Lord Kitchener, then Minister of War in Great Britain, launched a massive recruitment campaign and called for volunteers to make up a “New Army”, often referred to as “Kitchener’s Army”.
 The British Army was therefore made up of young inexperienced troops from throughout the United Kingdom: England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The Commonwealth army was made up of troops from Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, countries which were, at that time, (sic) administered by Great Britain.
 Far from home these volunteers had travelled thousands of mile by boat to the United Kingdom for training before being posted to the different sectors of the British Front, which stretched from Flanders to the Somme. In the Artois region, the British replaced the French troops, who were en route to Verdun, from February –  March 1916.
 In April 1917, on the eve of the Battle of Arras, fourteen Commonwealth divisions under British command amassed and awaited the start of the offensive on a 22km front. The Canadians were deployed to the north of Vimy Ridge sector, and the Australians to the south at Bullecourt to support the British attack in the direction of Cambrai.
IMGP8138a IMGP8141aAbove right, three Kiwis ready to enter the tunnels of Carriere Wellington in Arras!

The key aspect of the geography of the city of Arras that was so significant for the Anzacs’ role in the battles there, was that the city lies above a network of tunnels dug out from about the 10th century. Initially excavated to extract chalk, they were reused as storage areas for Arras merchants. There is a tourist tour that leaves from underneath the town belfry that goes down into ‘Les Boves’, the tunnels underneath that part of the city. We were visiting a different site further out from the centre of the city, well past the railway line. Chiseled in concrete at the entry to La Carriere Wellington is the following explanation…

“At the end of 1916 the New Zealand Tunnelling company comprised of fewer than 500 men, had the task of converting quarries under the city of Arras. These miners from the Antipodes dug more than 8 kilometres of tunnels in 6 months to create an underground network of about twenty kilometres and a base capable of  accommodating 24000 men.”

kiwiThese tunnels stretched out to the edge of and underneath the German trenches and were designed to hold large numbers of troops that, on signal, would break out of carefully designed exit holes and surprise the German defenders.

Beginning 9th April, 1917, the process was brilliantly executed by the Kiwis and the other Commonwealth troops. The only problem was that the Germans had deduced in advance that something big was coming and had moved their line well back from Arras to a more defensible position. Despite the fact that the British army made the longest advance since the trench warfare had started, progress slowed and the German army were able to reinforce their lines; the usual stalemate ensued. 160000 allied troops died in the Battles around Arras in 1917.

As part of the battles around Arras, the Australian troops were sent to a section of the front, 19 kilometres from Arras in Bullecourt, on the way to Cambrai. One of the big innovations of warfare introduced during World War 1 was the tank. It was used in 1916 on the Somme with little impact but the Australian troops were offered a dozen tanks at Bullecourt. Lacking sufficient artillery, it was hoped the tanks would make the difference in the assault on the Hindenburg Line; the tanks didn’t arrive on Day 1, the assault went ahead and 3000 Australian troops were lost in the process.

Craig Tibbits writing for the Australian War memorial Website continues the story of Ballecourt…

Despite the failure of the first attack on 11 April 1917, a few weeks later General Gough once again tried to break the Hindenburg Line at Bullecourt. On 3 May 1917 the 2nd Australian Division attacked with the British alongside. Although the brigade on the right faltered under deadly machine-gun fire, the 6th Brigade got into the enemy’s trenches and, despite heavy shellfire and counter attacks, bravely held on. The 1st Division relieved the 2nd, and soon the 5th Division took its turn. Finally, after more than a week, the Germans gave up these blood-soaked fields. Then the depleted Australian battalions were withdrawn to recover. The furious fighting, which in the end only advanced the line a kilometre or so, had been at the heavy cost of another 7,000 Australian casualties.

Our tour of the tunnels below the surface at Carriere Wellington was both an interesting and moving experience. It was a positive experience for ‘antipodean’ visitors to realise that over a hundred years later, there is a sense of gratitude clearly evident in the displays and the words of the guide for the remarkable work done by the New Zealand miners who came to assist Arras in 1916-17.

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I was very pleased to have visited Arras, the centre of the Artois region of northern France. As an Australian, I believe it is very important to understand the history of our involvement in the world wars of the twentieth century, particularly as it impacts on current understandings of our ANZAC tradition. It is important to never forget the sacrifices made by the generations who sons died in wars far from their homeland. It was also important to me to visit a beautiful city in France whose name stands on the sign at the end of my street and I can assure my neighbours that we can be proud of the contributions made by ANZAC soldiers in preserving  the right to a self-determined future for the current generation of Arras citizens.


Visiting France

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