The 3rd Army captured Monchy-le-Preux on 11 April but a planned cavalry exploitation could not materialize. The offensive made little progress until 15 April when Field-Marshal Haig halted operations. The 3rd Army had suffered over 8,000 casualties, while the Canadian Corps lost about 9,000 in the same period. German losses to the 3rd Army were 7,000 prisoners and 112 guns. The German 6th Army, with a new chief of staff, organized a new position six miles east of Arras, south of the Scarpe. A series of rotating reliefs were intended to keep the line strongly manned.
Vimy Ridge had been the highlight of the First Battle of the Scarpe, and the commander of the 1st Army attributed the success to "soundness of plan, thoroughness of preparation, dash and determination in execution, and devotion to duty on the part of all concerned". Operations at Vimy yielded more ground, more prisoners and more captured guns than any previous British offensive.
Attacks on the Scarpe recommenced on 23 April 1917. Field-Marshal Haig's goal was to capture elements of the Hindenburg Line and push the Germans back to the Drocourt-Queant Line (new positions running south through Drocourt, five miles south-east of Lens, meeting the Hindenburg Line at Queant, 12 miles south-east of Arras.) The Nivelle offensive on the Aisne, begun a week earlier, would be aided by British pressure on the enemy.
The attack on the Scarpe by the 3rd Army was made by six divisions south of the Scarpe, and two more to the north, with an additional division of the 1 st Army. The Canadian Corps was not included in these assaults on the Oppy-Mericourt Line, as bad weather prevented artillery preparation. The 3rd Army, however, saw some of the toughest fighting it faced to date in the war. Successful advances of up to one-and-a-half miles were made. Less successful were the operations of the 1st Corps on the Souchez River. Attempting to capture the Vimy-Lens line line between the Vimy-Lens railway and Hill 65, uncut wire forced the 5th and 46th Divisions back to their starting positions. The 3rd Army repulsed a series of counter-attacks with artillery fire and close-quarters fighting. Total casualties were 10,000 British dead, wounded and missing, and 2,500 German prisoners secured.
The Germans received a five-day reprieve, during which they strengthened their positions. Two dangerous bulges in the line still existed:
The 3rd Army's attacks were mostly repulsed, due to poor British tactics. Assault plans failed to take into account the enemy's use of terrain, such as reverse slopes. The bombardment hit the Germans' forward trenches, but the German had learned to lightly hold their forward trenches. Second trenches, usually behind the crest of a rise, were manned by the bulk of the enemy garrisons, under cover of dug-outs. Two battalions of the British 12th Division ran into a reverse slope at Roeux where they no longer had the support of artillery observers, and lost 350 taken prisoner to a German counter-attack. The "only tangible success of the whole operation," in the words of the British Official History, was the Canadian attack on the Arleux Loop. Two brigades of the 1st Canadian Division attacked the German 73rd Fusilier Regiment with fire support from the 1st Division and the Corps Heavy Artillery.
Except for this check the 2nd Brigade had gained all its objectives by 6:00 a.m.
During the afternoon elements of supporting battalions came forward to reinforce against
possible counter-attack. The enemy's movements were in full view of our artillery
observers, and two attempts to dislodge the Canadians were broken up by shelling and
small-arms fire. Deciding that the exposed Arleux salient would have to be abandoned,
the commander of the German 111th Division cancelled further counter-attacks and
withdrew his troops to the Oppy-Mericourt line in front of Fresnoy.9 On the left the 25th
Battalion completed its advance. By taking full advantage of ground better suited to an
attack than that on the British front the Canadians had turned the Arleux Loop into a
small salient facing eastward some 400 yards from the enemy's next line of resistance.
Canadian casualties in the operation approached the thousand mark; some 450 Germans
had been captured.10
The Third Battle of the Scarpe, 3-4 May 1917
By the last week of April the British Commander-in-Chief had good reason to expect that the French offensive on the Aisne would soon be abandoned. If this happened, it would be pointless and even dangerous for him to continue his advance with an open right flank. Yet Haig had not yet attained a "good defensive line",11 and to suspend all activity on the Western Front would seriously affect the offensive plans of Russia and Italy. The hoped for rupture of the hostile front having failed to materialize, it was a case of returning to wearing-down tactics. Haig decided to maintain limited pressure at the Scarpe until about the middle of May. Whether he would subsequently resume the offensive here on a larger scale,* or open a new one in Flanders, would depend on the outcome of the French operations. In a letter to General Robertson on 1 May, however, Sir Douglas declared his intention of reducing his efforts for the next few weeks, preparatory to beginning preliminary operations in Flanders.13
* The Commanders of the Fourth and Fifth Armies were now directed to prepare plans for a major attack towards
Cambrai—the genesis of the offensive launched seven months later by the Third Army (below, p. 333)12 As we have seen, Nivelle's offensive on the Aisne continued until the second week of May. On 3 May the British resumed their attacks astride the Scarpe, not only to support the French, but also because their present position was not one that could be held securely or economically. The scope of the new operation—an attack by three armies on a front of fourteen miles-seems strangely out of keeping with the C.-in-C.'s declared intention of limiting his efforts. Army Commanders were told that their advance to the "good defensive line" which formed the objective should be deliberate-with consolidation to be completed by 15 May. Attainment of this goal would involve the capture of Lens and the towns and villages on which the Oppy-Mericourt and Fresnes-Boiry positions were based. For the opening attack the First Army's objectives were Fresnoy and Oppy; the line to be taken by the Third and Fifth Armies would require advances of up to a mile from their existing positions. The operations of the First and Third Armies, known as the Third Battle of the Scarpe, were over in 24 hours; those of the Fifth Army, in the Battle of Bullecourt, lasted two weeks. The results were disappointing and the losses heavy. As usual, surprise was impossible except for concealing the actual timing of the attack, and the enemy was constantly on the alert. Both the artillery preparation and the plan of attack followed conventional lines, ignoring the lessons of recent fighting and the fact that copies of Ludendorff's and von Lossberg's textbooks-prescribing defence of a deep zone rather than a trench line-had been in British hands for some time.14 In an unfortunate attempt to compromise between his army and corps commanders, some of whom wanted to attack on the night of 3-4 May, others at first light, Haig set zero hour at 3:45 a.m. on the 3rd too late to offer the advantages of a night operation, and too early for a proper daylight attack.15 An almost full moon had set only sixteen minutes earlier, silhouetting the assembling troops. Thus warned, the enemy reacted with heavy fire which caused serious loss and confusion before the attack started. As the infantry crossed no man's land they were met by counter-barrages which disorganized movement, inflicted considerable casualties, and cut off the assaulting units from those in support. Machine-gun and rifle fire from between the trench lines raked the leading troops, so that even those who reached their objectives in sufficient strength to wrest them from the enemy were frequently too weak, without reinforcement, to hold them against local counter-attacks.16
Except on the flanks of the attacking armies the offensive was a virtually complete failure. On the extreme right the 1st Anzac Corps (Fifth Army) made a small breach in the Hindenburg Line east of Bullecourt, in four days' fighting enlarging it to 550 yards deep and 4000 wide. The Australians routed a succession of determined counter-attacks, smashing the last and largest on the 15th. Failing to regain any of their lost ground, the Germans subsequently left Bullecourt itself in Allied hands. The Third Army's sole gain meanwhile was an advance on 3 May of 500 yards by one brigade on a 1000-yard front immediately south of the Scarpe. North of the river the 13th Corps (First Army) seized and held a narrow strip all along its front, and the Canadian Corps captured Fresnoy—"the relieving feature", writes the British Official Historian, "of a day which many who witnessed it considered the blackest of the War".17
The entire period March-April 1917 had been a bad one for the Royal Flying Corps, but May was to see a marked improvement in the air situation. Most writers seek to account for this change in terms of equipment-the arrival of new fighters comparable if not superior to the German Albatros. Yet only a few such machines reached the front before midsummer, and at first these impressed neither their own crews nor the enemy. Part of the reason for the improvement was that British pilots, having survived early encounters with the Albatros, learned how to handle their 1916-pattern machines to the best advantage and so developed confidence in them. Furthermore, at the end of April the enemy began to improvise massed formations of twenty or more fighters, and thus localized his efforts. The immediate answer to the "circuses", as these large brightly coloured formations were called, was to keep aloft increasing numbers of five-man flights. Successive groups of that size, it was found, could exert more influence on the "dogfight" than the same total number involved continuously from the outset; they were more manageable, and their striking power grew while that of the circuses tended to dwindle.18
The Battle Honour "Scarpe" was awarded to units for participation in these actions.