April 2017 marks 100 years since the start of the Battle of Arras, where British and Commonwealth troops successfully seized German-held ground in northern France – including the famous capture of Vimy Ridge by Canadians. Fighting continued until mid-May, with heavy casualties.
In this blog post, we share the Life Stories of just three of the thousands of people who took part in the battle.
The British and French planned a spring offensive to begin with a British attack near Arras in early April. The Allies made solid preparations – including subjecting the German defences to a lengthy bombardment – before the attack began on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917.
One of the British soldiers who took part in the battle was Fred Swaine. Before joining the Northumberland Fusiliers, Fred worked at a glassworks in Barnsley, Yorkshire. He joined the army in February 1915, leaving behind his wife Clara and two young children, Annie and Leonard. He last wrote home to Clara on Good Friday – 6 April 1917 – just before the Battle of Arras began.
Fred was killed on the opening day of the offensive, aged 28. He is buried in Roclincourt Valley Cemetery in northern France.
The four Canadian divisions fought together for the first time at Vimy Ridge, a German stronghold. The successful capture of this objective became a defining moment in Canada’s history.
One of the Canadian troops who took part in this attack was Jacob Batiste Moyer, known as Jay. He was born in Toronto in 1897 and enlisted into the army on 26 October 1915. He served overseas with the Western Ontario Regiment.
The Canadian Letters and Images Project holds over seventy letters written to and from Jay during his service.
I am certainly a very lucky boy to have such a lovely mother to send me all the nice things from home.
The final letter in the collection was written to him on 1 May 1917, but tragically he had been killed weeks earlier. Jay died on 9 April 1917 during the attack on Vimy Ridge, and is remembered on the Canadian Memorial on the ridge. The memorial commemorates all the Canadians who took part in the war including the 60,000 people who died in France, and Jay is named as one of the 11,000 men who have no known grave.
During the Battle of Arras, men of the Royal Flying Corps fought for control of the skies. The heavy losses that they sustained led to this period becoming known as ‘Bloody April’.
One of the brave pilots was William Avery Bishop, known as Billy. Born in Ontario, Canada he enlisted in March 1915 with Canadian cavalry regiments. After a month in the trenches on the Western Front, Billy transferred to the Royal Flying Corps as an observer. He was accepted for pilot training the following year and in March 1917 joined No 60 Squadron RFC on the Western Front, where his success in shooting down enemy aircraft soon gained recognition.
He earned the Victoria Cross in June 1917 after displaying courage and skill during a solo mission behind enemy lines. Billy lived through the war, and was highly decorated for his achievements. He died in 1956.