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August 26-September 3, 1918
The 2nd Battle of Arras, Including the Battle of the Scarpe (August 26-30, 1918) and the Battle of Drocourt-Quéant (September 2-3, 1918)
The End Is Near
"One of the war's greatest triumphs."
General Sir Arthur Currie, in his personal War Diary.
Sir Arthur Currie was not alone in his glowing appreciation of the 2nd Battle of Arras. By succeeding in destroying the very heart of the German defence system, the Canadians enabled the British 3rd Army to advance eastward at a great pace. The success of the operation had a positive effect all along the western front, presaging an imminent Allied victory. The battle itself was actually a complex, two-operation conflict, that of the Scarpe and that of the Drocourt-Quéant Line, both part of the overall Allied strategy which consisted of exhausting the enemy who was already retreating eastward. The Battle of the Scarpe resulted in an Allied advance of no less than eight kilometres, while at Drocourt-Quéant, Allied troops expelled the Germans from one of their vital defence systems, advancing another six kilometres and taking up new positions in front of the next obstacle, the Canal-du-Nord.
The period between August 4 and November 11, 1918 is commonly referred to as "Canada's Hundred Days," for the Canadians did indeed lead the offensives that culminated in the Allies' final victory in Mons.
After the Allied success in the Battle of Amiens, August 8-11, it was expected that the enemy forces would be severely exhausted. "If we let the enemy rest," said Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, "it will regain its confidence and we will have to start using attrition tactics again." A renewal of the offensive on an extended front thus brought the Canadians back into action, this time with the British 1st Army in the Arras sector. "All units," directed Haig, "must charge their objectives while the reserve units will attack as we gain ground."
The British 1st Army was then ordered to strike eastward from Arras, and the Canadian Corps, under the command of General Sir Arthur Currie, became the spearhead of the attack, as it had been in earlier battles.
The Canadians were on the Arras-Cambrai Road, with the Scarpe on their left, opposite a series of enemy defensive positions that were afforded good protection by the topography of the region. The battle zone also extended northeast beyond the high Artois Hills. About 14 kilometres east of Arras was the Drocourt-Quéant Line, an impressive, well-fortified system of trenches and shelters. This line of defence was designed to keep the Allies from advancing into the Douai Plain.
These positions thus became the initial objective of the Canadians. Since the enemy was expecting an attack, it was obviously impossible to surprise the Germans. Consequently, the strategy adopted was to launch successive frontal attacks to exhaust the enemy troops.
When the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions arrived in the sector, they became responsible for the front that extended northward from Neuville-Vitasse to the Scarpe River, two kilometres west of Fampoux. The 1st and 4th Divisions were not due to arrive until August 25 and 28 respectively. In the interim, the 51st British Division formed part of the Canadian Corps and provided flank protection north of the Cambrai Road. According to General Currie's plan for the first phase of the offensive, simultaneous attacks were to be launched by the British Division on the left, the 3rd Canadian Division between the Scarpe and the Cambrai Road, and the 2nd Division on the right.
General Currie had no less than 14 field artillery brigades and nine heavy artillery brigades at his disposal in the way of supporting fire. In addition to the artillery of the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions already engaged in the offensive, these units included the artillery of the 15th, 16th and 39th British Divisions and three army brigades. In short, the massive artillery support proved to be crucial in advancing rapidly and exhausting enemy forces that were so well located in their defensive positions.
Monday, August 26, had been chosen as the day of attack. The drizzling rain would not make the advance easy. H-hour, which was initially set for dawn, was moved up to 3:00 a.m. in the hopes of deceiving the enemy. The ruse worked as the surprised German soldiers put up little resistance and the Canadian infantry was able to progress quickly in the first moments of battle, without having to use armoured equipment.
The first objective was to capture a north-south line, west of Monchy-le-Preux, and then move east as far as possible. The intermediate objective was to break the Fresnes-Rouvroy Line and capture Cagnicourt, Dury and Etaing.
Once these manoeuvres were successfully executed, an even larger task awaited the Canadians—breaking the Drocourt-Quéant Line and, finally, establishing a front line immediately west of Canal-du-Nord, beyond which the enemy would likely have retreated.
The Canadians did not enjoy the rest period that usually followed participation in major operations such as the earlier Battle of Amiens. Furthermore, on August 23, they raided the German-occupied city of Neuville-Vitasse in broad daylight and partially captured it. It is assumed that the enemy decided not to organize an extended defence when it realized that it was dealing with Canadians, whom it regarded as the best troops.
While the first objectives were being reached and the attack on the Drocourt-Quéant Line was being planned, the major task lay ahead of repairing and extending the roads and local railway lines, which were crucial to supplying the troops.
H-hour: August 26, 3:00 a.m. The 2nd Division was on the right, south of the Cambrai Road; the 3rd Division, between the road and the Scarpe; the 51st Highland Division, on the left, north of the Scarpe. Supported by a powerful artillery and machine gun barrage, the attack made good progress. The 3rd Division captured Monchy, the first objective, with a skilfully executed encircling manoeuvre that was praised long after the tactical feat. On the right, the 2nd Division captured the villages of Guemappe and Wancourt during the afternoon. By nightfall, the Canadian line extended about 914 metres east of Monchy.
General Currie's orders for the 27th were to break through the Fresnes-Rouvroy Line and thereby advance by eight kilometres. It took two more days of bitter fighting before this defence system near Boiry-Notre-Dame was penetrated, and when the Battle of the Scarpe ended on August 30, resolute German garrisons were still stubbornly clinging to it.
In the first three days of the battle, the 2nd and 3rd Divisions had advanced more than eight kilometres over rough, broken land furrowed with extremely well-fortified trenches. Nevertheless, the Canadians succeeded in reaching the great majority of their objectives and captured 3,300 prisoners and a large number of guns.
After a 48-hour respite, the assault on the main enemy defensive line in the west, the Drocourt-Quéant Line, was launched. This time, the 1st and 4th Divisions led the charge. At dawn, armoured and infantry units advanced behind a powerful artillery barrage. South of the Cambrai Road, the 1st Division moved forward quickly as the tanks destroyed enemy posts that had survived the initial barrage. Just a few hours later, at around 7:30 a.m., one battalion had already cleared the main trenches, but not without suffering some heavy losses. Subsequently, the Canadians reached their objective of Buissy Switch before midnight.
In the centre, the 4th Canadian Division had also been fighting a hard battle between Dury and the main road, on the front trenches of the Drocourt-Quéant Line that were on a long exposed ridge of Mont Dury. Although the Germans had a topographical advantage that enabled them to fire and bomb from elevated positions, and despite their heavy losses, the Canadian battalions and the tanks reached the top of the ridge and drove the enemy back. The 4th Division had reached its first objective with the capture of Dury. During the night, the enemy pulled back, and on September 3, the Canadian Corps met no resistance when it advanced about six kilometres to take up positions facing the next obstacle, the Canal-du-Nord.
In the first four days of September, the Canadian Corps captured more than 6,000 unwounded prisoners and inflicted heavy losses on the German Army. Its own casualties amounted to 5,600 men in this short period.
When he spoke of the successes of the Army Corps, General Currie praised the 1st Canadian Division in particular for attacking and capturing the Fresnes-Rouvroy and Drocourt-Quéant Lines, which amounted to a penetration of almost ten kilometres.
During the operations on the first two days, the 2nd Division experienced some difficulty in the operations prior to capturing the two enemy lines. The objective of breaking through the Fresnes-Rouvroy enemy defence system was unsuccessful at first as the 2nd Division had difficulty breaking through these lines near Boiry-Notre-Dame, thus leaving the objective only partially achieved when the Battle of the Scarpe ended on August 30.
The two phases of the Arras operation cost the Canadians nearly 11,000 men. It was during the Battle of the Scarpe that Georges Vanier, the future Governor General of Canada, lost his leg while commanding the 22nd Battalion. Although not loudly proclaimed, the cultural diversity of the Canadian Expeditionary Force is evident in those who were wounded; amongst the thousands of soldiers wounded in this battle is a Montreal car washer of Japanese origin, Ischimatsu Shintani, an infantryman with the 24th Battalion who suffered serious head injuries.
Christie, N.M. The Canadians at Arras and the Drocourt-Quéant Line, August-September 1918: A Social History and Battlefield Tour. Nepean: CEF Books, 1997.
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Morton, Desmond. When Your Number's Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War. Toronto: Random House, 1993.
Morton, Desmond and J.L. Granatstein. Marching to Armageddon: Canadians and the Great War 1914-1919. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd., 1989.
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