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A Battle Too Far: Arras 1917 Don Farr

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A Battle Too Far: Arras 1917 Don Farr, Helion, Warwick, 2018, pp352.


Sandwiched between the bloodbaths of the Somme 1916 and Third Ypres, on which volumes have been written, the British offensive at Arras in April - May 1917 has received little attention in the historiography of the Great War. Apart from the British Official History and Andrew Rawson's The Arras Campaign in his British Expeditionary Force series, most address portions of the campaign, such as Jim Smithson's  recent  A Taste of Success: The First Battle of the Scarpe April 9 -14 1917, which covers the opening phase of the battle around Arras. Others are concerned with even smaller elements of the fighting, such as the Canadians at Vimy Ridge, or the two battles of Bullecourt.  Like Rawson, Don Farr delivers a broader canvas with his A Battle Too Far: Arras 1917, placing the British offensive squarely as the major element of the Anglo-French Nivelle Offensive. While the bulk of the book is concerned with the various BEF battles from Vimy Ridge in the north to Bullecourt in the south, he also takes us into the French planning and attacks that occurred further south from St Quentin to Rheims, albeit not in the same detail as the British and Dominion actions.


Farr presents his study in seven chronological parts, starting with the personalities and political manoeuvrings that led to the Nivelle Offensive and the subsequent planning for it. Each are of varying length. By far the longest, with nine chapters, Part II covers the First Battle of the Scarpe, Vimy Ridge, and the First Battle of Bullecourt, while Part III, containing only two chapters, addresses the planning for and conduct of the French attacks. Part IV devotes three chapters in narrating the Second Battle of the Scarpe and the Battle of Arleux, as does Part V on the Third Battle of the Scarpe and the Second Battle of Bullecourt.  The final two parts (20 pages) consider the end of the Nivelle Plan and the Conclusion, although oddly the last includes a short chapter on the final stages of the fighting. One would have thought it would be better placed in either Part V or Part VI. These are followed by five substantive appendices discussing the German Army at Arras, air operations, the artillery, underground warfare, and the tanks, with the French GQG Directive 2246 of 4 April 1917 being the last. The text is supplemented by twelve coloured maps and twenty-four black and white maps, and while these are generally good the key to several of the coloured maps showing the various Corps attacks have the Black Line (the first to be taken) as the final objective (the Green Line).


There has been a tendency of late in writing military histories of campaigns and battles to delve deeply into the fighting, often tracking the actions of battalions and companies within Corps attacks, which can lead the reader to lose the wood for the trees. Farr follows this genre, more so in Part II, although not to the same excruciating extent as Smithson's A Taste of Success. Consequently, on occasions it is not always easy to follow the overall thread of a battle. Other Parts, such as those narrating the French offensive and the two battles of Bullecourt, are less detailed, and thus one can readily read the broad scope of what occurred. Nonetheless, Farr delivers his narrative in an easily read style, and A Battle Too Far will satisfy those who wish to examine the various British and Canadian actions in some depth.


This is a meticulously researched work based on the extensive use of British and Canadian primary sources. It is curious, however, that Farr relies on secondary sources for the Australian participation when the war diaries of the formations and units that took part in the fighting are on-line at the Australian War Memorial's site, and are freely open to researchers. Irrespective, the author delivers a comprehensive study of this oft-forgotten campaign. The appendices flesh out each of the subjects they address, providing additional and useful information on their participation in and contribution to the campaign. While primarily narrative in its presentation, where judgements are made they are fair and balanced, and any criticisms of senior commander are often accompanied by explanations of why some decisions may have been taken. In this reviewer's experience, command in battle involves a choice of very difficult options based on incomplete information, and it refreshing to see Farr recognise this reality.  Above all, he rightfully questions why the British campaign was pursued for so long with ever diminishing returns and mounting casualties, when it was obvious the Nivelle Offensive, which Arras was designed to support, had failed so early in the piece.


A Battle Too Far: Arras 1917 is a fine addition to the historiography of the Great War on the Western Front that is likely to be the standard work on the Battle of Arras for many years to come.

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