Peterborough during the First World War 1914 - 1918.

Peterborough, Ontario during the First World War 1914 - 1918.

Friday, 11 May 2012

3 May 1917, Fresnoy - 3rd Battle of the Scarpe

Photograph of Vimy Ridge monument
with battlefield in the foreground.
Credit: Anglo-celtic-connections

2012 marks the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Arras. The British led offensive started on the 9th of April and concluded on the 16th of May 1917. Historians predominately from the United Kingdom have led the charge in commemorating the anniversary of the Arras campaign.  As for my fellow Canadians, our interest in the campaign starts and ends with the battle of Vimy Ridge (9 – 12th April 1917).Vimy’s importance to the psyche of Canadians is measured by our national First World War monument that was constructed on Vimy Ridge. As for the 3rd Battle of the Scarpe or the other 34 days of the Arras offensive? Canadians know very little if anything at all; even Canadian Historians have very little interest in studying or writing about the Arras Campaign after the Canadian victory at Vimy.

Another View of Vimy Ridge Memorial.
Credit: Google Images
Many English tourists that travel by ferry over the English Channel often make their first rest stop at Canada’s monument at Vimy Ridge. Even the most uninterested of visitor, laden with sandwiches in the French countryside cannot help but be amazed at the representation of Mother Canada mourning her sons. Vimy is a tempting subject for historians; it was an overwhelming surprise victory that took place on Easter Monday, with Canadian Corps losing 10,602 men (3598 KIA).  The battles that followed on the Douai plain like Fresnoy seem like an operational maneuver compared to Vimy. In my view, the Battle of Fresnoy, is just as important as Vimy. The attack and defence of Fresnoy demonstrates that the Canadian victory at Vimy was not luck or a one off victory. By May 1917 the Canadian Corps had become one of the premier fighting forces on the Western Front, comparable with the ANZACs and our British counterparts.

Aerial view of the Hindenberg Line and
Bullecourt, taken in 1920. Two years after
war had ended, the line was still a powerful
defensive position. Credit: Wikipedia
Before proceeding, a brief overview of situation on the ground is needed. By late April 1917, the British Arras offensive had almost run out of steam. On the other side of no man’s land, the Germans had moved to the vicinity of the Hindenburg line, and refused to give more ground. The Hindenburg Line was an impressive constructed network of German defensive fortifications, tunnels, trenches, barbed wire and bunkers. In the north, the Canadians had captured Vimy Ridge overlooking Douai Plain and the German lines. Allied artillery now had observation of enemy movements, trenches, and supply columns for several kilometres. In the centre, the British had launched two separate offensives with very limited results. At the southern flank, the Australians were stuck in pitched struggle at Bullecourt and Lagnicourt.

Happy Canadians who captured Vimy Ridge
returning to rest billets on motor lorries, May 1917
Credit: Library and Archives
On 3 May 1917, the 3rd and final Battle of the Scarpe began. After the war, a British military historian wrote that the first day of combat as “a day which many who witnessed it considered it to be the blackest day of the war.” The British continued their attack in the centre, with minimal results, and the Australians resumed the near suicidal battle of Bullecourt. The Canadian objective on 3 May was to capture a village of Fresnoy, a 1000 yards to east of Arleux.

Map of the Battle of Fresnoy, 3 May 1917.
Credit: Official History of the Canadian
Army in the First Word War: Canadian
 Expeditionary Force 1914-1919, G.W.L. Nicholson
The red-roofed village of Fresnoy was positioned between two wood lands. The 1st Canadian Brigade (Ontario) was assigned the objective. The 2nd Battalion (Eastern Ontario) was to capture the town, and the 1st and 3rd Battalions were to secure the wooded areas located on the sides of the town. The Canadians rehearsed the assault for two days on mock enemy positions, akin to the operational preparation to the attack on Vimy Ridge.

 In the German trenches, soldiers were on a high state of alert after nearly a month of combat. German intelligence sensed another push after witnessing a build-up of troops along the Allied lines. At roughly the time as the British offensive began, the Germans began to shell the British and Canadian lines. A duel between the German and British heavy and medium artillery commenced.

As both sides shelled each other, the signal was given to launch the attack. The Canadian rolling barrage hit Fresnoy at 3:45am, cutting much of the enemy wire. Many Germans from the 25th Reserve Division were forced to seek shelter from the inferno of shells and shrapnel. The artillery pounded and careened into the trench network that surrounded the French village. Following behind the screen of exploding earth and sandbags was the attacking Canadians. In effort to repulse the attack, German machine gun fire raked the approaches to the village; luckily the darkness hid the Canadians as they approached Fresnoy.

Examining a Skull found on a battlefield
of Vimy Ridge. Credit: Library and Archives
Once the Canadians had breached the wire in front of the village, the 3rd Battalion swung south, clearing out the German trenches with enfilading fire. The 3rd Battalion had captured 500 yards beyond their objective (support lines), but in the process they had sustained high losses, losing 1 of their 3 assault companies, roughly 200 men. In the northern sector of the attack, the 1st Battalion quickly overcame the enemy wire, and advanced upon the trenches parallel to the woods known as Fresnoy Park. The 1st Battalion had the easiest task of the 3 units on 3 May, their assigned objective was lightly held and quickly taken.

Canadian writing home from the line, May 1917
Credit: Library and Archives
In the centre of the attack, the 2nd Battalion’s attack was carried out with surgical pin-point accuracy. The three machine gun posts that guarded the town had been silenced within minutes with the use of rifle grenades and covering fire as the assault squads advanced upon the German guns. After cleaning out the trench network, the battalion proceeded to secure the town, neutralizing any remaining resistance that they encountered in buildings. By 6am, the battalion was consolidating their newly won position and digging new defences 250 yards east of Fresnoy.

British Stokes Mortar Crew, 1918.
Once enemy commanders realized the nature of the rupture of their line at Fresnoy, two rapid counter-attacks were ordered. Around 10am, the Canadians received a peppering of high explosive shells on Fresnoy. After the shelling had subsided, units from the German 15th Reserve Division were spotted advancing upon the village from the north east. The enemy counter attack was quickly broken up after the British and Canadian artillery unleashed a torrent of shells and machine gun fire among the attacking infantry. In the early afternoon two more units, the German 4th Guard Division and 185 Infantry Division, were ordered into the fray. The second German attack was able to enter into the Canadian lines, but after the arrival of a stokes mortar crew and a liberal use of grenades, the enemy attack could not advance any further and withdrew.

German Prisoners of War helping a
wounded Canadian, Arleux 1917.
Credit: Library and Archive
As the sun set on 3 May 1917, the Canadians had been involved in nearly 16 hours of strenuous defense and assault. They had lost 1,269 men taking Fresnoy. On the German side, the first day of the 3rd Battle of the Scarpe, official records list their deepest losses occurring at Fresnoy. The loss of Fresnoy did not sit well with the German High Command. One German regimental historian wrote that the Canadians had knocked Fresnoy, “out of the German defensive wall which had to be replaced without delay.” The Allies occupying the town had a commanding sight over sections of German trenches in the Oppy-Méricourt line and the Hindenberg Line (Wotan Stellung).

Canadian identifying a deceased
 German soldier, Arras Sector 1917.
Credit: Library and Archives
 In my next entry, I will look at the second major German attack to re-capture Fresnoy on 8 May 1917 and its impact on the Canadian and British lines.


  1. Thanks for the work on this site. If Arras is the forgotten battle then the capture and loss of Fresnoy are totally ignored. I look forward to reading of its defence but unfortunate loss. Consolidating won ground was always a problem; here the Germans really wanted it back.
    Everett Sharp (@arras95- EverettSharp1)

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  5. My Great Grandfather David O'Grady died on the 3rd of May in the midst of this. His name appears on the Vimy Ridge Memorial. One man, a Husband and a Father. Just so all know that his line and name go on.
    CW Hatton, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

  6. My Great Grandfather David O'Grady died on the 3rd of May in the midst of this. His name appears on the Vimy Ridge Memorial. One man, a Husband and a Father. Just so all know that his line and name go on.
    CW Hatton, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

  7. On May 3rd 1917 my Great Grandfather David Joseph O'Grady took his place in heaven beside his family after giving his life for his Country. He paid the ultimate sacrifice for our Peace and Freedom yet does not appear on the Peterborough Wall of Honor. Our French brothers have seen it fit to honor this, as he is burried at the Vimy Memorial, Pas de Calais, France. It is somewhere that I will have to visit as I cannot visit his name in his home town. Please remember David Joseph O'Grady, 128, Perry St., Peterborough, Ontario. Husband of Alberta Legrow, Father of Lillian Ann O'Grady, the next time the flag catches your eye or, you see a poppy, he died for you.

  8. Thanks for the offer of a comment. I refer to Fresnoy and Chris Hatton's message of 12SEP2013. My Mothers dad, my Grandfather, Roy Macfie joined up in August 1914. His brothers Arthur and John joined in 1916. Arthur was Blightied April 5th on the lines facing Vimy Ridge and while hospitalized in England he learned of his brothers fate. John Macfie, 20 y.o., was in the assault 03MAY1917. He was observed to be killed by a shell and a number of Comrades were wounded at the same time. Initially he was listed as MIA and it took several months to determine he was indeed KIA. He has no known grave and therefore his name is engraved on the Vimy Monument. His Brother, my Grandfather Donald Roy Macfie was twice decorated with the Military Medal during his service and he was wounded at Passendale, Nov 6th 1917. He was also busted from Cpl to Pvt once and then promoted again. Just a normal Canucker.

    Salute to them all!

    Bruce Cook
    former RCN

  9. My Grandfather, on my Mothers side Roy Macfie, joined up in August 1914 and he was over seas and in France April 1915. Two of his brother Arthur & John joined up in 1916 after the losses required a renewed push for volunteers. Arthur was wounded 05APR1917 while in the trenches before Vimy Ridge and he won the much coveted 'Blighty' wound and was sent off to England for repairs. In July 1917 Arthur met a fellow who's brother was wounded 03MAY1917 at Fresnoy and this fellow had spoken of John Macfie, Arthur's brother. John Macfie was observed to be killed by a shell and a number of other men became wounded at the same time. John was 20 y.o. at the time. He had been selected as a Sniper prior to joining the line. He was listed as MIA for some time and it was his brother Arthur who informed the family first on the Farm near Dunchurch Ontario that John Macfie was indeed KIA.. The news went that, because there had been so many casualties, there was plenty to eat after the battle for those who returned. Something like, "I never had so much food to eat in all of my time in France after returning from the assault on Fresnoy". Thanks Chris for your input about your Great Grand made me want to write and connect. Perhaps he knew my Great Uncle John Macfie?

    Bruce "MacFie" Cook