The 1917 Centenary Tour
The Key Battles
On this centenary tour we will be travelling through the now green and tranquil countryside of France and Belgium and stay in two of the key strategic towns of the war, Ypres and Arras. By visiting four First World War battlefields in as many days’ we can compare and contrast the different actions and tactics whilst exploring trench positions, tunnels, museums and cemeteries. The use of armour, infantry and artillery will all be analysed, giving a broad scope and insight into many aspects of the Great War. Our comfortable hotels, in the centre of attractive towns lined with Flemish and Baroque architecture, offer a great base for what will be a full and fascinating tour.
1917 was a crucial year in the development of the First World War. Germany resumed its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, which in turn led to the USA entering the war. Revolution in Russia saw them exit from the conflict and the French army mutinied. The big action on the Western Front came once again in Flanders with the infamous battle of Passchendaele, described later by Lloyd-George as a ‘senseless campaign’. This preceded a great success on the Messines Ridge where simultaneous mine explosions were followed by a well-orchestrated infantry attack. 1917 also saw the first large scale use of tanks at the battle of Cambrai, another action with limited success, and one of the most overlooked campaigns of the war took place just south of the town of Arras. The battle of Arras would involve a variety of the British and Commonwealth forces, most famously the Canadians at Vimy Ridge, which has become almost sacred in their memory of the war.
"Bruce is an excellent guide, knowledgeable but not ‘lecture-y’ in his delivery and he takes us to places which are not over touristy."
Day 1 - Eurostar to Lille – Messines - Ypres. At 3:00 am on June 7th, an explosion rattled the windows of Downing Street. 150 miles or so away, nineteen huge mines had been detonated, exploding across the Messines Ridge in a sheet of fire as a precursor to a mass infantry attack. This was to be the British Army's first major strategic success on the Western Front. We will start our 1917 anniversary tour studying the attack, looking at some of the huge craters still scarring the land, walking parts of the battlefield and hearing tales of individual bravery. The battle is particularly of interest for the contribution of ANZACs and Irish troops. We check-in to our hotel in Ypres for one night.
Day 2 – Passchendaele – Arras. Unfortunately, the success at Messines was not to be repeated later in the year when the Third Battle of Ypres was launched on July 31st to the north/east of the Ypres Salient. The carnage that followed came to be remembered by the name of one of five battles that were fought over the following three months; Passchendaele. Our day will be spent examining these battles, including the ANZAC attacks at Polygon Wood, the Canadians at Passchendaele and specific actions fought by British troops in this muddied and blood-soaked terrain. We will be visiting the famous Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, finding lesser visited portions of the battlefield and seeing special commemorative exhibitions run at local museums. We check-in to our Arras hotel for two nights.
Day 3 - Vimy Ridge – Bullecourt - the Scarpe. Easter weekend of 1917 had seen yet another attempt to provide a diversion for the French and to break the German line. This time the British attacked along the Scarpe south of the city of Arras as the French, under Nivelle, attacked further south. Neither initiative was to prove successful although the Canadians and Scottish secured the legendary Vimy Ridge. We will walk the battlefield of Bullecourt - known as the 'blood tub' - and look at the heroic capture and defence of Monchy-le-Preux. We will also hear of the Royal Naval Division's efforts at the lesser known Battle of Arleux.
Day 4 - Cambrai. Our final 1917 battle is Cambrai; a battle famed for the first mass use of tanks and artillery in support of the attacking infantry. Alas, despite early successes causing church bells to be rung across Britain, a fierce German counter-attack from the Bourlon Wood pushed the British back, once again the British encountered heavy losses. 1917 came to a bloody end; despite the successes of Vimy and Messines the Germans were still on French soil. We return to Lille for our Eurostar to London.
Recommended Reading List
To be confirmed