21st Division 1914-18...a divisional history

‘Cheerful Sacrifice’

by Jonathan Nicholls  ISBN 1-84415-326-6

254 pages Published by Pen and Sword

In a year that will see the 90th anniversary of 3rd Ypres, more commonly but incorrectly known as the battle of Passchendeale, many will bypass the less popular actions fought in what was the battle of Arras. Nicholls’s book brings to life the smaller battles and in particular the opening day, the 9th of April 1917, which taking many of the lessons learnt the hard way on the fields of the Somme the previous year helped General Sir Edmund Allenby’s third army achieve many success on that Easter Monday morning. Unfortunately the gains were not built upon and the battle of Arras became another wasted opportunity, though another building block in the education of the BEF. Perhaps though the most famous achievement in this battle was the success of the Canadian corps part of General Horne’s First army and their attack on Vimy Ridge.

Jonathan Nichols covers all this and expertly weaves a story that is aided by interviews and accounts of the soldiers that were there. The book published in 1990 but researched in the eighties has the advantage of being collated from research and interviews conducted by himself, rather than pulled from others. It is clear that the author heard rather than read the words of his sources and he brings this feeling across in his narrative well. Yet given the age of this book, whilst it still holds up as a classic account, this alone shows that this battle needs further coverage.

A battle I knew little about I feel that such actions and places as ‘The Chemical works‘, a vast warren of out-houses and tunnels linking a small ‘fortress’ area together has come alive to me. The poor soldiers who attacked again and again in fruitless attempts to take a position that was so heavily defended remains in my mind.

It is little known that on a day by day casualty account the losses exceeded any other battle of the Great War and for that alone it surely has to be put into persepective with the battles at Ypres a little later and of course the Somme the previous year. The British attacks were part of a supporting role by the BEF in conjunction with the French army under its new leader General Nivelle and subsequently the breaking of the moral of that army shattered by fruitless attacks.

The book is illustrated with some pencil drawings, photographs and ample clear maps that help the reader navigate the narrative and give the battle a clearer image. Hard to find in hardback a reprint in soft cover is available from various sources, Tom Morgan books and Amazon are but two.