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Page last updated at 11:02 GMT, Wednesday, 16 September 2009 12:02 UK
The Suffolk Regiment at Arras
Arras cathedral, France, 1916
Arras cathedral, 1916

As battles in the Great War (1914-18) go, the Somme may be more famous, but not for the Suffolk Regiment.

Around 150,000 soldiers died at Arras in 1917, including men from four Suffolk battalions.

"Arras was an important objective," said the Suffolks' regimental historian Taff Gillingham.

"It was here that they appreciated that you should grab a piece of land, reinforce it and then at a later date start moving forward again."

The First World War battles of the Somme (July-Nov 1916) and the Passchendaele (July-Nov 1917) are probably more famous, but for many the Battle of Arras (April-May 1917) was a real turning point.

Taff Gillingham said: "The Battle of Arras had the heaviest daily casualties of any battle in the war involving the British Army, and it was a relatively successful battle.

"The Canadians knocked the Germans off the top of Vimy Ridge, with the help of the British, and the British captured most of their objectives in the first few days and included in their ranks the 2nd, 7th and 11th Suffolks and later the 4th Suffolks.

"As always it will grind down and come to a halt in the end. There's always a point when you lose the momentum. The battlefield becomes mashed up and you can't bring any more artillery in."

Begging the question was it a pointless sacrifice for a few miles of land?

British troops at Arras, 1917
British troops at Arras, 1917

"There are hardly any pointless little land-grabs in the First World War. The whole myth about 'lions led by donkeys' is just based in ignorance and is an enormous insult to those that fought in the Great War and the fellas that led them."

Twenty thousand British troops sheltered in the tunnels under Arras which were built by linking chalk caves together. Before the battle, the tunnels were dug out towards the German line so that the British were able to by-pass no-man's land and attack the frontline.

The tunnels are named Wellington and Nelson - not directly after the British military heroes, but because they were built by New Zealanders who named them after the major towns in their homeland.

Wellington Quarry, Arras
Wellington Quarry

Death toll

Unofficial figures for total casualties at the Battle of Arras vary from source to source, but Jonathan Nicholls in his book 'The Cheerful Sacrifice at the Battle of Arras' puts it at 158,000 on all sides.

In terms of famous moments, Gallipoli (1915) is held up as the moment Australia and New Zealand gained a real sense of national identity following independence from Britain.

For Canada, Arras is seen in the same way. The Queen attended a 50th anniversary parade in Arras in 2007 which focused as much on Canadian forces as British ones.

Arras and Ipswich

In 1995, the Ipswich Arras Association was founded to promote an economic accord between the two towns. Its sister across the Channel is the Association Arras Ipswich.

John Field is the IAA Chairman: "We have to realise that it was the headquarters of the British Army for the whole of the First World War and the German frontline was within four miles for most of it.

"You can't go to Arras without being aware of the war - you can't go down a country lane without seeing a small British war cemetery.

The Queen at Arras
The Queen at Arras, 2007

"My feeling is how extremely well-kept the cemeteries are by the War Graves Commission. It's quite a joy and a pleasure, if one can use that word, to walk around and see the tranquillity and the calmness.

"But of course those long lines of gravestones does get to you, there's no doubt about it. There's a small cemetery with only about 24 graves in it and that's quite moving as well.

"Walking around the Wellington tunnel, we were told one bit was the headquarters for the 2nd Suffolk battalion ahead of a surprise attack on the Germans."

Future links

John said the associations' links are growing stronger: "Our annual visits seem to get better and better. We are trying to increase knowledge of the French language among our party. Many, like me, get through as best we can.

"I think that it's becoming more of a link between groups such as football teams - an educational and cultural basis rather than economic.

"I think we're becoming closer as nations. It's created lots of friendships and the humour and the banter is enjoyed by both both sides.

"It's building up a greater knowledge of each other and, of course with the new greater Europe, this is all to the good."

John Field on the Arras bench in Ipswich, UK
John Field in Christchurch Park, Ipswich

11 11 11

Taff Gillingham said it's still important to commemorate Armistice Day: "It's about remembering the British and Commonwealth war dead of any campaign including paratroopers shot dead on the streets of Northern Ireland or young girls killed in Afghanistan on duty.

"In a hundred years' time the First World War might have been long forgotten, but hopefully we'll still stop on at 11 o'clock on 11 November and remember those who didn't ask to get killed, but did what the country asked them to do."

The Suffolk Regiment Museum is based at the Gibraltar Barracks/The Keep on Risbygate Street in Bury St Edmunds. Visit the website using the link on the right, as well as many other related sites.

To contact the Ipswich Arras Association phone John Field on 01473 211396.




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