Photo: Buttermarket from Arras Square

There are many good new reasons to head to the Buttermarket, not least the new cinema opened last Friday.  If you come in off St Stephen’s Lane, you will pass Arras Square, named in commemoration of our town’s twinning with Arras.  This week marks the hundredth year since the Battle of Arras, another bloody date in our commemorations of the First World War.  We should remember, difficult as it may be, why the battle was significant to Ipswich.

Launching the plan for the plans for the centenary in 2012, David Cameron said “our duty towards these commemorations is clear: to honour those who served, to remember those who died, and to ensure that the lessons learnt live with us forever.”  The government committed over £50 million to hallmark the centenary of the war with funding for projects to conserve war memorials, to provide educational programmes and to share and explore local heritage.  That local heritage, local to Ipswich, now includes the northern French town of Arras.

Like Ipswich, Arras was once known for its thriving wool industry, and also  for its rich tapestry heritage.  It was also where five battalions of the Suffolk Regiment fought in one of the bloodiest offensives of the war and of their whole proud regimental history.  The Battle of Arras lasted 39 days – 9th April until 16th May 1917 – and cost the British and Commonwealth over 150,000 casualties.  The battle marked a turning point in the war. In preparation for the spring offensive, Allied forces had dug extensive tunnels 12 miles long around the city to provide routes to the front line, to store ammunition and to shelter men and women from the battlefield.  These tunnels were also used to plant mines under German fortifications beyond no man’s land and were a large reason why the Allies emerged victory from the battle.  After years of careful excavation, this underground city is now open to tourists.

Arras was among the many towns and cities in continental Europe that were destroyed by the war.  The people of Ipswich and Suffolk led British efforts in reconstructing the city’s agricultural infrastructure.  It was a partnership that continued long after the city’s reconstruction, which was completed by 1934 and was symbolically marked in 1993 when Ipswich and Arras were ‘twinned’.

Thanks to National Lottery Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) funding, students from the University of Suffolk, Stoke High School, Ormiston Academy and St Alban’s High School will be visiting the battlefield in Arras to learn about the legacy of the conflict at the end of this month.  It is just one of a whole panoply of grants made available by the HLF, who are giving away grants of between £3,000 and £10,000 for centenary projects aimed at helping people understand the local heritage of the Great War. There are a host of organisations that work with schools, museums and charities to encourage volunteer and community work such as Civic Voice, which trains volunteers to repair war memorials. Essex’s countywide programme – ‘Now The Last Poppy Has Fallen’ – is an example of how effective these projects can be when organisations work together. The Royal British Legion’s website even has an A-Z list of fundraising ideas with suggestions from litterpicking and tea parties to zumbathons.

It is a joyous commemoration of a Hellish moment in our continent’s history – but that is as it should be.  The men of Ipswich and Suffolk who fell in the fields around Arras died that we all might be free – a freedom that is so evident in the way that we are marking this centenary of war.  Now Arras is remembered quietly in a corner of central Ipswich, where people can sit in the spring sunshine, dappled by the opening shade of a plane tree, before they go into the cinema for an after-work drink in the bar.  It is as it should be.  But all the more reason to remember the debt we owe our forefathers – from Ipswich and from Arras – who are forever linked in death.