After the fighting on the Aisne, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) headed north-west to support the left wing of the French Army and it was there that it came up against the German Army in what was to be the final and most northerly phase of the Race to the Sea.
Transported by bus from Abbeville, the British troops took up position on the front line between Béthune and Ypres, and reinforcements from Saint-Omer and Anvers soon joined them. The British Army set about establishing a front from Bixschoote, north of Ypres, to La Bassée with the French cavalry filling the gap between two army corps positioned further south, from La Bassée to Armentières. The landscape was flat and scored with many drainage ditches.
On 12 October the French lost control of Vermelles, a small town on the edge of the Pas-de-Calais coal basin, and this forced the British to make a move southwards in an attempt to fill the breach. On 13 October fierce fighting erupted between the British and Germans at Givenchy-lès-La Bassée and Cuinchy, on both sides of the canal, and continued for four days. The British managed to advance ten kilometres to the east until they came up against Aubers Ridge, where German counter-attacks forced them to fall back.
Further to the north the British managed to retake Mont des Cats, on 13 October, then Méteren and Mont Noir. Under heavy rain, which precluded aerial reconnaissance, they continued their advance and took Bailleul, Kemmel Hill and Messines. By 14 October the British had managed to establish a continuous front from Ypres to La Bassée Canal. Three days later they gained control of Armentières while, further to the north, the Germans directed their assault on the French and Belgian forces defending the Diksmuide Salient.
The operations of mid-October 1914 were the last to be carried out on French soil according to the traditional rules of a war of movement.
(Among the British casualties was one Bernard Montgomery, wounded at Méteren).
By 18 October 1914 the Western Front was complete. With flanking operations no longer possible, the only option remaining to the belligerents was to carry out frontal attacks on the enemy's lines in an attempt to break through them... If the battles fought by the British in the sector of the Lys River, in October 1914, were the last of the war of movement, those fought at Ypres between 19 October and 22 November were the first of the war of position.
In the winter that followed, the sector of the Lys became a "forgotten front" where soldiers suffered in the badly organized trenches, with mediocre supplies. The threat of death hung over them from the bullets of expert marksmen, unexpected mines, heavy shelling and the murderous attacks they were ordered to carry out on the lines of the enemy. Among the first confrontations of the war of position were the defence of Festubert by Indian troops on 23-24 November and that of Givenchy on 20-21 December 1914, both operations being a foretaste of the horrors to come.
Yves Le Maner
Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France