The front in Flanders and Artois

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The forgotten front (from Armentières to Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée)

Held by the British Army, the sector of the front situated between the strategic areas of the Ypres Salient to the north and Arras to the south was perceived to be a "forgotten front". No major offensives were launched there prior to the German advance in the spring of 1918 although it was the theatre for some bloody but altogether pointless attacks on a minor portion of the front in 1915 (Neuve-Chapelle in March, Aubers in May and June, and Festubert in May) and 1916 (Aubers and Fromelles).

The area is much like Flanders in terms of topography and geology. The flat and clayey nature of the soil, coupled with the disruption to surface water drainage caused by the excavation of the trenches, created particularly difficult living conditions for the soldiers. In essence, it was a permanently wet and muddy environment not at all suitable for the construction of underground shelters. Some sectors of the front, such as Aubers, were marshland and this made the excavation of trenches impossible. In their place troops erected breastworks made of sandbags and wood to provide them with shelter.

British High Command allocated a high proportion of its Commonwealth troops to this part of the front––mostly Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and Indians––and it was also here that the Portuguese Expeditionary Force was brushed aside by the advancing German Army during the spring offensive of 1918.

The particularly difficult conditions of the winter of 1914–1915, when the trenches were at their most basic, led the British and German soldiers to fraternize with each other in the sector of Armentières in what became known as the Christmas Truce of 1914.

The following spring the belligerents began to extend their lines of barbed wire entanglements and trenches. Each elevated zone became a bastion similar to the German position at Aubers. In 1917 both armies began to develop ever more resistant concrete shelters. Resolved to defend at any cost Lille, situated just fifteen kilometres from the front, the Germans used forced labour to speed up the construction of their fortifications. They also harnessed the electricity produced in the occupied zone to power water pumps to keep the main trenches dry.

From 1915 onwards landmines were used to a great extent on this front because the no man's land was very narrow, just 200 to 300 metres wide.

The attack on Neuve-Chapelle on 10–12 March 1915 was the first wholly British offensive since the beginning of the war. For the first time the British used heavy preliminary shelling and this made for a promising start to the operation; however the early success could not be exploited and the attack ultimately failed.

The attack on Aubers Ridge, led by the British between 9 May and 19 June 1915, was made in support of a larger offensive carried out by the French between Arras and Lens to attempt a breakthrough in the Lorette–Vimy sector. The significant advances made by the French on the first day, thanks to massive shelling, soon degenerated into a month of heavy, and totally pointless, fighting which cost the lives of thousands of soldiers. The British also suffered heavy casualties on the first day of the offensive. A second attack, this time at Festubert, was launched on 15 May. The battle started well but the momentum which allowed the British to make significant advances on the first day soon dissipated and after twelve days of fighting, which resulted in considerable losses, the offensive was called off. A lesson was, nevertheless, drawn from these bloody failures: the success of any attack would be proportional to the extent of the preliminary shelling... As a result, from then on offensives were fought over much larger fronts.

The attack on Fromelles on 19–20 July 1916 came up against some heavily fortified German lines equipped with big guns and machine-guns positioned in blockhouses. It was launched during the great British offensive on the Somme which had been raging for three weeks. The preliminary shelling failed to destroy the concrete shelters of the Germans and this resulted in the Australian and British troops being cut down by machine-gun fire as soon as they entered no man's land. It was a costly failure.


The battlefields on Gohelle Plain

The limestone plateaux of Lorette and Vimy constituted a considerable military barrier on the east-facing part of the front between Ypres and Arras. Conditions on the damp, argillaceous plains of Flanders contrasted greatly with the dry chalky ground of Gohelle and Artois. In October 1914 the Germans occupied Lens and the heights which dominate the coal basin and the high ground between Arras and Cambrai; but they were unable to take Arras. Subsequently, the town was exposed to German artillery fire for the remainder of the war.

In December 1914 and in March and April 1915, General Ferdinand Foch, commander of the armies stationed in the department of Nord, launched a series of attacks on a limited front with the aim of getting a foothold on Lorette Spur. On the other side, the Germans had been working hard throughout the winter to establish a powerful network of trenches and dugouts on the spur. From then on the Allies had to contend with a continuous line of German defence.

Foch's offensive, known as the Second Battle of Artois, raged from 9 May to 19 June 1915. The fighting took place on the low ground which the Germans had succeeded in flooding to make the going heavy and slow for the assailants. The gains were meagre, amounting at best to an average advance of three kilometres, but symbolically important thanks to the taking of Lorette Spur. Casualty numbers were enormous.

The Battle of Loos in September and October 1915 was the result of French pressure on the British for another attack south of Ypres, despite the bloody failures of Aubers and Festubert. A Third Battle of Artois was thus prepared, in coordination with a major French offensive in the region of Champagne. The French were to attack Vimy and the British to advance on the Gohelle Plain around the village of Loos. The French offensives in Champagne and Artois failed, resulting in huge numbers of casualties, however the Germans were forced off Lorette Spur and the French did manage to establish positions on the flanks of Vimy Ridge.

An insufficient supply of shells prevented the British from carrying out adequate preliminary shelling for their operations on Gohelle Plain. General Douglas Haig, commander of the British Forces, thought that the use of poison gas (the Germans were the first to use the weapon, at Ypres on 22 April 1915) would compensate for the lack of classic artillery and so 5,500 cylinders of chlorine were taken to Loos. After five days of classic preliminary shelling the very first British gas attack was launched at 5.50 a.m. on 25 September 1915. The results were mitigated because, in various places, a fickle wind blew the gas back towards the British soldiers who were only equipped with very rudimentary gas masks offering little protection. The infantry went over the top forty minutes later. Despite breaking through the German front line the British failed to capitalize on their initial success due to poor coordination. The Germans counter-attacked the next day. Ultimately the British attack failed, as did the French offensive further to the south, and their losses were enormous. In total, the British suffered 48,000 casualties, as many as the French had suffered at Vimy. The German success was down to the use of a tactic known as "elastic defence", a series of support lines rather than one heavily defend front line. The method proved its worth and was thereafter used widely along the Western Front.

In the summer of 1915 the British relieved the French on the front between the Somme and La Bassée. The front on the Gohelle Plain and around Arras remained stable prior to the British offensives in the spring of 1917; however landmines were used to a great extent and without respite on the narrow strip of no man's land, especially in the area of Cuinchy–Cambrin. The chalky nature of the ground in that sector favoured excavation and this allowed the belligerents to dig tunnels up to the front lines, thus protecting their combatants from the shelling. The tunnels were often very long and equipped with electric lighting and a water supply.

Two exceptional literary accounts of the Gohelle Front were written by British authors: Goodbye To All That by the poet Robert Graves (Cuinchy sector up to the summer of 1915) and Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden (Cuinchy and Givenchy sectors).

The Germans transformed a small hill near Auchy-les-Mines into a formidable fortress which became known as the Hohenzollern Redoubt. The no man's land before the redoubt was reduced to just a few metres in width, provoking an intense use of landmine warfare and heavy shelling from mortars. On 13 October 1915 a British attempt to take Hohenzollern with the help of poison gas failed, resulting in heavy losses (3,500 men).

Mines in the Allied sector continued to produce coal despite their closeness to the front. Those in the hands of the Germans were quickly stripped of any metal and machines they contained, the plunder being sent directly to Germany.

In April 1917 Lens found itself in the combat zone. Initially the Germans dynamited several parts of the town to give their artillery a clear view; however the gradual destruction of the town was caused by the bombardments of the British guns. To the rear of the town the Germans established a powerful line of defence bristling with concrete gun emplacements called the Siegfriedstellung, better known to the Allies as the Hindenburg Line.


The Vimy–Arras sector

In March 1916 the British Army relieved the French 10th Army in the sectors of Arras and Vimy. The Germans briefly entered the town in September 1914 before withdrawing to the nearby high ground where they dug in. Thenceforth the town constituted a small salient and a target for the devastating German artillery. After the failure of three French attempts in 1914 and 1915 to breakthrough the German front at Vimy (i.e. the three Battles of Artois) the sector enjoyed a relatively quiet period up to the spring of 1917.

The British attacks in the spring of 1917 were part of a much larger offensive devised by General Robert Nivelle after he replaced General Joseph Joffre in December 1916 as commander-in-chief of the French Army. The plan was for the main French offensive to be launched upon the Aisne at Chemin-des-Dames Ridge while the British would attack a thirty-nine kilometre front between Vimy and Beaurains.

Meanwhile the Germany Army, weakened by the great battles of 1916 at Verdun and on the Somme, decided to execute Operation Alberich, a strategic withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. Subsequently, over the course of a few days, the German front retreated thirty-two kilometres. During their evacuation of the soon-to-be abandoned zone the Germans destroyed road and bridges, poisoned water sources and left numerous booby-traps.

At Vimy, a sector held by the Canadians since the autumn of 1916, most of the front lines were entered through long tunnels. At Arras the New Zealand tunnellers excavated galleries to join up the medieval quarries which already existed under the town in order to mass, in secret, 13,000 soldiers in preparation for an attack.

The British offensive of April 1917 was preceded by five days of preliminary shelling involving 2,800 pieces of artillery, of which 1,000 were heavy guns. On 9 April, the German batteries were showered with poison gas shells thirty minutes before the infantry poured out of the quarries at 5.30 a.m. The first day of the attack was a remarkable success: the Canadians had claimed Vimy Ridge and, further to the south, British soldiers had reached Monchy-le-Preux. On 10 April cavalry regiments saw action for the first time in two years. Monchy was taken but casualty numbers were high due to heavy shelling by the Germans. In spite of this success the British generals decided to call a halt to the offensive at Arras after a final attack on Bullecourt on 17 May, the reasons being the failure of the French on Chemin-des-Dames Ridge and the British loss of momentum at Roeux.

The British offensives around Arras in the spring of 1917 were strategic failures characterized by, on average, the loss of 4,000 men a day during a period of a little under two months. Thenceforth all efforts were concentrated on the sector of Ypres.


Gommecourt and the Battle of the Somme

On 1 July 1916 the 46th (North Midland) and the 56th (London) Divisions of the British Army launched an attack on the Gommecourt Salient in the region of Pas-de-Calais to divert attention away from the main offensive on the Somme. The attack on Gommecourt was thwarted in the main by the powerful German defences, especially the barbed-wire entanglements, and resulted in the loss of 7,000 soldiers in one single day for absolutely no gain. The 1 July 1916 turned out to be one of the most tragic episodes in the history of the British Army; in just one day 21,000 of its soldiers were killed 35,000 wounded and 600 taken prisoner for practically no territorial gain whatsoever.



Yves LE MANER,
Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France