The British military presence on the coast of Northern France

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On 12 August 1914 General John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), arrived in the port of Boulogne with a large number of troops. This event, which made real Great Britain's commitment to join the war against Germany on European soil, marked the beginning of a large British military presence in the region.

The coast of Northern France, the Opal Coast, was chosen by the British as their base because of its proximity to the south coast of England. This made it ideal for landing and establishing British troops on French soil, and these began to arrive in its three main ports as early in the war as August 1914. On 22 September 1914 a report by the Sub-prefect of Dunkirk also noted the presence of the First Lord of the Admiralty, one Winston Churchill.

A significant feature of the British presence on the coast was its duration. Not only did British troops arrive on the Opal Coast in 1914 and remain there throughout the war, the last of the Tommies did not leave the region until well after the signing of the Armistice in November 1918. In fact, the last of the British camps on the coast was dismantled some time in 1920.

By far the most important characteristic of the military presence in the region was its considerable size. Starting with relatively few men in 1914, the British force grew extensively as the war progressed and numerous areas on the coast were given over to one or more British military organizations. In total 1,700,000 soldiers passed through the port of Boulogne-sur-Mer between 1914 and 1916. A French report of the period, the exact date of which is unfortunately not known, indicates the presence of 1,226 officers and 70,000 in Boulogne-sur-Mer. As for the British military base at Calais, during the summer of 1918 the town saw 2,024 officers and 90,189 privates stationed there. However the largest British military base on the Western Front, with its 100,000 men in 1917, was the camp at Etaples.

On the French coast, the British military infrastructure was based around three main naval bases at Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk. Between November 1916 and June 1917 forty-three per cent of all British imports shipped into France came through these ports. Numerous hospitals were set up near the ports to treat the wounded, especially for the worst cases which because of the nature of their wounds could not be evacuated to England. Some of the largest medical centres were based at Wimereux, Boulogne and once again Etaples, the latter being home to twenty hospitals providing 20,000 beds.

As the war progressed, the coastal areas of the region began to see more and more depots for storing food, weapons and munitions. Because of its location, the Opal Coast became a veritable buffer zone between Britain and France through which soldiers and supplies could flow rapidly to the fighting zones. Movements between the British rear and the front were made by road but rail was the principal means of transport, with the train stations of St-Pol-sur-Ternoise and Hazebrouck being extremely important hubs for sending men and munitions to the front in Artois and Flanders.

In light of its considerable importance as a logistics base, the coast of Northern France was the source of constant worry for the British command. A report sent in March 1917 to the commander-in-chief of the French Army, General Robert Nivelle, stated that "the British high command is persuaded that the enemy will carry out a large-scale offensive on the region of Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne which is absolutely vital to its army". Apart from a few sporadic airborne forays into the region in 1916 and 1917, both by aeroplane and by airship, the Germans showed little interest in the Opal Coast until towards the end of the war when, in 1918, they began to attack the British military infrastructures in the area. Munitions depots, railway bridges, train stations and railway lines were all regularly targeted during German air raids which took place, for the most part, under the cover of darkness.

Yann HODICQ
Member of the History and Archeology Commission
of the Pas-de-Calais département