Sunday, 4 January 2015

Arras, Lille and la Bassee

Map of Lille and la Bassee areas. Arras to the south. The
BEF were responsible for the front line north of Bethune/Lille

While the drama was unfolding at Antwerp, and across the Belgian north,  throughout late September and October the outflanking efforts of both sides continued in a northerly direction as they desperately sought control of the Channel ports. The Allies  felt they had the initiative, and were in a position to exploit the German lines, although for this purpose it was essential for them to have control of the two crucial positions of La Basseee and Lille. La Bassee provided strong defensive positions and was a gateway to the channel ports; and Lille was strategically important above all for its railway connections. Castelnau and Maud’huy led the French 10th Army reinforcements, and joining Maunoury and d’Urbal at the northern end of the front. Maud’huy was made responsible for holding Lille. He was lined up alongside d’Urbal, the BEF and the Belgian army  - all of them aiming to prevent the Germans wheeling through to the coastal ports. Yet again they failed to appreciate the strength of the counter measures achieved by the Germans, and they would be severely tested during October and November. Having been frustrated by the flooding of the Yser plain, probably there best chance to reach and control the coast would be through the gap between Lille and Bethune, and la Bassee lay in the middle of that.

The action unfolded in three linked but distinct phases. The first was the build up and actions up to 20th October when both sides were adjusting the positions of their available forces. Secondly came the attacks by the Germans overwhelming Lille,  and threatening La Bassee and Arras (and menacing the coastal plain of the Yser as already described). Thirdly came the first battle of Ypres, defending the crucial salient, and covered in the next instalments.  

(i) The Allies outflanking efforts were thwarted at every point through early October. The Germans has responded to Falkenhayn’s strategy by moving vast numbers of men and arms into Belgium, and the 40 mile stretch between Lille and Nieuport on the Belgian coast became the critical terrain of the war. The road between Bethune and Lille was set as the dividing line between the French forces and the BEF. By 1st October Maud’huy had occupied Arras and was pushing east towards Douai, but was still some way short of Lille, his target, and he found himself opposed by much greater numbers. He was pushed back and by 8th Oct was in a serious battle for control of Arras. On 12th October, Lille fell to the Germans.
The British line to the north gradually came together In the first three weeks of October. On 11th, Smith-Dorrien marched the 2nd Corps from Abbeville to the line of the canal between Aire and Bethune. Like the others he found very strong counter pressure from the Germans, and before long found himself in a struggle to retain La Bassee. Wheeling on Givenchy, they fought their way on, and by 16th were at Aubers, and on 17th took Herlies. Up to this point they had been fighting mainly German cavalry, but beyond here they were up against the full strength of German infantry. From 20th onwards he felt the full effects of the German strength, and from 22nd October to 2nd November La Bassee was under full frontal attack by the Germans, until the battle at Ypres took some of the strength from the area.
Arras was similarly pummeled between 20-26th October. Although the town was almost completely destroyed, the Germans could not take control of it.

The relatively new 3rd Corps of the BEF was under command of Pulteney, and they marched to Hazebrouck, from where they planned to move on a line from Armentieres to Wytschaete, in order to line up the La Bassee – Ypres section of the front. Much of the Allied presence between Armentieres and Ypres was Cavalry, and to the north the exhausted and near-broken Belgian Army.
On 17th, realising the strength of the Germans in this sector French decided to effect the third of his strategic alternatives against the German right further into in Belgium. With Menin as a pivot, commanding an important railway and the line of the Lys, a flanking movement might be instituted against Courtrai, and the line of the Schelde. Accordingly, he instructed Rawlinson's 7th Division to  seize Menin, and await the support of Haig's 1st Corps, which was due in two days.
They never got there - the Germans were too strong, and the nearest the 7th Division got to Menin was the line Ledeghem/Kezelberg, about three miles short. They fell back and entrenched on a line of 8 miles just east of Gheluvelt cross roads. On 19th October Haig detrained the 1st Corps at St Omer, and marched to Hazebrouck. That evening, he was instructed to move through Ypres to Thourout, with the intention of advancing on Bruges and Ghent. This was wildly optimistic, and showed how out of touch with the German strength were the BEF HQ. Fortunately, Haig was then ordered to move in a more northerly direction from Ypres, and ended up forming the British left wing in the great battle for Ypres that developed.
The 20th October saw the whole British line from Albert to the sea in the position in which it had to meet the desperate effort of the Germans to regain the initiative and the offensive.

For this second phase, the Allies were now in a bad state, and a parlous position - they were overwhelmingly outnumbered by the German forces, all along the near 100 miles of this front. The fall of Antwerp had destroyed the hopes of holding the line of the Schelde; the German occupation of La Bassee and Lille had spoiled the turning movement against the German right, and the failure at Menin and swift advance of new German forces had ruled out northern incursions into Belgium. They were forced to wait on the defensive.
La Bassee 1914
The Germans, poised to advance had three options to consider – Arras, La Bassee and the coastal route via Nieuport. They also had to consider the Ypres salient, which would pose a threat to their flanks if they were advancing either side of it. They wanted to flatten it out – literally.

As Buchan writes: "It is a sound rule in war, that strength should not be dissipated. On this principle it is at first sight hard to discover an explanation for the course which the Germans actually followed. For they attacked almost simultaneously at all four points, and for three desperate weeks persisted in the attack."

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