Thursday, 10 May 2018

Kaiserschlacht 6: The Battle of the Lys Part 2

'Backs to the Wall" time. The alarming
advance made by Operation Georgette.  

The end of the first week of Operation Georgette saw both sides’ fate hanging in the balance. The Germans had to pause to re-group and to supply their troops. For the British, Bethune and Hazebrouck were still at risk, and the Germans were now pressurising  the full range of Flanders hills west of Ypres, from Mont des Cats behind Bailleul to Mount Kemmel.  Not only Ypres, but the route to the coastal ports was opening.

It was at this stage, on 11th April that the dour Haig, unable to persuade Foch to release more reserves from further south, issued his most famous and Nelsonian order of the day: “There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man; there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justness of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind depend alike upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment”. Things would get worse before they got better. On 14th Bailleul fell, and on 16th so too did Wytschaete and Spanbroekmoelen. By the 18th the Germans were ready to advance on Mount Kemmel from the south and west. Success here would all but cut off Ypres, prompting an Allied retreat to the channel, and necessitating flooding of the coastal plain.

Ludendorff’s revision of Georgette now had two immediate objectives: the capture of Bethune, and the isolation of Ypres by taking Mount Kemmel. Hazebrouck and a retreat to the coast would then follow as a matter of course.
To increase the pressure on Ypres, Ludendorff authorised Operation Tannenberg (an emotive choice recalling the great pincer like German victory of 1914 see Post…). This was to be a huge movement with Kemmel in the south, the coastal route in the north, and the beleaguered Ypres caught in the pincers. The crucial engagements took place on 17th and 18th April. Firstly the Belgian forces were successful in rebuffing the coastal movement. Strong counter attacks rapidly reversed some initial German gains, and the right hand pincer ground to a halt almost before it had started. The left hand pincer was also rebuffed in several places, but made sufficient progress to take the southern and western aspects of Kemmel, and took all of Wytschaete. It was now able to overlook the remains of Ypres, almost one year after it had been driven from the ridge.

South of the Lys, von Quast made his assault towards Bethune along his whole section from Givenchy to Merville. To capture Bethune he had to get across the La Bassée canal. Despite reaching the eastern bank along much its length, his attempts to cross all ended in costly failure. The defence put up by 4 Division of Horne’s Army fully met the demands of Haig’s order of the day. Holding Givenchy proved the key to the defence of Bethune.

This was the beginning of the end of the Battle of the Lys. The German machine had been comprehensively repulsed in the north of Belgium, and severely damaged in its failure to cross the La Bassée canal in front of Bethune. Only in the centre, at Mount Kemmel, could Ludendorff hope to gain Ypres, and this would prove to be the final act of the battle*. Sporadic action continued but for the next week both sides prepared for this decisive moment. By now Foch was taking the lead on tactics, and he brought in French reserve divisions to strengthen the Kemmel defences.
The bleak view of Mount Kemmel in April 1918. Hardly
Himalayan, but at 500 feet, it dominated the views
over Ypres and to the coast
The attack came on 25th April, following an opening bombardment from Meeteren (west of Kemmel) to the Ypres-Comine canal. The fighting of the next four days matched any of the war for its fierceness, with thousands of British, French and German casualties. As in OM, the Germans almost made all of their objectives, but fell just short before losing ground to counter-attacks. They did reach the highest point of Kemmel, and the road from Ypres to Poperinge but, exhausted, by the end of April they were contained by Allied reinforcements. A final attempt to break through on the coastal route north of Ypres had again been successfully beaten off by the Belgian forces. By the end of May, Ludendorff’s focus had shifted again, this time for his final gambit of the Kaiserschlacht – against Paris from the Aisne.

The battle of the Lys was a turning phase of the war. The Germans won tactical victories but failed strategically. Their armies were showing fallibility, and the innovative shock tactics were regressing to attritional warfare as a result of the high casualties they were suffering. Foch was growing into his role as Allied supremo, and had acted decisively and with resolve in the later stages of the battle.
At the close of Operations Michael and Georgette the Germans retained their numerical superiority on the Western Front – 208 Divisions ranged against 168 – but they had been badly damaged, and many of their best units had been sacrificed. Most worryingly for Ludendorff he now had nowhere to look for reinforcements from the East, whereas from the West, American troops were beginning to arrive in numbers. His Kaiserschlacht was to have one more roll of the dice.

* The battle of Kemmelberg, as a distinct departure from Operation Georgette's original conception, is also frequently known as the Fourth Battle of Ypres 

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