Battle Of The Lys
From Classic Encyclopedia 1911
"BATTLE OF THE LYS (1918). - In the great German offensive of 1918 the idea of breaking through the British-Portuguese front in French Flanders had from the first played a considerable part in the scheme of attack considered by Rupprecht's group of armies. Under the code name " George," this was originally intended as the operation to force a decision, but it shrank later - as " Little George " (" Georgette ") - to a diversion, and was eventually dropped altogether in favour of the " Michael " operation (see Western Front. Campaigns). Only the preparations for it were carried out, immediately before the main attack in the Somme area, to mislead the opponent. Arrangements had also been made to revert quickly to the attack in Flanders in case the Somme offensive should come to a standstill.
When, on March 30, the great battle in France actually was broken off, the German Supreme Command snatched at the Flanders attack - now " Georgette " - which was limited in extent. There the second blow was to be struck at the British army. They could not expect to decide the war here, where the means were considerably more scanty than in the March offensive, but they hoped for a break-through in the direction of St. OmerHazebrouck and considerable gains of ground towards the coast. An extension of the break-through towards the S. was a secondary consideration only.
The conditions were favourable to carrying out the operation. The dry weather held out hopes that the Lys plain would prove practicable. The Portuguese, put in S. of Armentieres, were inferior as opponents, and the Flanders front had had an extraor dinarily weakening effect on the British. Everything depended on whether the Lys depression, which was difficult to traverse and impossible to reconnoitre, could be conquered so quickly as to prevent renewed resistance on the river itself, and the use of the rising ground beyond the Lys and the Lawe for the defence.
The maul German attack was entrusted to the VI. Army under von Quast, with the Corps Staffs II. B, XIX., LV. and IV. For this purpose the Army was to put in 17 divisions in all. The attack was to be led from the line Armentieres - La Bassee canal, with its centre of gravity on Hazebrouck. The IV. Army under Sixt von Armin, in the event of the VI. Army's attack having sufficient success, was to advance with a strong left wing to the W., passing N. of Armentieres, which in itself was to be left untouched and made to fall by envelopment. Four divisions of the IV. Army, under the Staffs of the X. and XVIII. Reserve Corps, were to take part in the attack. The further development of the attack was to depend upon whether the heights S. of Poperinghe could be reached. If this were achieved the British and Belgians would be threatened from the rear, and their evacuation of the positions stretching northwards to Dixmude could be counted upon, if the subsidiary attacks arranged for by the IV. Army at this town and from the Houthoulst forest were carried out. The destruction of the important mining and industrial centre in the Bethune region might also be expected if the left wing, in accordance with the progress of the centre, should wheel in to the south-west. It was particularly important here, as in the March offensive, to succeed in really surprising the enemy. The successful crossing of the Lys especially depended on this. Emphasis was therefore laid on the need for the utmost haste. April 8 was the date desired for the attack, but in the end the VI. Army's attack had to be postponed till the 9th. The IV. Army's attack was fixed for the loth.
The armies made their preparations with the greatest zeal and with scrupulous care, guided by the same principles as in the attack in the Somme area. By direction of the Supreme Army Command the artillery programme was revised by Colonel Bruchmiiller. The order of battle gave the VI. Army nine divisions in the first, five in the second, and three in the third line; the IV. Army had three divisions in the first and one in the second line. The firstand second-line divisions were placed under the Corps Staffs, the third-line divisions under the Army Higher Command. To reinforce the attack still further, 14 more divisions were specially sent in the course of the battle, 9 by the army group, 5 by the Supreme Army Command. On an average the troops used were inferior to those in the March offensive. Quite a number of them were not fitted out and trained as attack divisions. But in spite of this both leaders and troops were full of confidence.
The attack itself was prepared by the artillery in the same way as that of March 21. Gas-shelling by the VI. Army began at 4:15 A.M., and, according to British reports, succeeded in poisoning the ground for miles behind the British front line. The deployment of the infantry had been carried out without any serious counter-measures on the part of the enemy. At 8:45 A.M. the infantry passed to the assault, meeting with only slight resistance, but found themselves, like the artillery, hindered by the mist hanging over the Lys depression, which greatly hampered their leading and the communication of information. In spite of this all three lines of the first position had been passed by 10 A.M. But now came the great problem of crossing the area under shell-fire with artillery and transport. The roads ran unfavourably, and were almost all destroyed. The ground was still soft in many places, and the shell-holes full of water. A few downpours of rain shortly before the day of the attack had made the condition of the ground worse. In spite of the immediate sending forward of pioneers and engineers and of the devoted zeal they put into their work it was only possible to effect a gradual improvement and to make at least the more important roads passable. On the first day only some few guns were got up to the front, in immediate support of the attacking infantry. This difficulty was distinctly felt when fresh resistance was encountered on the Lys. Nevertheless the initial success was considerable. The Portuguese divisions were as good as annihilated. The II. Bavarian Corps turned in to the left and took Bois Grenier and Fleurbois. The XIX. and LV. Corps pushed through to the Lys. General Hoefer crossed the Lys at the lock E. of Sailly on April 9, thus enabling the troops attacking in a westerly direction to reach the opposite bank in the night of th. loth. The crisis which threatened to develop in the afternoon, owing to the wearied German troops coming on fresh British reserves, was thus overcome. Further S. the LV. Corps, commanded by von Bernhardi, reached the Lawe at certain points. On the left wing the IV. Army Corps took Richebourg 1'Avoue, but failed to break the British resistance in the strongly fortified villages of Festubert and Givenchy.
This result did not come up to the Supreme Army Command's expectations. All depended now upon whether the next few days would bring a more rapid advance. With the VI. Army this was not the case. The British machine-gun nests gave the German infantry much trouble, as the guns necessary for destroying them could only be brought up with difficulty. An independent success was gained by the II. Bavarian Corps, which reached La Chapelle d'Armentieres after more or less violent fighting. These troops, having advanced across the Lys at Sailly, had at first to repel some heavy British counter-attacks. They then pushed forward - after being reinforced - to Steenwerk, and so made the Lys crossing at Erquingham available. Further W. there was some heavy fighting round Pont Mortier. Here, too, some very lively British attacks were repelled. The XIX. Corps took the town of Estaires by house-to-house fighting and opened up the Lys crossing from La Gorgue. The LV. Corps managed to cross the Lawe between Lestrem and Vieille Chapelle. Of the IV. Corps only the right wing was able to advance with heavy fighting. On the left it could do no more than defend itself against heavy counter-attacks coming from Festubert. It was plain that the British were concerned above all to prevent any further rolling up of their front to the south.
Meanwhile the IV. Army had begun its attack. In the night of April 9-10 its artillery prepared the attack by several hours' gunfire, but without quite silencing the opponent's guns. Under cover of darkness the left wing of the X. Reserve Corps crossed the Lys, which flowed immediately in front of the opposing lines. At 5:15 A.M. came the infantry attack delivered from Warneton and from either side of it. From the first it encountered violent resistance. But the XVIII. Reserve Corps succeeded in enveloping and taking Meesen, and in holding it against heavy counter-attacks. The Hollebeke Park was also taken, and the attack carried to within Soo metres of Wytschaete. The X. Reserve Corps pushed through to the eastern boundary of the Ploegsteert Wood. Its left wing reached Ploegsteert village and Le Bizet, and repelled some violent counter-attacks. Behind the front the Lys was bridged at Deulemont and Frelinghien.
For this army, too, the difficulties were considerable. The completely ruined country of the Wytschaete battle-field (1917) made it extremely difficult to move or to judge what position had been reached. The superiority of the German artillery was not sufficiently great. The time for preparation had had to be cut very short; and the forces available were disproportionately weak. The success gained was all the more noteworthy.
The British were again chiefly concerned with reinforcing their wings which had held firm, and tried thereby to prevent the operative development of the break-through and the rolling-up of the adjoining fronts. A continuation of the German attack still, however, offered fair prospects. The army group therefore brought up further reinforcements on to the roads. The attack itself was resumed on April 11, with lively fighting. The XVIII. Reserve Corps pushed its way into Wytschaete, and established itself later E. of that place and in advance of the WytschaeteMeesen road. The X. Reserve Corps took the Nightingale height (between the Douve brook and the Ploegsteert Wood) by envelopment from the Ploegsteert Wood, and its left wing new position at Romarin. Further S., the town of Armentieres, with more than 3,000 men, 45 guns and ample stores, fell into the hands of the Germans. The II. Bavarian Corps pushed through Nieppe to the Steenwerk railway station. The XIX. Corps succeeded by vigorous fighting in reaching Neuf Berquin church. The LV. Corps took Merville and Lestrem.
On April 12 no particular progress was made by the Germans. On the other hand, the counter-assaults to which the British had now resorted were all repelled in each case. The VI. Army took the northern portion of Calonne and the village of Lacon. An order from the army group on April 1 2 arranged for the continuation of the attacks by the inner wings of the two armies. Besides this the VI. Army was to prepare for the continuance of the attack on the left wing according to plan. It was still important for the Germans to force a way into the hilly country N. of Bailleul, in order to relieve the position of the troops still remaining on the plain, and to excercise a strategical influence on the Yser front. But the British resistance had been greatly strengthened in the meantime, and the German attack could only proceed spasmodically and in limited sectors.
The next effort, on April 13, was directed against the Nieuwekerke-Bailleul range of hills. The 36th Reserve Div. succeeded, though with heavy losses, in taking the high-standing Nieuwekerke from across the exposed plain. The heights W. of that place were also captured. The VI. Army made only slight progress. The XIX. Army Corps took Merris. Some portions of the LV. Corps, which had penetrated into the Nieppe Wood, had, however, soon to give ground again.
On April 15 the corps of the IV. Army, to which the Guard Reserve Corps had been added on the left wing, pushed on towards the hill of Kemmel. The XVIII. Reserve Corps got beyond the Wulverghem-Wytschaete road. The X. and the Guard Reserve Corps climbed the heights W. of Wulverghem and E. of Bailleul in the afternoon.
In spite of these advances at independent points the attack had, substantially, come to a standstill. The army group hoped to set it going again by a " Tannenberg " assault from the Houthoulst forest. This was to be directed against the line Merckem-Langemark, and was intended to force the British and Belgians to evacuate the northern part of the Ypres salient. But before the preparations were definitely arranged the Entente armies in the night of April r5-16 evacuated their positions from Poelkapelle to Hollebeke and retired to a position nearer Ypres. By this they gave up the whole gain of the battle in Flanders in 1917. The IV. Army immediately decided to follow up their advantage. After a short burst of fire the first-line troops advanced and, by evening, had reached the line Mangelaere-Langemark-Veldhoek. The XVIII. Reserve Corps took Wytschaete and the heights N.W. of Wulverghem; the Guard Reserve Corps in conjunction with the VI. Army's right wing took Bailleul; and the III. Bavarian Corps - which had replaced the II. Bavarian Corps - took Meteren.
Here the battle of Armentieres ended. The IV. Army encountered strong British-Belgian resistance at the Steen brook and gave up the projected attack there as hopeless. On the following day a German division was even forced backwards a little by a Belgian attack coming from Merckem. The attack, prepared some days before, by the left wing of the VI. Army (the IV. Army Corps and IX. Reserve Corps) against Bernenchon-Hinges and Festubert-Givenchy had no success.
Everywhere the strengthening of the resistance on the British front was evident, French divisions and batteries having been brought up here in daily increasing numbers. Only an organized attack, necessitating a great employment of force, would have been capable of overthrowing them. The German Higher Command had no intention of attempting this, for in default of any surprise the conduct of the attack, if resumed, would necessarily have approximated to battles of material, favourable in their nature to the other side, and only capable in any case of minor results. The army group, therefore, made a proposal on April 18 which was sanctioned by the Army Command on the loth, that the Georgette attack should be abandoned. Only Mt. Kemmel, and, by order of the Higher Command, the muchfought-over villages of Festubert and Givenchy, were still to be taken - in particular Mt. Kemmel, the possession of which was necessary to safeguard the situation of the inner wings of the two armies. But even so the battle of Armentieres had meant an important success for German arms; 22,000 prisoners, 400 guns, thousands of machine-guns and a mountain of stores fell into the hands of the Germans. A considerable portion of the British army and the whole Portuguese auxiliary corps would for a certain period be unfit for fighting. Strong French forces had been removed from their own front to assist the British, and any possible plans the French Higher Command had formed for an offensive must have been hindered. The creation of a new salient was balanced by a shortening of the German lines opposite Ypres. The captured heights, in particular those around Wytschaete which commanded the whole of the Ypres depression, formed the given point from which new attacks could be undertaken, especially in case Mt. Kemmel should still be captured. The fact that it was possible to take the Bethune mines and the railway lines of Hazebrouck and Poperinghe under artillery fire added considerably to the difficulties of the enemy.
Mt. Kemmel, the eastern spur of the Bailleul heights, commands a wide view over the plain of Flanders to the S., E., and N., and provides an unrivalled observation point for those in possession. Any troops lying in the low plain beneath it must be prepared for intensive artillery action, and when, as in case of the VI. Army, their flank and rear were exposed to the artillery observers on the hill, the position was intolerable. The German Higher Command entrusted the attack on Mt. Kemmel to the XVIII. and X. Reserve Corps. April 25 was fixed as the date of attack. By that time some fresh forces at least could be placed in readiness. To make the attack easier the X. Reserve Corps took the Vlengelhoek heights N. E. of Bailleul and held them against sharp counter-attacks. On April 25 the attack troops were to reach the line from St. Eloi - Groote Vierstraat (1 km. N. of the village of Kemmel and the hill) to the village of Dranouter. The attack began at 3: 3 o A.M. with a particularly powerful gas attack. At about 6 A.M. this was followed by a bombardment, and this in turn by the assault at 6:45. Simultaneously battleplanes and bombing squadrons broke loose against the enemy positions and the communication centres. The attack, well prepared by the gas, was a complete success. The XVIII. Reserve Corps took Kemmel village and, later on, St. Eloi. The Alpine Corps stormed the hill and pushed forward its most advanced sections to the so-called Scheipenberg. The left wing of the X. Reserve Corps reached Dranouter and gained ground N. of Vlengelhoek. The objective of the attack had, accordingly, not only been reached but in part exceeded, although the German plans, as was subsequently discovered, were known to the enemy, and the element of surprise was consequently lacking. In consideration of this rapid success the attack was to be resumed on the 26th after renewed artillery preparation. The Entente, however, forestalled this attack by a counter-attack on a large scale, which came to grief. Mt. Kemmel remained in German hands on that day and for nine days after. Other detachments coming on behind took possession of Lokeren.
By April 27 the results of the Mt. Kemmel victory were evident. The British again gave up a wide strip of ground to the E. and S.E. of Ypres.
An additional result was the capture by the Germans of 7,100 prisoners, 53 guns and 233 machine-guns. As a point of issue for a renewed offensive in the future Mt. Kemmel was also of the first importance. For the time being the offensive in Flanders had reached its close with the victory of April 25-26.
(W. M. Lo.)