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THE ENGLISH FIGHTING-GROUND IN
FRANCE AND FLANDERS
By Raoul Blanchard
WITH SKETCH-MAPS BY THE AUTHOR
PHE English front in France two or three districts of limited extent.
and Flanders covers about The country is rich, densely populated, a hundred and fifty miles, with numerous roads and paths; intensive and in each of the three agriculture has accumulated wealth; meat regions in which the bitter and vegetables, wheat and beer, may be
struggle has been carried had in abundance. Innumerable villages, on its character has differed widely. To large and small, as well as isolated houses the north, in Flanders, there has been a and farms, are scattered over the country comparative lull since the terrible con- in every direction; there are also many flicts near Ypres in November, 1914; on railways both of broad and narrow gauge; the other hand, in Artois, which may be five lines come together at Ypres, five at called the centre, fighting has been almost Armentières, six at Hazebrouck, while continual and has redoubled in violence tramways along the roads add to the netsince the British offensive at Easter, 1917, work of communication. Furthermore, while Picardy, to the south, is the scene there are serviceable waterways: the Yser, of the battle of the Somme and the ad- the Lys, the canal of La Bassée. With vance toward Saint Quentin.
such surroundings it certainly seems as if It may be interesting to study these nothing could be easier than to move large regions separately, in order to see how masses of troops, to lodge, and to feed much their geographical characteristics them. have influenced the military operations And yet all this is misleading, and, in held within their limits; a study for which point of fact, Flanders is an impracticable I feel myself to be somewhat prepared by country, as has been proved by the hissix years' residence at the University of tory of this and also of preceding wars. Lille, and personal knowledge of the geo- Large armies have seldom ventured on its graphical problems presented by these dis- territory, and when they have done so it tricts.
has been the worse for them. As far back
as when Philippe le Bel was king of I. FLANDERS
France his adventurous knights came to Ever since the month of November, grief in a canal near Courtrai, and farther 1914, the English army has been engaged back still we find the ponderous army of in the greater part of Flanders, from Dix- Philippe-Auguste stuck helplessly in the mude in the north to La Bassée in the mud in the neighborhood of Ypres—an south, where the heights of Artois begin. episode which repeated itself when the Thus Flanders may be considered as espe- Germans were caught by the inundation cially the battle-ground of the English of the Yser. We may also notice that the forces, and at first sight no country looks troops of Louis XIV carefully avoided gomore favorable to the movements of ing into Flanders, and that the great armies. The surface is almost every- battles which have given Belgium its where exceedingly flat; here and there it name of “the cockpit of Europe” have is broken by little low hills, but as a rule taken place much farther south, toward it stretches out as a vast plain until its Charleroi and Waterloo. limits melt into the blue horizon, and The reason why, in spite of appearances, there are no irregularities of the ground Flanders does not lend itself to military to hinder the advance of troops, except in operations may be found in the climate
and the nature of the soil and vegetation, Wytschaete, Messines, Zonnebeke and both in the north, near Ypres, and in the Passchendaele, are nowhere more than plain of the Lys, to the southward. We four hundred and fifty feet high, somemay call the region of Ypres the country times not more than a hundred and fifty; which lies between the low flooded valley nevertheless, they are capable of present
ing serious difficulties.
Their sides are often Mer the Nord
steep, because of the
difference in hardness Nieuquet
of the strata of rock, clay, and sand superimposed on their slopes.
Vegetation is rank and Ilaine
strong; the water which trickles down the sides of the hillocks cannot penetrate the underlying bed of clay; it there
fore collects into shalSpees
low pools, and, favored a chacte
by this continual moisonegerus
ture, the slopes are
thickly covered with Hazetwack
grass and trees. As we
look in one direction Plaine 8 Armentie
groups of firs stand out
black in contrast to the Sevenant)
bright green of elms; in another, hop-fields
bristle with leaning Chazelle
poles, bound together
by the tough tendrils. La tance
And by settling, natur
ally enough, on these Chany de bataille
pleasant heights, the in
habitants have multiFlandre
Private parks, with The fighting area in Flanders.
their high walls, are so many little fortresses;
many villages were esof the Yser and the wide depression of tablished there long ago for purpose of the Lys, and here the surface of the observation and defense; Messines, Holleground, the nature of the soil, the cli- beke, Becelaere, names now familiar to us mate, the houses, the growth, are all so all, are on the top of these hillocks. It many obstacles, not always apparent but was by clinging desperately to these poor ever present, to the successful advance peaceful little villages, or to elevations like of troops. In the first place, the neigh- the famous "Hill No. 60," that the Allies borhood of Ypres is the most hilly in all were able to break the force of the German Flanders. To the south and east of the onslaughts and win the battle of Ypres. town the ground rises in a series of little On either side of these hills, each a knolls which would be insignificant any- battle-field, the ground falls away gradwhere else, but gain importance here by ually into a vast plain; its surface becontrast with the stretches of flat country comes more and more even, until it looks surrounding them. These hillocks, which as if there could be nothing in the way of all have names, such as Mount Kemmel, troops. There are, however, many ob
stacles, the chief being the nature of the to direct the battle of Ypres, his first conground. The soil in this region is formed cern was to climb the tower of the Cloth of a bed of compact clay, from two to Hall in order to get a comprehensive view three hundred feet deep, through which of the fighting-ground, but it was of no not a drop of water can percolate. Now, use; the country looked like a sea of it often rains in Flanders, hard and per- trees, in whose green depths he could sistently, and as none of this abundant make out neither roads nor villages, and flood can filter through the clay, it re as a result it was almost impossible to mains on the surface, to settle in any direct and regulate the artillery fire. The little hollow and creep back over the thick hedges and clusters of trees make fields and pastures. In autumn and win- admirable hiding-places and shelters for ter especially the cultivated ground is ambush, while behind them is still anstreaked in every direction by shining other obstacle—the houses. Everywhere lines of stagnant water. It naturally there are isolated farms, tucked away in follows that the earth, constantly sat- hollows and surrounded by moats or ditchurated, easily becomes mud-sticky, ob- es made for defense in former days, and stinate mud. To till such a soil requires full of greenish standing water. The vilprodigious patience; in ploughing, for in- lages are usually planted where the windstance, the labor of three men is often ing and infrequent roads cross, and thus necessary; two bear with all their weight they command the only practicable means on the heavy handle of the plough, while of communication. the third pours water upon the share, to · So we see that in this country which keep it clean and prevent it from sticking seems so simple and humble, even friendfast. In some places the laborers have ly, there are difficulties which hinder the to work barefoot, as shoes would only march of infantry, block the passage of hold them fast in the slime. It is easy to artillery, hold munitions and supplies fast see how hard it must be to move troops in the mud, and make it impossible to over such ground; it is, indeed, impossible see, even a few yards ahead, the sort of to march across country except in very obstruction which troops may be called favorable conditions, as during a frost, upon to face. but frosts do not last long in this mild The valley or plain of the Lys, which climate, with its soft sea winds.
is the continuation of Flanders from ArThe soil of Flanders may be compared mentières to La Bassée, is perhaps still to a protecting genius which clings around worse for military operations. Around the feet of the invader, holding him back Ypres it was the kingdom of trees; here and wearing out his strength. Life in the it is the kingdom of water. This vast trenches becomes almost intolerable un- stretch of land is as low-lying as it is flat. der such conditions; their slippery sides The medium height above the sea-level are perpetually giving way and sliding is not more than fifty feet or so, and the down; the all-pervading water, mixing watershed almost non-existent. - The with the clay, forms a tenacious paste, streams move sluggishly in their horizonsometimes so deep that men have ac- tal beds; the river Lys, which takes their tually disappeared in it, as if caught in waters to the sea, has only a fall of seven a quicksand. The superabundance of centimetres, or about two and threewater has developed a lush vegetation; quarter inches, to each kilometre. And the inhabitants call this part of the coun- there are many of these streams, for the try “Houtland,” or “the land of woods.” hollow of the plain draws them from all Standing alone, springing from the hedges, sides—from the hills of Artois on the or planted in rows, elms, oaks, and pop- south, where the rains are heavy, and lars frame and shade the fields and pas- from the north, where the water comes tures. There are so many of them that down from the little Flemish hills. The the country looks like a great glade or soil cannot absorb even a small amount clearing, whose borders recede as one ad- of this over-generous supply, for the forvances, or like the stage-setting of a wood- midable mass of Flemish clay still underland scene, which shifts and is reset con- lies it to a great depth, and there is no tinually. When General Foch was about way of getting rid of the water which falls
from the clouds, nor of that which comes Spain; at a later date it was infested by down by the rivers, except by leading it, bands of smugglers; and finally, in Napoas fast as possible and that is slowly leon's day, all the deserters of the neighenough), across the plain.. To that end boring districts, and those who wished to the ground is scored over with drainage avoid military service, took shelter there. ditches, little artificial streams and canals, Conditions have of course greatly imwhich men have made in all directions. proved during the last fifty years. Many It is not possible to walk a mile in the of the open ditches have been replaced by fields without having to cross several of tiled drains, and the plain is crossed by these necessary drains, and even then numerous paved roads. But the roadthere are districts on the edges of the beds are still only middling, requiring plain which it has been impossible to constant repairs; the stones sink down, dry up so far, and in which nature is ab- the mud oozes up, and wheeled conveysolutely wild.
ances are often terribly jolted. If the presence of all these ditches and All this accounts for the difficulty of canals is a drawback to movement across any important military operations in such country, perhaps we shall avoid annoy- surroundings, and with such natural hinance if we stick to the roads and the paved drances. The Germans seem not to have ways, or chaussées. But here again we been aware of all this when they launched find the ground so soft, so muddy, and so upon Ypres, in October, 1914, the formiwaterlogged that the roads are almost im- dable attack which was to take them to passable. Not long ago the inhabitants Calais but which in reality gained them of Saint Venant complained that their only about a mile. The courage and tetown was inaccessible, because the mud nacity of the Allies were certainly the prinmade approach to it impossible in wet cipal elements by which victory was won, weather, and in dry the ruts were so deep but it is equally certain that the obstacles that no wheeled vehicle could venture which the country itself put in the way of among them without great risk of break- the invader contributed greatly toward ing down. In the end of the eighteenth weakening his thrust. For the same reacentury the highroad which crossed the son the attack made by the English at plain, following the track of the old Neuve Chapelle, in 1915, met with a Roman way, was cut across half-way check which is explained in great part over by a quagmire so wide and so deep by the obstructions in their way—the that the country people described it as ditches, the gardens, the hedges, and last “an abyss which will cost the lives of all but not least the houses. those who try to cross it.” Until about It is now more than two years since the 1860 the only way which had been war has been actively carried on in this thought of to further the circulation of part of Flanders. Both adversaries, confoot-passengers was to bring great blocks vinced of the difficulty of operations on a of sandstone from Artois, and put them large scale, have stood on the defensive, on either side of the roads, at a convenient each side contenting itself with harassing distance apart, as stepping-stones; and the forces opposite, and keeping them on by wearing hobnails in their shoes, in the alert by patrolling excursions into No order not to slip off the stones and sink Man's Land and raids upon the trenches. up to the middle in the mire, and being Abandoning their attempts where nature, further provided with long staves, to apparently so mild, is in reality so stubsteady them in jumping from one block bornly opposed to invasion, the Allied to another, those used to the country commanders have decided that it was betmanaged to get about.
ter worth while to bring the weight of their Owing to the wretched means of com- military effort to bear farther to the south, munication, this region was until re- in a more practicable region-Artois. cently so difficult of access that refugees from persecution or fugitives from justice easily found a safe asylum, and could snap their fingers at authority. The Protes As soon as we come to the little rise tants of Artois were thus able to resist which limits the plain of the Lys the
scenery changes suddenly. The dense France. For all these reasons it is abFlemish vegetation which covered the solutely necessary that the Allies should ground stops at the foot of the long ridges win and hold the heights of Artois, at whose gentle slopes rise slowly toward the whatever cost. The fighting here has south. This disappearance of trees and been very severe; whether in the north, meadows, taking place so quickly, means on the platform of the Gohelle, which that we are now in a dry country. Even falls away toward the plain of the Lys; the streams disappear from the surface or in the centre, to gain the ridge of Vimy; of the ground. The transformation is due or on the way to Arras toward the south, to the chalk rock which forms, in Artois on the hills through which the valley of and in Picardy, the basis of the soil. The the Scarpe runs. To the north the ground country also becomes less flat. Only a rises, gradually at first, in an inclined few kilometres from the lowest point of plane to the southward, above the depresthe hollow of the Lys the altitude is al- sion of the Lys, up to the ridge of Vimy. ready three hundred feet, and it remains Condé found this highland of the Goat about that figure until we reach the helle, where the chalk is almost on the little hills of the Ile de France.
surface, a battle-field to his taste when he In marked contrast to Flanders, a flat conquered the Archduke Leopold of Auscountry with scattered hillocks, a heavy tria near Lens, in 1648. The soil was so soil forever watersoaked, and a strong poor that there was but little cultivation growth of trees and plants, the regions in his day, and the villages were small and which adjoin it on its southern front are widely scattered; there was nothing to table-lands, with a dry soil and a growth impede the free handling of troops. In which although comparatively scanty is the nineteenth century, however, the yet fertile, because the brown top-soil prolongation of the great cannel coalwhich covers the chalk makes much richer fields was found to lie under that barren loam than the thick Flemish clay. It is plain, and now the largest and richest evident that an army will find admirable coal-mines of France are there. A new fighting-ground on these great stretches industrial life has grown up alongside of of dry earth, where there is nothing in the and in addition to the old, changing the way of the view, where vegetation is com- landscape strangely. We see at first the paratively sparse, and where the roads buildings intended to serve the mines: are good and numerous. As a result of machine-shops and sheds for screening more favorable conditions the fighting the coal; high brick chimneys for the has been violent in this district ever since great pumps; and everywhere the metal the end of September, 1914; the Allies towers in which the wheels lowering and have made many powerful offensive at- lifting the cages of the shafts work silenttacks, and the battle of Artois is raging ly. Close to these are the pit-dumps; odd there now.
little cones about a hundred feet high, the This determination of the combatants rubbish from the mines—these are the not only shows that the region lends it- hills of the “black country.” Across the self readily to military operations; it is plain rolls a flood of one-story houses, also a proof of the strategic importance built of red brick soon blackened by the of Artois. On account of its heights, of smoke which hangs low above them. In which we shall speak more at length, this them the miners and workmen live; country commands a very wide view. It sometimes these new houses seem to dominates Flanders; it also dominates smother the old villages with the weight Picardy. In the east a sort of peninsula of their red roofs; sometimes they add to of dry soil which juts out in the direction the old crooked streets new ones laid out of Douai makes it easy to march toward at right angles, or else they make a vilthe plains of the Scarpe and the Escaut, lage of their own, with every house in it and to turn the positions of Lille and exactly alike. The arid and empty plain Cambrai. Moreover, we have here a of the Gohelle is full of life and industry great industrial region; the coal-mines of now, and therefore not nearly so easy to the Pas de Calais, whose possession by fight in; modern armies find many obthe Germans has been such a calamity to structions, both offensive and defensive,