|British 55th (West Lancashire) Division troops blinded by mustard|
gas await treatment at an Advanced Dressing Station near
Bethune, 10 April 1918 (IWM)
The above photograph, said to be the inspiration for Sargent's famous Gassed painting, was taken to the rear of a desperate stand by the British First Army, during the second of Ludendorff's Offensive in the spring of 1918, Operation Georgette. While the photo of the wounded men is still well circulated in World War I publications and websites, the story of the raging battle that produced the casualties has been mostly forgotten. This is unfortunate, because in that fighting the 55th Division made one of the most stalwart stands of the war and succeeded in compromising the enemy's strategic aims.
On 9 April 1918, the German Sixth Army attacked north of the La Bassée Canal. Anchoring the southern end of the Allied defenses was the 55th Division commanded by Major General Sir Hugh Jeudwine. To the division's left was the Portuguese 2nd Division. Behind was the critical rail center of Hazebrouck, the loss of which would make the entire British deployment in Flanders untenable.
|Major General Sir Hugh Jeudwine|
When the attack came the Portuguese division on the left, which had been packing up, preparing to be rotated out of the line for a rest, was quickly shattered. For the next week, with especially intense fighting over the first three days, continuous attacks were mounted by three German divisions. Their principal initial objective was to capture the village of Givenchy. At times German troops entered the town but were never able to secure it. By preserving the integrity of the rail network, the defense of Givenchy allowed Generalissimo Foch to support the defenders rapidly with reinforcements and supplies. One of Germany's great, and maybe last, opportunities of the war was foiled by the 55th Division.
In his despatches Sir Douglas Haig later wrote:
This most gallant defense, the importance of which it would be hard to overestimate.