Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, June 21, 2020

It's 25 April 1918 and the Most Important Position on the Western Front Is Mont Kemmel, Flanders

Mont Kemmel Today from the German Approach

The second of Germany's Ludendorff Offensives, Operation Georgette (also known as the Battle of the Lys), was launched in French Flanders on 9 April 1918.  Meanwhile, the initial German attack in the Somme, Operation Michael, continued despite strengthening Allied opposition. Luckily for the Allies, Ludendorff did not choose to terminate Michael earlier and redirect all available forces to support the effort in Flanders.  

Georgette, nonetheless, started with success similar to its immediate predecessor. The Portuguese Expeditionary Force collapsed almost immediately at Neuve Chapelle and only a spectacular defensive effort by the British 55th Division prevented an early collapse of the southern Allied sector. The spectacular advance was quickly followed by the capture of Estaires (9–10 April), Messines Ridge (10–11 April), and the destruction and capture of Bailleul (12–15 April). The opening advance, however, fizzled out near Hazebrouck, a railway junction and the most strategically important objective of the entire campaign (12–15 April). Instead of renewing the assault on Hazebrouck, Ludendorff decided to focus on pushing through the Flanders Hills, the most eastern of which is Mont Kemmel. It was there that Operation Georgette eventually ground to a halt.

French Troops En Route to Mont Kemmel

The First Battle of Mont Kemmel (17–19 April) put a stop to another advance, this time directed toward Béthune. Several British divisions did their best to check the German advance with only sparse resources at their disposal. At Bailleul, for example, delaying units were stationed under cover of railway embankments and overpasses, turning them into field fortifications. The British forces covering Mont Kemmel were eventually able to repulse the three-division assault, but their final line was stretched thin and General Haig had no reinforcements to send.

Aware of his ally's perilous situation, General Foch sent in French troops to face the Germans at Mont Kemmel. By 25 April the French reinforcements had arrived but quickly found themselves pitted against elite mountain German troops. This Second Battle for Mont Kemmel began with an intense hail of shells reminiscent of Verdun for the Frenchmen. After some furious (often hand-to-hand) fighting, though, the Germans finally took control of the summit. A four-mile gap had opened in the Allied lines, and it would remain uncorrected for eight hours. It was one of the last opportunities of the war for the German Army to turn their fortunes, but they were unable to organize an exploiting attack.

French Ossuary, Mont Kemmel

The Spring Offensive drew to a close with a final German attack launched from Mont Kemmel on 29 April. They were able to take one more of the Flanders Hills to the west, but were stopped there. Even though the Germans had managed to move forward, Georgette was ultimately a failure because the Allies had also stabilized the front and prevented the enemy from breaking through, albeit at great cost to human life. Marshal Foch's skillful dispatch of reinforcements to Mont Kemmel had saved the day.

The Sad Angel
Today Mont Kemmel is remembered as the most significant battlefield of the French Army in Flanders. Nicknamed "bald mountain" by the poilus because of the desolation on its war ravaged summit, Mont Kemmel is today home to an ossuary which holds the bodies of 5,294 French soldiers, most of whom were killed on the hill, although only 57 of the soldiers were identified prior to being interred. The column which stands at the center of the cemetery is topped with the traditional rooster mascot of France.

Farther up the hill stands an imposing victory memorial to the French soldiers who fought on the battlefields of Belgium. It features the statue, sculpted by Adolphe Masselot, of the Roman goddess Victoria, whose melancholic gaze has earned her the nickname "The Sad Angel of Mont Kemmel Hill."

Sources: Battlefields of Northern France and Wikipedia


  1. Thanks for the post. I was at Mt Kemmel in 2018, it's a great place to see. We saw the Kemmel American Monument but I regret we did not see the Sad Angel or the French Ossuary. Maybe we can go back someday.

    Here is a quote from my grandfather's company history, History of Company "E", 107th Infantry 54th Brigade, 27th Division:

    "Mt. Kemmel! Every time a man looked over the top toward the German lines, this huge hill loomed up before him. It was a bare, bleak earthen mound; not a tree nor a bush could be observed on top. It had been a target for artillery for years, and was battered and banged as no other in France. Men were fascinated by the whirring of the big Allied shells over their heads on their warlike mission to the German lines. They followed the sound and watched for the explosion on the top of Kemmel. The hit could be seen before the explosion was heard. The hill seemed utterly deserted, as though there wasn't a German in the place. But at night, in the dark, the enemy machine gunners could be heard playing tattoos as they in a businesslike manner “covered” the various tracks and trails used by the Allied runners and messengers and ration parties."

    1. Russ: An excellent supplement to the history of 107th has been published that you might enjoy: LETTERS FROM A DOUGHBOY (Rochester: RIT Press,2019) by Katherine Truesdell Schumacher. Her father was with HQ Co. of the 107th.
      Bob Schrock

  2. Mont Kemmel is Holy Ground for all 3 Allies. British, French and American. Unique in many ways.