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

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Story Behind the Famous Photo
The 55th West Lancashire Division at Givenchy

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.


  1. Probably not tear gas but rather mustard.

  2. Good point, Walter. At that point of the war it was most certainly mustard gas and I changed the caption accordingly. Interestingly, I copied the caption right off the IWM website.


  3. Glad to see people know about this battle.
    My father was an RAMC doctor with the 55th West Lancs Div. He served with the 2/3 Wessex Field Ambulance, and then as MO to the 1/5 Kings Own Royal Lancs
    During the battle of April 1918 he was in the thick of it with the “Wessex” at an Advanced Dressing Station at a farm on what in now Rue Marcelin Berthelot to the west of Givenchy.

    I have always wondered if the (in)famous photo of the gassed soldiers might have been at the Casualty Clearing Station at Gorre Brewery (Brasserie Pont de Gorre on Rue Jules Bailleul) . I think they were using canal barges to shift the casualties from there into Bethune.