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

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

What Happened at the First Battle of Artois?

Depiction of the Fighting Durint the First Artois

There is a piece of the Western Front, running north of Paris to the Channel, principally entailing the department known at the Pas de Calais. The heart of the Pas de Calais is a district known as Artois, the largest city of which is Arras, about 110 miles north of Paris. Further north from Arras is a series of ridges known as the de Lorette Heights. A chap named Napoleon Bonaparte, who knew something about battlefields, once said, "Whoever dominates the de Lorette Heights commands France." This was validated, by the way, in 1940, when the last big effort of the Allies to stop the German Panzers was defeated in the shadow of these ridges and the Germans quickly got to the Channel and turned on Paris. France soon fell. In World War I, though, Marshal Joffre fully understood the importance of the heights and launched the first post-trenches attack of the war here in late 1914.

The Action Described Here Was at the Very Top of the Map

On the night of 4 October 1914 Bavarian Infantry had taken possession of the flat-topped Hill 165—already known locally as Notre Dame de Lorette— which had been left almost defenseless by the French during the "Race to the Sea." A chapel, built when the hill was a site of sacred oratorios, was turned into a bastion. The surrounding villages were also well fortified by the Germans and connected via underground passageways. 

There followed three subsequent distinct battles around Notre Dame de Lorette identified as the Battles of Artois, though accounts of their precise dates and results differ between the French and British versions. The first these began on 26 October 1914 with a series of German attacks and French counterattacks which kept Notre Dame in German hands. The collection of actions which ensued are generally categorized historically as the First Battle of Artois. Some sources discount the October fighting and place its start as 17 December 1914. There also seems to be some disagreement about the conclusion of the fighting since fighting on the plateau continued intermittently right up until the next major French offensive in May 1915, the Second Battle of Artois.

The Prewar Chapel on de Lorette Height

Early in December 1914. the tactical situation did change with the arrival of several units of French heavy artillery, whose fire compelled the Germans on Lorette ridge to take cover in their deep dug-outs. The French Higher Command ordered the XXI. Corps, which had held the Lorette sector since its stabilization, to attack in the hope of a breakthrough. The Corps commander, Gen. Maistre, was doubtful of the success of the operation proposed, judging the means insufficient and the obstacles to be encountered too strong. Nevertheless, the attack took place on 17 December on a front of a mile and a quarter, with diversions against other German strong points in Artois. Near Lorette, the artillery preparation had not been sufficient to prevent the assaulting troops coming under heavy fire, especially from machine guns, as they left the trenches. The German wire was strong and had been very little cut. Nevertheless, the attacking Poilus struggled on through deep mud, and succeeded in taking some trenches. For four days the operation was persisted in. The artillery support was weak, partly because of the winding, irregular front line, partly through insufficient liaison with the infantry. Against such handicaps the infantry strove bravely but in vain. At last, after murderous losses which justified only too well Gen. Maistre's forebodings, the main attack was broken off.

German Trench on de Lorette Height

In the afternoon of December 27 ten battalions of Chasseurs Alpins, commanded by Gen. Barbot, attacked the hamlet of La Targette to the south [see map], after two hours of artillery preparation. "No-man's-land" here was a quarter of a mile wide, quite flat, and without cover save for a single sunken road. Hence losses were heavy and onlv half a mile of first-line trenches were taken. A nearly unbroken series of minor operations took place throughout the winter and early spring.

Believed to Be an Authentic Photo of a French Attack on de Lorette Height

As the winter went on, the sticky mud became even worse, and the heavy German trench-mortars added still more to the danger and discomfort of the trenches. On 3 March at dawn, after a short but violent preparation by heavy artillery and heavy trench mortars, an entire German division made a sudden attack along the crest of the ridge, and drove the French into Buvigny wood. Two days of counterattacks recovered most of the ground lost, and throughout March and April a series of local attacks and counter-attacks slightly improved the French position at a cost in casualties disproportionately severe in comparison with the ground gained. The dead were not all Frenchmen. Already the German troops were beginning to call the ridge "Tolenhugd," the Hill of Death.  A second general attack (Second Battle of Artois)  was mounted in May 1915 that secured Notre Dame de Loreette and even included a penetration to distant, Vimy Ridge that was, however, quickly beaten back by the Germans.

Preserved Trenches from the 12–15 Fighting

Except for the 1917 Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge, the Artois and de Lorette Heights are one of the neglected battlefields of the Great War in most English-language sources. For some reason, these intense battles lack the "sex appeal" of Flanders or Verdun for historians. However, consider this—on the crest of Notre Dame de Lorette rest the remains of 40,000 Frenchmen in France's largest war cemetery and ossuary, and a magnificent basilica on the site of the original chapel. Alongside them is a massive new elliptical monument, something in the character of America's Vietnam Memorial, with the names of all the combatants of all nations who fell in Artois and French Flanders listed. There are 580,000 names on that monument, including some Americans. An impressive section of the 1914–15 trenches have been preserved on the site as well.

Notre Dame de Lorette Today
During 1914–15, the French Would Have Been Attacking from the Upper Left (West)

[Click on Image to Enlarge]

Sources:  Encyclopedia Britannica, 1922; Webmatters

1 comment:

  1. American Kiffin Rockwell was shot through the thigh near La Targette during the second battle of Artois. He survived, but his wound made marching difficult so he left the Foreign Legion infantry and became a pilot so he could fight while sitting down. He became a founding member of the Lafayette Escadrille and scored the unit's first victory. Steve Tom