The English Fighting-Ground in France and Flanders
By Raoul Blanchard
(Professor at the University of Grenoble)
[Scribner's Magazine, September 1917]
The English front in France and Flanders covers about a hundred and fifty miles, and in each of the three regions in which the bitter struggle has been carried on its character has differed widely. To the north, in Flanders, there has been a comparative lull since the terrible conflicts near Ypres in November, 1914; on the other hand, in Artois, which may be called the centre, fighting has been almost continual and has redoubled in violence since the British offensive at Easter, 1917, while Picardy, to the south, is the scene of the battle of the Somme and the advance toward Saint Quentin.
It may be interesting to study these regions separately, in order to see how much their geographical characteristics have influenced the military operations held within their limits; a study for which I feel myself to be somewhat prepared by six years' residence at the University of Lille, and personal knowledge of the geographical problems presented by these districts.
Ever since the month of November, 1914, the English army has been engaged in the greater part of Flanders, from Dixmude in the north to La Bassée in the south, where the heights of Artois begin. Thus Flanders may be considered as especially the battle-ground of the English forces, and at first sight no country looks more favorable to the movements of armies. The surface is almost everywhere exceedingly flat; here and there it is broken by little low hills, but as a rule it stretches out as a vast plain until its limits melt into the blue horizon, and there are no irregularities of the ground to hinder the advance of troops, except in two or three districts of limited extent. The country is rich, densely populated, with numerous roads and paths; intensive agriculture has accumulated wealth; meat and vegetables, wheat and beer, may be had in abundance. Innumerable villages, large and small, as well as isolated houses and farms, are scattered over the country in every direction; there are also many railways both of broad and narrow gauge; five lines come together at Ypres, five at Armentières, six at Hazebrouck, while tramways along the roads add to the network of communication. Furthermore, there are serviceable waterways: the Yser, the Lys, the canal of La Bassée. With such surroundings it certainly seems as if nothing could be easier than to move large masses of troops, to lodge, and to feed them.
And yet all this is misleading, and, in point of fact, Flanders is an impracticable country, as has been proved by the history of this and also of preceding wars. Large armies have seldom ventured on its territory, and when they have done so it has been the worse for them. As far back as when Philippe le Bel was king of France his adventurous knights came to grief in a canal near Courtrai, and farther back still we find the ponderous army of Philippe-Auguste stuck helplessly in the mud in the neighborhood of Ypres—an episode which repeated itself when the Germans were caught by the inundation of the Yser. We may also notice that the troops of Louis XIV carefully avoided going into Flanders, and that the great battles which have given Belgium its name of "the cockpit of Europe" have taken place much farther south, toward Charleroi and Waterloo.
The reason why, in spite of appearances, Flanders does not lend itself to military operations may be found in the climate and the nature of the soil and vegetation, both in the north, near Ypres, and in the plain of the Lys, to the southward. We may call the region of Ypres the country which lies between the low flooded valley of the Yser and the wide depression of the Lys, and here the surface of the ground, the nature of the soil, the climate, the houses, the growth, are all so many obstacles, not always apparent but ever present, to the successful advance of troops. In the first place, the neighborhood of Ypres is the most hilly in all Flanders. To the south and east of the town the ground rises in a series of little knolls which would be insignificant anywhere else, but gain importance here by contrast with the stretches of fiat country surrounding them. These hillocks, which all have names, such as Mount Kemmel, Wytschaete, Messines, Zonnebeke and Passchendaele, are nowhere more than four hundred and fifty feet high, sometimes not more than a hundred-and fifty; nevertheless, they are capable of presenting serious difficulties. Their sides are often steep, because of the difference in hardness of the strata of rock, clay, and sand superimposed on their slopes. Vegetation is rank and strong; the water which trickles down the sides of the hillocks cannot penetrate the underlying bed of clay; it therefore collects into shallow pools, and, favored, by this continual moisture, the slopes are thickly covered with grass and trees. As we look in one direction groups of firs stand out black in contrast to the bright green of elms; in another, hop-fields bristle with leaning poles, bound together by the tough tendrils. And by settling, naturally enough, on these pleasant heights, the inhabitants have multiplied obstructions. Private parks, with their high walls, are so many little fortresses; many villages were established there long ago for purpose of observation and defense; Messines, Hollebeke, Becelaere, names now familiar to us all, are on the top of these hillocks. It was by clinging desperately to these poor peaceful little villages, or to elevations like the famous "Hill No. 60," that the Allies were able to break the force of the German onslaughts and win the battle of Ypres. On either side of these hills, each a battle-field, the ground falls away gradually into a vast plain; its surface becomes more and more even, until it looks as if there could be nothing in the way of troops. There are, however, many obstacles, the chief being the nature of the ground. The soil in this region is formed of a bed of compact clay, from two to three hundred feet deep, through which not a drop of water can percolate. Now, it often rains in Flanders, hard and persistently, and as none of this abundant flood can filter through the clay, it remains on the surface, to settle in any little hollow and creep back over the fields and pastures. In autumn and winter especially the cultivated ground is streaked in every direction by shining lines of stagnant water. It naturally follows that the earth, constantly saturated, easily becomes mud—sticky, obstinate mud. To till such a soil requires prodigious patience; in ploughing, for instance, the labor of three men is often necessary; two bear with all their weight on the heavy handle of the plough, while the third pours water upon the share, to keep it clean and prevent it from sticking fast. In some places the laborers have to work barefoot, as shoes would only hold them fast in the slime. It is easy to see how hard it must be to move troops over such ground; it is, indeed, impossible to march across country except in very favorable conditions, as during a frost, but frosts do not last long in this mild climate, with its soft sea winds.
The soil of Flanders may be compared to a protecting genius which clings around the feet of the invader, holding him back and wearing out his strength. Life in the trenches becomes almost intolerable under such conditions; their slippery sides are perpetually giving way and sliding down; the all-pervading water, mixing with the clay, forms a tenacious paste, sometimes so deep that men have actually disappeared in it, as if caught in a quicksand. The superabundance of water has developed a lush vegetation; the inhabitants call this part of the country "Houtland," or "the land of woods." Standing alone, springing from the hedges, or planted in rows, elms, oaks, and poplars frame and shade the fields and pastures. There are so many of them that the country looks like a great glade or clearing, whose borders recede as one advances, or like the stage-setting of a woodland scene, which shifts and is reset continually.
When General Foch was about to direct the battle of Ypres, his first concern was to climb the tower of the Cloth Hall in order to get a comprehensive view of the fighting-ground, but it was of no use; the country looked like a sea of trees, in whose green depths he could make out neither roads nor villages, and as a result it was almost impossible to direct and regulate the artillery fire. The thick hedges and clusters of trees make admirable hiding-places and shelters for ambush, while behind them is still another obstacle—the houses. Everywhere there are isolated farms, tucked away in hollows and surrounded by moats or ditches made for defense in former days, and full of greenish standing water. The villages are usually planted where the winding and infrequent roads cross, and thus they command the only practicable means of communication.
So we see that in this country which seems so simple and humble, even friendly, there are difficulties which hinder the march of infantry, block the passage of artillery, hold munitions and supplies fast in the mud, and make it impossible to see, even a few yards ahead, the sort of obstruction which troops may be called upon to face.
The valley or plain of the Lys, which is the continuation of Flanders from Armentières to La Bassée, is perhaps still worse for military operations. Around Ypres it was the kingdom of trees; here it is the kingdom of water. This vast stretch of land is as low-lying as it is flat. The medium height above the sea-level is not more than fifty feet or so, and the watershed almost non-existent. The streams move sluggishly in their horizontal beds; the river Lys, which takes their waters to the sea, has only a fall of seven centimetres, or about two and three-quarter inches, to each kilometre. And there are many of these streams, for the hollow of the plain draws them from all sides—from the hills of Artois on the south, where the rains are heavy, and from the north, where the water comes down from the little Flemish hills. The soil cannot absorb even a small amount of this over-generous supply, for the formidable mass of Flemish clay still underlies it to a great depth, and there is no way of getting rid of the water which falls from the clouds, nor of that which comes down by the rivers, except by leading it, as fast as possible (and that is slowly enough), across the plain. To that end the ground is scored over with drainage ditches, little artificial streams and canals, which men have made in all directions. It is not possible to walk a mile in the fields without having to cross several of these necessary drains, and even then there are districts on the edges of the plain which it has been impossible to dry up so far, and in which nature is absolutely wild.
If the presence of all these ditches and canals is a drawback to movement across country, perhaps we shall avoid annoyance if we stick to the roads and the paved ways, or chaussées. But here again we find the ground so soft, so muddy, and so waterlogged that the roads are almost impassable. Not long ago the inhabitants of Saint Venant complained that their town was inaccessible, because the mud made approach to it impossible in wet weather, and in dry the ruts were so deep that no wheeled vehicle could venture among them without great risk of breaking down. In the end of the eighteenth century the highroad which crossed the plain, following the track of the old Roman way, was cut across half-way over by a quagmire so wide and so deep that the country people described it as "an abyss which will cost the lives of all those who try to cross it." Until about 1860 the only way which had been thought of to further the circulation of foot passengers was to bring great blocks of sandstone from Artois, and put them on either side of the roads, at a convenient distance apart as stepping-stones; and by wearing hobnails in their shoes, in order not to slip off the stones and sink up to the middle in the mire, and being further provided with long staves, to steady them in jumping from one block to another, those used to the country managed to get about.
Owing to the wretched means of communication, this region was until recently 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 Protestants of Artois were thus able to resist Spain; at a later date it was infested by bands of smugglers; and finally, in Napoleon's day, all the deserters of the neighboring districts, and those who wished to avoid military service, took shelter there. Conditions have of course greatly improved during the last fifty years. Many of the open ditches have been replaced by tiled drains, and the plain is crossed by numerous paved roads. But the roadbeds are still only middling, requiring constant repairs; the stones sink down, the mud oozes up, and wheeled conveyances are often terribly jolted.
All this accounts for the difficulty of any important military operations in such surroundings, and with such natural hindrances. The Germans seem not to have been aware of all this when they launched upon Ypres, in October, 1914, the formidable attack which was to take them to Calais but which in reality gained them only about a mile. The courage and tenacity of the Allies were certainly the principal elements by which victory was won, but it is equally certain that the obstacles which the country itself put in the way of the invader contributed greatly toward weakening his thrust. For the same reason the attack made by the English at Neuve Chapelle, in 1915, met with a check which is explained in great part by the obstructions in their way—the ditches, the gardens, the hedges, and last but not least the houses.
It is now more than two years since the war has been actively carried on in this part of Flanders. Both adversaries, convinced of the difficulty of operations on a large scale, have stood on the defensive, each side contenting itself with harassing the forces opposite, and keeping them on the alert by patrolling excursions into No Man's Land and raids upon the trenches. Abandoning their attempts where nature, apparently so mild, is in reality so stubbornly opposed to invasion, the Allied commanders have decided that it was better worthwhile to bring the weight of their military effort to bear farther to the south, in a more practicable region—Artois.
As soon as we come to the little rise which limits the plain of the Lys the scenery changes suddenly. The dense Flemish vegetation which covered the ground stops at the foot of the long ridges whose gentle slopes rise slowly toward the south. This disappearance of trees and meadows, taking place so quickly, means that we are now in a dry country. Even the streams disappear from the surface of the ground. The transformation is due to the chalk rock which forms, in Artois and in Picardy, the basis of the soil. The country also becomes less flat. Only a few kilometres from the lowest point of the hollow of the Lys the altitude is already three hundred feet, and it remains at about that figure until we reach the little hills of the lie de France.
In marked contrast to Flanders, a flat country with scattered hillocks, a heavy soil forever water-soaked, and a strong growth of trees and plants, the regions which adjoin it on its southern front are table-lands, with a dry soil and a growth which although comparatively scanty is yet fertile, because the brown top-soil which covers the chalk makes much richer loam than the thick Flemish clay. It is evident that an army will find admirable fighting-ground on these great stretches of dry earth, where there is nothing in the way of the view, where vegetation is comparatively sparse, and where the roads are good and numerous. As a result of more favorable conditions the fighting has been violent in this district ever since the end of September, 1914; the Allies have made many powerful offensive attacks, and the battle of Artois is raging there now.
This determination of the combatants not only shows that the region lends itself readily to military operations; it is also a proof of the strategic importance of Artois. On account of its heights, of which we shall speak more at length, this country commands a very wide view. It dominates Flanders; it also dominates Picardy. In the east a sort of peninsula of dry soil which juts out in the direction of Douai makes it easy to march toward the plains of the Scarpe and the Escaut, and to turn the positions of Lille and Cambrai. Moreover, we have here a great industrial region; the coal-mines of the Pas de Calais, whose possession by the Germans has been such a calamity to France. For all these reasons it is absolutely necessary that the Allies should win and hold the heights of Artois, at whatever cost. The fighting here has been very severe; whether in the north, on the platform of the Gohelle, which falls away toward the plain of the Lys; or in the centre, to gain the ridge of Vimy; or on the way to Arras toward the south, on the hills through which the valley of the Scarpe runs. To the north the ground rises, gradually at first, in an inclined plane to the southward, above the depression of the Lys, up to the ridge of Vimy.
Condé found this highland of the Gohelle, where the chalk is almost on the surface a battle-field to his taste when he conquered the Archduke Leopold of Austria near Lens, in 1648. The soil was so poor that there was but little cultivation in his day, and the villages were small and widely scattered; there was nothing to impede the free handling of troops. In the nineteenth century, however, the prolongation of the great cannel coalfields was found to lie under that barren plain, and now the largest and richest coal-mines of France are there. A new industrial life has grown up alongside of and in addition to the old, changing the landscape strangely. We see at first the buildings intended to serve the mines: machine-shops and sheds for screening the coal; high brick chimneys for the great pumps; and everywhere the metal towers in which the wheels lowering and lifting the cages of the shafts work silently. Close to these are the pit-dumps; odd little cones about a hundred feet high, the rubbish from the mines—these are the hills of the "black country."
Across the plain rolls a flood of one-story houses, built of red brick soon blackened by the smoke which hangs low above them. In them the miners and workmen live; sometimes these new houses seem to smother the old villages with the weight of their red roofs; sometimes they add to the old crooked streets new ones laid out at right angles, or else they make a village of their own, with every house in it exactly alike. The arid and empty plain of the Gohelle is full of life and industry now, and therefore not nearly so easy to fight in; modern armies find many obstructions, both offensive and defensive, due to the hand of man, where Condé had a clear field. Artillerymen use the pit-dumps as observation-posts or hide guns behind them; the infantry also finds them convenient for mitrailleuses. Each mine, each village, each group of workmen's houses is made into a fortress; mitrailleuses peep from the air-holes of cellars; batteries lurk behind the shelter of walls. A long heroic and often hand-to-hand fight must be waged before any of these fortified centres can be taken; witness the assault of Vermelles by the French early in 1915, the storming of Loos by the English in September, 1915, and the fierce fighting which has been going on lately in the outskirts of Lens. That, the English troops were successful in getting near Lens, and hi capturing the fortified agglomerations, of Liévin and Angres, was due to their haying taken by storm the ridge of Vimy, which dominates the plain of the Gohelle on the south. This was the bloodiest part of the battlefield, and where the struggle was most bitter and determined—a determination which is explained by the importance of the position. The heights of Vimy are at the southeastern extremity of the hills of Artois; little by little they become a narrow crest, the end disappearing before one reaches the Scarpe. To the northwest they form the group of Notre Dame de Lorette, which is three hundred and fifty feet above the plain of Gohelle. In order to get into the plain the French were obliged to carry this strong position, which they were only able to do after a year's hard fighting—from September, 1914, till September, 1915. Below Lorette there is a hollow in the hills, through which the Souchez brook runs, but beyond that the heights rise again to form the crest, four or five miles long, which is called the ridge of Vimy.
As the altitude of this ridge is considerable—five hundred feet on the west and three hundred and ninety on the east—it dominates the plain by three hundred and two hundred feet. The slopes are not symmetrical; on the southwest (the side where the Canadians made their heroic attack) the ascent is rather gradual; to the northeast the slope falls away abruptly to the Gohelle. The villages of Vimy and Earbus are settled at its foot. It looks as if the Canadian attack must have been comparatively easy, because they went up the more gradual slope, but in point of fact the position gave the Germans great advantage. Their batteries were established at the foot of the slope, where they were masked and protected by the debris from it, and in its side they had made large and deep shelters, strong enough to resist any bombardment, from which their men were intended to rush out as soon as the enemy's artillery attack was followed by that of his infantry. By infinite toil and patience they had made the ridge a fortress which they believed to be impregnable. What made its capture possible was the lightning speed of the Canadian attack. These splendid fighters sprang forward before the Germans had time to come out of their shelters, and in a few minutes the magnificent dash of the assailants had made them masters of this strong position, although at heavy cost. From that time conditions were reversed; the entire plain of Gohelle was within the range of the British guns, and the Germans were obliged to give up the villages at the foot of the slope and fall back across the plain, closely pushed by infantry as far as Fresnoy, Oppy, and the outskirts of Lens. Although the actual front was by that time three or four miles beyond Vimy ridge, that was still invaluable, as the English heavy artillery, strongly established there, commanded all the region lying below.
The storming of this ridge not only made it easier for the English to get nearer Lens, but also allowed them to gain ground to the east of Arras, on both banks of the Scarpe, where the series of bloody fights which are known collectively as the battle of Arras have taken place in 1917. Here the heights of Artois begin to fall away, and by insensible degrees we pass to the table-land of Picardy, a great plateau with an elevation varying from two hundred and fifty to two hundred and eighty feet, and a somewhat uneven surface. The ground has certain peculiarities which are of importance. In the first place it is cut into by the wide valley of the Scarpe, a hundred feet below the surface, with sides which are often: very steep. The valley itself is about seven or eight hundred yards across, and is full of pools, marshes, water-meadows, gardens, and large trees, while upon the slopes leading up from this somewhat too aqueous bottom there are many large villages, half hidden by the windings of the river. The table-land of Arras keeps these difficulties hidden in its depths, but there are others, more obvious, over all its surface. Here and there little hills, rather flat on top, rise to a considerable height. On the west is the Butte de Beaurains, with a telegraph-station which the British took by storm on the first day of their offensive; on the east is the hill of Monchyle-Preux, three hundred and seventy-five feet high, which raises-it at least a hundred feet above its neighborhood. On its summit was a large village, settled there because of springs. These hills represent what is left of a thick cloak of sands and clays which once covered the chalk and has been gradually worn away by the age-long action of water. Wherever this impermeable stratum has persisted hills have been formed, and the whole look of nature changes; instead of the bare surface of the porous chalk we find water, with its accompanying fields and trees. At Monchyle-Preux the water is so abundant that formerly it often overran the roads, flooded the village despite its high position, and in winter settled into large frozen pools. The little hamlet was surrounded by gardens and orchards, and at the foot of the hill some woods have managed to grow on a soil of clay and pebbles, an uncommon sight in the bare plain of Arras. These are the woods of Sart and of Vert.
This was the scene of the last great English offensive. Their General Staff had the perspicacity to see that the position of Monchy-le-Preux was of capital importance; they therefore attacked it at once, carried it, and have since held it, no matter at what cost. The Germans ensconced in the Sart and Vert woods have made at least ten terrific counterattacks in order to get it back, but all of them have failed. The once peaceful and smiling village is now only a confused heap of rubbish, but in this rubbish-heap the English soldiers stand fast and from it they dominate the country all about. Using it as a pivot, they have been able to make progress to the south, where they have taken Guémappe and Chérisy; to the north, in the winding valley of the Scarpe and along the ravines which run out from it, they have -pushed as far as Fampoux, Roeux, and Gaverelle. From there the ground falls away evenly; they can look across to where the high belfry of Douai marks the goal for which they are striving. After two years and a half of struggle and of sacrifice victory for the Allies draws near. Lens is surrounded; the ridges of Lorette and Vimy hold only British artillery; from Monchy-le-Preux General Haig's troops are only a few miles from the great flat valleys stretching out from Flanders southward. The Germans have hurriedly thrown up a line of trenches, resting on large villages from Driscourt to Quéant; these are their last footholds at the western extremity of the Artois slopes, and retreat from them will be both dangerous .and demoralizing. They are also gravely menaced from another quarter—the English army is drawing near Cambrai on its way across the fertile plains of Picardy.
To the south of the hill on which Monchy-le-Preux stands the field of battle spreads out widely. As far as we can see there is slightly rolling country, without any real elevation to break the sameness of the view; for a distance of fifty miles, to the neighborhood of Noyon and Laon, the monotonous surface of Picardy lies before us.
This old province is a wide plain, meriting perhaps the name of table-land, as it is from three to four hundred feet above sea-level. Deep valleys cut into it in several places; chiefly in the west, however, and so far most of the fighting has been in the eastern part. In the west the valley of the Somme lies a hundred and fifty feet below the surface of the upland; it is wide like that of the Scarpe and also like it full of marshes, hedges, trees, and little streams, which taken altogether amount to serious obstructions. In the east the valley in which the Escaut rises is narrower but quite as deep, and more tortuous; the river and a canal form two natural lines of defense, backed by a number of large villages which are easily fortified. Between these two valleys, however, the surface of the ground stretches out in large undulations; an occasional wide ridge has shallow ravines on either side. In going from the Somme to the Escaut we mount so gradually, and up to so wide a summit that it is hard to know when this has been gained and passed. Everything is level or gently rounded; there is nothing of any consequence to impede the movements of troops. During the battle of the Somme the English, who had started from the banks of the river and those of its tributary the Ancre, were possessed with the desire to get as far as the little undulations which marked the horizon—to the woods of Foureaux, to Ginchy and the knoll of Warlencourt.
But once there they were disappointed, for still the rolling country stretched out before them, like that which they had just come over, and nowhere could they find the commanding position which should give decided advantage to their artillery. There are no commanding positions to the south of Monchy-le-Preux; it is possible to hide in hollows, but there is no hope of finding any post of observation from which the whole of this tranquil and monotonous surface may be seen.
It must be acknowledged that this very monotony is favorable to warfare—Picardy and Champagne are the two western districts best suited for battle-grounds. In both the dryness of the soil is largely due to the underlying chalk, which cracks and disintegrates easily; water never stays long on the ground except deep down in the valleys; no sooner does it fall on the upland than it loses itself in the friable masses of the chalk. There are no rivulets and pools, no canals and drains to carry off the overflow, as we have seen in Flanders; there is no running water except occasionally after a heavy rainfall, and then it only lasts for a few days. Indeed, water is so hard to come by in Picardy that the inhabitants are obliged to make artificial pools to supply their cattle, and cisterns to catch rainwater, and also to dig wells at great expense. These wells are often very deep; on the highest parts of the land they may go down for more than three hundred feet, but usually only for about a hundred and fifty. Because of their importance they are very carefully looked after, being usually covered by a roof, and in some cases further protected by a trellis with a door which is kept padlocked; the owners of a well have the exclusive right to its water. When we see how precious good drinking-water is in this region we are better able to realize the barbarity of the Germans, who, when they were forced to retreat, took great trouble to poison all these wells in the most scientific manner.
Over this dry and level ground troops can make good headway, accompanied by their enormous supplies; in the end of August, 1914, the German army under von Klück rushed across Picardy like a river in flood.
But in this unprecedented war the means of defense have been developed and multiplied so ingeniously that they have been applied even to open country such as this, and when the English came over it in 1916 and 1917 they had to encounter many difficulties. After rain the light soil made a singularly adhesive mud, which greatly hindered the bringing up of supplies, and the qualities of the underlying chalk had allowed the Germans to provide themselves with very effective shelters. They had also utilized the occasional woods, and made each village as hard to take as a concrete fortress.
The top-soil of Picardy is of varying thickness and of recent deposit, geologically speaking, being composed of clay and sand. Rain has gradually washed it away on the steep sides of the valleys, but where the slopes are slight it has remained to some extent, and more so on the level upland, to which it brings fertility. Now this soil is rather clayey and impermeable, especially near the surface. After heavy rain the roads through it, cut up by ruts and covered by puddles, become almost impassable; those who farm the ground find that as soon as there is much dampness it becomes heavy and hard to cultivate.. The summer of 1916 was unusually damp and rainy, and the autumn simply abominable. The British troops suffered terribly; trenches soon became open drains, recalling the muddiest of muddy boyaux in Flanders. The transport of artillery, munitions, and food supplies was carried on with the utmost difficulty, over roads which had no right to the name. This was one of the chief reasons which prevented the victories of the Somme from becoming decisive; each time the infantry advanced it took so long to bring up the artillery and munitions that the enemy had time to dig himself in before the guns could come into play. If the weather had only been more merciful it is very likely that, the German retreat of March, 1917, would have happened some months sooner.
While the Allies were hampered by the soil, their adversaries found beneath it an admirable means of defense. Chalk is soft and easily worked; nothing was simpler than to dig down and make subterranean galleries and chambers. The Flemish clay was unsuitable for this purpose, but here they could bore, tunnel, and install, themselves in capacious and comfortable dugouts. They took full advantage, of their opportunity; patient and methodical, they protected themselves against the enormous shells of the heavy artillery by burrowing from twenty to twenty-five feet underground, constructing chambers that no bombardment could reach and from which they had to be driven, when the time came, by hand-grenades. In front of the original French line to the south of the Somme, in the region of Chaulnes, they had dug a tunnel several yards below the surface and two miles long; this led to their rear, and through it they were able to bring supplies to their first lines with absolute safety. As at Vimy, the infantry was supposed to lie close in these holes until the enemy's artillery-fire was over and then rush out to meet his infantry; the assailants would thus be confronted with fresh troops and also met by a withering fire from mitrailleuses and machine guns. An attack at whirlwind speed, like that of the Canadians at Vimy, was the only way to minimise this danger.
Besides going underground, the Germans had utilized every possible means of defense on its surface. Growing timber is very scarce in Picardy; the ground was so valuable for cultivation that men have cleared it remorselessly. In the early middle age the district between Arras, Cambrai, and Péronne was covered by the great forest of the Arronaise; a few remnants of this were left at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but now it has entirely disappeared. The rolling plain stretches far and wide, rarely broken by the restful shade of trees; only where the soil is poor and not worth cultivating, as on the sand and clay slopes of Monchyle-Preux, do we still find fragments of woodland. These are of great importance from a strategic point of view in such open and exposed country; consequently each wood was made a hiding-place for batteries, trenches, and depots of munitions, and to take it was a formidable enterprise, because of the dense mass of felled timber and broken branches skilfully interwoven with barbed wire. It took the English several weeks to get full possession of the Delville wood, which was not five hundred yards long; the French strained every nerve for a month before they took the wood of Saint Pierre Vaast, and in the recent advance of the English toward Escaut their greatest obstacle was the wood of Havrincourt, which for some time checked their progress in the direction of Cambrai.
If woods were few, villages were many in this rich district, which had not only an agricultural but an industrial population. These villages were large and closely crowded, for two reasons. The first was the scarcity of water; on the upland, as we have seen, wells were hard to dig and costly. The second was the value of the ground—where every foot was needed for farming, dwellings could not be allowed to take up too much room. There was usually not a tree nor a house between one village and the next; only the wide stretch of cultivated fields, with here and there an old windmill perched on a little rise, or, still more infrequently, the solid buildings of some large farm, looking almost like a little village; two of these, the Waterlot and Dupriez farms, were hotly disputed during the battle of Cambrai. In the wide rolling country between Arras and Cambrai even these were lacking; there was nothing but the open fields dotted over with villages, each with its huddled mass of roofs watched over by its church-tower.
Both sides made use of these villages in order to escape the enemy's fire, to shelter their own artillery, arid to hold back the advancing waves of an attack. The story of the battle of the Somme, and also of that which has been going on since the end of March along the line from Arras to Saint Quentin has consisted almost entirely of methodical advance from one village to the next, one after another being taken by storm in the end. The names of Contalmaison, Bazentin, Thiepval, le Transloy, Bullecourt—all humble and formerly unknown—are already part of history.
These hamlets were slightly built. The chalk of the subsoil, although easy to work, is not very solid, and frost cracks and disintegrates it; therefore most of the houses were built of earth plastered between beams of timber, the foundations only being of brick. Shells made short work of such frail constructions, but trenches were quickly dug in the mass of fallen rubbish, and the angle of each crumbling wall became a nest of mitrailleuses. Almost every house had a deep cellar hollowed out of the chalk, and these afforded excellent shelter from artillery fire; it was on account of its great cellars that the Germans were able to hold on for so long in the ruins of the chateau of Combles. Only the largest shells could penetrate these vaults, still further protected by the pile of demolished masonry over them.
Thus, even on the bare plains of Picardy, where the open country, the level surface, and the dry soil seem especially adapted for offensive operations, modern warfare has been able to create obstacles and organize defenses. With those terrible weapons, the mitrailleuse and the machine gun, with the complicated service now necessary for the support of an army, there may be said to be no ground really favorable to an assailant; it is only a question of whether it is more or less difficult. Flanders, almost waterlogged and covered with a dense vegetation, is certainly one of the most trying, and for that reason the fighting is no longer very actively carried on there; both sides await the great decision which will be made elsewhere. Artois, more open and dryer, presents the obstacles of its industrial towns, of its hills, and of its deep valley; the operations by which the English, in April and May, 1917, got the better of' these difficulties must always remain one of the most brilliant feats of arms of this stupendous war. Even peaceful Picardy is full of snares, with its clinging mud, its caverned chalk, its ambushed woods and its fortified villages. At every step on these battle-fields we find the necessity for heroism, for abnegation, and also for the most minute organization. We also find, from what the English have accomplished—and this is cheering for a nation just entering the great war—that a new army may acquire all these qualities in a short time, and through them succeed in overcoming the seasoned troops of the most militarized nation of the world.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald