- from the War Illustrated, 11th May, 1918
- 'The Epic Battles for the Hills'
- by Lovat Fraser
Battle Pictures of the Great War
two pages with views of the battlefields near Mount Kemmel
The outstanding events in the great conflict in France and Flanders during the week which ended on Sunday, April 28th, were the loss of Mont Kemmel in the north and the brilliant repulse of the Germans before Amiens in the south. On the balance of the week's fighting the Allies had every reason to be satisfied with the results, though the fall of Mont Kemmel was naturally deplored.
In the week we are discussing there was no general resumption of the offensive by the Germans. The first two days, April 22nd and 23rd, passed comparatively quietly on the whole front. On Wednesday, April 24th, the enemy began two very fierce local battles in which they employed large forces. The northern action consisted of a converging attack on Mont Kemmel on a front of several miles. The southern action, which was fought within eleven miles of Amiens, consisted of an attack on the large village of Villers- Bretonneux, south of the Somme, held by British troops, and on the adjacent village of Hangard, held by the French.
Mont Kemmel is perhaps the best-known spot on the whole British front. The plain of Flanders is broken in this region by a line of heights and ridges running west and east and finally curving northwards towards the sea. The western extremity of this low range is formed by the isolated hill of Cassel, crowned by the quaint old town from which, on a clear day, you may descry the sands of Ostend.
The Flanders Hills
Next comes the main group of hills, beginning with the Mont des Cats, famous for its monastery, and ending- with the Scherpenberg. Then follows Mont Kemmel, another comparatively isolated hill about 512 feet high. Cassel and Mont Kemmel stand apart like massive sentinels, one at each end of the main range.
East of Mont Kemmel the ground falls low and rises again into the Messines Ridge, which curves eastward of Ypres and then northward into all those low bloodstained ridges which extend through Veldhoek and Passchendaele, to sink almost to sea-level at Staden.
I am describing these hills in some detail because we are going to hear a great deal about them in the next few weeks. Mont Kemmel was the most famous of them all, perhaps because, from the military point of view, it was the most valuable. Four years ago it was thickly clothed with trees, and .at its summit there was a splendid belvedere, where picnic-parties from Lille were wont to pay a penny a head to look at the view. By some strange chance the "Montagne de Kemmel," as the people of the neighbourhood proudly called it, suffered very little damage in the early days of the war.
From Mont Kemmel you could obtain a more extensive view than anywhere else on the front. You looked northward into Ypres and far beyond towards Zonnebeke and Passchendaele. Southeastward you looked over the plain at the spires and tall chimneys, of Lille, which seemed astonishingly near. You gazed downwards at the low Messines Kidge and, what is more important just now, you completely overlooked Dickebusch. Lake and Ridge Wood and Voormezeele, and certain, other spots towards Ypres where our brave troops dug themselves in after Mont Kemmel fell. One noticeable thing was that, except on its eastward face, the woods on Mont Kemmel were not destroyed until the week when it was assaulted.
Attack in Mist
When General Foch decided to send reinforcements to the northern battle he placed some of his best veteran troops on and around Mont Kemmel, and his men swore that they would hold it to the last. The hill was taken, but they nobly redeemed their vow. The Germans began during the night of Wednesday, April 24th, to smother the height with gas-shells, which is now their almost invariable preliminary to a big attack. They were already across the little River Douve, south of the height, while at the village of Dranoutre, to the south-west, they were pressing into the depression which separates Mont Kemmel from the main group. Their further object, however, was to envelop Mont Kemmel from its northern side, and to this end masses of troops were swarming over the centre of the Messines Ridge just south of Wytschaete before daybreak. Once more they had the advantage of a thick mist, for during the last week in April all this low Flanders country was shrouded in a dank, clammy fog in the early hours. The Royal Scots were in the lower ground between the Messines Ridge and Mont Kemmel, and in the dim dawn the Germans were among them almost before they realised their presence.
Farther north the Camerons and other fine units of our splendid 9th Division were forced from their last remaining foothold on the ridge north of Wytschaete, and the British line, pivoting on the Ypres-Comines Canal, swung back towards Vierstraat and Voormezeele. But, meanwhile, Mont Kemmel had been enveloped by the advancing hordes, and though there was much hand-to-hand fighting in the village of Kemmel, which stands below the height to the north-east, the Germans were clustering all round the lower slopes by 9 a.m. on Thursday, April 25th. The French garrison withdrew towards the summit, and sold their lives dearly. All that day the fate of Mont Kemmel was still in some doubt.
Desperate Contest at Locre
At noon a lonely British airman, swooping downwards through the mist, saw blue uniforms among the shattered trees near the crest, and reported that the garrison was still holding out. Not until late on the Friday evening did Great Britain and France learn that the famous hill had passed into the hands of the enemy. The probability is that the Germans had completely conquered it by noon on the Thursday. They claimed over six thousand prisoners, mostly French, but their boasts about prisoners have frequently been falsified. It was afterwards announced that from 6 a.m. the Kaiser in person watched the assault on Mont Kemmel from "an advanced field position."
Our Higher Command were as resolute as ever after Mont Kemmel fell. On Friday and Saturday, April 26th and 27th, every bit of ground on. this local battle-front was desperately contested, and it was clear that General Foch did not mean to yield a single foot of the .road to the Channel ports except under force of anr s. In the dip between Mont Kemmel and, the next height, Mont Rouge, stood the village of Locre, on rising ground under the hill, and within a few hundred yards of the Belgian frontier. Locre had a prominent church-tower, and round it, in the old days, numbers of our troops were hutted. Four times on that grim Friday the Germans attacked Locre, and only at the fourth attempt did they succeed in capturing the village. They held it for a few hours, but in the night the French rushed the place under cover of darkness. At dawn on Saturday Locre was once more in French hands. Again the Germans recaptured it. The indomitable French poured in gas-shells, attacked in their gas-masks, drove the enemy out, and were still proudly holding Locre when night fell on Sunday, April 28th.
The British line farther north, just within our old Ypres salient, had very similar experiences. Just east of Dickebusch Lake is a little coppice known as Ridge Wood, and a little beyond lies the remnant of the village of Voormezeele, which is three thousand yards from the heaps of rubble which once were Ypres.
While the French were fighting at Locre, other German divisions attacked our men at Voormezeele and Ridge Wood, and in all the low ground just south of the lake. They attacked in vain, for the advance was shattered, and the British were officially said to have captured hundreds of prisoners. On the afternoon of Saturday, April 27th, the Germans again moved on Voormezeele in great masses, and this time they won the village. During the night our men made a vigorous counter-attack and thrust them out headlong, and throughout the pause which followed on Sunday, April 28th, the British stuck to Voormezeele, just as the French clung to Locre. So matters stood, when at daybreak on Monday, April 29th, the Germans opened their great attack on a ten-mile front, from Meteren to the outskirts of Ypres, with the evident hope of carrying all the hills in one vast sweep.
I have dwelt so long on these epic encounters around Mont Kemmel that I can only make the briefest allusion to the local battle on Wednesday and Thursday, April 24th and 25th, at Villers-Bretonneux and Hangard, before Amiens. Yet this battle in the south was a heartening victory for British arms, for though at first we lost Villers-Bretonneux and the high ground to the north on the Wednesday, a mixed force of Anzacs and Old Country troops made a most daring counter-attack at ten o'clock the same night, fought all through the small hours, won back the village and the whole of the line, and took nearly a thousand prisoners. Though the French lost Hangard, they inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy, and the smashing of the German spearhead before Amiens was believed by many to be more important than the loss of Mont Kemmel. In any case, it was a very fine exploit.
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