from 'The War Illustrated' 19th October, 1918
'The Flanders Battlefields'
by Hamilton Fyfe


Men and Cities of the War

a view from atop Mount Kemmel


Flanders has always meant to me, ever since I was quite a small boy reading of Marlborough's battles, and how Henry the Eighth called Anne of Cleves a "Flanders mare," and how Ben Jonson "trailed a pike in the Low Countries" - Flanders has since then always meant to me a flat landscape cut by sluggish streams and canals, with a grey sky overhead, heavily-built horses on the roads, tidy cottages, windmills, trim little towns, each with its manifold memories and traditions of war.

The first time I drove over the canal bridge outside the old French city of St. Omer and found myself in Flanders I recognised its familiar features at once.

Nowhere have I experienced so sudden a change from one country to another as that which one notices directly one has crossed that canal bridge near St. Omer. For a long way on the road to Ypres one remains in France. This is French Flanders. The frontier which divides France from Belgium is not passed until Poperinghe is near at hand. But racially and historically, there is one country on the St. Omer side of the canal and another country across it. Landscape, language, inhabitants' looks and characters, style of building, drinking habits (schnapps in place of wine), methods of cultivation - everything is changed.

An Alpine "Pimple"

Frontiers are mostly artificial, but here is one established by Nature in the character of the soil. The two races dwell together in harmony, but they are races apart. Flanders has kept its personality undimmed.

Even the look of the country has been little altered. I suppose the town of Cassel, for example, looked when Queen Anne was alive and when Napoleon was trying to subdue Europe, and when Benjamin Disraeli stayed there, not much before the middle of last century, just about what it looks to-day. Cassel is an oddity. It is on the top of a hill which stands up like a big pimple on the plain. It is about as high as Hampstead or Highgate, but upon the natives of flat Flanders it produces the impression of an Alp. An officer friend of mine, rather a famous Alpine climber, who was up there for some time during the chilly fall of 1917, said one day to the old lady in whose house he was billeted, "How cold it is up here, madame," to which she replied gravely, "Mais, monsieur, dans les montagnes il fait toujours froid " (In the mountains it is always cold !). He was tactful enough not to smile.

In Cassel the British war correspondents fixed their headquarters during the deplorable autumn campaign over the muddy fields of Flanders in 1917. There has been no fighting more difficult or more hideously uncomfortable or, as it turned out, more barren of advantage, during the whole of the war. After that the town sank back into its usual sleepy state, except for the presence of a corps staff there, until the Germans began to push hard in Flanders last April and May. There is a vastly pleasant little hostel in Cassel which served as a barometer for the conditions of fighting in that region. If you stopped there to dine and found only a few tables occupied, you knew that the tide of invasion was "out." When the dining-room was crowded and every room taken, and the square outside filled with military motor-cars, and the hotel yard noisy at 7 a.m. with officers' chargers being groomed, then the tide was coming in.

"The Hill Must be Held"

Rapidly it came in during the latter days of April. The people of Cassel began to go about with puckered foreheads and anxious eyes. The hotel belongs to a Frenchman who was away fighting as a cavalry officer with the French Army. Madame and her young daughters kept it going. Pretty, charming women, musical, well-educated, well-read, they attended late and early to the business of the house, provided capital meals, had a smile for everybody, and gave musical evenings after locking-up time; which to art-starved soldiers and correspondents were a godsend indeed. Now they were advised to make their escape in good time, not to wait till the last moment.

They laughed and said they had no fear - which was true - and that they felt sure Cassel would not be taken. General Foch had been up there ; he had said that the hill must be held. That was enough for them.

There was certainly every intention to hold Cassel, for in the enemy's hands it would have awkwardly embarrassed the Allies. From the top of what in peace time was a casino, where the dwellers in the plain used to enjoy "mountain air" and "little horses," or "Boule," you could on a clear day make out the North Sea. The hill commanded the whole country for at least twenty miles each way. I used to go up there at night to see how active the guns were and what were the prospects of a German attack in the early morning. There came a time when the continuous flashes formed more than a semicircle of fire round Cassel.

This was the time when by day the enemy bombarded the Mont des Cats. The Cats were a tribe who were active against the Romans. I think they are mentioned by Caesar in his "Commentaries." Upon the hill which bears their name stood a vast Trappist monastery, where hundreds of religious men lived and tilled the soil in piety and perpetual silence.

Bombardment on Kemmel

When the Germans drove us northward over the ridge which runs from Neuve Eglise to Bailleul they began shelling the Mont, and the monks stood not upon the order of their going. One sunny morning I met the poor old Father Superior, he showed me the chapel badly damaged and his own room ruined by a shell. "I am the only one left," he said. "What do you think, monsieur ? Ought I to go, too ?" I said he had better leave at once, and I am sure he blessed me for the advice.

That same day a shell took the top off the old stone windmill on the summit of the Mont des Cats. Each of the hills - Black Hill, Red Hill, Sharp Hill - which continue the range as far as Kemmel, had a windmill upon it. From Kemmel the ground dropped down to a level plain again. All these five hills served as defences for Cassel. So long as they resisted, the landlady and her daughters were confident and gay.

Then one day Kemmel fell. That was a staggering blow. I had been up there a few days before. The French had just taken it over. They were a fine lot, and they seemed to me to have strong positions. The whole place was like a rabbit warren, tunnelled and hollowed into caves, where the garrison could be secure from the enemy's guns. There was a heavy half-hour's bombardment while I was up there, but no one was killed or even hurt. We all "went to ground."

From a spacious dug-out on the side of a hill I watched shells exploding in a ploughed field below, and chatted with the officers of a Lancashire battalion, who paid no more attention to the shelling than if it had been a shower of rain. The French colonel, a distinguished soldier of the very finest type - intellectual, forceful, urbane - gave me the impression of having the situation well in hand. Yet in a few days Kemmel was German, the French colonel a prisoner, the Lancashire Fusiliers nearly all gone.

The Turning Point

Now madame and mesdemoiselles of the inn at Cassel began at last to pack up. But before they had locked their trunks the situation changed. The Germans took Kemmel on a Thursday. On the following Monday they tried to follow up their success by taking the other hills. This time they were badly beaten. All day they stormed our positions, but every wave of them was broken up and hurled back. At some points the enemy's, concentrations of troops were smashed before their attacks could be started. This happened on the high bank of the Kemmel Beek. ("Beek" is Flemish for brook ; compare the Scottish "beck.") Here there were some tin huts left by us. The German plan was to collect their storm-troops in these huts, then rush them down to the brook and up the other side.

But on the other side - a high bank also - there were men of the Border Regiment, belonging to the 25th Division. These kept up such a hot and well-directed fire from their Lewis and other machine-guns that the Germans never reached the brook.

That day - Monday, April 29th - was the turning-point of the German offensive in Flanders. They gained no more ground after this. It was also the saving of Cassel. Madame and the young ladies were not advised to leave any more. They unpacked their trunks, and the hotel prospered more greatly than ever. Now that the tide has rolled right back, now that Kemmel is in Allied possession once more, Cassel has recovered its old quietness and confidence. I recollect an old woman, who cut hair and shaved asking me tremulously one day in April if it was true that the Germans would soon be there. I did not feel at all sure about it, but I boldly laughed at her fears. I am glad of that memory. The old lady will always think of me gratefully as "l'anglais qui savait bien " - the Englishman who knew.


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