- from the War Illustrated Deluxe volume III page 827
- 'The Triumph of Young France at Carency'
The Great Episodes of the War
dead soldiers in the ruins of Carency village
At the opening of the spring campaign the position of the German armies in North- Eastern France was very strong. For, although they had failed to capture Calais the previous autumn, they had then occupied, with their superior forces, all the best positions from Ypres to the Aisne. In particular they held, about twelve miles south of our trenches near La Bassee, a series of fortified heights, which they converted during the winter into a new "Gibraltar." General Maud'huy's Tenth Army vainly tried to work its way through by sap, mine, and night attack. The German front seemed impregnable. And the galling thing about it was that it assured the enemy's conquest of the neighbouring coal-mining district of Lens, and deprived France of the resources of her richest industrial region.
The German defences consisted of a range of hills about four hundred feet high, running by the villages of Carency and Ablain, and ending northward in a spur, 607 feet high, crowned by the chapel of Notre Dame de Lorette. Behind this line of heights was another ridge of about the same height, also extending north and south, by the villages of Souchez and Neuville St. Vaast. The last village was only about two miles from the wreck of the city of Arras, which was the centre of General Maud'huy's operations. The French troops were entrenched in the western valleys, beneath the guns of the German fortressed ridges, and their position seemed the most hopeless of any section of the allied lines. The German trenches above them were cut out of the chalk-hills, and strengthened by concrete and armour-plate, upon which ordinary howitzer shells made no impression.
But when our troops were storming the German lines north of Neuve Chapelle, the German General at Carency felt so confident of his strength that he sent reinforcements against the British troops. Thereupon General Maud'huy attacked, and in spite of the sweeping fire of the enemy's machine-guns and howitzers, the Zouaves and Chasseurs won a footing in the middle of March, 1915, on the eastern slopes of Notre Dame de Lorette. The amount of ground gained was insignificant, as was the case in all these preliminary trials of strength. But the military importance of the footing obtained on the dominating spur of the German stronghold was perceived by General Joffre.
Stupendous Preparations in Secret
For seven weeks the French Staff fed the Ninth Army secretly with shells, howitzers, and young recruits. A store of something like a hundred thousand of the heaviest high-explosive shells was collected, and many thousands of newly-trained lads were drafted into the companies of Zouaves and Chasseurs, to the mutual delight of the hairy veterans and the smooth-faced, untried boys of nineteen and twenty years of age. As at Neuve Chapelle, all this work of preparation was disguised from spies and hostile airmen, and by Saturday, May 8th, the strength of the Ninth Army had been increased by an additional hundred thousand bayonets, and perhaps another thousand guns.
Then at dawn on Sunday the First British Army, under Sir Douglas Haig, operating some twenty miles northward, made a fierce attack upon the Aubers ridge, in front of Lille. Our troops almost carried the ridge by storm, but a lack of shells for our heavy guns defeated us of a greater success than had been won at Neuve Chapelle. As it was, only the expected happened. Prince Rupert of Bavaria collected every possible German soldier available along the line against us, borrowing all the troops he could from General von Buelow's army that faced General Maud'huy's force. At the same time there was a raging battle still farther northward at Ypres, which helped to keep the Germans fully employed.
When the enemy was stretched out to his full strength in a desperate fight raging all along the Yser down to La Bassee, General Maud'huy began to bombard the hill of Notre Dame de Lorette with unexpected and tremendous fury. Hitherto, we had held the record for overwhelming artillery fire at Neuve Chapelle. But the French completely beat us on this glorious Sunday morning.
The infantry attack that followed extended along a front of ten miles, from a point close to Vermelles, near the La Bassee Canal, to a point east of Neuville St. Vaast, four miles north of Arras. Some hundreds of thousands of French soldiers charged with the bayonet. They found that nearly all the German wire entanglements in front of them had been destroyed by their magnificent artillery. On the other hand, many of the enemy's machine-gun shelters were still intact. But nothing could stop the French troops.
Two battalions of the line headed the charge, mostly formed of the youngest recruits. They met with no resistance at the first line of the German defences; for all the trenches had been blown up. But in the second and third lines the Bavarians held their ground and fought gamely. The youngest soldiers of France rushed the machine-guns, at no matter what loss, emptied their magazines into the crowded trenches, and then jumped in and fought with the bayonet. By the time the Chasseurs hurried up to reinforce them they had won the height, and when the German guns on the other ridge tried to shell them out they took cover in the holes made by the artillery fire from both sides, and then swept down the other slope in pursuit of the foe.
Great Dash of Young Frenchmen
Meanwhile their comrades were equally successful to the south. About four miles north of Arras, the village of La Targette was first wiped out by artillery fire, and then stormed by a French division. La Targette commanded cross-roads leading towards Carency, Souchez, and Neuville St. Vaast. The last village was attacked at three o'clock the same afternoon. It was a nest of houses and orchards, concealing a large hostile force with many machine-guns and trench mortars. Every building was loop- holed, and every cellar had been made into a covered trench. House by house the indomitable Frenchmen advanced, while another French force began to carry Carency in a similar manner.
The only difficulty was with the youngest French troops. They wanted to do everything with the bayonet and the bullet, and somewhat like our Australians in the Dardanelles they could not be held back. General Maud'huy, on the other hand, had planned a great victory with comparatively little loss to his men; and when the young troops had been checked in the evening by the enemy's machine-guns, the General's scheme was carried out. Instead of trying to take Carency by a frontal attack the French brigades closed round it from cast and west, until there only remained a ravine, near the village of Ablain, connecting the German garrison at Carency with its main forces at Vimy.
In the wooded ravine were communication trenches, which were slowly gained by fierce, incessant fighting on May nth. Having entirely enveloped Carency, the Trench General wasted no more men, but brought all his guns to bear on the enemy, who held a hill and a quarry by the village. In the afternoon both the hill and the quarry were stormed, and at half-past five a line of waving handkerchiefs appeared on the German trenches, and all the Germans who remained aliveabout a thousand of them surrendered.
In the night the last German position of Ablain was set on fire by the French artillery, and then stormed. Thus ended the most remarkable episode of the great war in the west since the repulse of the great German offensive at Ypres in the autumn of 1914.
pages from a British newsmagazine
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