from ‘Newnes' Illustrated’ July 3 1915
'the French Fight for the Labyrinth'

The Battle of the Week

a view of the trenches around the famous 'Labyrinthe' position


The French first obtained a footing in "The Labyrinth" when they stormed and took Neuville St. Vaast in the first week of May. The struggle for St. Vaast was long and bitter; it was only by the most dogged fighting that our Allies forged their way through interminable trenches defended by every species of device Teutonic ingenuity could conceive.

The enemy had constructed forts round the village, which they defended with the utmost stubbornness. It was only at last by fighting foot to foot and from house to house that the French infantry succeeded by a culminating effort in taking the position by storm. The Germans only retired when at their last extremity. They left in the hands of the victors a very large amount of material,, including fifteen machine guns, thousands of grenades, 800,000 cartridges, 1,000 rifles, and numerous boxes of explosives, equipments, and provisions in the houses of the village and in the trenches, which had been battered by a rain of shells, no less than 1,000 German dead were collected. "Never since the battle round Arras commenced had the enemy fought with such tenacity and courage, never have the French troops given better proof of their ascendancy."

This then, was the prelude to the struggle for "The Labyrinth," which was continued interruptedly for several weeks, until it was finally taken in the last week in June.


a French charge up the slopes of the hill at Notre Dame de Lorette


From the slopes of the Lorette heights, those ribbed spurs which bear so curious a resemblance to ; a melon, the soldiers of France looked across their breastworks and their strong redoubts towards the Lille plain, disfigured by innumerable chimneys and hoisting gears. The possession of this plain meant the flanking of Lens and the seizure of a railway system which would force the enemy to a long retirement. For six weeks the .grey-coated soldiers of France at enormous sacrifice, but with a wonderful galantry had been forcing back the enemy step by step; field after field had been wrested from , their grasp. Givenchy had fallen, and the irregular line was moving slowly towards the Eteral railways. On one sector the German had defended himself by successive lines of trenches which, because of their complicated character and because of the extraordinary communications which existed between them, had named for that part of their front the nickname of "The Labyrinth" — " a network of trenches and entanglements over a mile in length, defended by guns bedded in cement and covered by cupolas and mitrailleuses every fifteen yards.

This appellation had first been applied by the French airmen, who could look down and appreciate the extraordinary strength of the defence. Trenches ran in semicircles and in straight lines; these in turn were again intersected by other trenches of broad-arrow shape and by sap lines, and the whole buttressed at regular intervals by fan-shaped redoubts bristling with machine guns. At every available spot hundreds of guns manned the positions in the area of the Labyrinth — guns of every calibre and of every pattern — and in front of these seemingly impregnable trenches there were broad patches of barbed wire; not only that, all the roads leading to the Labyrinth were mined. It is hardly possible to conceive what that defence signified.

Let us go up with an airman and watch from a height of 6,000 feet the attack as it developed. It is not a pleasant journey to take. Long before the airman has reached a safety range the shells of the anti-aircraft guns are bursting about him. Presently he has circled into the clear blue, and whilst the pilot keeps his eye open for the flash of the "archies" — as the anti-aircraft gun is called — the observer looks down upon a cup-like depression in which the whole land seems to lie. There is little of the Labyrinth to be seen. A haze of smoke caused by the bursting shells from the French "75's" hangs over the trenches. The dark green woods to the west are fringed with flickering flame as these guns come up into action, and the sound which rises to the airman is terrible in its intensity and in its suggestion of horrible force.

Presently the artillery fire ceases as at a signal, and clear against the growing green on the outer edge of the German position clouds of French grey-coats come swarming from the cover of wood, rise as by magic from their earthy trenches, and sweep, slowly, as it seems from this distance, but in reality with extraordinary rapidity, across the fire-swept zone. Onward comes this rush in little knots of men ; it seems to be brought to a standstill of a sudden, as though some invisible line was holding it back. That line is the line of entanglements, compelling a momentary halt where men go dropping to their death, not singly, but by hundreds; it is cruel waiting whilst the last strands of barbed wire which have resisted the bombardment are severed.


left : communication trench leading to 'the Labyrinth'
right : French infantryman in the trenches


At last the work is done; a charging line of men go through — it is only a matter of a minute — and then it breaks forward, patchily, flowing into the trenches, and from the height the sun is reflected upon a thousand gleaming needles as the bayonet gets home to its work. And now well to the rear the German guns have shortened their range, and with a rapidity which is almost beyond belief are flinging their explosive shells upon the first line of trench which the French have carried.

Now the observer sees the Germans go streaming back by a hundred cunning ways, along communicating saps which are immediately close behind them with barbed wire doors and protected by the frantic fire of Maxim guns. Now he sees the French in little groups racing through the passages of the Labyrinth, and sees the burst of flame where their hand-grenades drive home.

Thus were the first lines of the Labyrinth taken by the sheer dogged valour of the attacker, by the ample and generous help of the French artillery, by the individual heroism of men who, fearless of consequence, went straight at their enemy, grenade in hand, and, face to face with their foe, flung bomb after bomb into his midst, and did not cease until he was shot down.

Even as the French reached the first line the observer in the air saw great masses of earth springing up as though shot from an invisible gun, saw the clouds of smoke and the tiny living specks which stood for men, as now in the rear the Germans fired the mines which were under the first line of trenches.

He saw the French reserves come flocking from the woods, from the roads and gullies to the west; watched them moving forward under the cover of ruined factories and slag heaps ; saw a hundred little Homeric fights which were waged all along the line. Then surged forward yet more thousands of soldiers, and in these narrow passages knots of men were locked together in combat. The observer saw, too, from the third line of trenches a yellowish-white cloud rise like a miasma and drift towards the trench line which the French still held, and which they were now feverishly engaged in organising for defence. He saw the German poison gases roll toward their appointed place, and, best of all, he saw the change of wind which sent the gas clouds curling back to the place from whence they had come.

Slowly the French line was moving forward. By ruined wall, by battered trench and slag heap, in little wood, and on grassy slope the attacker was appearing until he stretched like a line of grey beads across the enemy front.

This struggle for the Labyrinth marked a vital stage in the French advance. Not till June 17 did they succeed in completely possessing the Labyrinth, the struggle for which had begun on May 9. It was one of the most remarkable achievements which have been seen upon the Western front.

The French endured losses of a very serious character. They were, in a sense, at the mercy, of their enemy, for they were attempting the apparently impossible. That they should succeed was not only a tribute to the intelligence of their leading, but added yet another glory to their honoured colours


street-fighting in Neuville Saint-Vaast


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