Battle of la Bassee

The Battle of La Bassée of World War 1

The Battle of La Bassée was fought by German and Franco-British forces in northern France in October 1914, during reciprocal attempts by the contending armies to envelop the northern flank of their opponent, which has been called the Race to the Sea.

The German 6th Army took Lille before a British force could secure the town and the 4th Army attacked the exposed British flank further north at Ypres.

The British were driven back and the German army occupied La Bassée and Neuve Chapelle.

Around 15 October, the British recaptured Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée but failed to recover La Bassée.

German reinforcements arrived and regained the initiative, until the arrival of the Lahore Division, part of the Indian Corps.

The British repulsed German attacks until early November, after which both sides concentrated their resources on the First Battle of Ypres.

The battle at La Bassée was reduced to local operations.

In late January and early February 1915, German and British troops conducted raids and local attacks in the Affairs of Cuinchy, which took place at Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée and just south of La Bassée Canal, leaving the front line little changed.

By 6 October, the French needed British reinforcements to withstand German attacks around Lille. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had begun to move from the Aisne to Flanders on 5 October and reinforcements from England assembled on the left flank of the Tenth Army, which had been formed from the left flank units of the Second Army on 4 October.

The Allies and the Germans attempted to take more ground, after the “open” northern flank had disappeared, Franco-British attacks towards Lille in October, being followed up by attempts to advance between the BEF and the Belgian army by a new French Eighth Army.

The moves of the German 7th and then the 6th Army from Alsace and Lorraine had been intended to secure German lines of communication through Belgium, where the Belgian army had sortied several times from the National redoubt of Belgium, during the period between the Franco-British retreat and the Battle of the Marne.

In August British marines had landed at Dunkirk. In October a new German 4th Army was assembled from the III Reserve Corps, the siege artillery used against Antwerp and four of the new reserve corps training in Germany.

Flanders terrain

Flanders Plain: Belgium and northern France, 1914
The North-east of France and south-west Belgium are known as Flanders.

West of a line between Arras and Calais in the north-west, lie chalk downlands covered with soil sufficient for arable farming.

To the east of the line, the land declines in a series of spurs into the Flanders plain, bounded by canals linking Douai, Béthune, Saint-Omer and Calais.

To the south-east, canals run between Lens, Lille, Roubaix and Courtrai, the Lys river from Courtrai to Ghent and to the north-west lay the sea. 

The plain is almost flat, apart from a line of low hills from Cassel, east to Mont des Cats, Mont Noir, Mont Rouge, Scherpenberg and Mont Kemmel.

From Kemmel, a low ridge lies to the north-east, declining in elevation past Ypres through Wytschaete, Gheluvelt and Passchendaele, curving north then north-west to Dixmude where it merged with the plain.

A coastal strip about 10 miles (16 km) wide was near sea level and fringed by sand dunes.

Inland the ground was mainly meadow, cut by canals, dykes, drainage ditches and roads built upon causeways. The Lys, Yser and upper Scheldt had been canalised and between them, the water level underground was close to the surface, rose further in the autumn and filled any dip, the sides of which then collapsed.

The ground surface quickly turned to a consistency of cream cheese and on the coast, troops were confined to roads, except during frosts.

The rest of the Flanders Plain was woods and small fields, divided by hedgerows planted with trees and cultivated from small villages and farms.

The terrain was difficult for infantry operations because of the lack of observation, impossible for mounted action because of the many obstructions and difficult for artillery because of the limited view. South of La Bassée Canal around Lens and Béthune was a coal-mining district full of slag heaps, pit-heads (fosses) and miners’ houses (corons). North of the canal, the city of Lille, Tourcoing and Roubaix formed a manufacturing complex, with outlying industries at Armentières, Comines, Halluin and Menin, along the Lys river, with isolated sugar beet and alcohol refineries and a steelworks near Aire-sur-la-Lys.

Intervening areas were agricultural, with wide roads on shallow foundations and unpaved mud tracks in France and narrow pavé roads, along the frontier and in Belgium. In France, the roads were closed by the local authorities during thaws to preserve the surface and marked by Barrières fermėes, which were ignored by British lorry drivers.

The difficulty of movement after the end of summer absorbed much local labour on road maintenance, leaving field defences to be built by front-line soldiers.

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