The Lys

On 7 April 1918 the German 6th Army launched the second part of Ludendorff's strategic plan. Originally named George it had been watered down enough for it to have been re-named Georgette.

The objective was Ieper.

In a swinging blow the 6th Army would break the Allied Line under Armentières whilst the 4th Army would attack Ieper in an encircling move from the north.

Sometimes known as the 4th Battle of Ypres, it is more correctly termed the Battle of the Lys.

The Portuguese

The first blow fell at Neuve Chapelle on 9 April 1918 against the 2nd Portuguese Division.

The Portuguese Expeditionary Corps The Portuguese Expeditionary Corps

Alongside and in support, the British Divisions in the sector had all been involved in Operation Michael on the Somme and had been sent north to rest and take on new recruits. Thus many Battalions were tired, under strength and with a high percentage of untried raw recruits.

At 04:15 hours the German bombardment began. The fire plan was orchestrated by the same Colonel Bruchmüller who had helped make such terrifying punctures in the British lines on the Somme.

The Portuguese Cemetery

The Portuguese Cemetery


At 08:00 hours he added trench mortars to his ensemble and 45 minutes later, four German Divisions made up of well trained and rested assault troops threw themselves at the Portuguese lines.

The Portuguese had already started to retire in the face of the bombardment and apart from a few isolated positions gave the Germans no opposition at all. Within the hour the front line was taken along with 6 000 prisoners.

Struggling to keep pace with the hole that had formed in their line the British were also soon on the retreat.

The following day with the advance of the German 6th Army continuing, the British were forced to give up Armentières and Bailleul would fall on the 15th despite a stout defence.

Realising that resistance was weakening Ludendorff decided that the time was ripe to increase the scope of Operation Georgette and to commit his reserves. The British looked as though they could be broken.

Backs to the wall

With the situation turning desperate, General Haig issued his Order of the Day to the British Army.

There is no other course open to us but to fight it out ! Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end.

Haig's requests to Foch for full scale assistance fell on deaf ears. The new Commander in Chief was by no means convinced that the attack in Flanders was the German's last effort and he was determined to be prepared with sufficient reserves for the next blow.

He did however make two Divisions available to General Plumer's 2nd Army and moved General Maistre's Army up into the Authie Valley around Doullens to rebuff any breakthrough should the British give way.

In fact although the British were forced to alter their line they were making the German advance pay dearly for every metre of territory gained. Haig remained terribly concerned that all his reserves were being committed and again asked Foch to have the French take on part of his line. Foch remained firm to his convictions that this battle on the Lys was nothing more than a huge diversion in preparation for something more solid elsewhere.

The Australians at Merris

The Australians of their 1st Division had begun to move south on 8 April in order to support the situation on the Somme, but with the opening of the Battle of the Lys found themselves in the thick of the fighting near Merris and Méteren.

The town of Hazebrouck behind them was an extremely important supply route in this region. If it fell the British lines of communication would be seriously disrupted.

On the morning of 14 April 1918 the Germans launched an attack against the Mont de Merris which was held and commanded by Lieutenant Christopher Champion of the 3rd Bn AIF.

The Germans advanced in waves so dense that the Australians said that they could hardly miss their targets.

A farm just in front of the Australians called Gutzer Farm was taken by the Germans and this allowed them to fire from the flanks against Champion's men.

At 10:30 hours having beaten off the German attack Champion decided to try and push them out of Gutzer Farm, ordering Lt Prescott forward with his platoon. Prescott managed to drive the Germans out of the farm but realised that he couldn't hold the position due to the machine gun fire from all sides.

Having lost a number of men including Corporal Ernie Corby by sniper fire he retired.

Throughout the afternoon the Germans tried to press Champion and his men but each time they let the enemy get close and then riddled their waves with bullets, driving them off each time. A lull developed until 19:00 hours when a final effort by the Germans was also beaten off.

Sadly after his determined stand throughout the day, Champion was hit in the head by a bullet and fell.

Neither Lt Champion or Cpl Corby were found on the battlefield for burial, until 85 years later in 2003 when a farmer found the remains of four Australian soldiers.

Outtersteene Cemetery Outtersteene Cemetery

Two were identified, and at last Christopher Champion and Ernie Corby were given proper burials in Outtersteene Cemetery not far from where they had fallen.

On 16 April Méteren and Wijtschate fell and the Germans came to the foot of Mont Kemmel.


The First Battle of Kemmel The First Battle of Kemmel