Orchard Dump
Webmatters : The Battle of the Lys 1918 (4th Ypres)

The Lys

The opening Blows

By the end of 1917 it was evident to the German High Command (Though not necessarily to Kaiser Wilhelm II himself) that the entry of the United States into the war on the side of the Allies would mean that eventually the German Army would be outnumbered.

The Americans never considered themselves as Allies blaming the intricate European alliances for having created the war in the first place. That said, on this site, I treat them as part of the Allied forces.

Following the October Revolution in Russia (In November by the way, because Russia had not changed to the Western Gregorian system) Germany was given the straw of a chance.

The treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Lenin’s Russian government on 3rd March 1918 freed up 700,000 German soldiers. Troops that were far more accustomed to a war of movement than their counterparts in the trench bound stalemate to the west.

The German commander : Ludendorff realised that he could not beat the Allies in one single, massive battle, so he put together a strategy of major assaults across the entire western front. These assaults would be led by what we have come to call : Stoßtruppen (Shock troops or Storm Troopers).

Hardened soldiers would be specifically trained in the arts of fire and manoeuvre, to move swiftly against the enemy and then press on, leaving the regular troops to mop up and consolidate behind them. The enemy would not get the chance to recuperate.

The following orders issued by Lieutenant F Bethune on 13th March 1918 to No 1 Section of the Australian 3rd Machine Gun Company have passed into folklore, but are worth quoting all the same.

The position they were to hold was in the area of the Spoil Bank near Hill 60 at Zillebeke. Note that this was before Ludendorff opened his campaign on the Somme. A battle was known to be in the air, but where was always the question.

  1. This position will be held, and the Section will remain here until relieved.
  2. The enemy cannot be allowed to interfere with this programme.
  3. If the Section cannot remain here alive it will remain here dead, but in any case it will remain here.
  4. Should any man through shell shock or other cause attempt to surrender he will remain here dead.
  5. Should all guns be blown out, the Section will use Mills grenades and other novelties.
  6. Finally, the position as stated will be held.

Bethune and his men survived their term in the line, and he is known to have survived the war to return to Tasmania.

Operation Michael

On 21st March 1918 Ludendorff launched Germany’s last gambit — the Kaiserschlacht or Kaiser’s Battle.

The first part : Operation Michael, smashed against the British on the Somme driving them back ever closer towards Paris.

For a moment there was panic in the air as the British decided to defend the coastal ports and the French rallied to save Paris. A supreme commander was needed to coordinate the movements of the Allies to contain the breach and avoid nationalistic strategies.

At Doullens on 26th March 1918 the French général Ferdinand Foch was given overall command at an historic meeting in the town hall.

The hills along the frontier

The Kemmelberg - Mont Kemmel

The Kemmelberg — Mont Kemmel

To the south and west of Ieper are a number of high hills, including the Kemmelberg (Mont Kemmel), Mont Noir (Zwarteberg) and the Mont des Cats (Identified today by its abbey and massive aerial).

It was reasoned that if the Germans could take these hills that the British would be forced to relinquish Ieper.

For those who have never seen this part of the frontier between France and Belgium, it is almost flat except for these great hills — Flanders actually means: the flooded land. Mont Kemmel at 159 metres gives out onto a truly commanding view of the entire battlefield and area south of Ieper.

The Kemmelberg is situated in Heuvelland (West-Vlaanderen), Mont Noir straddles the frontier but its summit is in France, the Mont des Cats (which has nothing whatsoever to do with felines) is in France. From British and French perspectives, the battles are known as Mont Kemmel, but when coming from Ieper be aware of their Dutch names on the sign posts.

Like almost everywhere in the region the soil is clay and only just above the water table so trenches were shallow affairs, the armies building up rather than digging down.

Fortunately for the Germans, the spring had been remarkably dry and this alleviated a number of transportation problems.