At 176 metres the town of Cassel is the highest point in French Flanders and offers a superb opportunity to appreciate its strategic importance.
The word Flanders means: the flooded land. The historical region straddles the border between France and Belgium and helps explain why some of the French towns have some very Flemish sounding names.
The route over Cassel is cobbled and possibly the longest stretch of this type of road that most of us will encounter in France. Parking is available either off the Grand Place or in the Place Vandamme.
Everything is easily reached on foot but the streets can be quite steep at times.
When you look out over the ramparts you can see the roads emanating from the hub of Cassel, all of them almost perfectly straight as far as the eye can see. When the Romans built their castellum on the hill they not only gave the town its name but also provided it with a superb network of roads built by the legionnaires in 27BC.
To ensure they remained solid across the marshlands the roads were double layered; cobblestone upon cobblestone. Nearly two thousand years later the infantry marching along the roads in hob-nailed boots found the pavés hard going.
There is plenty to see and the town is dotted with cafés, banks and small supermarkets.
In June there is a bagpipe festival bringing in fans from far and wide — the Scots are not the only nation to have a piping tradition.
There is a very close connection between the town and Général Foch.
From 23rd October 1914 to 9th May 1915 Foch had his Headquarters in the Hôtel de Noble Cour and from there directed the French Northern Army Group which was fighting along the Ijser and for Ypres.
Although he had no direct control over either the Belgian Army or the BEF there was considerable co-ordination as French troops had the lion’s share of the fighting (which is something that is sometimes overlooked. The British often think of Ypres as their affair which in 1914 was not the case.)
Foch left the town in May 1915 during the battles of Artois when the French were fighting for Vimy Ridge and the British for the Aubers Ridge.
During the desperate days of Spring 1918 the, by then, Maréchal Foch would return as Supreme Commander-in-chief during the Battle of the Lys.
The Hôtel de Noble Cour or Landshuys now houses the museum. It originally served two functions, that of the administrative centre for the former region and a courthouse. It dates from the 15th and 16th centuries and its ornamental façade is unique in French Flanders.
Le musée de Flandre
Tuesday to Saturday:
1000-1230 hours and 1400-1800 hours
Sunday 1000-1800 hours
Price 5€ / 3€
If you look down the Rue du Maréchal Foch you will see a building with numerous flags hanging out over the pavement. During his stay Foch lived in the Hotel de Schoebeque and it was here that he received guests such as King George V and the Prince of Wales (Future Edward VIII).
A memorial plaque on the wall to the left of the entrance commemorates the building’s connection with the Maréchal and also Field Marshal Haig who also used the building as his residence when in the area.
Coming back up towards the town centre you will see the Porte de Dunkerque with houses running over the top along the ramparts, and the collegiate church of Notre Dame off to the right. The church is a classified monument and dates from the 11th Century. It has been destroyed, rebuilt and renovated numerous times since.
It is approaching the finish of four years of work and will be fully open again for Christmas 2011.
Foch said that he spent the most anguished hours of his life in Cassel as the Germans tried to force their way to the Channel ports in late 1914. He put much of his success in stemming that tide down to the hours of reflection he spent in the church (He attended the six o’clock service every morning) and afterwards told the townsfolk that it was their church that had won the battle.
Inside there is a large bronze medallion in his honour unveiled by his widow in 1933 as well as a plaque which reminds us that he lost both his son and son-in-law in the first weeks of the war. Both Gérmain Foch and Paul Becourt were killed on the 22nd August 1914 during the Battle of the Frontiers (The bloodiest day for France throughout the entire war with about 24,000 dead).
From the church head back towards the centre and just after the cafés take the narrow road just off to the right. This brings you to the castle gateway leading up through the gardens to the top of the hill (Alternatively there is a rustic flight of steps that goes straight up in front of you).
In the 19th Century approximately twenty windmills crowned the hill of Cassel. The last one was badly damaged by fire and the mill from Arnèke, a few kilometres away, was brought here to replace it.
It is open to visit in the afternoon during the spring and summer. It still grinds flour and visitors all part with a wee sample. The entrance fee is 3€.
Just behind it is the statue of Maréchal Foch by Georges Malissard. It is on a pedestal of Soignies and Breton granite and was unveiled by President Poincaré in the presence of Foch on 7th July 1928.
Already tired Foch died a few months later on 20th March 1929 having outlived Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig by just over a year.
bq There is a copy of the statue in Grosvenor Gardens near Victoria Station in London.
The views from the ramparts are superb and plaques give details of directions and distances to numerous world wide sites.
In the centre of the gardens you will see an obelisk monument which recalls the various battles at Cassel all of which have provided definitive moments in the region’s history.
One battle that is not mentioned is the non-event that befell the Grand old Duke of York !
Foch was not the only senior commander to have his headquarters in the town.
The British General Sir Herbert Plumer had his Second Army headquarters in the Castel Yvonne (1 rue St Nicholas) which is just off the Place Vandamme.
The square used to be named in Plumer’s honour but was changed to reflect the town’s own hero Dominique-Joseph Vandamme one of Napoleon’s generals.
To reach it from the castle gardens take the road from the battle monument down past the windmill. As you come out into the square the last house on your right was Plumer’s residence.
From his rooms he had a clear view towards the north and the Messines Ridge which he would take on the 7th June 1917 in one of the war’s most dramatic and successful victories.
On the 10th May 1940 Germany invaded France. Within ten days their Panzer Divisions had reached the coast having driven a narrow corridor right across France from the Ardennes to the Somme estuary.
At the same time a second offensive had been launched in the north and the two prongs were squeezing the entrapped French and British armies into an ever reducing pocket. The only open port was Dunkerque.
To the north-east the British 48th Division was holding a line from Cassel to Hazebrouck. The Germans attacked the former throughout the day meeting stout resistance from the 2nd Bn Gloucestershire Regiment.
The enemy’s main attack on Cassel itself began about ten o’clock in the morning of the 27th May, coming in from the south and south-east, and was maintained throughout the day. German forces tried, too, to work round the northern outskirts but were driven back by the 2nd Gloucesters.
The enemy attacked all the 48th Division’s strongholds during the day, and by six in the evening the road between Bergues and Cassel could no longer be used and all communications with Cassel and Hazebrouck had been lost. The message to the 145th Brigade at Cassel telling them to retire did not get through to them till six o’clock next morning.
Cassel was still in British hands on the 29th May with its reinforced garrison beating off all attempts to take the hill. But from their vantage point they could see the German forces far to their rear (It is very easy from the ramparts to visualise the encroaching attackers) and when the time came at nightfall to fight their way out only a few of the garrison managed to get through the German encirclement and away to safety.
By blocking their way the garrison had forced the Germans to devote considerable forces and time to deal with them. Their stand throughout the 29th May was one of numerous contributory factors to the success of Operation Dynamo and the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops from Dunkerque.
Many of the fallen lie in the CWGC plot in the town cemetery.