Neuville-Saint-Vaast has France’s largest concentration of Great War Memorials and Cemeteries in the one village; the Coat of Arms of shows a Phoenix and the words: Resurgam 9 mai 1915.
One of the most obvious signs of regeneration is the church which can be seen from a great distance and acts as a good marker, its white structure standing out on the dullest of days. It was reconstructed after the war in reinforced concrete which is not perhaps so surprising considering that Neuville is the birthplace of François Hennebique the inventor of the material.
On the wall of 64 rue du Canada (the road towards the Canadian Memorial) is a plaque commemorating his birth on the 25th April 1842. Having become a mason in Belgium he created his first block of reinforced concrete in 1879. In 1892 he constructed his own enterprise buildings completely in reinforced concrete : No more disastrous fires, was his slogan.
Construction works followed with the Manchester docks, the Newcastle tunnel and the stadium in Lyon, his system was also used for the construction of the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool.
As the end of 1914 approached it became clear to the French soldiers that they would not be going home for Christmas.
For two months they had marched and fought and were now digging in to prevent the Germans from pushing them back a second time. In his own little island of mud none of them could have imagined that he was part of a defensive system 700 km long.
On the 17th and 18th December the French attacked with the aid of the British but their efforts came to nothing. Both sides would spend Christmas in trenches, but it wasn’t so bad because come the spring each thought that their offensive would sweep the enemy aside. Not home for the New Year but Easter would do fine.
And so in the best of Mess traditions the preparations for the holiday began. Good wine was brought up, Champagne by the case. Not that the ordinary soldiers were going to see any of that but it was quite possible that many of the conscript soldiers of the two main belligerents were going to be much better fed than they would have been at home.
In most places along the front the war continued or at the very least everybody maintained an alert eye in case the enemy attempted something under the cover of the festivities.
However in other areas, the arrival of Christmas Eve was greeted with an immense longing to be at home amongst the family. It was also greeted by Christmas trees all along this sector of the German line.
The famous football match between the British and the Germans is well known, but the British were on the Continent to fight the Germans and viewed the matter with a professional eye.
The French on the other hand were on their own soil, many of them coming from homes now occupied by the enemy. Popping out to have a sing song with the invaders was not going to happen too often.
And yet it did. And Neuville-St.-Vaast is one of the sectors where there is photographic evidence of French and German soldiers mingling in No Man’s Land.
Neuville had fallen to the Germans in October 1914 and by the spring of 1915 the village was protected by four lines of German defences. Its 150 buildings turned into fortresses bristling with machine guns and canon.
Every cellar had been prepared, bunkers put up, and rolls and rolls of barbed wire positioned to prevent the French from entering.
The mammoth task of taking all this was given to the 20e Corps d’Armée (CA) commanded by Général Balfourier.
The assault was launched on the 9th May and within a couple of hours the French 11e Division d’Infanterie (DI) had forced their way to the southern outskirts of the village.
The village cemetery became the scene of a great deal of bitter fighting changing hands throughout the day. Despite their progress much of the village remained in German hands.
The battle raged on for weeks and eventually the fresh 5e DI were ordered to definitively take Neuville. Their commander, Général Charles Mangin, was a man noted for his aggressiveness in battle (His nickname would become The Butcher).
Despite only just having arrived in the sector, Mangin put his men to work on 28th May taking a number of emplacements in order to prepare his jumping off positions. This was carried out under heavy artillery fire which was pounding the new French lines, but Mangin kept his men working.
Then on 1st June he launched his first attempt on the German positions. They were beaten off with the aid of gas and well directed machine gun fire. Just two houses had been taken.
Mangin continued with his artillery bombardments and on the 5th June launched his second assault. On the left of the main street the 36e RI (Régiment d’Infanterie – made up of three battalions) made four attempts to get forward but found themselves held in check.
On the right the 129e RI made better headway but lost their commander Lt Colonel Denis-Laroque in the first wave.
The decision was taken by Général Foch that as numerical superiority rested with the French that the battle would continue blow by blow until the village had been taken.
Over the 6th and 7th of June the French advanced step by step bombing their way into each house (The phrase bomb or bombing in the First World War invariably refers to grenades).
The 8th June saw extremely bitter fighting as the resolute Frenchmen pressed home their attack at 0200 hours. The defence though was extraordinary with the Germans (Actually from the Bavarian Army) refusing to surrender the houses and fighting to the last.
At 1500 hours the Germans finally began to pull back to the northern side of the village. The French spent the night sorting out the muddle of units that their attack had become in order to be ready for one final push the following morning.
At dawn on the 9th June despite their fatigue the soldiers of Mangin’s 5e DI went back into the attack in order to once and for all take the last remaining buildings from the Germans.
A month after the First French soldiers had put a foot in the village it was finally within the French lines. The two weeks of fighting cost the 5e DI over 2,5000 killed or wounded. Some 500 Germans were found dead in the streets and eventually more would be found under the shattered buildings.