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Webmatters : The Battle of the Lys 1918 : 2nd Kemmel

The Lys

The Second Battle for Kemmel

Whilst the Australians were enjoying their success on the Somme at Villers-Bretonneux, the French on Mont Kemmel were about to go through hell in Flanders.

At 0230 hours on 25th April 1918 over 250 batteries of German guns opened up on Allied artillery positions with a mixture of gas and high explosive. For the next two hours they concentrated solely on destroying gun emplacements.

After a short pause, at 0500 hours the German barrage was switched to the French front line.

Veterans who had survived the horrors of Verdun described it as the worst they had ever encountered.

Opposite a single French Division were amassed three and a half German Divisions. An hour of such a furious bombardment was considered sufficient by the Germans and at 0600 hours they launched their infantry to the attack.

By 0710 hours Kemmel Hill was theirs and by 1030 hours it was all over.

Even the German air force had joined in with 96 aircraft dropping 700 bombs and machine gunning the French positions as the Leib Regiment of the élite Alpine Corps (actually a Division) stormed forward.

The fact that the French Ossuary, at the base of the hill, today contains the remains of more than 5,000 unidentifiable soldiers, mostly, from fighting in this area in April says more about the fury of the bombardment than mere words.

The advancing Germans pushed on over the hill and on towards the Scherpenberg and Loker village (Locre). Here they halted waiting on their artillery to be brought forward.

 

Looking towards Bailleul from Kemmel

Having taken Mont Kemmel the Germans had a superb view into the Allies’ hinterland

 

Two battalions of the French 99e Régiment d’Infanterie (RI) together with the remnants of those who had escaped from Mont Kemmel held the line assisted by units from their dismounted 3e Division de Cavalerie.

A French Infantry Regiment (like its German counterpart) was made up of three battalions which served together as a unit. Divisional strengths were pretty similar between the French, British and German armies. An American Division was twice the size.

On the southern flank of the 28e DI the 154e DI had been forced to give way towards Loker but their line was basically holding, as was that of the British on the northern side of the hill.

A gap however developed between the struggling 99e RI and the 9th Bn KOYLI and 6th Bn KOSB who were immediately alongside them. To this end the 147th British Brigade was brought back from Poperinge to plug the gap.

Pressure from the Germans continued and by midday Vierstraat had fallen, but by now the attackers were as tired as the defenders.

That evening the British 25th Division arrived at Reningelst and were placed under French command. They were to attempt, with the French 39e DI, to seize back Kemmel.

 

Georgette fails to break through

Both Foch and Haig wanted an immediate counter attack against Mont Kemmel.

The plan put together was for the French to take Mont Kemmel and the British Kemmel village at its base. Throughout the night it poured with rain and by dawn this had turned into a thick mist.

The available artillery was so meagre that the Germans failed to recognise the preliminary bombardment for what it was.

At the junction of the two Divisions the British 74th Brigade managed to make some headway, but by nightfall the only gain that had been made was to strengthen the French line and fill in the gaps.

The exhaustion of the Germans, however, was beginning to show through and their subsequent attacks against the remaining hills in the locality were all withstood and repulsed.

Despite their weariness, by the evening of the 28th it was apparent from the number of deserters and resulting information that another assault was about to be launched in the area of Kemmel.

Counter bombardments were commenced but the German attack went ahead just before 0600 hours after a gas and shell bombardment.

Various plaques at Loker

French Plaques at Loker

Despite being met by devastating fire from the French, the Alpine Corps pushed through the French lines towards Scherpenberg. Initial worries that yet another breakthrough was about to occur were found to be alarmist as the French 39e DI and 154e DI supported the weakening line and started to push the Alpine Corps backwards.

Loker fell for a short time but a vigorous counter attack by French Dragoons forced the enemy out of the village.

To the north, the British in the area of Voormezele had to relinquish the area through the sheer weight of the artillery bombardment.

Ultimately the German losses were too great for them to be able to continue with such abandon and when the Alpine Corps was ordered to advance again at 1700 hours it found itself so reduced in numbers that it was unable to comply.

The second great German offensive had come to a halt and Ludendorff was forced to call off Operation Georgette. His attention would now turn towards the south; this time against the French around Reims.

Mont Kemmel would remain in German hands until the end of August when the American 27th Division and British 34th Divisions would finally drive them back from the area.