Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée is a village some 27 kilometres north of Arras and about 5 kilometres west of La Bassée, a small town on the N41 road from Béthune to Lille.
From the main Béthune road take the turning into Cuinchy village. Continue over the canal and turn right at the junction where you see the panel directing Guards Cemetery off to your left. At the church in Givenchy (The junction is a: Stop) continue straight on. The memorial is in front of you.
Givenchy Communal Cemetery with a 1940 CWGC Plot is to the right.
In April 1918 the German 6th Army launched the second part of General Ludendorff’s strategic plan to win the war before the weight of the rapidly expanding American Army could be brought fully into action. Originally named George it had been watered down enough for it to have been re-named Georgette. The objective was Ieper.
Sometimes known as the 4th Battle of Ypres, it is more correctly termed the Battle of the Lys.
The first blow fell on 9th April 1918 against the British 55th (West Lancashire) Division in front of Givenchy and the 2nd Portuguese Division at Neuve Chapelle. Many of the British battalions were tired, under strength and with a high percentage of untried raw recruits. The Portuguese soldiers had been left to rot by their government and although some put up a fight, most didn’t.
Whereas on the Somme the British Fifth Army had the luxury of a buffer zone in which to fall back into before things became desperate (and they had fallen back so far by the end of the battle that things had indeed reached: desperate), to the north in Flanders the front was only 80 kilometres from the ports. If the Germans repeated their success on the Somme a similar advance would gain them almost the entire British war infrastructure – depots, aerodromes, railheads. If Boulogne and Calais became untenable it would be nigh on impossible for the British to continue their war effort on the Continent.
Givenchy is situated just to the north of the La Bassée Canal and by 1918 had been reduced to brickdust, with here and there a stump of wall (Official History). Slightly higher than the surrounding countryside it had been possible to dig trenches and mining operations had been carried out. Its height, however did not afford any advantage to the British as it merely overlooked their own positions (The Germans to the east on dryer ground were higher yet).
Givenchy therefore was a prize possession and had to be defended. To that end the 251st Tunnelling Company RE had been fortifying the area with machine gun nests and deep dugouts. A three hundred metre tunnel had been created which would house two battalions and the 55th Division who had arrived in the sector in February 1918 were well practised in leaving the safety of their underground shelters and manning their positions (A similar situation to the Germans on the Somme in 1916).
Because this sector of the front had been in British hands for years the various zones of combat forming the 1918 styled defence system was far better prepared than that of Gough’s Fifth Army (who had taken over an unprepared position from the French). But the Portuguese were suspected to be capable of offering only a weak resistance and the British 40th Division (in front of Fromelles) and 34th Division at Armentières had both been badly mauled in Operation Michael on the Somme only weeks beforehand.
At 0415 hours the German bombardment began reaching its final climax at 0835 hours – ten minutes before the infantry began their assault (once more protected by a dense mist).
The Lancashire Territorials of the 55th Division found themselves confronted by the 4th Ersatz, 43rd Reserve and 18th Reserve Infantry Divisions on their own front whilst their immediate left flank was rapidly pushed in by the 1st Bavarian Reserve Division following the faster than anticipated collapse of the Portuguese 2nd Division.
As the Germans pushed in and around them the Lancashiremen remained steady, fell back to their line of resistance along the road to Windy Corner, mounted counter attacks, and hung on. The front by the following day looped around the top of Festubert and then turned north-west towards Locon.
On the 11th April a second attempt was made to break the 55th Division but apart from a few hundred metres on its far left the assault by four German Divisions was repulsed.
Having made greater gains to the north around Merville and the Belgian border the Germans began to concentrate their efforts in those areas. Ultimately their offensive would fail.
The defenders of Givenchy had not ceded a metre.
Units of the West Lancashire Division Territorial Force which was formed in 1908 fought in France and Belgium from November 1914 onwards. On 3rd January 1916 it was re-assembled as the 55th (West Lancashire) Division and served under that title throughout the remainder of the Campaign.
Somme 1916; Ypres 1916-1917; Cambrai 1917;
Givenchy-Festubert 1918; The Advance in Flanders 1918
Around this site from the 9th to the 16th April 1918 the Division, continuously attacked from the canal to Festubert by three German Divisions and with its left flank turned held its ground and inflicted severe loss upon the enemy,
This most gallant defence, the importance of which it would be hard to overestimate…
Sir Douglas Haig’s Despatch dated 20 July 1918