The Battle of Hazebrouck, 12 – 15 April 1918
First Army (Horne)
I Corps (Holland)
3rd Division, fought in the defence of Hinges Ridge
4th Division, fought in the defence of Hinges Ridge
55th (West Lancashire) Division
3rd Brigade of 1st Division.
XI Corps (Haking)
5th Division, fought in the defence of Nieppe Forest
50th (Northumbrian) Division
61st (2nd South Midland) Division.
XV Corps (Du Cane) transferred to Second Army at noon on 12 April 1918
29th Division, less 88th Brigade, fought in the defence of Nieppe Forest
31st Division, fought in the defence of Nieppe Forest
1st Australian Division, fought in the defence of Nieppe Forest
Composite Force, comprising personnel from Ii and XXII Corps Schools, 2nd New Zealand Entrenching Battalion, two companies of the 18th Middlesex Regiment and the XXIII Corps Reinforcement Battalion.
The sixth Despatch of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander in Chief of the British Armies in France and Flanders. This was a very long despatch covering the winter operations preceding the German offensives, the 21 March 1918 attack and subsequent developments (Operation Michael), the Battles of the Lys (Operation Georgette) and the Battle of Villers-Bretonneux.
“The Fall of Merville.
(56) On the morning of the 11th April the enemy recommenced his attacks on the whole front, and again made progress. Between Givenchy and the Lawe River the successful resistance of the past two days was maintained against repeated assaults. Between Locon and Estaires the enemy, on the previous evening, had established a footing on the west bank of the river in the neighbourhood of Fosse. In this area and northwards to Lestrem he continued to push westwards, despite the vigorous resistance of our troops. At Estaires, the troops of the 5th Division, tired and reduced in numbers by (the exceptionally heavy fighting of the previous three weeks and threatened on their right flank by the enemy’s advance south of the Lys, were heavily engaged. After holding their positions with great gallantry during the morning, they were slowly pressed back in the direction of Merville. The enemy employed large forces on this front in close formation, and the losses inflicted by our rifle and machine-gun fire were unusually heavy. Our own troops, however, were not in sufficient numbers to hold up his advance, and as they fell back and their front gradually extended, gaps formed in the line. Through these gaps bodies of German infantry worked their way forward, and at 6 p.m. had reached Neuf Berquin. Other parties of the enemy pushed on along the north bank of the Lys Canal and entered Merville. As it did not appear possible to clear the town without fresh forces, which were not yet available, it was decided to withdraw behind the small stream which runs just west of the town. This withdrawal was successfully carried out during the evening.
The Withdrawal from Nieppe and Hill 63.
(57) Heavy fighting took place on the remainder of the front south of Armentieres, and the enemy made some progress. In this sector, however, certain reinforcements had come into action, and in the evening a counter-attack carried out by troops of the 31st Division, recently arrived from the southern battle-field, regained the hamlets of Le Verrier and La Becque. Meanwhile, north of Armentieres strong hostile attacks had developed towards midday and were pressed vigorously in the direction of Nieppe and Neuve Eglise. In the afternoon, fierce fighting itook place about Messines, which the enemy had regained. Beyond this, his troops were not able to push .their advance, being checked and driven back by a counterattack by the South African Brigade. South of Hollebeke the 9th Division had again been heavily attacked during the morning, but had held their positions. Owing to the progress made by the enemy in the Ploegsteert sector, the position of the 34th Division at Nieppe, where .they had beaten off a determined attack during the morning, became untenable. Accordingly, in the early part of the nigiht our troops at Nieppe fell back under orders to the neighbourhood of Pont d’Achelles. Still further ,to shorten our line and economise men, our troops between Pont d’Achelles and Wytschaete were withdrawn to positions about 1,000 yards east of Neuve Eglise and Wulverghem. This withdrawal involved the abandonment of Hill 63 and of the positions still iheld by us about Messines.
The Southern Flank steady.
(58) Though our troops had not been able to prevent the enemy’s entry imto Merville, their vigorous resistance, combined with the maintenance of our positions at Givenchy and Festubert, had given an opportunity for reinforcements to build up our line in this sector. As troops of the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 31st, 61st and 1st Australian Divisions began to arrive, the southern portion of ithe battle front gradually became steady. Time was still required, however, to complete our dispositions, and for the next two days tihe situation in this area remained critical. A sudden attack just before dawn on the 12th April broke through the left centre of the 51st Division about Paoaut and Riez du Vinage, and but for the gallantry and resource of two batteries of the 255th Brigade, R.F.A., commanded respectively by Major L. N. Davidson, D.S.O., and Major F. C. Jack, M.C., might have enabled the enemy to cross the La Bassee Canal. Each of these batteries as it retired left a gun within 500 yards of the canal and, assisted by a party of gunners who held the drawbridge with rifles, worked with them to such good purpose .that the en-emy’s advance was stopped. The 3rd Division was already in action on the right of the 51st Division about Locon where, though forced ito fall back a short distance, our troops inflicted very heavy casualties upon an enemy greatly superior in numbers. On the left of the 51st Division, tihe 61st Division was coming into action about the Clarence River. Both ithe 3rd and the 61st Divisions had been engaged in many days of continuous fighting south of Arras; but with the arrival of these troops, battle-weary though they were, the enemy’s progress in this sector of the front was definitely checked. At Merville also, our troops, though compelled to give ground somewhat during the morning, thereafter maintained themselves successfully.
The Thrust towards Hazebrouck.
(59) Meanwhile, a situation which threatened to become serious had arisen north of Merville. At about 8 a.m. the enemy attacked in great strength on a front extending from south of the Estaires-Vieux Berquin Road to the neighbourhood of Steenwerck. After very lieavy fighting, in the course of which, the 1st Battalion Royal Guernsey Light Infantry, 29th Division, Major-General D. E. Cayley, C.M.G., commanding the division, did gallant service, he succeeded in the afternoon in overcoming the resistance of our troops about Doulieu and La Becque, forcing them- back in a north-westerly direction. As the result of this movement, a gap was formed in our line .south-west of Bailleul, and bodies of the- enemy who had forced their way through seized Outtersteene and Merris. In the evening a brigade of the 33rd Division, Major-General R. J. Pinney, C.B., commanding the division, with a body of Cyclists, a Pioneer battalion, and every available man from schools and reinforcement camps, came into action in this sector. On their left, troops of the 25th, 34th, and 49th Divisions, Major-General N. J. G. Cameron, C.B., C.M.G., commanding the last mentioned division, though heavily attacked, maintained their positions to the south and south-east of Bailleul, and before midnight our line had been reformed.
Next day, the enemy followed up his attacks with great vigour and the troops of the 29th and 31st Divisions, now greatly reduced in strength by the severe fighting already experienced and strung out over a front of nearly 10,000 yards east of the Foret de Nieppe, were once more tried to the utmost. Behind them the 1st Australian Division, under command of Major-General Sir H. B. Walker, K.C.B., D..S.O. was in process of detraining, and the troops were told that the line was to be held at all costs, until the detrainment could be completed. During the morning, which was very foggy, several determined attacks, in which a German armoured car came into action against the 4th Guards Brigade on the southern portion of our line, were repulsed with great loss to the enemy. After the failure of these assaults, he brought up field guns to point blank range, and in the northern sector with their aid gained Vieux Berquin. Everywhere except at Vieux Berquin, the enemy’s advance was held up all day by desperate fighting, in which our advanced posts displayed the greatest gallantry, maintaining their ground when entirely surrounded, men standing back to back in the trenches and shooting to front and rear. In the afternoon the enemy made a further determined effort, and by sheer weight of numbers forced his way through the gaps in our depleted line, the surviving garrisons of our posts fighting where they stood to the last with bullet and bayonet. The heroic resistance of these troops, however, had given the leading brigades of the 1st Australian Division time to reach and organise their appointed line east of the Foret de Nieppe. These now took up the fight and the way to Hazebrouck was definitely closed.
The performance of all the troops engaged in this most gallant stand, and especially that of the 4th Guards Brigade, on whose front of some 4,000 yards the heaviest attacks fell, is worthy of the highest praise. No more brilliant exploit has taken place since the opening of the enemy’s offensive, though gallant actions have been without number. The action of these troops, and indeed of all the divisions engaged in the fighting in the Lys Valley, is the more noteworthy because, as already pointed out, practically the whole of them had been brought straight out of the Somme battlefield, were they had suffered severely and had been subjected to a great strain. All these divisions, without adequate rest and filled with young reinforcements which they had had no time to assimilate, were again hurriedly thrown into the fight and, in spite of the great disadvantages under which they laboured, succeeded in holding up the advance of greatly superior forces of fresh troops. Such an accomplishment reflects the greatest credit on the youth of Great Britain, as well as upon those responsible for the training of the young soldiers sent out from home at this time.
The Struggle for Neuve Eglise.
(60) On the afternoon of the 12th April sharp fighting had taken place in the neighbourhood of Neuve Eglise, and during the night the enemy’s pressure in this sector had been maintained and extended. By the morning of the 13th April his troops had forced their way into the village, but before noon were driven out by troops of the 33rd and 49th Divisions by a most successful counter-attack in which a number of prisoners were taken. In the coarse of this day, also, a succession of heavy attacks were driven off with great loss to the enemy, by the 33rd and 34th Divisions about Meteren and La Creche. In the evening further attacks developed on this front and at Neuve Eglise. The pressure exercised by the enemy was very great and bodies of German infantry, having forced their way in between La Creche and Neuve Eglise, began a strong encircling- movement against the left of the 34th Division north and east of the former village.
During the early part of the night our troops maintained their positions, but before dawn on the 14th April withdrew under orders to a line in front of the high ground known as the Ravelsburg Heights between Bailleul and Neuve Eglise, the enemy having been too severely handled to interfere. At Neuve Eglise the enemy again forced his way into the village, and heavy and confused fighting took place throughout the night. A party of the 2nd Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment, 33rd Division, maintained themselves in the Mairie until 2.0 p.m. on the 14th April, and during the morning of this day other troops of the same division were reported to have cleared the village with bombs. The enemy persisted in his attacks, however, and by midnight Neuve Eglise was definitely in his possessfon. Other attacks delivered on the 14th April between Neuve Eglise and Bailleul and south-east of Meteren were repulsed. Farther south, local fighting had taken place meanwhile both on the 13th and 14th April at a number of points between Givenchy and the Foret de Nieppe. In these encounters the enemy had met with no success. On the other hand, a local operation carried out by the 4th Division on the evening of the 14th April resulted in the recapture of Riez du Vinage with 150 prisoners.
The Capture of Bailleul.
(61) On the morning of the 15th April the 19th Division repulsed hostile attacks about Wytschaete. Late in the afternoon fresh assaults in great strength, in which the Alpine Corps and two other fresh German divisions were engaged, developed against Bailleul and the Ravelsberg Heights. After heavy fighting the enemy gained a footing on the eastern end of the high ground and, though driven back by a counter-attack, re-established his position there and worked west along the ridge. By 7.0 p.m. the whole of it was in his possession, .and the retention of Bailleul itsejf became very difficult. Two hours later, hostile infantry forced their way into the town, and our troops, who were being heavily attacked from the east and south, were compelled to fall back to positions between Meteren and Dranoutre.
The Withdrawal at Passchendaele.
(62) In order to set free additional British troops for the battle and to delay the execution of any plans which the enemy might be entertaining for extending the flank of his attack to the north, I approved of putting into execution the scheme for the gradual evacuation of the Ypres salient. The first stage in this withdrawal had been carried out on the night of the 12th-13th April, since which date our positions on the Passchendaele Ridge had been held by outposts only. On the night of the 15th-16th April the withdrawal was carried a stage further, our troops taking up positions along the line of the Steenbeek River and the Westhoek and Wytschaete Ridges.”