The Aubers Ridge, the theatre of bloody battles

The Aubers Ridge, the theatre of bloody battles

The inhabitants of the “Pays des Weppes” have built their villages on a stretch of 40-42 metres hills from before Roman times. During autumn and winter, the lower agricultural lands around these hills used to flood very often in a muddy landscape filled with pools.
As always during these first 3 months of war, the Germans were eager to follow this traditional example of the inhabitants of these lower, often flooded areas; and they focused their attacks to occupy as much the hills as possible. The military advantage from the possession of a hill is obvious: a better observation of the enemy, a better position for fortifications, and a better position for defence actions.

German Army set up position on every piece of high ground that bordered its newly conquered territory. One of these was Aubers Ridge.

The Battle of La Bassée

During the end of the period of the “Race to the Sea”, the German 6th Army, commanded by the Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht, captured and occupied the city of Lille on 11 October. From then on the Bavarians focused their attacks on the hills west of Lille.

The capture of Lille and these continuous attacks  on the hills provoked desperate counter-attacks from the French XXI Army Corps and the Army Corps of the British Expeditionary Force. All these combats and battles would all together culminate in the “First Battle of Ypres” (18 October-11 November 1914).

There were two other battles before this First Battle of Ypres. Further north, the British advanced from 16 October on Armentières, culminating in a battle which lasted until 2 November 1914 and ended with the British capture of Armentières.

In the region of La Bassée and Illies, the allied counter-attacks developed in the “Battle of La Bassée” (16 October – 2 November 1914)  a desperate attempt by the Allies to chase the Germans from the hills and to re-capture Lille.  

The Battle of Neuve-Chapelle

On the night of 20 October 1914, as the First Battle of Ypres raged further north in Flanders, the men of the 19th Infantry Brigade of III Corps, were ordered to occupy the villages of Fromelles and Le Maisnil. The Brigade was forced to retire the next day in the face of fierce artillery fire and determined infantry attacks. The 2nd Argyll, Sutherland Highlanders and 1st Middlesex suffered heavy casualties. The British dead were buried in what had now become German territory. By the end of 1914, the villages of Neuve Chapelle, Aubers and Fromelles were behind German lines.

The Battle of Aubers Ridge (may1915)

Following the British capture of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915, the Germans greatly reinforced their defensive lines in the sector, particularly around a portion of the front near Fromelles that became known as the Sugarloaf Salient. As part of the Allied spring offensive of 1915, a combination of British and Indian units staged a major assault on the German positions on Aubers Ridge on 9 May. The artillery bombardments that opened the attack made little impression on the fortified German positions, and German machine-gunners were able to remain at their posts with the result that many of the attacking troops were cut down as soon as they left their trenches. Despite some initial successes, the British Expeditionary Force failed to achieve its objectives and over 10,000 officers and men were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. 

The Battle of Fromelles (july 1916)

More than a year later, in July 1916, the officers and men of the British 61st (2nd South Midland) and the 5th (Australian) divisions, staged an assault on the German lines around Fromelles under the overall command of General Richard Haking. The attack was designed to prevent the Germans from sending units from this sector to their divisions on the Somme front, which was the scene of a major Allied offensive. On the evening of 19 July, men advanced towards a well prepared and well organised enemy. As little heavy fighting had taken place in the area since the Battle of Aubers Ridge in May 1915, the Germans had been able to strengthen their lines with concrete blockhouses, machine gun emplacements and thick barbed wires.
The Bavarian troops defending Fromelles also enjoyed a slightly elevated position on the Aubers Ridge from which they could observe any preparations for an attack. The British and Australian troops who were selected for the attack had little or no experience of combat on the Western Front
A key objective of the attacking troops was the capture of the Sugar Loaf salient, a small but heavily reinforced section of the German line north-west of Fromelles. The attack was originally planned for 17 July and the preliminary artillery bombardment duly began on the 16th. Thick mist and rain the following morning prompted Haking to request a 24-hour delay and the attack was postponed until 6 p.m. on the evening of 19 July.
Advancing with three brigades side by side the men of the 61st Division came under withering machine gun fire as soon as they left their positions and immediately suffered heavy casualties. Only a small number of British troops on the extreme right of the assault managed to get near the German lines, but these were all either killed or forced to retire. The Australians also attacked in three brigades. The 15th Brigade, advancing alongside British units, was badly cut up by German machine gun and artillery fire and suffered very heavy casualties. To begin with, the men of the 14th and 8th brigades fared better, managing to cross no-man’s land and overrun the German front-line and communication trenches just north of Fromelles. They separated into small units as they advanced into enemy territory, however, and as night fell the Germans counter attacked the now surrounded Australians. At 3.30 a.m. they were ordered to return to their own trenches and for the next six hours they fought their way back across no-man’s land.

The attack at Fromelles made little impact on German troop movements toward the Somme and is now seen as a costly failure. In just over one night of fighting, over 5,300 Australian and more than 1,500 British soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured. The incident was the first major deployment of an Australian division on the Western Front and the only one in which none of the original objectives were achieved.