Battle of the Lys (1918)

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For the World War II battle, see Battle of the Lys (1940).
Battle of the Lys
Part of the Western Front of the First World War
Map of German Lys offensive 1918.jpg

Map of German Lys offensive, 1918
Date 7–29 April 1918
Location French–Belgian Flanders
50°42′20″N 2°54′00″E / 50.70556°N 2.90000°E / 50.70556; 2.90000Coordinates: 50°42′20″N 2°54′00″E / 50.70556°N 2.90000°E / 50.70556; 2.90000
Result German tactical success
operational and strategic failure
Belligerents
 British Empire  Portugal
 Belgium
 France
 United States
 German Empire
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Herbert Plumer
United Kingdom Henry Horne
Portugal Tamagnini de Abreu
Portugal Gomes da Costa
France Philippe Pétain
Canada Arthur Currie
German Empire Ludwig von Falkenhausen
Strength
26 divisions
9 more divisions later
Casualties and losses
c. 120,000 120,000

The Battle of the Lys (7–29 April 1918) also known as the Lys Offensive, the Fourth Battle of Ypres, the Third Battle of Flanders, Operation Georgette, Portuguese: Batalha de La Lys, French: 3ème Bataille des Flandres, was part of the 1918 German offensive in Flanders during World War I, also known as the Spring Offensive. It was originally planned by General Ludendorff as Operation George but was reduced to become Operation Georgette, with the objective of capturing Ypres, forcing the British forces back to the channel ports and out of the war. In planning, execution and effects, Georgette was similar to (although smaller than) Operation Michael, earlier in the Spring Offensive.

Background[edit]

Strategic developments[edit]

French forces on the Lys, early in the war.

The German attack zone was in Flanders, from about 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) east of Ypres in Belgium to 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) east of Béthune in France, about 40 kilometres (25 mi) south. The front line ran from NNE to SSW. The Lys River, running from southwest to northeast, crossed the front near Armentières in the middle of this zone.[1] The front was held by the Belgian Army in the far north, by the British Second Army (under Plumer) in the north and centre and by the British First Army (under Horne) in the south.[2]

Prelude[edit]

Tactical developments[edit]

The German attacking forces were the Sixth Army in the south (under von Quast), and the Fourth Army in the north (under Sixt von Armin). Both armies included substantial numbers of the new stosstruppen, trained to lead attacks in the new stormtroop tactics.[3]

The British First Army was a relatively weak force; it included several worn-out formations that had been posted to a "quiet sector". This included two divisions of the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps, which were undermanned, lacked almost half of their officers, had very low morale and were set to be replaced the day of the German attack.[4]

German plan of attack[edit]

The German plan was to smash through First Army, push Second Army aside to the north, and drive west to the English Channel, cutting off British forces in France from their supply line which ran through the Channel Ports of Calais, Dunkirk and Boulogne.[5]

Battle[edit]

Battle of Estaires (9–11 April)[edit]

The German bombardment opened on the evening of 7 April, against the southern part of the Allied line between Armentières and Festubert. The barrage continued until dawn on 9 April. The Sixth Army then attacked with eight divisions. The German assault struck the Portuguese 2nd Division, which held a front of about 11 kilometres (6.8 mi). The Portuguese division was overrun and withdrew towards Estaires.[Note 1] The British 55th Division, to the south of the Portuguese in a more defensible position, pulled back its northern brigade and held its ground for the rest of the battle, despite attacks from two German reserve divisions. The British 40th Division (to the north of the Portuguese) collapsed under the German attack and fell back to the north.[8]

Horne committed his reserves (1st King Edward's Horse, 11th Cyclist Battalion) to stem the German breakthrough but they too were defeated.[9] The Germans broke through 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) of front and advanced up to 8 kilometres (5.0 mi), the most advanced probe reaching Estaires on the Lys. There they were finally halted by British reserve divisions.[10] On 10 April, Sixth Army tried to push west from Estaires but was contained for a day; pushing north against the flank of Second Army, it took Armentières.[11]

Battle of Messines (10–11 April)[edit]

British 55th (West Lancashire) Division troops blinded by tear gas during the battle, 10 April 1918

Also on 10 April, German Fourth Army attacked north of Armentières with four divisions, hitting the British 19th Division. Second Army had sent its reserves south to aid First Army and the Germans broke through, advancing up to 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) on a 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) front, and capturing Messines. The 25th Division to the south, flanked on both sides, withdrew about 4 kilometres (2.5 mi).[12]

By 11 April, the British situation was desperate; it was on this day that Haig issued his famous "Backs to the wall" order.[13]

Battle of Hazebrouck (12–15 April)[edit]

On 12 April, Sixth Army renewed its attack in the south, towards the important supply centre of Hazebrouck, another 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) to the west. The Germans advanced some 2–4 kilometres (1.2–2.5 mi) and captured Merville, Nord. On 13 April they were stopped by the Australian 1st Division, which had been transferred to the area. The British 5th and 33rd divisions were also moved there.[14]

Battle of Bailleul (13–15 April)[edit]

From 13–15 April, the Germans drove forward in the centre, taking Bailleul, 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) west of Armentières, despite increasing British resistance. Plumer assessed the heavy losses of Second Army and the defeat of his southern flank and ordered his northern flank to withdraw from Passchendaele to Ypres and the Yser Canal; the Belgian Army to the north conformed.[15]

First Battle of Kemmel (17–19 April)[edit]

The Kemmelberg is a height commanding the area between Armentières and Ypres. On 17–19 April, Fourth Army attacked there but was repulsed by the British.[16]

Battle of Béthune (18 April)[edit]

On 18 April, Sixth Army attacked south from the breakthrough area toward Béthune but was repulsed.[17]

Second Battle of Kemmel (25–26 April)[edit]

French Marshal Foch had recently assumed supreme command of the Allied forces and on 14 April agreed to send French reserves to the Lys sector. A French division relieved the British defenders of the Kemmelberg.[18]

From 25–26 April, Fourth Army made a sudden attack on the Kemmelberg with three divisions and captured it. This success gained some ground but it made no progress toward a new break in the Allied line.[19]

Battle of the Scherpenberg (29 April)[edit]

On 29 April, a final German attack captured the Scherpenberg, a hill to the north-west of the Kemmelberg.[20]

Aftermath[edit]

Analysis[edit]

More French reinforcements arrived in the latter part of April, the Germans had suffered heavy casualties, especially among the stoßtruppen and attacks toward Hazebrouck failed. It was clear that Georgette could not achieve its objectives; on 29 April the German high command called off the offensive.[21]

Casualties[edit]

In 1937 C. B. Davies, J. E. Edmonds and R. G. B. Maxwell-Hyslop, the British Official Historians gave casualties from 9–30 April as c. 82,000 British and a similar number of German casualties. Total casualties since 21 March were British: c. 240,000, French: 92,004 and German: 348,300.[22] In 1978 Middlebrook wrote of 160,000 British casualties, 22,000 killed, 75,000 prisoners and 63,000 wounded. Middlebrook estimated French casualties as 80,000 and German as c. 250,000 with 50–60,000 lightly wounded.[23] In 2002 Marix Evans recorded 109,300 German casualties and the loss of 8 aircraft, British losses of 76,300 men, 106 guns and 60 aircraft and French losses of 35,000 men and twelve guns.[24] In 2006 Zabecki gave 86,000 German, 82,040 British and 30,000 French casualties.[25]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ This action was one of the greatest defeats ever suffered by Portuguese forces. The Portuguese Expeditionary Corps had been reorganising so that the 2nd Portuguese Division of General Gomes da Costa was to have four brigades at full strength and all the artillery of the corps and the 1st Portuguese Division, which would contain two depleted brigades and be withdrawn. The 2nd Division had a total of c. 21,000 men, of whom 17,000 were infantry, a deficit of 6,139 men; the division lost c. 7,000 casualties.[6] Despite the defeat, acts of remarkable bravery were shown by some Portuguese soldiers; Aníbal Milhais (nicknamed "Soldier Millions") repulsed two German assaults single-handedly with a Lewis gun, while covering the retreat of Portuguese and Scottish troops.[7]

Footnotes[edit]

References[edit]

Books
  • Davies, C. B.; Edmonds, J. E.; Maxwell-Hyslop, R. G. B. (1937). Military Operations France and Belgium: 1918 March–April: Continuation of the German Offensives. History of the Great War Based on Official Documents by Direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence II (IWM & Battery Press 1995 ed.). London: Macmillan. ISBN 0-89839-223-3. 
  • Henriques, M. C.; Leitão, A. R. (2001). La Lys, 1918 ("Batalhas de Portugal"). Lisboa: Prefácio. ISBN 972-8563-49-3. 
  • Marix Evans, M. (2002). 1918: The Year of Victories. London: Arcturus. ISBN 0-572-02838-5. 
  • Middlebrook, M. (1978). The Kaiser's Battle (Penguin 1983 ed.). London: Allen Lane. ISBN 0-71391-081-X. 
  • Zabecki, D. T. (2006). Operational Art and the German 1918 Offensives (PhD). London: Routledge. ISBN 0-41535-600-8. Retrieved 3 October 2013. 
Websites

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]