Battle of La Bassée
|Battle of La Bassée|
|Part of the Race to the Sea on the Western Front (World War I)|
Neuve Chapelle to La Bassée area, 1914
|United Kingdom||German Empire|
|Commanders and leaders|
| Sir John French,
|Crown Prince Rupprecht|
|2nd Cavalry Brigade
|Casualties and losses|
|c. 15,000||6,000 (incomplete)|
The Battle of La Bassée was fought by German and Franco-British forces in northern France in October 1914, during reciprocal attempts by the opposing armies to envelop the northern flank of their opponent, which was sometimes known as the Race to the Sea. The German 6th Army took Lille before a British force could secure the town, while the 4th Army arrived and attacked the exposed British flank at Ypres. The British were driven back and the German Army occupied La Bassée and Neuve Chapelle. Around 15 October, the British recaptured Givenchy-en-Gohelle but failed to recover La Bassée. German reinforcements arrived and regained the initiative until the arrival of the Lahore Division of the Indian Corps. The British repulsed German attacks until early November, when both sides concentrated their resources on the battle of Ypres and the fighting at La Bassée diminished.
From 17 September – 17 October the belligerents had made reciprocal attempts to turn the northern flank of their opponent. Joffre ordered the French Second Army to move to the north of the French Sixth Army, by moving from eastern France from 2–9 September and Falkenhayn ordered the German Sixth Army to move from the German-French border to the northern flank on 17 September. By the next day French attacks north of the Aisne, led to Falkenhayn ordering the Sixth Army to repulse French forces to secure the flank. When French advanced it met a German attack rather than an open flank on 24 September and by 29 September the Second Army had been reinforced to eight corps but was still opposed by German forces near Lille, rather than advancing around the German northern flank. The German Sixth Army had also found that on arrival in the north, it was forced to oppose the French attack rather than advance around the flank and that the secondary objective of protecting the northern flank of the German armies in France had become the main task.
By 6 October the French needed British reinforcements to withstand German attacks around Lille. The BEF had begun to move from the Aisne to Flanders on 5 October and reinforcements from England assembled on the left flank of the Tenth Army, which had been formed from the left flank units of the Second Army on 4 October. The Allies and the Germans, attempted to take more ground after the "open" northern flank had disappeared, the Franco-British attacks towards Lille in October, being followed up by attempts to advance between the BEF and the Belgian army by a new French Eighth Army. The moves of the 7th and then the 6th Army from Alsace and Lorraine had been intended to secure German lines of communication through Belgium, where the Belgian army had sortied several times during the period between the Franco-British retreat and the Battle of the Marne. In August British marines had landed at Dunkirk. In October a new 4th Army was assembled from the III Reserve Corps and the siege artillery used against Antwerp and four of the new reserve corps training in Germany.
French offensive preparations
By 4 October the troops under Maud'huy were at risk of encirclement, when German troops reached Givenchy, to the north-west of Vimy and the left-hand French division had been separated from the cavalry operating further north; a gap had been forced between the Territorial divisions to the south and X Corps. Castelnau and Maud'huy wished to withdraw but rather than lose all of northern France, Joffre created a new Tenth Army from Maud'huy's forces and gave Castelnau a directive to maintain the Second Army in its positions until the pressure of operations further north, diminished the power of German attacks between the Oise and the Somme. Foch was appointed deputy to Joffre and given command of all French troops in the north. On 6 October the French line from the Oise to Arras had been secured; Joffre and French had agreed to concentrate the BEF around Doullens, Arras and St. Pol, ready for operations on the left of the French Tenth Army.
By 8 October the French XXI Corps had moved its left flank to Vermelles, just short of La Bassée Canal. Further north the French I and II Cavalry corps under Conneau and de Mitry, part of the 87th Territorial Division and some Chasseurs held a line from Béthune to Estaires, Merville, Aire, Fôret de Clairmarais and St. Omer, where the rest of the 87th Territorial Division connected with Dunkirk; Cassel and Lille further east were still occupied by French troops. Next day the German XIV Corps arrived opposite the French, which released the German 1st and 2nd Cavalry corps to attempt a flanking move between La Bassée and Armentières. The French cavalry were able to stop the German attack north of the La Bassée–Aire canal. The 4th Cavalry Corps further north managed to advance and on 7 October passed through Ypres, before being forced back to Bailleul by French Territorial troops near Hazebrouck. From 8–9 October the British II Corps arrived by rail at Abbeville and was ordered to advance on Béthune.
British offensive preparations
The British 1st and 2nd Cavalry divisions covered the arrival of the infantry and on 10 October, using motor buses supplied by the French, II Corps advanced 22 miles (35 km). By the end of 11 October, II Corps held a line from Béthune to Hinges and Chocques, with flanking units on the right 3.5 miles (5.6 km) south of Béthune and on the left 4.5 miles (7.2 km) to the west of the town. On 12 October the II Corps divisions attacked to reach a line from Givenchy to Pont du Hem, 6 miles (9.7 km) north of La Bassée Canal across ground which was flat and dotted with farms and buildings as far as a low ridge 10 miles (16 km) east of Béthune. The German defenders of the I and II Cavalry corps and attached Jäger disputed every tactical feature but the British advance continued and a German counter-attack near Givenchy was repulsed. The British dug in from Noyelles to Fosse. On 13 October the II Corps attack by the 3rd Division and the French 7th Cavalry Division gained little ground and Givenchy was almost lost to a German attack delivered in a heavy rainstorm, with British casualties of c. 1,000 men.
On 14 and 15 October the II Corps attacked on both sides of La Bassée Canal and German counter-attacks were made each night. The British managed short advances on the flanks, with help from French cavalry but lost 967 casualties. From 16–18 October II Corps attacks pivoted on the right as the left flank advanced to Aubers against German opposition at every ditch and bridge, which inflicted another thousand casualties. Givenchy was recaptured by the British on 16 October Violaines was taken and a foothold established on Aubers Ridge on 17 October; French cavalry captured Fromelles. On 18 October German resistance increased as the German XIII Corps arrived, reinforced the VII Corps and gradually forced the II Corps to a halt. On 19 October British infantry and French cavalry captured Le Pilly (Herlies) but were forced to retire by German artillery-fire. The fresh German 13th and 14th divisions had arrived and began to counter-attack against all of the II Corps front. At the end of 20 October the II Corps was ordered to dig in, from the canal near Givenchy, to Violaines, Illies, Herlies and Riez, while offensive operations continued to the north.
The Germans had attempted to break through this line up until the 29 October, even though it was not as strategically vital as Ypres, covering the Channel Ports. British artillery broke up attacks and machine-guns prevented the German infantry from making noticeable gains. At one point, German infantry did succeed in creating a gap between 8th Brigade of the 3rd Division and the Jullundur Brigade of the Lahore division. The 15th Sikh and 1st Gordon battalions suffered heavily as both were inexperienced. The Sikhs in particular showed complete disregard for their own safety under shellfire. The Gordons had lost 80% of their pre-war regulars since the Battle of Le Cateau and had been sent drafts of reservists. The 4th Middlesex of 8th Brigade restored the front by counter-attack in the evening.
The state of II Corps was such that Smith-Dorrien asked the French for help. De Maud'huy also moved up his units to Givenchy and took over the line, enabling the 5th Division to free three battalions for a reserve. Maud'huy agreed this, as the towns loss would mean the Germans could create a gap between the two armies. Conneau's Cavalry Corps contributed nine batteries, 5,000 cyclists, a dismounted battalion of 600 men and 300 men from a Chasseur battalion. On 26 October, the Germans launched an attack on the junction between the 3rd Division and the 5th Division at Neuve-Chapelle. The Germans captured the town and reduced the 2nd Royal Irish to 20 officers and men. Despite the destruction of the Irish and the loss of four guns, the battalions on each flank held and a counter-attack was organised at dusk by five companies from mixed battalions, which restored the line and retook most of the village, although the Germans remained in the northern edge.
The next day, II Corps began an attack towards Neuve-Chappelle but a German attack at the same time, swept through the remaining British battalions, destroying the 1st Queens' Own West Kents. The 20th and 15th brigades along with the Lahore Division stopped the attack with difficulty. After the fighting, 7th Brigade in 3rd Division was nearly worn out. Opposite the 3rd Division at Neuve Chappelle were 24 German battalions, the entire German 14th Division of VII Corps. On 28 October, the 7th Brigade, assisted by the 14th Brigade and a battalion lent by the 6th Division, attempted to seize the town and establish a front to the east. Mist, faulty communications, exhausted officers all conspired to make coordination impossible. Only two companies of the 47th Sikhs, and the 20th and 21st companies of the Sappers and Miners advanced on the village and took it in hand-to-hand fighting. The German counter-attack destroyed the Sikhs, who lost 289 men. The Sappers lost all of their officers and one-third of their men. Smith-Dorrien had never intended valuable sapper units to be used in any attacks but they were committed through several misunderstandings and poor communications.
The II Corps was withdrawn for ten day's rest, from the night of 29/30 October by the Indian Corps but most of its battalions had to be sent to the I and III Corps as reinforcements. Smith-Dorrien returned to England on 10 November while Willcocks assumed command of the 14th Brigade of the 5th Division, which acted as a mobile reserve. The Indian Corps battalions came under heavy shellfire during the relief and remained in the front-line trenches, instead of retreating further back temporarily, a practice which had been adopted by experienced units. By 3 November the Indian Corps had suffered 1,989 casualties, c. 65% of which were self-inflicted wounds, not always punished by court martial. On 7 November the 14th Brigade relieved the 8th Brigade near Laventie until 15 November.
The II Corps had c. 14,000 casualties, from 12–31 October. The 3rd Division had 5,835 losses, with the 8th and 9th brigades reduced by about 50%. The 5th Division nearly as many casualties and the Indian Corps up to 31 October had 1,565 casualties. On 31 October II Corps had only 14,000 men of the original 24,000 man establishment, of which c. 1,400 men were inexperienced drafts. The Germans admitted 6,000 casualties during the battles with II Corps.
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