Le Havre, a French port on the English Channel used by the British Expeditionary Force throughout the Great War, developed into a primary base. The map below shows its 1914 railway connections to the area of the Western Front. It lies, as an example, 280km from Arras. Le Havre had been agreed as the main base in the pre-war plans agreed between the British and French military authorities.
The primary railway route towards the Western Front ran from Le Havre through Abancourt and the Amiens area. Many thousands of British and Commonwealth troops moved to the front by this route, having first arrived at Le Havre.
A pre-war plan of the port of Le Havre.
The BEF arrives at Le Havre
The staff of BEF Base Number 1 was mobilised at Southampton on 5 August 1914 and landed from the ship “Vera” at about midnight on 9-10 August.
Its headquarters was established at the Quai Transatlantique; the General Headquarters of 3rd Echelon was set up in the Ecole Raspail on Rue Raspail; and the Ecole de Lycee housed the Directors of Remounts, Veterinary Services, Medical, Supplies, Paymaster, Director of Army Signals, Director of Works and Central Requisition Office. The Director of Railway Transport was established at the Gare des Voyageurs. The Ordnance and Supply Depots were at the Quai de la Garonne; Ordnance Repair Shop at Huile Deutsch on Boulevard d’Harfleur.
A number of hospitals were also established in the town (further details appear lower down this page):
Number 1 General Hospital.
Number 2 General Hospital
Number 9 Stationary Hospital at Montivilliers.
Convalescent Depot at Number 2 Rest Camp (below).
Local medical aid posts were set up on Rue du Saigon and at the Ecole Pratique du Commerce on Rue du Lycee.
A Veterinary Hospital was set up in the Usine Bundy on Boulevard Sadi Carnot.
A Veterinary dressing station was established on the Quai du Pondicherry.
Numbers 1, 2 and 3 Rest Camps were near Bléville, average 4.5 miles from Le Havre railway station.
Numbers 6, 7 and 8 Rest Camps were north and east of Graville, average 5 miles.
The march routes to the Rest Camps.
This map includes more distant Rest Camps 4, 5 and 8 to 11.
Le Havre base evacuated
On 29 August 1914, with the Germans making worrying progress into France, orders were received to re-embark and proceed to a new base at Saint-Nazaire. This entailed moving 22,200 personnel, 3,500 horses and 65,000 tons of supplies and material that were by then at Le Havre. The majority had to be moved by sea, as the railway network was judged to be at risk. Le Havre was cleared by 5 September 1914.
Le Havre base re-established
By mid-September 1914 it was considered that the threat to the BEF’s lines of communication had reduced and steps were taken to re-establish at Le Havre. The area was rapidly developed for military purposes and the following facilities and units are known to have been based there. This list is not exhaustive and will be added to whenever I find new details.
1 General Hospital. Arrived at Quai Saigon from Dublin 20 August 1914. Initially established in tents on swampy ground known as Champs des Barets, between Boulevard Sadi Carnot and the railway line. 30 August received orders to re-embark. Sailed on 3 September and went to St-Nazaire. 26 September 1914 received orders to return to Le Havre. Arrived by train two days later. Set up in tents at Sanvic. In mid-October began to carry out building alterations and equip Palais des Régates for use as a hospital. Gradually moved in. 26 November 1914 began to prepare to relocate to Étretat. Completed move 3 December 1914.
2 General Hospital. Arrived 15 August 1914. Set up at the Ecole Jean Macé at Sanvic and officers hospitals at the Ecole Jeanne d’Arc (briefly) and in the Palais des Régates hotel. 21 August 1914 made arrangements to take over the are Maritime on Quai d’Escale. Set up local aid posts at Quai Saigon and 130 Rue de Lycée and another hospital unit in the Casino on the Esplanade. 30 August received orders to re-embark, leaving the Gare Maritime unit open for work during the evacuation of the base (it appears to have remained at Le Havre throughout). Arrived at St-Nazaire by 5 September. 26 September 1914 received orders to return to Le Havre. Took over the Palais des Régates when 1 General Hospital left in early December 1914.
6 Stationary Hospital. Arrived 27 August 1914. Three days later received orders to re-embark at short notice. Left with 1 General Hospital on 3 September. Returned to Le Havre 1 December 1914 and moved into the Hotel des Emigrantes on Rue de Phalsbourg. Left in May 1916.
7 Canadian Stationary Hospital. Arrived from England 19 June 1916. Took over a section of the Hotel des Emigrantes. Established a large tented hospital at Camp 19, Lezarde Valley, Harfleur. Entire hospital was based at Camp 19 from 31 December 1916. Left area 13 May 1917.
9 Stationary Hospital. Arrived 15 August 1914 and set up in Montevilliers. Left on 3 September. Returned to Le Havre 23 October 1914 and set up at Sanvic.
39 General Hospital. Formed from 9 Stationary Hospital July 1916.
40 Stationary Hospital. Arrived from England on 21 April 1917. Initially at Number 2 Rest Camp until ordered to replace 7 Canadian Hospital at Harfleur. Moved to Camp 19, Harfleur 12 May 1917.
52 Stationary Hospital. Formed from 2 General Hospital on 1 March 1918.
Other facilities and units known to have been based at Le Havre or Harfleur
8 Field Butchery.
A cold stores.
The first Army Printing and Stationary Services Press was established in Le Havre in July 1915.
A School of Cookery
A degreasing plant.
No 1 General Base Depot for Royal Garrison Artillery (I have not been able to establish exactly when it took place (it appears to be by 1916) but the RGA relocated its personnel base depot to Harfleur).
No 2 General Base Depot for Royal Horse Artillery and Royal Field Artillery.
No 3 General Base Depot for Canadian forces, situated at Rouelles.
Army Service Corps Base Depot.
Army Ordnance Corps Base Depot.
Army Veterinary Corps Base Depot.
1 Infantry Base Depot
8 Infantry Base Depot
36 Infantry Base Depot
47 Infantry Base Depot (at Harfleur)
48 Infantry Base Depot (located at Camp 18)
49 Infantry Base Depot
Guards Division Base Depot
1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 Australian Division Base Depots
“Cinder City”, described by one New Zealand newspaper of 16 February 1916 thus: “Not long ago it was a swamp by the sea, bu a number of workers set to and buried the marsh in embers, and now a big YMCA hut and a large camp stand upon the cinder heap. The inhabitants of Cinder City are men who have ‘done their bit’ but for one reason are another are not fit to go back.”
Ships that are known to have carried troops from Great Britain to Le Havre in 1914 include:
Adenwen, African Prince, Almerian, Anglo-Canadian, Archimedes, Architect, Atlantian, Australia, Australind
Caesarea, Caledonia, Cardiganshire, Cestrian, Cherniston, Chyebassa, City of Benares, City of Chester, City of Dunkirk, City of Edinburgh, Cornishman, Courtfield, Cymric
Georgian, Glenarm Head
Hantonia, Honorious, Huanchaco
Inventor, Italian Prince
Karnak, Karnia, Kephren, Kingstonian
Lake Michigan, Lydia
Maidan, Manchester Engineer, Manchester Importer, Matheran, Minnesota, Mount Temple
Normaince, Normannia, Novian
Orange Prince, Oxonian
Palm Branch, Pancras
Teviot, Thespia, Tintoretta, Trafford Hall, Trevelyan, Turcoman
British and Commonwealth cemeteries in the area
Ste-Marie Cemetery: According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the first burials took place in Division 14 of Ste Marie Cemetery in mid August 1914. Burials in Divisions 19, 3, 62 and 64 followed successively. A memorial in Plot 62 marks the graves of 24 casualties from the hospital ship ‘Salta’ and her patrol boat, sunk by a mine on 10 April 1917. The memorial also commemorates by name the soldiers, nurses and merchant seamen lost from the ‘Salta’ whose bodies were not recovered, and those lost in the sinking of the hospital ship ‘Galeka’ (mined on 28 October 1916) and the transport ship ‘Normandy’ (torpedoed on 25 January 1918), whose graves are not known. There are now 1,690 Commonwealth burials of the First World War in this cemetery, 8 of which are unidentified.
Other points of interest
The Belgian Government in exile was established in Le Havre in October 1914. It was mainly based in the Immeuble Dufayel in Ste-Adresse.
The German submarine U-21 called the steamer “Malachite” to halt when en route to Le Havre from Liverpool and off the Cape Le Have at 4pm on 23 November 1914. After the crew of 13 were evacuated to boats, the submarine fired upon the ship. “Malachite” caught fire and eventually sank. Earlier on the same day, U-21 had also halted and fired upon the “Primo”, bound from Newcastle, after evacuating its crew of 18. “Primo” also burned and was rendered derelict.
By the end of 1915, Belgian munitions workshops had been established in the Le Havre suburb of Graville-Sainte-Honorine and extended over 5 hectares of land around the Usine Bundy factory on Sadi Carnot Boulevard. They also included the buildings of another abandoned factory, the Gold Factory located in Gonfreville-L’Orcher. The latter contained 320 tons of explosives. On 11 December 1915, at around 10 am, an explosion destroyed the Gold Factory. In all the communes spreading some 50km round Le Havre, in Lisieux, Yvetot, Fécamp, Pont-Audemer and even in Dieppe (130 km), resultant damage to property was were considerable. Some 110 people were killed (almost all Belgian workers) and about 1000 injured. It is said that the detonation was so great that in Rouen (90 km) the ground shook. The precise cause of the explosion was never discovered.
War diary of Commandant Havre Base, National Archives WO95/4030.
War diaries of units mentioned above, where they exist.
British Newspaper Archive.