Gazetteer of the Western Front: Moislains

Location

This page is about the French village of Moislains. It is situated in the Departement of Somme, about five miles north of Peronne. It lies on the little River Tortille, and just east of the village runs the wide Canal du Nord. East of the canal the ground rises steeply to a ridge of high ground along which runs the Nurlu to Peronne road.

Moislains as it was before the war. A larger village than most in the Somme area, but mainly developed along its high street. The Tortille – not much more than a stream – runs through the village. Construction of the Canal du Nord began in 1908 but was halted in 1914. The war caused widespread destruction of the canal and the French government made no attempt to resume construction for many years. Construction recommenced in 1960 and this wide waterway opened to the public in 1965. The map above shows that it was completed and bridged in the Moislains area by the time of the Great War. The large “Schwob et Lévy” cotton weaving factory (“Tissage”) was established in the village.

A pre-war photograph of the cotton works. Copyright Ministère de la culture and AGIR-Pic, with my thanks.

The Great War in Moislains

German forces approached Moislains during the major attack on France in August 1914.

Part of a map from the British Official History. German forces green, French blue, British red. It shows the position at the night of 27 August 1914. The British are in retreat and II Corps has reached the Somme around the town of Ham. French forces are assembling west of the Somme near Peronne, and their 61st and 62nd Reserve Divisions are SW of Bapaume. German patrols have reached the Moislains area (not named here but just east of Bouchavesnes).

During 28 August, the Germans captured Moislains and by day’s end had reached the line of the Somme. During the day, the French 307 and 308th Regiments of Infantry from the Charente region (mainly from Angoulême and Bergerac) made a counter attack aimed at dislodging the enemy from the village, but found them ready and dug in. The losses to the French were heavy: some 3000 killed, wounded and missing of whom around 600 were dead. Their action did not have a significant effect on the overall German progress, but it could be argued that it helped keep the British II Corps from an enveloping action from the north of their position.

Once the fighting line settled down west of Peronne, Moislains was far enough from the danger zone to be used by the German forces for billeting and camps. A German field hospital was established in the village immediately after the fighting of 28 August.

During March 1917 the German forces made a strategic withdrawal from the Somme area, evacuating Moislains before going further eastwards to the prepared defensive system known to the British as the Hindenburg Line. As they withdrew, British forces cautiously advanced in their wake, but found the going difficult. During the withdrawal the Germans carried out a “scorched earth” policy to render the area uninhabitable and militarily difficult to occupy. Much of the village was also badly damaged.

Imperial War Museum image Q61296. Ruins of the church at Moislains, 27 July 1917.

Moislains once again fell into German hands on 23 March 1918, during the offensive “Operation Michael” (British name the “First Battles of the Somme, 1918”).

Part of a map from the British Official History. At the start of 23 March 1918, the British front line was that shown in black. The line east of the village was being defended by the South African Brigade of the 9th (Scottish) Division and 110 Brigade of the the 21st Division. By day’s end the entire area had been captured and the British pushed back to the position shown as a dashed line. Next day, the South Africans came into one of their most famous actions, in the defence of Marrieres Wood.

Imperial War Museum image Q8594. Troops of the South African Scottish Regiment on the Moislains-Bouchavesnes road, 23 March 1918.

Part of a map from the British Official History. Moislains was recaptured during the deep advance made by the British Fourth Army in the “Second Battle of Bapaume”, a phase of the “Hundred Days Offensive”. It fell to the 12th (Eastern) Division on 4-5 September 1918. The British front at the end of 5 September is shown by a red dot-dot-dot-dash line.

Imperial War Museum image Q7045. Troops of the 7th (Service) Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment, and one of the 7.7 cm (770 mm) FK 96 n.A. field guns they captured. Near Moislains, 5 September 1918.

 A 1919 view of the cotton works: like the rest of Moislains, devastated. Copyright Ministère de la culture and AGIR-Pic, with my thanks.

Visiting Moislains on your battlefield tour

A view of Moislains from the west. The village lies in a valley. Beyond it, high ground often referred to as the Moislains Ridge or Nurlu Ridge. There are relatively few reminders of the Great War in the village itself, but a tour around the area is educational: the vast, open fields across which the armies fought; the tactical importance of the ridge; the difficulty represented by the Canal du Nord. Battlefield visitors to the 1916 Somme area are not too far away from here and will find much of interest in a drive around the areas shown on the maps of this page.

The most significant war site in the Moislains area is the French National Cemetery (Nécropole nationale des Charentais), reminding us of the 1914 fighting and the great sacrifices made. It lies about one mile north of the village and is well signposted. Not far away, the group of French, German and British cemeteries at Rancourt are also well worth visiting

Moislains has its own village war memorial to men of the area who lost their lives during the Great War, situated in front of the church.

Staying and refreshment in the Moislains area

There is a cafe/tabac in the centre of the village  (alongside the Mairie) and a good boulangerie for bread, sandwiches and pastries. There are plenty of opportunities in nearby Peronne, where there are also hotels, shops and supermarkets.

Links

See more places in the Gazetteer of the Western Front

A somewhat sombre and slow but nonetheless interesting Youtube video about Moislains, including pre-war postcards views of the village: