Battles of the Western Front in France and Flanders

Historical framework

The definition of the non-stop war in France and Flanders shown below is that from the Report of the Battles Nomenclature Committee of May 1921, with a few of the names being slightly modified by the accepted regimental battle honours listed in 1924. It incorporates only those battles in which British and Commonwealth forces participated so, for example, omits the Battle of Verdun in 1916 and the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne in 1918. The definition employed a number of layers of description:

  • Phases: the report broke the war into seven phases.
  • Operations: applied to a series of military events taking place in a certain area and between certain dates, having a common purpose or effect.
  • Battles: used to describe a group of battles. An example is the fighting in the Somme sector in 1916 which is often referred to as the Battle of the Somme but was defined as being made up of twelve individual Battles and three Actions.
  • Battle: one distinct engagement. Some contain defined “Tactical incidents“.
  • Action.

Phase I: the German invasion

Operations: the retreat from Mons, 23 August to 5 September 1914

23-24 August 1914, Battle of Mons (page also includes subsequent actions of Elouges, Solesmes and Landrecies)
A very small part of the initial clashes between the German and Entente Armies, often known as the Battle of the Frontiers. The British Expeditionary Force begins lengthy Retreat from Mons which only ends in early September.

26 August 1914:  Battle of Le Cateau
British II Corps fights a holding action during the Retreat from Mons. The page also includes details of other smaller rearguard actions during the continuing retreat.

Operations: the advance to the Aisne, 6 September – 1 October 1914

7-10 September 1914, Battle of the Marne
The BEF plays a small part in this immense, decisive battle that halts the German advance into France. The Entente forces now begin to advance northwards.

12-15 September 1914, Battle of the Aisne
The German retreat halts on the heights of the Chemin des Dames ridge above the Aisne. Attempts by the BEF to advance further are halted and both sides dig in.

Operations: the defence of Antwerp, 4-10 October 1914

The defence of Antwerp
While the BEF is now entrenched at the Aisne, a force (mainly of naval troops) is sent to help the Belgian Army defend Antwerp.

Imperial War Museum photograph Q109652: “British soldiers marching through a town”. This battalion of infantry is in fact moving through the French hilltop town of Cassel, on their way to the Flanders front in late 1914.

Operations: operations in Flanders, 10 October – 22 November 1914

10 October – 2 November 1914, Battles of La Bassee, Messines and Armentieres
The whole BEF is moved to Flanders from the Aisne, as part of an effort to outflank the Germans in France. On arrival it encounters Germans moving to outflank the Entente forces. These battles form part of a phase often, but incorrectly, referred to as the Race to the Sea.

19 October – 22 November 1914, Battles of Ypres, 1914
Often known as the First Battle of Ypres, this is a group of named battles that also form part of the outflanking encounter. It becomes a desperate epic fight east of the city of Ypres which finally results in stalemate and entrenched warfare. It takes place at the same time as the Battle of the Yser, fought nearby by the Belgian Army and French forces against the Germans.

 

Phase II: trench warfare 1914-1916

November 1914 – February 1915, Winter operations, 1914-15
French orders for a major offensive in December lead to disastrous piecemeal British attacks. Localised operations seeking tactical advantage continue through winter.

Operations: Summer operations, March to October 1915

10 March – 22 April 1915, Battle of Neuve Chapelle and later actions at St Eloi and Hill 60
British First Army mounts first offensive on large scale: costly in terms of casualties but results in capture of Neuve Chapelle (10-13 March). Localised operations continue afterwards.

22 April – 25 May 1915, Battles of Ypres, 1915
Often known as the Second Battle of Ypres, this began with surprise German attack using poison gas against French North African forces holding defences near Ypres. Both sides rushed reserves in and the battle developed into the second epic in that area. British Second Army withdraws to a shorter line near Ypres.

9 May 1915, Battle of Aubers
A disastrous attack that cost 11,000 British casualties for no material gain: it was a minor supporting operation to a much larger French attack in an action known as the Second Battle of Artois.

15-25 May 1915, Battle of Festubert and later actions (15 June – 9 August 1915) at  Givenchy, Bellewaarde and Hooge
As the French attack in Artois continued, the British were called upon to continue offensive operations. Minor gains were made at another heavy cost in casualties.

25 September – 8 October 1915, Battle of Loos and actions at Bellewaarde (25-26 September) and the Hohenzollern Redoubt (13-19 October)
The first genuinely large scale British offensive action but once again only in a supporting role to a larger French attack in the Third Battle of Artois. British appeals that the ground over which they were being called upon to advance was wholly unsuitable were rejected. The battle is historically noteworthy for the first British use of poison gas.

Operations: local operations, 1916

Actions of the Bluff, St Eloi craters, the German attack on Vimy Ridge (21 May) and the Battle of Mount Sorrel (2-13 June)
Localised operations seeking tactical advantage. They include fighting when the Germans first used Phosgene gas and the loss and recapture of high ground east of Ypres.

Imperial War Museum photograph Q1374: “Gunners of 156th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, hauling an 8-inch howitzer into position at Longueval, Battle of the Somme, September 1916”.

Phase III: the Allied offensive, 1916

1 July – 18 November 1916, Battles of the Somme
A Franco-British offensive that was undertaken after strategic Allied conferences in late 1915, but which changed its nature due to the German attack against the French in the epic Battle of Verdun, which lasted from late February to November. Huge British losses on the first day followed by series of fiercely-contested steps that became attritional in nature. For all armies on the Western Front it was becoming what the Germans would call materialschlacht: a war not of morale, will or even manpower, but of sheer industrial material might. 15 September 1916 saw the first-ever use of tanks in the step known as the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. The British army in France is now approaching its maximum strength but is still developing in terms of tactics, technology, command and control.

 

Phase IV: the advance to the Hindenburg Line, 1917

Operations: operations on the Ancre, 11 January – 13 March 1917

Operations on the Ancre
Final flickering of the Somme offensive as British seek localised tactical advantage on heights above valley of the River Ancre.

Operations: German retreat to the Hindenburg Line, 14 March – 5 April 1917

Pursuit of the retreat to the Hindenburg Line
During Somme fighting of 1916 the Germans constructed a formidable new defensive system some miles in their rear. From March 1917 they began to withdraw into it, giving up ground but in carrying out Operation Alberich they make that ground as uninhabitable and difficult as possible. British detect the withdrawal and cautiously follow up and advance, being brought to a standstill at the outer defences of the system.

 

Phase V: the Allied offensives, 1917

Operations: the Arras offensive, 9 April – 15 May 1917

and

Operations: flanking operations to the Arras offensive (notably Bullecourt and towards Lens)

The Battles of Arras, 1917 including the flanking actions
Once again the British are called upon to launch an attack in support to a larger French offensive: the battles of the Chemin des Dames and the hills of Champagne. The opening Battle of Vimy and the First Battle of the Scarpe are very encouraging, but once again the offensive – often known as the Battle of Arras – bogs down into an attritional slog. Final attempts to outflank the German lines at Bullecourt prove terribly costly.

Operations: the Flanders offensive, 7 June – 10 November 1917

7-14 June 1917, Battle of Messines
A brilliantly planned and executed attack that resulted in the capture of the Wytschaete-Messines ridge south of Ypres, a feature that had given the British problems since 1914 and which was important to hold for future offensive operations in Flanders. Commenced with one of the heaviest artillery bombardments of the war and the explosion of nineteen enormous and long-prepared underground mines.

Article: Planned landing on the Belgian coast and German Operation Strandfest
Plans were made for an audacious British attack against the German-held coast of Belgium; a force was assembled and specialist training began. But a necessary advance from Ypres (in ‘Third Ypres’, below) did not materialise and the operation was inevitably cancelled. A sharp German attack against British preparations in the Battle of the Dunes (Operation Strandfest) also disrupted matters.

31 July – 10 November 1917, Battles of Ypres, 1917
The British finally got what they had wanted since 1914: the opportunity to attack at Ypres and breakout of the confines of the salient of trenches around it. Often known as the Third Battle of Ypres or Passchendaele, the offensive began with encouraging gains but terrible summer weather soon bogged it down.By August the offensive was clearly failing in its objectives and had descended into attritional fighting. New techniques by both sides led to agonisingly slow forward movement for the British, at enormous cost in casualties. Bad weather in October led to the battlefield becoming an impossible quagmire.

Operations: the Cambrai operations, 20 November – 7 December 1917

20 November – 3 December 1917, Battle of Cambrai and later operations
A British attack, originally conceived as a very large scale raid, that employed new artillery techniques and massed tanks. Initially very successful with large gains of ground being made, but German reserves brought the advance to a halt. ten days later, a counter-attack regained much of the ground. Ultimately a disappointing and costly outcome, but Cambrai is now seen by historians as the blueprint for the successful Hundred Days offensives of 1918.

Article: Lloyd George commits the BEF to an unwanted extension of the line in early 1918

Article: Manpower crisis in early 1918 forces reorganisation of the British infantry in France

 

Phase VI: the German offensives, 1918

Operations: the Offensive in Picardy, 21 March – 5 April 1918

21 March – 5 April 1918, First Battles of the Somme, 1918
After transferring very large forces from the now-collapsed Eastern Front, the German high command commits to a series of large-scale offensives. The first, Operation Michael, strikes the British Fifth and Third Armies. A deep advance is made and inflicts large losses, although the second phase, Operation Mars, at Arras on 28 March, is soon held. In the crisis, the Allies decide to appoint French General Foch as co-ordinator, and soon enough, as Generalissimo. Enough French and British reserves are finally assembled to hold the German advance before it captures the critical railway junctions at Amiens.

Operations: the Offensive in Flanders, 21 March – 5 April 1918

9-29 April 1918, Battles of the Lys
The third German offensive Operation Klein-George (Georgette) takes place in Flanders with the objective of capturing key railway and supply roads and cutting off British Second Army at Ypres. After initial successes the German attack is once again held after British, Commonwealth and French reserves are somehow found and deployed.

Operations: the Offensive in Champagne, 27 May – 6 June 1918

27 May – 6 June 1918, Battle of the Aisne, 1918
A small and tired British force, sent to the Chemin des Dames in exchange for fresh French divisions that went north, was struck and virtually destroyed as part of another German offensive, Operation Bluecher.

 

Imperial War Museum photograph Q9372: “Attack on the Hindenburg Line. Mark V Tanks with ‘cribs’ and troops going forward, near Bellicourt, 29 September 1918”.

Phase VII: the advance to victory, 1918

Operations: the counter attack in Champagne, 20 July – 2 August 1918

20 July – 2 August 1918, Battles of the Marne, 1918 and the battles of the Soisonnais and Ourcq (23 July – 2 August)and Tardenois (20-31 July)
A British force takes part in Foch’s very large scale and highly successful counter offensive of the Marne, which proves to be the start of an unbroken series of Allied successes.

Operations: the advance in Picardy, 8 August – 3 September 1918

8-11 August 1918, Battle of Amiens and later actions around Damery
The British Fourth Army attacks alongside French forces further south and scores a notable victory and a deep advance from Amiens: Ludendorff calls 8 August ‘the black day of the German Army’.

21 August – 3 September 1918, Second Battles of the Somme, 1918
British Third and Fourth Armies commence offensive operations on the same ground over which the 1916 Battle of the Somme was fought. They make a deep advance.

Operations: the advance in Flanders, 18 August – 6 September 1918

Advance in Flanders
Second and Fifth Armies begin operations in the Lys valley, recapturing the ground lost in April 1918.

Operations: breaking of the Hindenburg Line, 26 August – 12 October 1918

and Operations: the pursuit to the Selle, 9-12 October 1918

26 August – 3 September 1918, Second Battles of Arras, 1918
First and Third Armies attack successful from Arras and break the German Drocourt-Queant Line.

12 September – 9 October 1918, Battles of the Hindenburg Line
A series of very large scale offensive operations that advance to and break the Hindenburg Line system. Carried out by the First, Third and Fourth Armies these victories rank among the greatest-ever British military achievements. The German Army fights on but it is increasingly clear that their ability to do so is declining fast.

Operations: the final advance in Flanders, 28 September – 11 November 1918

28 September – 2 October, the Battles of Ypres 1918 and 14-19 October, the Battle of Cambrai  More
The British Second Army and Belgian Army combine and finally break out of the Ypres salient. More ground is gained in a day that in the entire Passchendaele offensive of a year before. The offensive continues through fighting in the Courtrai area.

Operations: the final advance in Artois, 2 October – 11 November 1918

Final advance in Artois
First and Fifth Armies continue the advance in the Artois region, liberating the French coalfields, Lens and Douai.

Operations: the final advance in Picardy, 17 October – 11 November 1918

Final advance in Picardy
The hardest-fought of the final offensive actions, incorporating the Battles of the Selle, Valenciennes and Sambre. First, Third and Fourth Armies exploit their success in breaking the Hindenburg Line by pushing on, recapturing Valenciennes and finally in liberating Mons – where it had all begun for the British Expeditionary Force more than four years before.

Article: the Armistice and the advance to the Rhine
Selected British forces advance across Belgium, cross into Germany and take up position on the Rhine, in accordance with the terms of the Armistice of 11 November 1918.

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