Gazetteer of the Western Front: Borre

Location

Borre is a village East of Hazebrouck in the Department of Nord, France.
Lat: 50° 43′ 86” N
Lon: 2° 25′ 07” E

Background

Never a large place, Borre had a population of about 650 in 1914. It comprised little more than a few houses and buildings along the Hazebrouck-Bailleul road and its junction with a lane that goes south to Sec Bois. The main feature of the village was, and remains, the remarkable Church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste, parts of which date from the 11th Century.

This map of 1915 reveals Borre to be a very small commune. It was the railway that ran to the west side of the village that made it an important spot during the Great War. Where it cuts across the main road was known to the British as “Onward Crossing”.

1914-1917

Borre never fell into German hands during the Great War and for most of the time was far enough away from the front line of the Armentières sector to be safe from all but the very longest range artillery fire and attack from the air.

The first British troops to enter Borre were those of the 2nd Cavalry Division. Early on 12 October 1914 a squadron of the 16th Lancers, acting as advanced guard to the 3rd Cavalry Brigade, entered the village.  It was followed by the rest of the brigade, which then set out for Pradelles  where it encountered an advanced screen of Uhlans. The division established its headquarters in the village during the same day, but soon moved out to Caestre. The division had been ordered to reconnoitre to the east, as there were reports of German cavalry of the IV Cavalry Corps advancing westwards in the area south of Bailleul. The two forces encountered each other within a few days and fighting commenced, leaving the front line stabilised east of Ploegsteert and Armentières by the end of the month.

Part of map from British Official History 1914 volume II, illustrating events 9-11 October 1914.

The village became used for billeting of troops, the location of headquarters and stores.

The railway line to the west of the village became one of the most vital of all British supply routes on the Western Front. It ran from Hazebrouck up to Poperinghe in Belgium, going via international border stations at Godewaersvelde and Abeele,  and became the principal rail route for supplies for the Ypres and Messines sectors of the front. A single track line in 1914, it was doubled by the British Army. A major set of sidings and locomotive maintenance depot, known as Borre North, was also built alongside it.

Borre North can be seen at the top left of this map. It also shows the railway marshalling yard built near Merris (bottom left of the map). The trench lines shown date to 1918 but for the most part were planned rather than constructed.

1918

In April 1918, the German offensive Operation “Georgette” (the Battle of the Lys), aiming to seize the key railway junctions at Hazebouck, brought the fighting front to within just six miles of Borre. The Merris and Borre North railway facilities had to be abandoned as they were now under shell fire, and the operation of the supply line to Ypres was rendered most hazardous. The remaining civilian population of Borre was evacuated. This situation remained unchanged until the Allies began offensive action during September and pushed the enemy further from the area.

The red line on this map indicates the final position of the Allied front when Operation “Georgette” was finally brought to a halt. The Germans were now just six miles from the key supply route passing through “Onward Crossing”. The line here was held by the 1st Australian Division, hurriedly returned to this sector after a brief period on the Somme in April 1918.

The second track was dismantled after the war and trains ceased running on this line in 1954.

“Onward Crossing” today. The lane ahead of us is on the site of the old line going up towards Godewaersvelde and Poperinghe.

Australian War Memorial photograph E04742. 17 April 1918. Members of the 9th Battalion of the 1st Australian Division, whilst deploying in the fields near Borre, in Northern France, after having been shelled out of the farmhouses near by. The characteristic tower of the church in Borre can be seen in the centre. It is evident that despite the battle having approcahed the village, its builings were still largely intact.

Battlefield visits

Borre British Cemetery and the ten military graves in the churchyard of  Saint-Jean-Baptiste are in the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The cemetery was used from May to September 1918 by field ambulances and fighting units, particularly those of the 1st Australian Division, that were holding this front. There are no memorials within the village except for its own memorial to those from Borre itself.

Military graves in the churchyard at Borre.

Borre is only a small village and has few facilities for visitors. There is a small cafe-tabac-bar, “Le Saint Eloi”, opposite the church and a restaurant “Au bon acceuil” a few metres further on in the Pradelles direction. There are many possibilities for hotel accommodation in Hazebrouck and Bailleul, and many B&Bs and gites around the general area.

Books

Borre is featured in my book “The Battle of the Lys 1918: South: Objective Hazebrouck”.

Links

Gazetteer of the Western Front

Mairie de Borre: official site of the commune