Biaches is a village in the Somme department of the Hauts-de-France region. It lies on the south bank of the River Somme, facing the town of Péronne.
Biaches can trace its history back at least as far as the founding of a Cistercian Abbey in 1235 but has never developed as more than a rural riverside village. Its population in 1911 was only 446. After destruction in the Great War and subsequent reconstruction it has never regained that figure and in 2018 the population was still only 384.
The village of 1914 possessed few notable features. A small town hall (Mairie) occupied by mayor M. Victor Fernet; the church of Saint-Médard; and a sugar beet refinery works typical of the Somme region. To the south lay La Maisonnette: a house and estate on a somewhat dominant height. The Prussians had shelled Péronne from this height in 1870 during the nine day siege of the town in the Franco-Prussian war.
War returns to Biaches, 1914-1916
The early phase of a war of movement in August and September 1914 left Biaches in German hands and, once the front line stabilised, several miles into the rear. It was used for billeting troops and was the location of munitions dumps. Many of the French dead were buried in the village’s communal cemetery, and a German cemetery was begun on the eastern outskirts of nearby Flaucourt.
In the first phase of the 1916 Battle of the Somme, the French Sixth Army’s attack recaptured the area. Flaucourt was captured 3 July; French cavalry patrols were in Biaches area next day; infantry probed into the outskirts of Biaches 8 July. Biaches and La Maisonnette (the latter strongly fortified) were captured 9-10 July but only after intensive fighting for fortified ruins of the village. A German counterattack with flamethrower was made on 15 July after heavy bombardment. The Germans seized part of village but were ejected on 16 July. No fewer than six counterattack attempts were made on La Maisonette on 17 July, resulting in some German gain but not quite the crest of Hill 97 at the west of the estate. As fighting continued, the Germans recaptured Biaches on 17 July, only to be ejected two days later. It left Biaches in ruins and in the front line.
A map of Biaches produced soon after British forces relieved the French in the Biaches sector.
Biaches in the British area of operations, 1917-1918
On 24 January 1917 the British 48th (South Midland) Division issued orders for its units to relieve those of the French 152nd Division d’Infanterie on the Biaches sector of front. All efforts were to be made to maintain secrecy. The French artillery would continue to cover the front during the relief, until it too was relieved on 5 February. Moves were made accordingly and on 1 February the 143rd Infanty Brigade reported that it had successfully relieved the French 125th Régiment d’Infanterie in the front line. Afte weeks of bitter weather with much snow, there were signs of a thaw but the weather continued frosty.
4 February 1917
It seems that the Germans had become aware of the change. German artillery and trench mortars fired throughout the day, going much damage to trenches and dugouts. The ground was so hard that large solid blocks of earth were thrown up by the explosions. The shelling included tear gas shells which fell in the area between Biaches and Flaucourt. Large enemy infantry raiding parties advanced against both of the division’s brigades in the front line but were eventually beaten off. But this welcome to Biaches had cost the 48th (South Midland) Division, according to its war diary, two officers and 50 men killed; an officer and c.150 men were wounded; and 4 men were missing.
An analysis of the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission reveals a total of 69 dead. Of these, 45 lie in Assevillers New British Cemetery (all brought in during post-war battlefield clearance); 10 are at Heath Cemetery, Harbonnières (all of 1/6th Gloucestershire Regiment brought after the war from what had been Achille British Cemetery); 10 have no known grave and are commemorated at the Thiepval Memorial; 3 are in the communal cemetery at Eclusier-Vaux; and one in Bray Military Cemetery. The dead included a very young officer, Second Lieutenant Francis Belcher. Born in South Africa, he first enlisted aged 15 years and 4 months on 14 September 1914, becoming a Bugler of a Public Schools Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. He later re-enlisted into the London Regiment and was commissioned as an officer on 10 September 1915. He landed in France on 15 July 1916 and was attached to the 1/6th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment when he was killed in this action. Belcher is buried at Assevillers.
20 February 1917
Small raids attempted by 1/4th and 1/6th Gloucestershire Regiment made no progress due to uncut enemy barbed wire but without loss.
24 February 1917
One man was missing after a small German trench raid.
8 March 1917
A raid carried out at 2.15am by 1/4th Berkshire Regiment captured two Germans. Another at 9pm by 145th Brigade had the same result and also took two machine guns.
15 March 1917
An enemy deserter revealed that the Germans were carrying out a retirement (even though patrols that morning had confirmed that the German front line was still held). Aerial observers reported that the Germans had destroyed most of the river crossings south of Péronne. Patrols on 16 March continued to report that the German front line was manned.
17 March 1917
Successful raid in the area of La Maisonette brought back ten prisoners of 88th Infantry Regiment.
During the period 18-21 March, British patrols north of Biaches encountered no opposition and and a bridge was constructed at Halle. Péronne – left by the Germans in a state of absolute devastation – was entered at 7.15am on 18 March. Cavalry crossed the Somme and patrolled as far as Tincourt. The German withdrawal was well underway and Biaches was not only now occupied by British troops but quickly left behind. By 25 March, the front was far enough eastwards for 48th Division’s headquarters to be moved to Le Quinconce near Péronne.
23 March 1918
Two days after the start of German offensive Operation “Michael”, Péronne was lost again. The offensive had gained much ground.
432nd Field Company of the Royal Engineers was ordered to prepare all bridges between Biaches and La Chapelette for demolition, even as remnants of 39th and 50th Divisions were streaming westwards across the river. On 24 March, german units crossed the river and created a small bridgehead, but the defence of Biaches was eventually compromised when German forces crossed the Somme in force at Eterpigny and Brie during the afternoon of 25 March. German fire was then concentrated onto the area between La Maisonette and Ferme Lamire. The division held on until the evening, when it received orders to withdraw westwards. By the time that the offensive was halted in early April, Biaches was once again well into the German rear.
Biaches remained in German hands until 29 August 1918, when it fell as part of the major advance made by Fourth Army: the “Second Battles of the Somme, 1918”. This time, it was captured by 7th Australian Brigade of 2nd Australian Division. Divisional and brigade headquarters reported that the advance had encountered intensive machine gun fire coming from the village, but it that was in Australian hands by 11.25am. The 26th, 27th and 28th Battalions were fortunate in that they found plenty of cover – such earth banks and old trenches – as they approached Biaches. No attemnpt was made to attack it frontally, but outflanking movements effectively surrounded it and opposition was eliminated. La Maisonette proved to be more stoutly defended but again an outflanking ovement on the right led to its fall. The 2nd Australian Division next day crossed teh Somme and on 31 August fought one of its more famous actions, at Mont St. Quentin.
On 27 October 1920 the village was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
The English town of Royal Leamington Spa adopted Biaches after the Great War. An archive collection of documents relating to the financial and practical help provided during the reconstruction of the village can be found in Leamington library. The relationship appears to have fizzled out and did not continue after the Second World War.
Many battlefield burial plots and individual graves around Biaches were exhumed after the war and the men taken for permanant burial at Assevillers New British Cemetery;
Visiting Biaches today
The rebuilt Biaches is a pleasant little place with an uncharacteriric large grassed space in front of the town hall. There are few traces of its warlike past and it bears little resemblance to its condition in 1914. It may be due to its proximity to Péronne but it has no shop (not even the almost obligatory boulangerie), no bar or cafe, and no accomodation for visitors.
The village obelisk war memorial lists 13 names of Great War and two additions from Second World War. The earliest of the sons of Biaches to lose his life was 21-year-old Fursy Philippe Charlemagne, a soldier of the 8e Bataillon de Chasseurs à Pied who was killed at Arrancy-sur-Crusne (Meuse) on 24 August 1914. The first five months of the war accounted for six of the men listed.
The village town hall (Mairie) has a plaque in memory of the adoption by Leamington Spa.
As with so many of them, the communal cemetery south of village centre on rue de Barleux is of considerable military interest. Look out for the grave of twelve men of the 7th Battalion of Chasseurs Alpins, killed at La Maisonette on 28 August 1914, and a grave-memorial to 33 men of the 9e Régiment de Cuirassiers à Pied killed in the same area on 24 September 1914 (it includes names of 6 Chasseurs a cheval and 3 un-named goumiers Algeriens).
From the communal cemetery on rue de Dompierre, a minor road to Flaucourt, can be found the grave and memorial of Lieutenant Marcel Brocheriou.
The French national military cemetery (nécropole nationale) lies on the D1 road west of Biaches. It contains the graves of 1362 French soldiers, of whom 322 are in mass graves known as ossuaries. The majority of them died in the Somme offensive in 1916.
At Flaucourt is a wall of destroyed and evidently once large German cemetery, with a plaque.
It would be worth a short trip from the Biaches area to Assevillers, for the New British Cemetery there. It contains the graves of many of those killed in the Biaches area in 1917 and 1918.