Gazetteer of the Western Front: Bois-Grenier

Location

Bois-Grenier is a village south of Armentières in the Department of Nord in the Hauts-de-France region of northern France.
Lat: 50.65° N
Lon: 2.87° E

The area in which it is situated is often known locally as the Pays de Weppe or the Pays L’Alloeu. Although the land is generally very flat, Bois-Grenier is technically in the valley of the River Lys and of its minor subsidiary the Rivière de Layes. In 1912 the village had a population of 1,200; today it is 1,600.

 

Background

Although it was only formalised as a community in 1854, the  village dates to much earlier times with settlements established around a small chapel (La Chapelle-Grenier). The land around was owned by the Bidé de la Grandville family.

Map courtesy of Morel & Co, with thanks. It is undated. An area of great significance to the British Expeditionary Force of 1914-1918. Virtually every place on this map became household names.

By 1914 the village had expanded and been developed, and although within a short ride of the markets and factories of Armentières and Erquinghem-Lys was still reliant upon agriculture. The village was centred at a crossroads around which there was a church, school, a brewery and a number of shops and estaminets. Just outside the centre were several large farms, typically constructed in a rectangle around a central yard and midden.

Pre-1914 postcard image courtesy of Geneanet.org, with thanks.

 

Pre-1914 postcard courtesy of Bois-Grenier community website, with thanks.

Postcard courtesy of Genewiki, with thanks. This is said to be the large farm that occupied the north west corner of the village. It appears on British maps as “Hospice Farm”. The farm stood alongside an impressive white-rendered former chateau which had been converted into a hospice. Both were destroyed by 1918.

War comes to Bois-Grenier

Bois-Grenier was occupied by German cavalry troops in  early October 1914. Their arrival coincided with the redeployment of the British Expeditionary Force from the Aisne and into Flanders. By 15 October, units of the British 4th Division (of III Corps) had arrived on the north side of the River Lys at Nieppe and Erquinghem-Lys with the 6th Division to its south west at Bac St Maur and Sailly-sur-la-Lys. The area witnessed the sad, slow westwards procession of many refugee inhabitants from areas of Lille, Roubaix and Tourcoing and many of the people of Bois-Grenier and other villages nearby decided to take the same course. Others, less able to take to the roads or more optimistic in outlook, remained for a considerable time – and would still be in the area until eventually formally evacuated by the British.

From the British Official History, Military Operations in France and Flanders, 1914 volume II. German forces are shown in green; British in red; French in blue.

 

III Corps was ordered to continue its advance. The thin German screen of troops withdrew through Bois-Grenier (elements of the 6th Division reached the village at 9am on 17 October) and by 18 October the British forces were beyond it, having reached Premesques, Paradis and Ennetières. Orders for a further vigorous advance soon met with increasing German resistance. The two sides clashed and battle was joined along a continuous line that reached the North Sea coast but in this area it is officially recognised as the Battle of Armentières. By 22 October, enormous German pressure caused French forces to evacuate Fromelles; British forces were also pushed back towards Bois-Grenier. By 24 October, III Corps was issuing instructions for entrenching at the current position.

The long period of trench warfare

A very early map of the trenches at Bois-Grenier. This is from the war diary of the headquarters of 16th Infantry Brigade of 6th Division (National Archives piece WO95/1605, Crown Copyright). The brigade was occupying the front line in the area of Grande Flamengrie Farm. Communication trenches run back to Culvert Farm and the village.

This map of 1915 shows (dark blue) the British and (red) German trenches in front of Bois-Grenier. By this time, the British position consisted of a front line and a support line further back and very close to the village. Several long communication trenches (Shaftesbury Avenue, Moat Farm Avenue, White City Road, Greatwood Avenue) and trench tramways connected the two lines. This position remained virtually unchanged until April 1918. Note the names of Sedd-el-Bahr and Achi Baba Posts near to Grande Flamengrie Farm: they are places known from the Gallipoli campaign of 1915.

Imperial War Museum photograph Q56194, with thanks. This is a scene in Bois-Grenier in November 1914. The village was less than a mile behind the front line and well within range of German artillery. As yet, although damaged it was not the scene of complete devastation that it would become by 1918.

 

Imperial War Museum photograph Q60232, with thanks. Men of 3 Platoon, A Company, the 1st Battalion of the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) in the trenches at Bois-Grenier, winter of 1914-1915. The water table in this area is high; water is soon met; and “trenches” were more often breastworks built above ground level.

From November 1914 until April 1918 there was no major battle at Bois-Grenier. It gradually developed a reputation as a relatively quiet location, although occasional shellfire, much sniping and trench raids carried out by both sides punctuated the quiet periods. The farm buildings and centre of the village were damaged or reduced to rubble by shellfire, but much was still standing by 1918 and the larger, sturdier buildings used for billets, shelters, headquarters and stores.

III Corps was still holding the sector at Christmas 1914. Its units reported the situation quiet but no truce took place here.

The area between Armentières and Béthune did see several large scale battles (Neuve Chapelle, Aubers and Festubert in 1915; Fromelles in 1916) but not on the Bois-Grenier front and it was only on 25 September 1915 that a significant operation took place in this vicinity. This was a local attack carried out as a diversion to the Battle of Loos which began on that day several miles to the south.

During the night of 25-26 June 1916, Private William Jackson of the 17th Battalion, Australia Imperial Force, earned a Victoria Cross for his part in a raid carried out south east of Bois-Grenier.

The Bois-Grenier sector by early 1918. The position remains fundamentally the same as it had been ever since 1914 but the defence network is considerably more developed. The army is adopting a doctrine that relies on a chain of posts or redoubts that could cover each other with cross-fire, rather than continuous trenches although they remain. A senior officer would note that when his division moved into the line here, the defences were in a state of neglect and not as strong as they had been in 1916.

Bois-Grenier falls to the Germans

On 9 April 1918 the German Sixth Army commenced offensive Operation “Klein-George”: the British call it “Georgette” or the “Battle of the Lys”. The attack pushed deep into the British front line in the area south west of Bois-Grenier, in the area held at the time by the British 40th Division and 2nd Portuguese Division. Bois-Grenier was being held by 121st Infantry Brigade of 40th Division, which very quickly found itself being enveloped from its right (that is, its south west). Survivors of the initial attack withdrew through Bois-Grenier, abandoning it to the German 38th Division.

The solid line marks the British front before “Georgette began in thick fog on 9 April 1918. By the end of the first day, the front had been pushed to the dashed line and Bois-Grenier was in enemy hands.

Heavy German shellfire that preceded the attack, and British fire which fell upon Bois-Grenier as efforts were made to hold the advance over the next few days, completed the job of destruction. Little that was recognisable remained of the village by the summer of 1918.

Liberation

On 26 September 1918, the headquarters of British Fifth Army, which since August had been gradually advancing in the Lys valley, issued special instructions to its units. It advised that there were signs that the Germans were making arrangements to withdraw their front. Artillery units were given an outline plan for firing to disrupt these activities, and Bois Grenier was highlighted on an attached map as an area to be given special attention. By 2 October, Fifth Army’s XI Corps had reached a line as near to Bois-Grenier as L’Armée; next day, a general advance was made and by day’s end the Corps front ran through Bois-Grenier. The advance continued on 4 October and the village area was now securely in British hands.

Touring the Bois-Grenier area today

The village is now a pleasant little place and typical of the region, if not exactly an oasis or tourist trap. It has a limited range of shops and services including a bakery, a butcher and the Café-Tabac le St. Hubert at the central crossroads. They are clustered around the town hall and church Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs. The nearest supermarkets are at the Zone Industrielle at La Chapelle d’Armentières where there are Aldi and Lidl sites. Before the Great War and for some time during it, what is now the Café-Tabac le St. Hubert was the Estaminet Belle Vue.

Accommodation

There are no hotels in Bois-Grenier itself but there are several nearby in Armentières and one (a Formule 1) in Ennetières. Personally I have never found this area to be very good for hotels and prefer to stay at Béthune or even Ypres for a wider choice, range of eating and drinking establishments and general atmosphere, even though they are some 30 minutes drive away.

There are several Chambres d’Hôtes (B&Bs) in the area with one (L’Hancarderie at 300 Rue de Fleurbaix) in Bois-Grenier itself. I am afraid that I have never stayed there so cannot comment, but online images and reviews suggest that it is good.

Bois-Grenier today. Photograph courtesy of Google Maps.

Sites of memory

There are three cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission within the immediate area of the village and many others nearby.

The earliest British burials here (from 19 October 1914) lie in the village communal cemetery which is a short walk from the central crossroads. There are 113 identified graves and 8 to unknown soldiers. The cemetery also contains four unidentified French soldiers. The last war time burial dates to 24 November 1915 although one man of the Labour Corps, killed in a railway accident on 19 July 1919, was also buried here. Visitors should note that there is no register on site but a copy may be seen at the village town hall (close between 12 noon and 1.30pm).

The village war memorial, adjacent to the church, lists 44 military and 13 civilian victims of the Great War, along with others from the Franco-Prussian and Second World Wars. The suffering and fortitude of the village was recognised by the award of the Croix de Guerre to the community. Teh memorial was inaugurated in 1927.

At Culvert Farm / Culvert Post on the Rivière de Layes today. Photograph thanks to Google Maps. We are looking south towards the old front lines.

White City Cemetery. Photograph courtesy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

White City Cemetery contains 83 identified and 9 unidentified British graves and the graves of three German soldiers. The earliest burial dates to 29 October 1914. It is a “front line” cemetery, for it is situated within the area of support and reserve trenches just behind the front line breastworks at the Le Touquet crossroads south of Bois-Grenier.

Brewery Orchard Cemetery is within the village and was used by medical units working a dressing station established in brewery buildings nearby. The largest of the three, it contains more than 300 graves and four more from the Second World War (all pre-date the German attack on France in 1940). Signposted access to the cemetery is down a short cul-de-sac road leading north from the D22 Rue de la Chapelle. The earliest burial dates to 22 November 1914; the next three were all officers of the 1st Battalion of the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles); and the last of the Great War burials was on 29 January 1918.

Links

Gazetteer of the Western Front

The Battle of Armentières 1914

William Jackson VC

Bois-Grenier community website

Armentières tourism website