Cuinchy is a village in the Department of Pas-de-Calais in the Hauts-de-France region of northern France.
Lat: 50.31° N
Lon: 2.45° E
It is situated between Béthune and La Bassée and lies alongside the Canal d’Aire (usually known to the British during the Great War as the La Bassée Canal). In 1911 the village had a population of 1,500; today it is still fewer than 2,000.
Cuinchy is believed to take its name from the name of Quintuis, the owner of a Gallo-Roman villa in the area. The village church Église Saint-Pierre, although rebuilt in a different location after the destruction of the Great War, incorporates a baptismal font dating to 1488.
This map, although not detailed, picks out the key features of the village as it was in 1914. A railway ran along the south side of the canal, with a station halt at Cuinchy. The road heading south from the station (to meet the Béthune – La Bassée road at square 20) was named “Harley Street” by the British: it is now Rue Anatole France. The village church which now lies on that street near the rebuilt station was originally further east in the centre of the old village on what is now Rue Emile Basly*. North of the station, a steel girder bridge (“Pont Fixe”) took the road across the canal towards Givenchy-les-la-Bassée; further east (where squares 14 and 15 meet) there was a canal lock. Pedestrians could cross the canal at that point.
*Basly was a former miner and the socialist mayor of Lens from 1900. He remained in occupied Lens until deported to Germany in 1917. On his return after the Armistice, Basly played a central role in the reconstruction of the area.
The canal, which connects the Deûle and the Lys, was opened to navigation in 1825. It was broadened and deepened between 1863 and 1868 and became a principal route for the movement of coal from the mines of the area. Further work to deepen the canal took place and a new double lock at Cuinchy was built in 1908.
War comes to Cuinchy
In early October 1914 the two sides were engaged in the period often and misleadingly referred to as the “Race to the Sea”. Each was deploying forces in an effort to outflank the enemy on its open northern flank. It brought French, German and then British forces into the Cuinchy area.
British II Corps issued orders on 10 October for its 3rd and 5th Divisions to advance north of Béthune, to seize the line of the canal between the town and Mont-Bernenchon “with a view to attacking in flank the German troops moving southwards against the left flank of French XXI Corps which was that afternoon in the neighbourhood of Vermelles“. This movement took place on 11 October and the advance units began to engage with advancing German forces. At 1.50pm it ordered its corps reserve 13th Infantry Brigade to move to stop the gap between the French near Vermelles and the right flank of British 5th Division. The brigade began to move to Beuvry. Orders were also issued for the continuation of the corps’ eastwards advance, north of the canal, to take place next day.
Early on 12 October 1914 the French forces lost control of Vermelles. 5th Division heard of it at about 9am. II Corps confirmed it to its divisions at 10.27am and at 11.15am it signalled to the French that it had ordered 5th Division to counter-attack through Annequin and Cambrin. It placed 13th Infantry Brigade under temporary command of 5th Division with orders to advance along the south bank of the canal. At approximately 11.45am, German forces entered Cuinchy. Only the priest and about twenty villagers remained, the rest having fled westwards.
At 4pm on 12 October, 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers of 13th Infantry Brigade commenced the eastwards advance: the battalion had its left on the canal bank and its right on the main Béthune to La Bassée road. Its objective was to reach a line between the canal and Burbure by nightfall: that is, to capture “Harley Street” and a little beyond it. This was not attained: D Company sustained the death of two officers and ten men (see below) but the stated place of their burial suggests that line of “Harley Street” was gained, as was Pont Fixe. The battalion dug in after dark.
Next day, the battalion began to advance again: D Company again suffered most, including the loss of Lieutenant Macrae who died of wounds and who was buried by 13th Field Ambulance (see below). The battalion reported 20 men killed and 40 wounded. Later that day the battalion was relieved and the French XXI Corps continued the fight and pressed the Germans eastward and out of the village.
The 8th (Jullundur) Brigade of the 3rd (Lahore) Division relieved the French and held the Cuinchy sector from 11 December 1914, with the 1st Manchester Regiment being first into this line, relieving the 256th régiment d’infanterie . From that time onwards it was always in British occupation.
The first British deaths at Cuinchy
The war diary of the 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers reported the following deaths during the initial advance. It suggests that they were serving with D Company:
Major William Lewis Campbell Allan
Allan is buried in Brown’s Road Military Cemetery near Festubert (grave 1, row E, plot V), having been moved there from his original place of burial after the war.
Second Lieutenant Charles Stpehenson Woolcombe
He is also buried in Brown’s Road Military Cemetery (grave 2, row E, plot V: next to Allan).
The battalion’s war diary adds that 10 other ranks lost their lives in the initial attack on 12 October. The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists the following of the battalion who have dates of death recorded in the period 12-15 October 1914 inclusive:
- 27 men with no known grave who are commemorated at the Le Touret Memorial;
- 12 officers and men (including Allan and Woollcombe) buried in Brown’s Road Military Cemetery;
- Cpl 80o5 Harold Gordon Lucas, buried in Beuvry Communal Cemetery, having died of wounds;
- Second Lieutenant Ivor Alexander Macrae, Pte 8625 Joseph Johnson and Pte 1441 Harry Walker, all buried in row D, plot I of Béthune Town Cemetery, having died of wounds.
The battalion’s war diary notes that Allan and Woollcombe (and on that basis I suspect also the other ranks who are now in Brown’s Road Military Cemetery) were buried on the day “on the road leading south from Pont Fixe in the 3rd garden north of the house used as a hospital”.
Three men of the 1st Manchester Regiment lost their lives on 11 December 1914, the day they relieved the French: two have no known grave but Pte 1794 James Edmondson is buried in Woburn Abbey Cemetery (grave 15, row A, plot III). He was brought into this cemetery in 1920 with a number of others who had been buried in Harley Street Cemetery.
Situated just behind the front throughout the period from late 1914 to October 1918, Cuinchy was gradually reduced to rubble by German artillery. In all of that time the position of the front line scarcely moved.
Visiting Cuinchy today
The village was reconstructed after the Great War and remains much as it was before – a rather non-descript, light industrial, area. The canal is now much wider than it was, having been redeveloped in 1965-68 and on the site of the old “Pont Fixe” is a larger and surprisingly not unattractive steel girder bridge.
There is little by way of refreshment or accommodation in the immediate area. You may find “Friterie Christine” open on the canal bank near the railway station where there is also some good car parking. Although I may be doing it a dis-service as I haven’t been in for a few years, a bar on the left hand side of the road on the north side of the canal is possibly the most bleak in which I have ever set foot in France. There is the almost obligatory boulangerie-patisserie and bar-tabac-presse on “Harley Street” just south of the railway near the newly situated church.
The Cuinchy village war memorial was erected in 1924 bearing the names of 49 troops and 7 civilians.
The inscription reads “To the glorious memory of the children of Cuinchy died for France 1914-1918. The commune of Cuinchy bravely endured the shelling by guns and planes without having seen shake the faith of his valiant population in the final triumph of France”.
I believe that the first Cuinchy soldier to die was Corporal Jules Anacharsis Verhaeghe of the 33è régiment d’infanterie, killed at Sains-Richaumont (Aisne) on 30 August 1914.
Mayor, Mr. Quéva, said at the opening that “Colonel Gell, of the English army, spoke in the name of his comrades to express his admiration for the sacrifice of his brothers-in-arms of France. He then recounted with a British humour many heroic anecdotes [of events] which he witnessed on the very site where the monument stands.” Mr. Larue, Councillor General, recalled the horrors of the war that had been going on in the country for more than 50 months, and ended by saying that all peoples had the duty to ward off the return of such a scourge by uniting with the loyal duty to avoid any conflict. The sub-prefect, who represented the government at this inauguration, congratulated the organisers . He then greeted the elected officials present on the platform. Then, turning to Colonel Gell, he said how happy he was to see at this event an officer of the English army to whom we have a friendship sealed in the trenches.
There is an additional memorial and windows within the church, inaugurated on the same same day as village memorial. Two calvary crosses affixed to the exterior of the church are the only remaining artefacts from the pre-war village.
There are two military burial sites in the Cuinchy area:
More than 100 British and Commonwealth graves are situated in a single plot within the communal cemetery on rue Basly.
Woburn Abbey Cemetery on rue Julien Clément was begun by the Royal Berkshire Regiment in June 1915 and closed in January 1916 on account of its exposed situation, but a few further burials were made as late as April 1918. Plots II to V were added after the Armistice. It contains over 550 burials but over half are unidentified.
The large Guards Cemetery at Windy Corner is technically within the Cuinchy area but is across the canal and nearer to Givenchy-les-la-Bassée.
A stone memorial dedicated to “A la mémoire des braves de la 58e division morts pour la France – 295e, 285e, 256e et 281e régiments d’infanterie et 141e régiment d’infanterie territorial” stands in the field south of the La Bassée road.