During the second half of the First World War for March 1917 until September 1918, among others, the valleys of the Sensee river and Cojeul river were a particularly dangerous sector mainly because of the presence of the famous "Hindenburg Line" (British name, "Seigfried Stellung "for the Germans," Grande Tranchée" sometimes for the French or "Ligne Hindenburg").
The villages on or around the Hindenburg Line crossing, after more than two years of occupation (since early October 1914), will undergo many changes : first by the German occupation in itself because of the providing engineering necessary for communications, transport of troops and equipment, hospitals, cemeteries hospitals, cemeteries... that will flourish especially during 1916 and the Battle of the Somme. The absence of men in the fields, the seizure of livestock and crops, and the requisitioning of factories also served its purpose in the early years of the war. Then, by the creation of the Seigfriedstellung which forces the Germans, in addition to the line itself (construction started late September 1916) who will not fail to scour our territory, made further changes in the sectors concerned : roads, bridges, railroad tracks, prison camps (70000 men will be attached to the construction : prisoners Russians, Belgians ... Germans, professional or military, civilians ...), storage area for barbed wire or concreat.... The Operation Alberish (German retreat with ransacking to regain the Hindenburg positions) will also do its job. And last but not least because of the total destruction of the area between March 1917 and September 1918, during which time the Hindenbrug Line will be under almost uninterrupted fire until the Anglo-Canadian victorious August-September 1918 offensive. 100 days, Hundred Days Offensive).
The rebuilding of the 100% devastated of Arras area will only start in the early 1920s with people returning from all over France, who had the courage to find their home ruins braving the prohibition to rebuild areas classified "Red Zone" ).
The Hindenburg Line Museum will offer you the possibility to follow the actors of this local history.
- 2-4 October 1914 : German invasion of the ARRAS sector : During the "race to the sea" following the Schlieffen plan and the Battle of the Marne, the Germans quickly advanced northwards to bypass the French forces, and were stopped by the 10th French army in front of Arras. Fighting broke out in Guémappe, Wancourt, Neville-Vitasse - a few clashes with Dragon riders were reported here and there in the villages submerged by the German wave, but nothing was done, all these villages had already been lost. The fighting moves away to become barely noticeable...... The Germans finally progressed a little further westward and were stopped at Arras doors and, in the Somme, at those of Albert. Positions freeze with winter. Quickly on the conquered ground, the invader settles in. This was already the beginning of the German occupation in the area around Croisilles. Months of deprivation and bullying rage, villages and their inhabitants are subjected to parades, exercices, foreign habits, requisitions of animals or harvests and then, as the months go by, many hospitals end up flourishing with their cemeteries almost adjacent,... they fill up.... As much as civilians have to endure deprivation, as much as the Germans here breathe a little... years have now passed, we are already in 1916 and to the west of our villages, the shells are falling in the Somme.
- 27 September 1916 : Start of construction of the Siegfried Stellung (Hindenburg Line) - The Kronprinz Rupprecht von Bayern, to whom the project has been presented, approves it. Colonel Kraemer (artillery officer) is in charge of the construction. Nearly 70,000 men (Germans, Belgians, Russians, French,...) will be employed for 3 months of planned work. The new line of defence, named Siegfreidstellung (named after a hero of a Wagner opera 1876, not to be confused with the Siegfried Line built by the Germans during the Second World War, which somehow faced the Maginot Line) was emerging without the Allies noticing it yet (the first Royal Flying Corps observations attesting to visible work were made at the end of October).
From everywhere comes labour : Russian prisoners, camps are created throughout the future installations, close to the construction sites, among others, in Vis-en-Artois and Fontaine-lès-Croisilles, French or German civilians (especially construction companies), Belgians... A gigantic and unprecedented organization (just as impressive as the future installations themselves) was then set up : roads, bridges, railways, stations, depots, factories in order to produce and transport the necessary equipment for the most important defensive installation created during the First World War.
- October / November 1916: First British observation of the installations by the Royal Flying Corps - The wide trenches (which would be further widened by the appearance of the first British MkI or "Mother" tanks in September 1916 in Pozières and Flers-Courcelette) were now very visible, the white chalk that had risen from the basement marked the sites of a fabulous and impressive organization of trenches and dense barbed wire fields very clearly visible to the Royal Flying Corps observers. Concrete positions of machine guns (MEBU = Mannschaft EisenBeton Unterstände - Reinforced concrete shelters - Pillboxes for the British soldiers) are visibly sown every 100m on the first line, in staggered rows with those in the second trench. And that's where the tip of the iceberg is....
- February 9, 1917 : Operation Alberich - Under pressure, while the Siegfriedstellung installations were not finished, under the British nose and beard, the Germans applied their defensive strategy : they carried out their withdrawal (Operation Alberich) to the Hindenburg Line. This retreat was accompanied by a systematic destruction of the land granted to the enemy : houses were destroyed, main municipal crossroads were mined, trees were cut on the roads, fields, when possible, were flooded....
- February 22-23, 1917: British discovery of the German retreat and start of pursuit - the activity on the front line of the Somme is unusually loud, after patrolling, the observation is clear: the enemy trenches are empty. The first observations of the departure of the Germans from their trenches took place at Petit Miraumont and were reported by the men of the 7th Royal West Kent on 22 February 1917.
- Mid-March 1917: British pursuit operations - With the help of cavalry and cycling troops, all villages between the old and new German positions are deserted, destroyed, burnt... The pursuers will find it very difficult to follow the Germans in full retreat that they accompany with systematic destruction, devastation provided for in the Alberich plan. The Villages of Irles, Monchy au Bois, Ligny Thilloy were liberated, the Adinfer wood was also empty, Blaireville and Douchy-les-Ayette were both abandoned by the Germans. Towards Beaurains it is the same. The 8th (Lucknow) Cavalry Brigade (Indian troops) launches into the pursuit on the orders of Lieutenant-General Hubert Gough, groups of cyclists will also be employed. Ervillers, Hamelincourt and Moyenneville are empty.
- March 17, 1917 : Croisilles Burns - The British are a few thousand meters from German installations and they are rubbing shoulders with the outposts that are buying time for the troops to take their place in the Siegfried Stellung defence line. A fierce resistance to the surroundings of the Hindenburg system is reported. On 18 March, the pressure is brought by Gough south of Arras with his cavalry which he orders to advance in the direction of Ecoust, Croisilles, Lagnicourt and Henin-Sur-Cojeul (engaged in the race : Lucknow brigade - Jacob's Horse, 29th Lancers, Yorkshire dragoon, 2nd Cyclist corps, 1st King's Dragoon Guards and ANZAC riders -Australian and New Zealand Army Corps).
- March 20, 1917 : Our area is now within the reach of British artillery - the first Allied shells fall on our villages (after those of the French in October 1914).
- April 2, 1917 : Croisilles is in the British hands - This is an indication of the difficulty the British are now facing as they approach the new German defensive positions of the Siegfriedstellung trenches, the village of Croisilles was attacked on March 20, 1917 for the first time by troops from the 6th Northamptonshire (54th Brigade, 18th Division), Jacob's Horse, 1st King's Dragoon Guards (1KDG), and 29th Lancers elements. The first Croisilles battle lasted 14 days and was fought in 3 major assaults where the British lost their first thousand men in our sector for a 1000m advance. British troop intal their positions on Henin-Croisilles - Ecoust line.
- 9 April 1917: Battle of Arras, First Battle of the Scarpe - After the sector is plunged into a deluge of steel for days, the English and Canadian armies go to the front with north to south: the Canadian army before Vimy then the 51st English division, the 37th, there 12th, the 3rd, 56th, 30th and 21st divisions. Soon the Hindenburg Line was taken by the Anglo-Canadian troops in front of Vimy, Arras and up to the north of Fontaine Les Croisilles, the front swung east at this point. At the junction with the Sensée valley, at this point to Bullecourt further south, the installations are the best designed and completed in the sector. The lines defined as the objectives of the attack such as the Black Line, the Blue Line, the Brown Line, are taken one by one the British are stopped towards the Green Line and the front line is established (south of the Arras-Cambrai road) towards Monchy le Preux - Wancourt - Henin sur Cojeul - Fontaine - Bullecourt... It is at that moment that the interrogation of a prisoner by the 21st Division which allows to learn the existence of a tunnel almost 18km long running under the second line of trench...
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- April 11, 1917: Battle of Bullecourt (Anglo-Australian attack) - After the good progress of the previous days, the British general staff decided on April 10 to push the Germans to retreat again, they hope that the proximity of a secondary line spotted by observers (the Wotan Line or Drocourt-Queant line) will help them. Tanks are planned but do not arrive on the scheduled day, the attack is postponed for 24 hours. Incomprehension pushes the men of the West Yorkshire Regiment of the 62nd Division to yet advance despite the cancellation between Fontaine and Bullecourt: the losses are significant, unnecessary and sterile. In front of Fontaine Les Croisilles a little further north, the 21st Division suffered very heavy losses (were hit: 15th Durham Light Infantry, 1st East Yorks, 10th King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI), 64th MG Corp) following a German counter-attack: they had to retreat. On the 11th, in cold and snowy weather conditions, the 62nd British Division with West Yorkshire Regiment licking his wounds from the night before and the 4th Australian Division launched out on Ecoust-Bullecout axis from their starting attack positions, without artillery preparation, helped by 11 tanks (12 planned) which were only of limited help. It was a carnage for all the troops engaged south of Fontaine-les-Croisilles facing the wall that constitutes the Hindenburg Line in this sector, the heaviest losses were sustained by the 4th Australian Brigade of the ANZAC who lost 2339 men out of 3000. Further north, Monchy le Preux was taken at the cost of equally terrible losses for the 37th Division at work around this village. The English troops will now focus their efforts towards the south with Fontaine les Croisilles as a new objective, a village located just behind the two parallel trenches of the Hindenburg Line on a perfectly designed section, reached and held at the bottom of the valley, which gives an advantage to the occupant taking advantage of the slope to see the attackers arrive.
- April 23, 1917: Second Battle of the Scarpe - major British assault north of Fontaine les Croisilles : the 7th British Corps put the means by firing 3 times more shells than at the opening of the Battle of Arras already described as terrible are 400,000 projectiles of all kinds (only for the VII British Corps) that will fall on a front of 15 km in a few days. Observers indicate that until then, even during the Battle of the Somme, there was no more intense fire. The British of the 33rd Division (100th and 98th British Brigades) nibbled away at the German trenches with a simultaneous frontal attack and in enfilade of the parallel trenches of the Hindenburg Line southward. Some gains, on the outskirts of villages north of Fontaine such as Chérisy which is approached or Guemappe ... always with very heavy losses especially for the 1st Queen's Regiment of the 100th Brigade. It was during this period that the British, who were able to gain a foothold in new modest stretches of the Hindenburg Line, measured the impressive installation, notably by the presence of a fabulous underground network judiciously designed, they called the Tunnel Trench. This underground system was perfectly designed and allows thousands of men to take shelter there relatively comfortably. In the event of a hard blow, sections can be instantly knocked down to prevent invasion.
- 3 May 1917 : Anglo-Australian Attack - A major attack was launched on the sectors of Bullecourt (2nd Australian Division of ANZAC), Fontaine-les-Croisilles (21st Division and 62nd English Division in the south) and Chérisy (14th English Division in the north and 18th Division in front of Chérisy) during the third Battle of the Scarpe. The organization of the battle was at first tedious, the allied generals did not all agree on the time of the attack, the troops were badly organized and late informed as well as badly distributed over the width of the front too wide for the number of men, some of whom had to advance over portions of land of more than 500m in unfavourable conditions, particularly between Fontaine and Chérisy. The 21st Division lost 1,000 men during the day, the other divisions counted losses at least equivalent. A few too modest gains compared to the considerable levels of losses recorded.
- 16 May 1917: Official end of the Battle of Arras - - Fighting did not stop in the sector, however, as the battle for the Hindenburg Line in front of Chérisy, Fontaine Les Croisilles and Bullecourt continued.
- June 15, 1917 : Attack on "the Ilsand" ("the island") - "The Ilsland" is the part of the Hindenburg Line still in German hands between Fontaine-les-Croisilles and Bullecourt. This portion was again attacked this time mainly by men of the Londons Regiments (58th Division) and the 21st Division. The gains were interesting in the first line of German trenches, they were notably made by the 2/3rd Londons. The 2/4th Londons suffered very severe losses.
- July 1917 - March 1918 - In order to keep the pressure on the Germans, multiple British actions are carried out almost daily, they will always bring their share of dead and wounded. Some, as for them, are more important and carried out as a diversion for major actions located further south such as November 20, 1917 where the battle of Cambrai opens employing more than 400 MarkIV tanks. Between Fontaine-Les-Croisilles and Bullecourt the men of the 3rd Division and those of the 16th Irish Division set off on a front of nearly 3km of trenches. A breakthrough was made in the second line of German trenches and a new portion of the first line as well as a section of Tunnel trench was taken, it was a great success. However, the troops of the 6th Connaught Rangers and those of the 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers (16th Division) counted many casualties permanently lost at the tip of the attack.
- March 21, 1918 - July 18, 1918 : Operation "Michael" and Operation "Mars" of the "Spring Offensive" or "Battle of the Kaiser" - The whole sector came back into German hands because of a major offensive leading to a 50km incursion into the British sector. On 21 March 1918, 200,000 men emerged from the ruins of the Hindenburg Line after a barrage of 6,000 artillery pieces between Arras and La Fère. The positions prior to the Alberich operation of February-March 1917 were even overrun in places, particularly in the Somme where the Germans were at the gates of Amiens. In the sector, it was the 34th, 3rd and 59th British Divisions that fought and resisted well, but at what price? The 34th Division in front of Fontaine recorded a colossal loss of more than 3000 men in 3 days. They retreated a few kilometers. Further north, the British held out better, thanks in particular to the favourable positions of Vimy Ridge.
- August-September 1917: "the Hundred Days Offensive" - After a recovery in the Somme at Albert, an Anglo-Canadian attack, which would be victorious, was launched in front of Arras. Difficulties are once again felt around the ever-feared Hindenburg Line. Croisilles resists trenches around it are quite solid. The 5th Canadian Division took charge of attacking a sector still untouched for the time being in the vicinity of Chérisy on 27 August 1918. The elements of the 26th Battalion advanced well and reached the Sensée river, the 22nd (French Canadian) and 24th Battalions had much more difficulty and fought without artillery support. The objectives will be taken and held but at Chérisy the loss for the 22nd Battalion is almost total (39 indemnities out of 700 engaged), to their right, the 56th Division loses 2400 men, the 157th Brigade (52nd Division) located between Fontaine les Croisilles and Croisilles which came into action on 24 August with 750 men and 23 officers, is raised on 27th counting 223 men and 6 officers ready for combat..... The sector was gradually liberated in the following days, from that moment on until November 11th, 1918, the Germans would inexorably retreat to Belgium.
- 1920s: Reconstruction - Despite being classified as a "Red Zone", and therefore declared a sector unsuitable for reconstruction due to soil pollution and the dangerousness of the weapons left on the ground, many displaced civilians or demobilized or liberated soldiers return carrying and find the location of their homes thanks to what little remains of wells or tree stumps... Witnesses of the time tell us that the closer one got to the remains of the Hindenburg Line, the more the destruction was visible until it was total, to the point that the villages right on the line became nothing but bricks and dust with one pile higher than the others : that of the church ... The first ones recovered what they could to make a makeshift shelter, then set up barracks made of "elephant" or half moon sheet metal, cleared the roads, rebuilt the village, restored the fields... Some still note the presence of human remains in the barbed wire of the Hindenburg Line several years after the end of the fighting.
World War II (WWII) :
- May 1940 : Sporadic renewed fighting during the Second World War. Beginning of the occupation and acts of resistance. The tunnels of the Hindenburg Line as tunnel trench, which are still partially accessible at this time, serve as caches for parachuting organized for the resistance of the sector.
- September 1944 : Liberation of the sector.
- Today : relics remain present, the signs of 4 years of war are still visible more than a hundred years later, The Hindenburg Line Museum will offer you to discover more...
This is only a modest summary... many events took place during the Great War in the area of the Hindenburg Line trenches (Siegfied stellung) around Arras and cannot all be recounted in these lines, some facts even surface only with time, passion and patience of our members. Help them!
Victoria Crosses : Arthur Henderson VC, Michael Wilson Heaviside VC, Horace Waller VC, David Lowe MacIntyre VC, David Philip Hirsch VC, George Howell VC, Rupert Vance Moon VC, William Clark-Kennedy VC, Ernest Beal VC, John MacLaren Erskine VC (VC won at Givenchy in 1916 - kiled at Fontaine les Croisilles)... and others and others...
Celebrities : Seigfried Sasson, Enst Jünger, Manfred Von Richthofen (the Red Baron), The Kaizer Guillaume II, the king Georges V, Haig, Ludendorff, Hindenburg, Kronprinz Ruppercht, Winston Churchill, Georges Vanier...
You will discover their common history to our little piece of France...