French Flanders and Artois Battlefields of WW1, France
The 1914-1918 battlefields of French Flanders are located in an area of northern France historically called the provinces of Flanders and the County of Artois. Nowadays these two provinces are situated in the northernmost region of France, namely Nord-Pas-de-Calais. This region shares its northern border with Flemish Flanders in Belgium. Towns and villages in the area which feature in the battlefields of 1914-1918 are Armentières, Arras, Bailleul, Béthune, Bullecourt, Festubert, Fromelles, Hazebrouck, Loos-en-Gohelle, Monchy-le-Preux and St. Omer. The city of Lille is the administrative capital of Nord-Pas-de-Calais. During the First World War Lille was a busy centre of commerce and was occupied by the German Army for exactly four years from October 1914 to October 1918.
The western part of the region is rural and generally low-lying, with fertile fields criss-crossed by streams and ditches. The eastern part of the region is industrial. During the 19th century this area developed quickly into one of the leading industrial centres of France, producing almost all of the coal used in France by 1914. The landscape rising in gentle spurs and ridges towards the area of Arras underwent a transformation in the early part of the twentieth century with the appearance of numerous “man-made mountains” of spoil near the many pit-heads.
Visitors to the battlefields of French Flanders and Artois will find several small museums, mostly privately owned, monuments and over 350 cemeteries for the thousands of Allied and German casualties who died. This region was the most badly damaged by the four years of warfare of all the areas in France on the Western Front.
Commemorative events are held on the battlefields of French Flanders according to an annual or special anniversary of a battle. At times there are private ceremonies and Remembrance events in relation to a particular monument or memorial.French Flanders Events
Battles of French Flanders and Artois
Fighting arrived in the region of French Flanders and Artois within a few weeks of the outbreak of the First World War. From late September 1914, as the German Armies and Allied French and British Armies attempted to outflank one another during the series of battles known as “The Race to the Sea”, the line of the Western Front was established here. In 1914-1915 the Front Line trenches ran from the east and north of Arras, up over the high ground of the ridge at Notre Dame de Lorette, down onto the plain of Douai, through the mining area around Lens and across the flat, fertile plain to Armentières and the Belgian border. By the end of 1915 the French had pushed the Germans off the ridge of Notre Dame de Lorette, and the Front Lines was established a little further east on the ridge at Vimy.
Major, large-scale battles were fought in this region in each year of the war except for 1916, when particular actions were fought, such as at Fromelles. The toll of casualties on all sides in this sector of the Western Front was very high. This area is the location of a number of military cemeteries and national memorials dedicated to thousands of military losses.
Cities, Towns and Villages
Arras was in the Allied-held territory throughout the war. The German Army entered the city on 29th September 1914 but left again the following day, never to retake it. Civilians and soldiers lived underground in the ancient chalk tunnels under the city throughout the war. By the end of the war the medieval buildings of Arras had been almost completely destroyed by German artillery shellfire, suffering the same fate as the shattered town of Ypres in Belgium.
Arras is the capital of the modern-day Department of Pas-de-Calais. Much of the centre of the city was rebuilt in the medieval style. It is a busy commercial and cultural centre in the region, offering visitors a variety of accommodation, restaurants and museums.
Lille was occupied by the German Army from 12th October 1914 to 17th October 1918.
Lille is also known by its Dutch name of Rijsel. It is the modern-day capital of the region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
Front Line Villages
Many villages in this sector of the Western Front found themselves located in the Front Line, the names of which became associated with battles of 1914-1918, for example, Neuve-Chapelle, Loos and Fromelles.
Rear Area Towns
On both sides of the Front Lines towns in the rear areas, like St. Omer for the Allies and Douai, for the Germans were used for their facilities as rail transport hubs, for billeting troops, rest areas, headquarters and medical stations.
Some towns in the industrial mining area centred around Lens, were characterized by numerous built-up conurbations consisting of rows and rows of small houses for the mine workers. Often they were prefixed with the name “Cité”, for example, Cité-St. Auguste, Cité-St. Laurent.
There are several private and public museums or visitor centres with unique collections and experiences for visitors to the French Flanders and Artois battlefields.
The battlefield area of French Flanders contains the resting place of many thousands of Allied and Imperial German troops. The military cemeteries for the British and Commonwealth casualties number over 300 and range in size from small battlefield cemeteries to larger concentration or collecting cemeteries created after the First World War. This area includes several French military cemeteries, one of which is the largest French military cemetery in the world at Ablain St. Nazaire (Notre Dame de Lorette). The largest German military cemetery for First World War casualties in France called Neuville-Saint-Vaast “Maison Blanche” contains the remains of 44,833 German soldiers.
Monuments and Memorials
In addition to numerous memorials to individual military units, this battlefield area has several national memorials dedicated to thousands of servicemen who died in this area and who have no known grave.
Memorials to the Missing
There are three main sites where battlefield remains can be visited. These include trenches, tunnels and mine craters.
The Western Front
An overview of the main WW1 battle areas of the Western Front and the type of landscape where they are found in Belgium and France:
Visiting the WW1 Western Front Battlefields
Advice and information for travellers wishing to visit the battlefields in Belgium and France:
(GWPDA) Photographs with grateful thanks to the Great War Primary Document Archive: Photos of the Great War.