Mont Kemmel Part Eleven – The Kemmelberg

Mont Kemmel, sometime in the early 20th Century. 

And a similar view some years later.  You’d never know there’d been a war in-between.  But there had.

Ever since 1951 there’s been a stone block on the summit of the Kemmelberg, 511 feet above sea level, much like a tumulus that you might find on a British hilltop.

When you get up to it and take a look around,…

…the ground is still pitted with the impact of thousands of explosions,…

…but now that the trees have regrown, you can see little from up here today.

The experience of actually being on the Kemmelberg…

…is about what happened here, the memory, not the views.

What little you can see…

…is somewhat different to the view of a hundred years ago.  This picture was taken after the war looking towards Kemmel village, the streets cleared and new structures already appearing; the road leading away into the distance would take us back to Vierstraat, where this tour began, and eventually, after about six miles, the Lille Gate, the southern entrance to Ypres (Ieper).  In the left foreground,…

…the remains of the Kemmel Belvedere, or watchtower, seen here, from left, before, during (or just after), and (rebuilt) after the war (see also the two postcards that begin this post); the previous picture was presumably taken around the same time as the centre one here, as was the postcard below, showing the remains in close-up.

Panoramic stitch-up, which enlarges nicely, taken from the summit of the Kemmelberg, its strategic importance clear to see, the ruins of the Belvedere in the third of the sections from the left.  On 9th April 1918, the Germans’ Spring Offensive switched from the Somme to Flanders, and during the following week they made huge territorial gains, by 16th April approaching Kemmel village and Mont Kemmel itself,…

…pushing the British troops back, areas of Flanders that had been in Allied hands for three years or more now changing hands, villages that had escaped heavy destruction until now reduced to rubble.  The signpost points to Kemmel and Nieuw-Kerk, or Neuve Eglise (captured by the Germans on 14th April) if you prefer, where we shall be paying a visit sometime in the future (do not despair, loads of stuff still to show you, Lockdown and its aftermath notwithstanding).

On 17th April, a German attack on the British lines was repulsed (German stormtroopers, above, looking remarkably, at first sight, similar to their future Second World War counterparts, advance towards the Kemmelberg), but General Sir Herbert Plumer knew that his beleaguered troops – some divisions were at just one third capacity – could only hold out for so long without reinforcements.  British commander-in-chief Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig was pressuring the new Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies, Marshall Ferdinand Foch, for fresh troops, Foch reluctant to commit more forces when he, correctly, feared further German attacks on other fronts.  Haig presumably presented his argument with verve, as Foch consented to send five French divisions to the Flanders front, the first troops arriving to take over the Kemmel trenches on the evening of 17th April.

Before the holocaust.  Above: Two British artillery officers on the eastern slopes of the hill a week before the German attack.  Below: German sentry in the Kemmel flatlands keeps a low profile as shells burst on the horizon.

The French would, of course, continue with their premise that attack was the best form of defence, an attack being scheduled for the night of 24th April to straighten the front line, although hindsight would suggest that they might have been better occupied strengthening their defences.  At 9.00 p.m. the French left their trenches and were quite literally stopped in their tracks.  A second attempt later proved equally fruitless and the French ceased their efforts.  Which then gave them a couple of hours to get organised, had they known what the Germans were planning, and indeed had been planning for a few days.

At 2.30 in the morning of 25th April, two hundred and fifty German guns opened up with a mixture of high explosive and gas shells, and for two hours the French soldiers in the trenches watched as the shells soared over their heads, destroying the gun emplacements behind the Allied lines, before it was their turn to face the barrage.

At 5.00 a.m. the artillery bombardment switched to the men in the trenches – French veterans described the next sixty minutes as worse than their experiences at Verdun – and an hour later, the German infantry left their trenches.  Above: German troops advancing in single file towards the hill.  Apart from the bloke in the foreground, who appears, at least, to have more urgent matters on his mind.

Attacking the by-now shellshocked French defenders, German stormtroopers (above left, the picture taken somewhere in the Kemmel area) swept across the hill, bypassing points of resistance to be dealt with by follow-up units armed with flamethrowers and heavy machine guns, supported by almost a hundred German planes who dropped some seven hundred bombs on the hill, machine-gunning the French defenders once their bombs had been released.  Two hours later, as the sun began to rise, the Germans were already clearing the hill’s summit and tending to the wounded, and by ten o’clock the battle was over (above right, German troops dug in on the slopes of the hill).

Mont Kemmel, in Allied hands throughout nearly four years of war, had fallen in a matter of hours.

French casualties were appalling, casualty rates so high that some regiments almost ceased to exist; French dead alone between 25th & 29th April 1918 amounted to over 10,000, half of whom are now buried in the French ossuary we shall be visiting in a couple of posts.

News of the Germans’ capture of the Kemmelberg spread quickly, this the front page of the New York Times of 27th April 1918.

The Germans would advance a few miles further, briefly taking the Scherpenberg on 29th April, but exhausted troops fearful of Allied counterattacks, over-extended lines of communication, and the requirement to advance only at the rate that their artillery could move forward would mean the offensive was effectively over once the advance units of the Alpenkorps, who had briefly been able to see deep into the Allied rear area from the Scherpenberg’s summit, were summarily removed. The Germans would remain on Mont Kemmel until the end of August before the Allied drive to eventual victory would dislodge them in equally quick time.

It is impossible to escape the shell holes up here, and who knows what lies beneath the earth,…

…if old pictures are anything to go by.

Quite rightly, there is a war memorial on the summit of the Kemmelberg, the Monument aux Soldats Français,…

…inaugurated in July 1932 in the presence of various military dignitaries.  Look carefully and you will see that at that time the memorial featured a wreath and French helmet at the top,…

…which is conspicuous by its absence today, a lightning strike in the 1970s causing its demise.

Known locally as ‘The Sad Angel’, or simply ‘The Angel’,…

…this is actually the winged figure of the Greek goddess of victory, Nike,…

… the memorial positioned above the battlefield where so many French troops suffered and died.

The sides of the memorial…

…are inscribed with the names of the French divisions and their commanders who fought in the Flanders’ hills…

…between 15th & 30th April 1918.

Two of the divisions marked on this side of the memorial bore the brunt of the German attack; 28th Division had taken over the trenches in Kemmel village and on the hill itself, whilst 154th Division had done likewise covering Dranoutre to the south of the hill.  It would be 39th Division, supporting 154th Division, who would eventually halt the German attack at the Scherpenberg and begin to force the men of the Alpencorps to retreat.

Inauguration stone,…

…and the memorial post-inauguration.

Our route now takes us down the western side of the hill, where, a couple of hundred yards from the memorial, the French ossuary awaits.  And as we go, a little something extra.  Next post.

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7 Responses to Mont Kemmel Part Eleven – The Kemmelberg

  1. Alan says:

    Excellent read thank you

  2. nicholas Kilner says:

    Great photos! I particularly like the panoramic one, thats really excellent. Interesting to see the news articles too, censorship being what it was during the war. I guess there was just no getting away from that one.

    • Magicfingers says:

      The pics of the panorama were all separate and in no particular order mixed with other photos and with no suggestion that they would make up a panorama. As I looked at them I realised that some fitted together, and after a while we had a five-piece panorama, and then another bit fitted, and another bit, and we ended up with nine pics to make up the panorama. Makes one wonder whether anyone has bothered to put these pics together before, now I think about it. Might be a first!

  3. Margaret Draycott says:

    Wow just wow. Had no idea of this battle not that I know a lot. The loss of french lives staggering. To hold a position for so long and be pushed off in a matter of hours the Germans at that point must have thought they were on a route to victory, all so futile.
    Some great postcards. Wonderful when given a chance how nature reclaims.
    Your right the french definitely deserve a monument on the hill

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