If you had passed through or flown over the Pas-de-Calais at the end of 1918 when the cannons finally fell silent, you would have been aware of three distinct areas affected by a conflict which had involved all five continents. In the area by the front – where 200 communities were affected and which extended for a distance of 30-40km – nothing remained, particularly around Bapaume. Not a single tree, house or church. In the occupied (German) zone – the occupation “had been well thought out and methodical”, according to Yves Le Maner – everyday life and coal-mining were gradually re-establishing themselves. Meanwhile, in the rear zone (the Boulonnais, Montreuillois, Audomarois and Ternois areas), where millions of troops had passed through, military headquarters, hospitals and camps had all left their mark on both the land and people’s spirits.
At any given moment, every community in the Pas-de-Calais had, to a greater or lesser extent, an involvement in the First World War. All had seen their youngest inhabitants head off to war; all had cried for those who had “died for France”. After the 90th anniversary of the end of the Great War, “we are witnessing a transition from living memory to history”, explains the director of La Coupole, a history and remembrance centre in the Nord-Pas de Calais region. The last surviving French soldiers of the First World War (known as “Poilus”) have now died and their voices have been replaced by photographs and the official journals of regiments – a treasure-trove of documents which has brushed aside the simplistic idea of a war involving the French, Germans and British. This war was a global war and the Pas-de-Calais represented “a microcosm of the world at war”, to quote an expression coined by the historian Xavier Boniface. A magnifying glass placed over this microcosm highlights the role played by Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, Portuguese, Americans, South Africans and other nationalities during the conflict.
The French and British put their colonies to the severest of tests – in the trenches and on the battlefields of the Pas-de-Calais.
« The front developed gradually »
The First World War in our département can be divided into three phases. From late August 1914 to late October 1914, the Pas-de-Calais witnessed a war of movement: “the great German army advancing towards Paris”, and villages providing support for the mix of French and British troops. “The front developed gradually”, Yves Le Maner goes on to add. The last classic military confrontations took place in early October (Courcelles-le-Comte, Saint-Laurent-Blangy, Lorette etc), and the first battle of Ypres marked a turning-point – the end of the “Race to the Sea”.
« 100% British »
With the onset of this “static war” , the front line became fixed and barely moved at all, with the exception of the Hindenburg retreat. In late 1915-early 1916, the Allies were awaiting a “new army” in the form of units arriving from Canada and Australia – fresh troops which would be plunged into the bloodbath of the Somme, now that France “was committing everything it had to Verdun”.
From 1916 onwards in the Pas-de-Calais, the front became “100% British”. April 1917 was to see a major offensive: victory at Vimy, defeat in Arras; and in November 1917 in Cambrai the Germans employed infantry counter-attacking techniques for the first time.
The Russian retreat signalled a return to a war of movement. March 1918 saw Prussian elite troops go on the offensive. The Battle of the Lys forced back the British but saw the French come into their own: “the hole was filled in the nick of time”. From late August 1918 onwards, and with moral restored, the British attacked methodically and made significant advances, most notably at the Second Battle of Arras, and in the capture of the Canal du Nord (under construction since 1913) at the end of September 1918. The Great War had a huge impact on the Pas-de-Calais which went to its very core. With men arriving from around the world, it was now well and truly part of the 20th century.