La Basseé, Flanders, Northern France
In May the canal that marks the southern edge of La Basseé is alive with waterfowl engaged in the frenetic rituals of courtship and mating: male moorhens and coots chasing females from bank to bank, flocks of Mallard drakes fighting over ducks, ganders noisily beating their wings as they ward off rivals and mergansers of both sexes haughtily zig-zagging through the melee, displaying their colourful neck feathers.
By early June the action has subsided into the more focused but no less serious business of feeding, rearing and nest maintenance. Birds are continually searching the reeds and diving into the depths for food or gathering loose bits of vegetation to help raise their half-hidden nests just that tiny bit more above water level. Only towards the end of the month is a break from activity afforded by the chance to parade along the water’s edge with one’s brood, the parents gliding proudly past their neighbours while the young paddle frantically to keep up.
Our visit coincided with the latter part of the cycle, the action observable from the towpath that runs along the northern bank of the canal but taking place for the most part within the tall reeds and overhanging branches of the opposite bank, some twenty or thirty metres away. On a warm spring day the only other signs of life in this part of the town consisted of a handful of fishermen standing and talking on a steel jetty – more talking than fishing I noticed – and the occasional dog walker, marching and stopping by turn and impatiently glancing at their pet snuffling in the undergrowth.
To the west of the town, where the original canal joins the much wider Canal de L’Aire, rebuilt in the 1950s, it was quieter still. The watery motorway, built to speed barges from the inland ports of Belgium and northern France to the coast, was all-but devoid of traffic: towards the end of our walk just one barge, albeit a seventy metre-long monster, had caught up with us, gliding efficiently through the lock gates at Givenchy, and just the hot breath of a couple of joggers disturbed the air.
Only the cars and lorries entering and exiting the town betrayed the day-to-day activity still going on around us. From the south, a steady stream of traffic crossed one of the canal bridges above us, heading into La Basseé, while the next bridge took them out again.
It is a relatively compact settlement, typical of northern French towns and larger villages. The road over the first bridge joins the railway station to the Mairie, or town hall, occupying a flower-filled square less than four hundred metres further on. The bar tabac, patisserie, butcher and other shops are gathered about a junction on one side of the square while the church and war memorial occupy the other.
The architecture, with its stepped gables and brick decoration, reflects the town’s Flemish heritage, prior to its incorporation into France in the time of Louis XIV, while its growth can be attributed to coal mining through most of the nineteenth century, and until fairly recently in the twentieth. La Basseé sits in the middle of the Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin, the prime reason for the development of the local canal network.
Most of the other buildings in the centre, including the beautiful church tower with its slender steeple, seem to date from this time. It is only the occasional bit of modern infill, an extension here or there and, significantly, the contemporary body of the church that suggests, quite remarkably when one understands the context, that this town has been rebuilt twice in the last hundred years. The first re-development was occasioned by the near-total destruction of the First World War.
After the first couple of months of the War, during which the Allies managed to stop the German advance to Paris, then raced them in a series of leapfrogs north to the coast, both sides came to a halt at positions which, in this part of France at least, barely altered for the rest of the conflagration. From the end of 1914 until the autumn of 1918 La Basseé was in German hands while their British counterparts faced them along a line that stretched from Festubert to Cuinchy and Cambrin, just three miles west on either side of the canal, and often along trenches that were less than a hundred metres apart.
The campaign is described in Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That. For much of 1915 and early 1916 he was entrenched in the area as a lieutenant, then captain, in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. In his account, he wrote of several failed, or sometimes simply aborted, attempts to storm the German lines around La Basseé and the incompetence, as he saw it, of army leadership. But he also recorded the pathos of day-to-day life for soldiers, including the plague of canal rats that they endured, the prohibition on using munitions to kill fish in the water, and the sheer tedium, quite often, of days on end in the trenches, despite the danger of being killed at any moment. In the process, he noted many individual acts of humanity – and inhumanity – within and between the opposing armies in this sector.
It wasn’t until October 1918, long after Graves had been invalided out of France, that the British finally overran La Basseé. By this time the Allies enjoyed a significant advantage in artillery, pounding the existence out of the German forces, and the settlements in which they were quartered, in front of their infantry which was now able to advance several miles a day, pushing back an enemy which had lost the capacity to fight. The final Flanders Offensive, as much as the daily exchange of shells and bullets of the previous four years, left a broad strip of devastation from which it would take the country years to recover after the War, and reduced towns like La Basseé to little more than rubble.
But that was not the end of it. Continuing along the canal we reached a third bridge, about a mile and a half west, which carried the road from the village of Auchy north to Violaines. In a typical Flanders landscape, we could see its church steeple in the distance, across a mile or so of golden wheat fields.
By this point the traffic had thinned out, with only the occasional vehicle rumbling across the canal on a concrete arch. On the north side, on either side of the road, were a couple of traditional brick farmhouses outside one of which a man was tending the vines that had grown over a high enclosure. Outside the other an impressive show of roses grew up to the top of the bank that overlooked the canal.
It was this crossing, I determined, where the British Army had been forced to blow up the bridge in 1940 and which the German general, Erwin Rommel, had ordered his Panzer division to rebuild in pontoon sections, albeit across a canal that was narrower at the time, so that they could encircle the desperate Allied forces defending La Basseé.
On 10 May 1940 the German Army ended the so-called ‘phony war’ by launching a massive offensive against the Allies. They marched into Belgium but also charged on tanks through Luxembourg and the Ardennes Forest further south, then wheeled north. Within a couple of weeks the British Expeditionary Force, which had advanced into Belgium to withstand the attack, had been forced back to the French border, along a line very similar to that which they had defended in World War One, due to a combination of overwhelming enemy numbers and firepower, and the fear of being encircled. From here they began very quickly to withdraw to the coast, in particular to Dunkirk.
On the afternoon of Saturday 25 May the already depleted First Battalion of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders arrived in Violaines, their latest halt on a tour of local towns and villages as senior commanders tried desperately to determine from which direction the enemy was coming, and to plug the gaps accordingly. By late evening three companies of the regiment were billeted in the houses and factories of La Basseé and then took up defensive positions between and on either side of the two main bridges, along the canal bank and in canalside buildings. Among them were twin brothers, my great uncles, Walter and Alfie Laidlaw.
The Camerons were a longstanding British regiment, one of several established in Scotland in the late eighteenth century to encourage the loyalty of highlanders to the Crown in the wake of the Jacobite rebellion and to help secure a growing empire. The First Battalion, or ‘79th’ as they were known from the numbering of the original regiment, had been present at most of the British Army’s more significant engagements, including Waterloo, Omdurman and the Boer War. During the First World War they were stationed on the Western Front from the outset and were involved in many of the major offensives.
Walter and Alfie had enlisted within a year of each other in 1928-29, at a time when other employment was at a premium for men from Clydeside. They trained in Inverness and during their seven-year commission were stationed variously in Burma, India and the Sudan. Occasionally they saw active service, being involved in the suppression of local insurgencies, but by the outbreak of the Second World War their formal period of enlistment was over and both had recently married and were settling down with careers in the building trade.
Unfortunately, as reservists, both men were among the first to be called up again in August 1939 and before the end of September they were stationed as part of the Army’s 2nd Division on the French border with Belgium. And there they waited, until the following spring.
Contemporary images show members of the regiment engaged in digging trenches, erecting makeshift barricades and preparing bunkers and all the while dressed rather archaically, in kilts. The Cameron Highlanders were one of the last British regiments to wear the kilt on active service and the engagement at La Basseé is thought to be the last in which British soldiers wore the kilt in battle.
But if the autumn and winter were monotous for the First Battalion, events in the two weeks that followed the Germans’ spring Blitzkrieg moved at terrifying speed, confirming the old Army dictum about war generally. The Camerons were transported halfway across Belgium then, finding the enemy was going around them, moved back to the border and finally engaged with them just east of Tournai, on the banks of the Escaut River. Here, in nearly forty-eight hours of fighting, they succeeded in pushing a German force back over the river and were about to secure their position when they were ordered to withdraw once again. In the process ‘B’ Company, of which Walter and Alfie formed a part, lost the equivalent of a platoon killed or wounded: one third of its complement or between forty and fifty men. The other three companies within the Battalion were similarly affected.
If details are vague in this and the episode that follows, it is only because so many of those involved were either killed or captured. However, one of the sources for the information that is available is the collection of private diaries kept by the commanders of three of the companies involved, in particular that of Captain Ronald Leah who commanded ‘B’ Company.
Recce-ing the layout of La Basseé as his men were being billeted locally, Leah described it matter-of-factedly as “the usual defences of a canal in a town”. ‘B’ Company were lined up at the southern end of the town, between the two main bridges or, rather, where the bridges had been but nonetheless where the Germans were most likely to try to cross. ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies were to their left, facing the enemy, on the other side of the railway station bridge and around to the south-east, where the canal wrapped itself round the town.
Little or no provision was made on their right flank, an area of dense woodland to the west of town, as this was being guarded by a regiment of French machine-gunners when the Camerons arrived and the Auchy-Violaines crossing was supposedly the responsibility of a battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment. Ominously, by midday on the 26th, Leah was reporting difficulties in making contact with these units and posing questions about their location and strength.
Walking back to La Basseé along the canal, warm from the sun and slightly midge-bitten, we had avoided the towpath and found a series of tracks through the woods behind the canal bank. The woods were coppiced, the result of new growth from clear-felling of an earlier plantation, and the stumps of much older trees, possibly the remains of the wood in which the Allied defenders hid, were evident here and there. It struck me that, while the woods might have screened defenders from gunners on the opposite bank, it would have been difficult to observe the enemy arriving from the south in the first place, given the high bank and vegetation and the lack of higher vantage points in this otherwise flat terrain.
On the morning of the 26th the Camerons were nonetheless reportedly observing German tanks massing on the south side of the canal, although other reports speak of them hearing the rumble of tanks and, just as significantly, receiving tank and artillery fire on their positions as a precursor of worse to come. By the afternoon and evening the two sides were exchanging mortar fire across the canal and Captain Leah reported that “the church steeple came down today”.
It was possibly because of difficulties in being able to observe the enemy’s precise movements that the 7th Panzer Division’s Schutzen Regiment, led by Erwin Rommel, were able to approach and attempt a crossing to the south of Violaines. Another reason, evident from images of the subsequent crossing, is that they were able to come through a cutting, near the former bridge, that led from a redundant canal basin. Regardless of the circumstances, the Camerons’ ‘A’ Company, which had been held in reserve around Violaines, were tasked with repulsing the crossing with the help of half a dozen French tanks. The battle, initially successful, lasted through the evening and into the early hours of the morning of the 27th but saw the company reduced by half, to just forty-five men.
Rommel’s own report of the engagement is enlightening. He wrote: “… a strong force of enemy tanks from La Bassée had attacked the 7th Rifle regiment’s eastern bridgehead and thrown Battalion Cramer back across the canal. The enemy tanks, which included several heavies, were now standing on the northern bank, and spraying the southern bank with machine gun and shell fire… The situation was extremely critical. I drove the sappers on to their utmost speed and had the pontoons lashed roughly together in order to get at least a few guns and tanks across…. As the first Panzer III lumbered across, several pontoons gave noticeably and it was touch and go whether or not the tank would slither bodily into the canal. While it was crossing I sent off a Panzer IV 50 yards to the east along a high bank on our side of the canal with orders to open fire immediately on the enemy tanks attacking from La Bassée. The fire of this Panzer IV brought the leading enemy tank to a halt.”
By mid-morning of the 27th ‘A’ Company was reduced by nearly half again, to just twenty-seven men, and without further tank support had to withdraw. The Germans came across shortly after and proceeded to attack on three fronts: against La Basseé directly, on what was left of the defences around Violaines, and against French troops further east, thus encircling all concerned.
By 1pm the Germans had also started to cross the canal to the east of La Basseé while the Camerons were facing direct sniper fire from across the water. They fought on but it was increasingly obvious that the position was lost and orders to withdraw were received from Brigade HQ in mid-afternoon: the verbal instructions were issued by a motorcyclist taking extraordinary risks to reach them along the canal bank.
Captain Leah led the remains of his two platoons, possibly as few as forty or fifty men, through the centre of La Basseé, past the church and into the countryside to the north. Finding the roads and lanes already swarming with German tanks and troops they split up and hid in ditches until dark. Leah’s ditch, he recorded, was “very uncomfortable with about one foot of water in it.” In the same ditch were soldiers of 10th platoon, including Alfie. Their one consolation was a plentiful supply of cigarettes and chocolate. 11th platoon, which included Walter, were about three hundred metres ahead and as the night progressed the two units lost contact completely.
The Camerons were completely surrounded, with tanks and machine guns firing over them and German infantry coming within “150 yards” at several points, but remained undiscovered, according to the diary. The continued enemy activity was directed at the remaining two companies of Camerons who had waited too late to withdraw and were now fighting from house to house on the outskirts of La Basseé. Both companies would eventually be forced to surrender by late evening on the 27th.
Once darkness had fallen Leah and his men raced as best they could through the night and early morning across farmland strewn with more ditches, walls and barbed-wire fences. “Kilt badly torn,” he noted, concluding that it was a “Terrible night.” The enemy, Leah recorded, were “dotted all over country side and [we] frequently passed within 20 yds of them, had torches shone on us and were hailed but managed to get through without a mishap.”
By dawn 10th platoon were on the outskirts of the village of Laventie where they expected to rendezvous with transport carriers and move on to Dunkirk. They appeared to be clear of the enemy but by this time it was raining, they were cold and hungry and, as Leah admits, they “made [the] unfortunate mistake of deciding to lay up for another day until dark.” They took cover in an orchard but awoke in mid-afternoon to find themselves surrounded by a company of enemy infantry. They tried to fight their way out, incurring further injuries, but were eventually captured.
Of the twin brothers, Alfie spent the rest of the war as a PoW, mainly in Poland. Walter and the rest of the men in his platoon reached Dunkirk and, after spending part of the day preparing the defences of the town, they eventually boarded a ship and were evacuated to Britain on the evening of 30th May.
We returned to La Basseé just as traffic was building up in what passed for the rush hour in this part of the world and used the time before our train was due to stock up in the local supermarket. Having had time to get my bearings and think through the logistics of the town’s military past I also took in the view of the town with a fresh perspective from the first canal bridge.
The mairie, with the tricoleur flying above and its baskets of flowers, was resplendent on its slight rise straight ahead. The church steeple rose slate-grey and needle-straight with just a wisp of cloud against a blue sky. The shops and offices along the high street still seemed to be busy, perhaps with a few more people heading home, laden with shopping or briefcases. And, below me, the fishermen were quiet now, sat on stools and concentrating on their catches while a new family of ducks appeared from out of the undergrowth behind them and slipped noisily into the water.