One hundred kilometres south of Ypres’ waterlogged battlefields are Thiepval, Beaumont Hamel and Albert, nestled in the rolling chalk hills of the Somme. So notorious are these places that, more often than not, they dominate the British understanding of the First World War. Between these infamous locations is the Artois, a sprawling area of industrialised countryside, where the geology changes from the clays of Belgian Flanders to the chalk of the French equivalent. Stretching from Armentieres in the north to Arras in the south, the Artois has become a forgotten, almost mythical: site of ‘French’ failures, ‘Canadian’ victories and the infamous Battle of Loos, where the British lost any innocence they still had by late 1915. The failures were not just French nor were the victories solely Canadian – the current incarnation of the Western Front tends to portray a nationalised history of the war.
At first glance, around the old coal-mining town of Lens and its suburb of Loos-en-Gohelle (Loos), the war’s myriad legacies appear less obvious than on the Somme or around Ypres. Cemeteries and memorials are fewer in number and less grandiose, tour busses visit less frequently and the tourist ‘landscaper layer’ draped over so much of the Western Front is barely perceptible. In part this is because only one major battle was fought in the area between 1914 and 1918, one in which the British suffered heavily. It is also because Loos shares the Artois battle-zone with Vimy, site of the famous Allied victory during 1917. The Vimy Memorial Park is one of the most popular destinations on the Western Front, and it draws visitors away from Loos’ less dramatic landscape.
Nevertheless, surrounding the town lies an entire, and almost untouched, battlefield, comprising bunkers, dugouts and complex tunnel systems. On the surface redoubts, and mine craters, mostly hidden in small copses that puncture the crop-laden fields, hint at what lies beneath, and the number of unmarked graves in the cemeteries tell of the brutality of the war in this area. Once the events of September and October 1915 were over, the construction of the subterranean battlefield accelerated here, and for the remainder of the war little fighting took place on the surface. Below the story was very different.
Along with my colleagues in the Durand Group I have been working in Loos’ subterranean landscape for many years. We have investigated the extensive British ‘Copse’ system beneath the town of Loos-en-Gohelle as well as a complex system of tunnels near Hulluch. Some of our work carried out in the area will be showcased during the Durand Group’s ‘Big Walk’ in September 2018.