The location of the Opal Coast explains why, from August 1914 onwards, the main ports along the coastline were used as debarkation stations for the British troops. On August 12th, General French, the Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, landed on the quays at Boulogne-sur-Mer with part of his troops. Between November 1916 and June 1917 the ports of Boulogne-sur-Mer, Calais and Dunkirk (to a lesser extent given its proximity to the frontline) accounted for about 43% of all British imports on French soil.

In addition to the facilities along the coast, the British troops started to gradually take over the whole department. First they built camps, then countless depots and hospitals, which constituted large logistical hubs, from the coast to just behind the lines. These hubs were absolutely crucial for the British military operations. At Wimereux or even at Etaples, hospitals admitted and treated thousands of wounded British soldiers who were brought there daily from the battlefields in Flanders and Artois. They also built large ammunition depots, near Saint-Omer, in Zutkerque or at Audruicq. In the same sector training camps were set up, like at Wizernes (gas training school) or at Wisques (machine gun school). The use of specific weaponry required the creation of training sites. Firing ranges shot up across the department and from 1917 onwards tankodromes were opened near Arras (Erin) or Montreuil-sur-Mer (Merlimont).

The territory of Pas-de-Calais also experienced heavy fighting. In 1914 the troops of the Indian corps were engaged in battle at Festubert (23-24 November), then again at Givenchy-lès-La-Bassée (20-21 December). During the first weeks of 1915, the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle (10 March-22 April) was the first large-scale attack in Pas-de-Calais by the British troops. At the time the French were fighting in Artois, except for a small sector which was held by the British to the west of La Bassée. During the Battle at Loos-en-Gohelle (25 September-18 October 1915), the latter launched their first gas attack.

In 1916 the British troops were put in charge of the whole of the frontline from the Somme to Ypres. This area was the centre of the action in 1916. The large-scale attacks in Pas-de-Calais started again on April 9th, 1917, with the Battle of Arras during which the Canadians distinguished themselves at Monchy-le-Preux and at Vimy while the Australians met with fierce German resistance at Bullecourt.

The German offensive in the spring of 1918 obliged the troops to retreat in several places in Pas-de-Calais : at Neuve-Chapelle (the Portuguese), near Bapaume (the British). The Allied counter-offensive which started in the summer of 1918 reversed the balance of power. Pas-de-Calais was completely liberated by mid-October as the Germans withdrew from this mining region.

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  • Significance of the coastal zone for the British logistical organisation, © Yann Hodicq

  • Caron Achille (1888-1947), British camp, road to Boulogne, after a bomb attack, aerial view, first quarter of the 20th century, glass plate, © Musée Quentovic – Ville d’Etaples-sur-Mer

    This photo shows the size of the infrastructure which the British Army built in its camp at Etaples.

  • Loos-en-Gohelle,1918, photo, Departmental Archives of Pas-de-Calais – mark 8 FiD 946

    The village of Loos-en-Gohelle destroyed by bombing.

  • Aerial view of Neuville-Saint-Vaast, 1918, photo, Departmental Archives of Pas-de-Calais – mark 8 FiD 990

    By photographing the battlefield aerial observation provides valuable information to the troops on the ground for their attacks.

significance of the coastal zone for the British logistical organisationBritish camp at EtaplesLoos-en-Gohelle devastatedaerial view, Neuville-Saint-Vaast