The city of Cassel occupies a strategic position, on the summit of one of the hills of Flanders (at 136 metres altitude). Forty kilometres to the east, the city of Ypres in Belgium found itself in eye of the storm for most of the war. Although a small city, Cassel became the centre of a sector with a lot of infrastructure. It welcomed several British and French high commanders, who coordinated the operations of the Allied Forces in this sector.

On October 24th, 1914, while the Battle of the Yser (17-31 October 1914) was raging General Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929) set up his headquarters here. He was in charge of coordinating the operations of the Allied forces in the North of France. Foch, who had been stationed in Doullens (Somme) until then, decided to move northwards as the troops of the Entente (France, the British and Russian Empires) and of the Alliance (central Empires) embarked on their race to the sea. The race to the sea marks the moment when, following the Battle of the Marne, which had stalled the German advance, the warring parties headed towards the North Sea as they tried to gain the upper hand. These movements were designed to surround the enemy: the Germans were trying to advance again while the Allied forces were trying to stop the invasion.

By moving to Cassel, Foch was also closer to the British General Headquarters in Saint-Omer (Pas-de-Calais), under the command of Sir John French (1852-1925). He installed his offices on the first floor of the Hôtel de la Noble-Cour in Grand Place. There were 23 officers stationed here, under the responsibility of his chief of staff, Colonel Weygand. General Henry Wilson soon instigated a collaboration with the British Army. General Foch left Cassel in June 1915.

The British General Headquarters then moved to Cassel. General Herbert-Charles Plumer (1857-1932) was in charge of this command. The offices were set up in the Casino. Based on testimonials we know that the town hall was converted into a prison for German prisoners where they were interrogated. Finally, in November 1917, the French Army returned to Cassel.

For the duration of the war the military were in frequent contact with the civilians who had chosen to remain in the city. These inhabitants all had good memories of the man who would one day become Marshal Foch. Although they did need not always see eye to eye with the British they did work together. A famous British soldier, for example, had excellent memories of his stay in Cassel. His name was William Orpen (1878-1931), and his paintings of Cassel today are preserved in the collections of the Imperial War Museum in London. One of his works bears testimony to the relations, which in some cases were friendly, and even intimate, between the civilians and the military. In his memoirs Orpen gives a description of the Hôtel du Sauvage in Cassel: "Every night the tiny Hôtel Sauvage… was full of people – most of them soldiers who came from the [Ypres] Salient, to spend a few hours here, eating, drinking, playing the piano, singing so they could forget their misery and their unhappiness for a while (…)".

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  • Descamps Henri-Maurice (1878-1965), 1914: General Foch, Colonel Weygand, Lieutenant Tardien and Captain Fournier meeting at Cassel, 1914, glass plate, Fonds photographique patrimonial Descamps – Ville de Cassel

  • Descamps Henri-Maurice (1878-1965), British officers, first quarter of the 20th century, glass plate, Fonds photographique patrimonial Descamps – Ville de Cassel

  • Orpen William (1878-1931), The courtyard, Hotel Sauvage, Cassel, Nord, 1917, © Imperial War Museums (Art. IWM ART 2992), London

  • Descamps Henri-Maurice (1878-1965), A procession of Indochinese soldiers in Grand Place in Cassel in early 1919, 1919, photo, © Cassel, musée départemental de Flandre

    At the end of the war the soldiers were not immediately demobilized. This procedure took several months. Veterans and civilians thus continued to maintain contacts with one another, as is evidenced here, at Cassel, on the occasion of a celebration (probably the Chinese New Year).

  • Orpen William (1878-1931), The courtyard, Hotel Sauvage, Cassel, Nord, 1917, ©Imperial War Museums (Art. IWM ART 2992), Londres

  • Descamps Henri-Maurice (1878-1965), Un cortège de soldats indochinois sur la Grand Place de Cassel au début de l’année 1919, 1919, photographie, © Cassel, musée départemental de Flandre

    À l’issue du conflit, les soldats ne sont pas tous immédiatement démobilisés. Cette procédure prend plusieurs mois. Anciens combattants et civils continuent donc à se côtoyer, comme ici, à Cassel, à l’occasion d’une célébration (probablement le Nouvel An chinois).