chapter  1
13 Pages

Lille 1914

Lille remains, to this day, one of western Europe’s principal industrial centres. Little has changed strategically or economically since 1914 when, together with Tourcoing, Roubaix and the (Belgian) border town of Kortrijk (Courtrai), it formed an industrial conurbation to rival those of the English Midlands or the German Ruhrgebiet. Despite its obvious military significance, in July 1914, the French War Minister, General Messimy, ordered its forts stripped of guns and most of its garrison sent to Alsace. Lille was left practically defenceless, as acknowledged in his decision to declare it an ‘Open City’ on 31 July, four days before Germany declared war on France. In October 1914, during the so-called ‘Race to the Sea’, the Germans were so eager to capture the city, which they knew had been declared ‘open’, that a corps was force-marched 147 miles from Rheims in seven days. The effort was not wasted. The Allied response was crude, confused and ineffective, and, in the end, remnants of the city’s depleted garrison had to cope as best they could. After a concentrated German bombardment and desultory French resistance, Lille surrendered on 12 October to the XIX (Saxon) Corps. It was the largest French city to fall into German hands until 1940.