THE BORDER

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quesnoy sur deule

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arneke

The images in this section are from a secondary project which examines the remains of both World Wars along the border of France and Belgium. These are a mixture of First War German structures and Second War French Maginot Line bunkers with the occasional British structure. These images do vary slightly in quality as due to the difficulty some of of the locations I have had to frequently work with a small 35mm camera instead of my usual tripod mounted 5"x7" camera.

The German bunkers tend to vary in design and build quality depending on the period of construction and available materials. The French bunkers are from the Maginot Line extension built in the years immediately prior to the Second World War. This extension to the Maginot Line was built to protect the possible route of a German invasion through Belgium. The stronger main length of the Maginot Line protected the border with Germany. Built as an emergency measure the bunkers were too small and scattered to form an effective defensive line and were easily bypassed by the fast moving German Army in 1940. From a more contemporary perspective it is obvious how good the agricultural land is in this region, the crops here having been recently harvested. The area also has many small blocks of woodland, as may be seen in many of these pictures.

The bunkers are often, however, typically modern in style with a combination of rounded edges and sloped glacis to deflect shellfire. They are fairly consistent in style but vary in size depending on the location. Many are now removed, abandoned, or turned into farm sheds. A few still have their reinforced steel doors and window closures although much of the steelwork has by now been recycled. There are additionally a number of British built bunkers of a range of styles and sizes. Most of these bunkers housed fairly basic weapons from rifles and machine guns up to light anti-tank guns, such as the French 25mm or the British 2 pounder.

Hidden in the trees to the east of Malplaquet lie the remains of a Maginot Line bunker close to the small road running along the Franco-Belgian border. It is barely visible due to the growth of trees in the last sixty years. Originally this bunker would have been designed to have a clear field of fire. As Malplaquet is entered from the east two small bunkers may be seen in a field near the village. Both similar in design, and mutually supporting, they face the nearby border.

The border is a few miles to the north of Feignies and some of the remaining bunkers can now be seen as simple mounds, looking from the distance more like Iron Age burial mounds. Most remain as they are so difficult to remove and this is uneconomic unless redevelopment makes it necessary. While the visibility, and field of fire, is excellent in this type of open terrain it suits a fast moving tank army and a few bunkers could do little to stop the invasion of 1940 unless they were supported by other forces, which they often were not.

In terms of pure design the hilltop bunker above the village of Wargnies le Grand is one of my favourite bunkers in this area. While the weather has been unkind to the concrete surface, this remains a beautifully sculpted piece of construction with its smooth faces, rounded edges, sloping glacis, and firing positions protected by the overhanging roof. There is even a vestige of the earth covering which would once have helped to camouflage this position. The site of this bunker allowed it to dominate the approaches to the village and while the purposes behind such structures may indicate sinister and unfortunate events, I still feel it is now possible to look at them from a more aesthetic perspective as successful exercises in design, even if they were doomed to failure.

At the village of Warneton, another large bunker protects the river crossing from Belgium. It is a very simple reinforced box design and lacks the more sophisticated ballistic protection offered by many of its contemporaries.

To the northeast of the Foret de Mormal is another large bunker. Unlike the one at Warneton this is sculpted into the ground. The roof slopes and the whole structure is lower and wider. It is still partially covered by an earth bank and does not stand out quite so obviously as the simple block designs.

To the north of Bavay a large and complex design overlooks the road. While this bunker may date from the Second World War, it was down this road that the 'Old Contemptibles' of Britain's 1914 professional army retreated after the Battle of Mons, on their way to Le Cateau, in the opening days of the First World War.

At Armentieres a small bunker near a railway crossing is now virtually buried in the ground. Judging from the type of concrete I suspect that this dates from the First World War when the area was the front line for several years featuring in particularly heavy fighting in the last year of the war. Not far away at Nieppe, near the road to Bailleul, is another of the Maginot Line bunkers right on the Belgian border. There are many similar structures in the area.

The rather unusual rectangular bunker lies close to the road near the village of Quesnoy. Unusually it has a skin of brick over the reinforced concrete. It is partially buried in the ground so that the firing ports are quite low to the ground. It is apparently British and dates from about 1940 as the British Army waited before the invasion of May of that year which so quickly overwhelmed such static positions. A view of the rear of the bunker clearly shows the massively thick reinforced concrete roof which is a simple rectangle with no ballistic shaping and the foundations protected by a sloping layer of stone blocks, in the manner of a medieval castle. This is an unusual construction and would indicate use of local materials and design and construction by people very inexpert in the then contemporary forms of defensive architecture.

This very curiously shaped structure in the countryside to the east of Lilles appears far too old fashioned in design to be a relic of the Second World War. Judging both from its construction and direction I suspect that this is a relic of the German final defensive line of 1918. The end facing the camera is a protruding tower, similar to a medieval castle, and has a wide field of fire forwards and to the sides. Behind it is a small market garden.

At Lecelles this small bunker with sharply angled sides and roof lies only a few yards from the larger one shown in the next picture. Together they would have made a fairly strong defensive position but although supporting one another they are relatively isolated and not part of a closely linked defence. The larger of the two bunkers is another substantial construction similar to those seen earlier. While the smaller bunker nearby could only have supported riflemen or possibly a light machine gun this has the space and aperture necessary for a light anti tank gun. The surrounding landscape in this picture gives a good indication of the landscape to the east of Lilles. It is generally fairly flat and open with gently rolling hills and fairly frequent blocks of woodland. Not easy to defend against a fast moving opponent.

The last picture shows a relatively isolated bunker is just outside the village of Arneke in French Flanders. Arneke and the surrounding villages featured heavily in the 1940 withdrawal to Dunkirk by the British and French armies. The bunkers, farms, and villages in this area became the scenes of desperately fought rearguard actions to protect the escape of the allied armies. Although, in some cases, these positions held up German troops for a day or two they were all eventually over-run and their occupants either killed or captured. They did, however, ensure the escape of thousands of British and French soldiers who would return four years later, this time victorious.

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