The Battle of the Lys

The Battle of the Lys was the final battle of the Belgian campaign, fought predominately between the invading German forces and the Belgian Army. The battle took its name from the river Leie (Lys in French) which ran through the battlefield and was the bloodiest of the entire 18-day campaign. Although it culminated in the capitulation of Belgium, it did provide the vital breathing space required for the British and French forces to organise their defence of, and evacuation from Dunkirk.

The heavy German assault on May 24th forced the Allied troops to fall back across the river Lys at the Belgian town of Kortrijk. The Belgians had already been persuaded to abandon their positions along the River Scheldt in order to relieve the British Army and to allow for a counter attack. In reality this served little benefit and the Belgian forces became very close to being cut off from the rest of the Allies. A fundamental lack of Allied air support meant that the Luftwaffe was able to hamper their attempts at an organised defence, making the situation even worse. It took a counter-attack from the Belgian 2nd Cavalry and 6th Infantry to blunt the German onslaught.

On May 25th, the British acknowledged that the only option left open to them was to withdraw to the port of Dunkirk in order to make good their escape. The Belgians also realised that their situation was now beyond hope and the only option, other than immediate surrender, was to fight on to allow their allies the time required to evacuate.

The British placed a brigade and machine gun battalion to assist in this rearguard action. King Leopold III as part of his orders stated

' Whatever may happen, I shall share your fate'

Understandably, the Belgian forces were suffering from low morale, which manifested itself in sections of two regiments surrendering without a fight at Meigem. This was in total defiance of their orders and in one instance, the soldiers, fed up with the relentless and (to them) pointless fight, actually shot their officers. The elite Belgian Chasseurs Ardennais (who had fought an almost non-stop action from the Belgian-German border) were deployed at the village of Vinkt.

The Belgians finally began to collapse on May 27th, the rail system had been destroyed and in excess of 1.5 million civilians were on the move clogging up the roads; ammunition stocks were almost exhausted and all reserves had already long been thrown into the battle. The inevitable actions of an army in its death throes began; focus moved away from attack and towards the denial of assets to the soon-to-be conquerors; artillery was destroyed and stores torched. Bruges was now the only major city in the whole the country not directly under German control. The Chasseurs Ardennais were forced out of Vinkt in the late afternoon, which witnessed the now-victorious Germans committing a massacre of 86 innocent civilians.

By 06.00 on May 28th, the Belgians had formally surrendered. Of the  80,000 casualties sustained by the Belgians from the invasion, 40,000 occurred between 25–27th of May.

In 2010, several Living History groups assembled at the small French town of Werviq Sud, located on the banks of the River Lys, at the invitation of the local authorities to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the battle. A march took place through the town and candles were lit in memory of the fallen at the locations where the French and Belgian troops died in defence of the town. After a service at the cemetery, wreaths were laid at the graves of the fallen, followed by a service at the town's war memorial.

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