Marechal Foch, General Plumer & Sir William Orpen. Great War 1914-18

During the 1914-18 Great War, Cassel occupied a vital strategic position. Ypres, and the Ypres salient, was only 40km to the east. Several British and French high commanders coordinated the operations of the Allied Forces from HQs in Cassel.

On October 24th 1914, General Ferdinand Foch set up his headquarters here to co-ordinate the Battle of the Yser. Foch, who had been stationed in Doullens until then, decided to move northwards as the combatants embarked on their race to the sea.

By moving to Cassel, Foch was also closer to the British General Headquarters in Saint-Omer, under the command of Sir John French. Foch 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 Foch left Cassel in June 1915. In November 1917, the French Army HQ returned to Cassel.

General Plumer

The British General Headquarters then moved to Cassel. General Herbert Plumer was in charge of this command. The offices were set up in the Casino and his residence was a villa on Place Vendamme. The 1917 assault on Messines Ridge was co-ordinated by Plumer from here. Plumer’s meticulous planning saw a breakthrough at Messines. His motto was ‘Trust, Training & Thoroughness’.

General Sir Herbert Charles Onslow Plumer (1857-1932), GCMG, GCVO, KCB, Second Army;
by Sir William Orpen (Imperial War Museums)

The town hall was converted into an interrogation centre for German POWs.

Sir William Orpen

Self Portrait by Sir William Orpen, Cassel 1917

British War artist William Orpen (1878-1931) was based at Cassel attached to the General Staff 1/6, A.P.O.S, 37 BEF. Orpen’s work is amongst the most vivid of the British war artists. His paintings capture the feeling of life immediately behind the lines.

Many of his paintings are displayed in the Imperial War Museum, London.

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‘.

Sir William Orpen, Soldiers and Peasants, Cassel;
(Imperial War Museums)
The Household Brigade Passing to the Ypres Salient, Cassel; by Sir William Orpen
(Imperial War Museums)

Foch Statue

Post war, on 7th July 1928, the iconic equestrian statue to Marchal Foch was unveiled at the summit of Mt. Cassel.

It was to be desecrated by German soldiers after the 1940 battles described in the pages that follow.

Marechal Foch by Sir William Orpen 1917