In early 1917 the Germans planned a tactical withdrawal to a new defensive line – the Hindenburg Line. A ‘scorched earth’ policy left nothing to support the advancing Allied armies, and the population were forcibly moved out ahead of this.

Leaving Villers-Plouich. October 1916
Picture from l’historial de Péronne – German soldiers’ photo albums

The evacuation started village by village in the autumn of 1916 and continued into the spring of 1917. Nearby Metz-en-Couture had been evacuated through Gouzeaucourt in October 1916. Eventually it was Gouzeaucourt’s turn.

21 February 1917 All the residents were instructed to gather at the Biquette Field. They could take very little, but as they waited for hours they could see their houses being looted, then torched or blown up.


In this image: Ox carts in use here, but mainly pulled by horses. The need to feed and water horses often dictated where evacuees went and how quickly they could move. It similarly constrained the cavalry in both armies.

At the start of the destruction, the church
is still intact but the tree has been felled.
The destruction of the church, February 1917

They were eventually moved by ox-cart towards Villers-Guislain and then by train and on foot to Beauvois-en-Cambrésis. The old, particularly, found this difficult. On 5 May 1917 M Bourriez notes that:

“evacuees arrived from Gouzeaucourt, not a day passed without a burial.” M Bourriez in Histoire de Beauvois (l’historial de Péronne)

Eventually as the Allies moved closer in 1918, Beauvois-en-Cambrésis was evacuated and they were moved again, this time some went to Belgium.


British soldiers mending a bridge across the Somme in Péronne
The town was wrecked on their arrival there in March 1917.
Reproduced with kind permission from Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 5015)

On 18 March 1917 the Warwickshire Regiment arriving in Péronne “found [it] deserted” and “the companies found shelter among the ruins.”

The Worcestershire Regiment moved north east from Péronne through the countryside around Gouzeaucourt which they found “devastated. Houses had been laid in ruins, bridges had been blown up, wells had been rendered unfit for use and fruit trees had been cut down.” British troops quoted in Capt H.F>M>Stacke in the Worcestershire Regiment in the Great War.
Felled trees blocking a road to delay British advance near Havrincourt, 20 November 1917,
just before the battle to retake Gouzeaucourt a few miles to the south on 30 November.
Reproduced with kind permission from Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 3178)
The Amiens to St Quentin Road, March 1917. Clearing felled trees
Reproduced with kind permission from Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 1855)

The fighting around Gouzeaucourt which lasted for the remainder of the war, took a further toll on its buildings and its surrounding farmland.

It was these conditions, as they became known, which led people to help, in the knowledge that Britain had been spared this kind of destruction.