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The town of St Omer, lying 40km south-east of Calais, has had a long and often turbulent connection with British military affairs. Situated adjacent to the Flemish plain, the original town was established on a hill overlooking the marshes where the future St Omer and his fellow monks had built a chapel in the seventh century. Unlike the low-lying coastal region to the north, the area is characterised by wooded, broken terrain. The town was fortified during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1711, it was on the verge of surrendering to Prince Eugene and the Duke of Marlborough owing to famine, when it was saved by the bravery of a local girl who brought in provisions.
More recent military focus has centred on an area 2km to the south-west of the town, in the Commune of Longuenesse, where there is a large open plain – le Plateau des Bruyères – traditionally used as the town’s racecourse. Some 70m high and roughly 1km square, the plateau lies adjacent to the main St Omer to Hesdin road as it climbs steeply out of the town. It was here, in June 1803, that Napoleon established one of four great camps for his Army of England.9 Command of the camp was assigned to Marshal Soult in August 1803. He remained at St Omer, and later at Boulogne, until August 1805 when the planned invasion of England was abandoned and the Army dispersed to join Napoleon’s campaign in Austria.
The first flights from the plateau predate the outbreak of war. There is photographic evidence for aircraft hangars and regular civilian flying, including the use of the airfield by the French aviation postal service, as early as 1910.