Home Land War Battlefields Ypres and the Great War

Ypres and the Great War

Invasion - August/October 1914

"...Now God be thanked who has matched us to this hour..." Rupert Brooke

 

In 1914 the German plan was to destroy the French army, and ours if we had joined them, by making a wide turning movement through Belgium and sweeping on round Paris with about two-thirds of their army. The Belgian army were driven back into Antwerp and the Germans pressed on until they were finally stopped on the River Marne. The Allies then counterattacked and drove the Germans part of the way back.

 

By early October the front had stabilised south of Arras but northwards to the Channel there were virtually no troops. As the Belgian army fell back from Antwerp the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) moved north to turn the German flank north of Lille. Simultaneously the Germans launched their own offensive to turn the Allied flank and capture the Channel ports. The armies met east of Lille and, as more troops came up, fighting spread north to Messines (Mesen) and Ypres (Ieper) as the Belgians retreated to positions along the River Yser between Ypres and Nieuport.

  • Note on organisation - The German army was raised by peacetime conscription and numbered about 75 infantry divisions of about 18,000 men each (about 1.5 million all told). The French army, also a conscript force, numbered about 55 divisions each about 15,000 strong (about 1.0 million). In contrast the British army was a volunteer, long service force of about 250,000 men which could provide an Expeditionary Force of 6 divisions, about 18,000 strong, and, eventually, a further 5 from garrisons round the Empire.
  • Note on names - The French version of place names is usually used in books but nowadays the Flemish version (given in brackets) is used on maps and road signs.

 

The First Battle Of Ypres - October/November 1914

 

"...Their shoulders held the sky suspended..." A A Housman

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Ypres, on the River Yser (I Jzer), stands in a saucer of low ground about 50 ft above sea level with higher ground (up to 250 ft) around Messines which runs northeast to Hooge and Gheluvelt and then north of Passchendaele (Passendale). Between the town and the ridge the ground is naturally marshy drained for farming by ditches and sluggish streams such as the Steenbeek. In 1914 Ypres was a small country town of about 8,000 but its architecture, particularly the Cloth Hall, reflected its past as a centre of the woollen trade.

The British advanced through the town but were halted just west of Gheluvelt and in mid October the Germans launched their own offensive with about 20 divisions. Many were newly raised units formed from the better educated men who had been exempted from call-up but volunteered on the outbreak of war. Two months training had taught them little about war and, led by elderly, reserve officers and NCOs still carrying swords, they advanced literally shoulder to shoulder (sometimes arm-in-arm and singing) against long service British regulars who could fire 20 to 30 rounds a minute.

Despite appalling casualties (Germans named the battle the 'Kindermord von Ypern' - usually translated as 'The Massacre of the Innocents of Ypres') numbers, and the weight of the superior German artillery, told. On 31 October the 2nd Welsh were destroyed at Gheluvelt (Gheluveld) on the Menin Road and the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment broke through. The 2nd Worcesters lost about one-third of their 370 men to shell fire as they advanced to retake the ground but the survivors charged the Germans who were disorganised after their attack, routed them and restored the line. (Private Adolf Hitler was serving with the 16th; unluckily his duties kept him out of the front line.)

To the north the Belgians and French were pushed back but held the line of the Yser when King Albert had the sluices opened to flood the countryside. To the south the Germans took Messines ridge leaving the troops in front of Ypres in the famous (or infamous) Ypres Salient. On 11 November the German Guards Division attacked along the Menin Road meeting heavy British fire. Through the clearing smoke the 1st Kings saw what appeared to be another wave of attackers but which did not seem to be moving. As the smoke finally cleared they could see it was actually a bank of enemy dead lying across their front.

The failure of this attack signaled the end of the battle which virtually destroyed Britain's regular army. Battalions, over 1,000 strong in August, now averaged under 200 men (even though they had received reinforcements). Overall Allied casualties were 140,000 (British 58,000, French 50,000, Belgians 32,000); German losses amounted to 130,000.

 

The Second Battle Of Ypres - April/May 1915

 

"... he stumbles at me, guttering, choking, drowning..." Wilfred Owen

Mobile warfare ended; both sides dug in and the trenches ran without a break from the Channel to the Swiss Frontier. The BEF had been reinforced in 1914 by two Indian divisions and were now joined by regulars withdrawn from Imperial garrisons, Territorials, raised for home defence but who had volunteered to go to France, and a Canadian division.

On 17 April the British exploded a mine at Hill 60 (its height in metres). Although it was only a large heap of earth from a cutting where the railway ran through the higher ground, not a natural hill, it made an excellent observation point. The explosion of several tons of explosives underneath it killed most of the defenders and shocked the survivors. Hill 60 was captured and held in the face of heavy artillery bombardments and fierce German counterattacks.

On 22 April the Germans attacked the north face of the salient which was held by French troops. At about 5.30 on a sunny afternoon a Canadian, on the right of the French positions, saw "A living wall of green fog, about four feet in height, moved towards the French line ... Soon we heard strange shouts coming from the green fog. The cries became weaker and more incoherent. Then masses of soldiers tumbled upon us from out of the fog and collapsed. Most weren't wounded but they had expressions of terror on their faces.

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The first use of chlorine created a four mile gap in the Allied lines. German infantry following the gas cloud found no one to fight; only bodies, their faces discoloured and contorted in agony. Luckily they advanced cautiously, understandably as they only had crude gas masks, and the attack had only been an experiment, not a major offensive, so there were few reserves. Even so they had gained two miles.

On 24 April the Germans attacked the Canadians. Fortunately one of their officers had realised that urine soaked cloth would provide some protection against chlorine and using handkerchiefs, bandoliers and towels the Canadians fought back. Despite their courage the Germans gained ground until they were finally stopped by British Territorials supported by Canadian guns firing pointblank into the attacking Germans.

The German gains threatened the rest of the Salient and the Allies tried to recapture the lost ground but British attacks were poorly supported by the French and achieved little except casualties. On 1 May the Germans used gas against the British for the first time to recapture Hill 60 and in early May our troops pulled back to a new line only about three miles from Ypres. The last major attack, just north of the Menin Road, on 24 May also used gas but the Germans made only very limited gains and, as they were now running short of shells, the battle died away.

Allied losses were about 71,000 (British 59,000, French 10,000, Belgian 1,5000); the Germans lost about 35,000. For defenders to suffer the greater loss is unusual and probably due to the poor coordination of our counterattacks. Lt-Gen Smith-Dorrien was another sort of casualty. He recommended pulling back at the end of April but Gen French, the British Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) held a grudge against him and took the opportunity to relieve him of command of II Corps; then French ordered his successor to make the withdrawal.

 

Interval At Ypres

 

"... I have a rendezvous with death ..." Alan Seegar

In the autumn of 1915 the British attacked at Loos. Gen French mishandled the battle and was replaced by Gen Sir Douglas Haig as C-in-C. In February 1916 the Germans attacked the French at Verdun with the aim of wearing out the French army. In July the British tried to break through the German lines on the Somme. Both battles ground on until November with heavy casualties and gains of a few miles at most. In December David Lloyd George became Prime Minister because it was felt he would prosecute the war with more determination than anyone else.

In 1917 the French replaced Gen Joffre, their C-in-C since 1914, with Gen Robert Nivelle who promised to win the war with a single, joint attack. In April 1917 the British attacked near Arras; the Canadians captured Vimy Ridge in a brilliant attack and some ground was gained to the east of the town. The simultaneous French attack near Rheims failed with very heavy casualties and the French army mutinied - the troops would hold the line but would not attack.

In February the Germans had launched unrestricted submarine warfare confidently expecting that Britain would sue for peace in six months and that no Americans would land in Europe - major misjudgments which cost them the war. In the short run, however, British shipping losses soared alarmingly, mainly because of the Admiralty refused to use convoys.

 

Messines And The Third Battle Of Ypres - June/November 1917

 

"... I fell into the bottomless mud. So I lost the light ..." Siegfried Sassoon

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Up to early 1917 the Ypres Salient was quiet with the normal 'wastage' (of men) in trench warfare, increased because the Germans overlooked our positions, and the reduction of the town to rubble. Then Gen Haig, under some pressure to capture submarine bases on the Belgian coast, decided the British should take the high ground east of Ypres and advance to the coast about 40 miles away - ambitious!

As a preliminary, Messines ridge was to be captured. For 18 months the British had been driving tunnels up to 720 yards long and 90 ft down under the German lines. By the mid 1917 21 mines, one under Hill 60 yet again, were in place. On 7 June nearly 1,000,000 lbs of explosives exploded when 19 of the mines were detonated. In Lille, 10 miles away, people thought there had been an earthquake. The noise was heard in London and in the south of England the earth trembled. About 10,000 Germans were killed or buried alive by the explosions, some being found dead in dugouts killed by the shock, their bodies unmarked. By mid June Messines ridge was in British hands at the cost of about 108,000 casualties; the Germans lost about 100,000. Four mines were not set off in 1917. One exploded in 1955; the others are still there near Ploegsteert Wood. At Spanbroekmolen near Wytschaete a mine crater filled with water and is now the 'Pool of Peace'.

The main attack from Ypres was delayed while the Cabinet, who did not want to make peace but did not like British casualties, considered matters. Probably made little difference except that the men had to fight in bad weather. On 31 July the offensive started with a nine day barrage by 3,000 guns (4.75 tons of shells per yard of front attacked). It caused 30,000 German casualties but destroyed the fragile drainage in the area. Even light rain would have made the ground difficult but, as the attack began, the heavens opened. Little of the important higher ground on the right was gained but on the left there was an advance of one to two miles. In this attack Capt Noel Chavasse RAMC, a medical officer with the Liverpool Scottish, won his second Victoria Cross (posthumously; he died of his wounds soon afterwards, the citations for both his VCs are on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.).

It kept on raining; the ground became a swamp but, even so, another attack in mid August made some gains near Langemarck. A change in command for the right flank and more rain delayed the advance but during September the weather improved and a series of attacks pushed the front along the higher ground. Further attacks through October gained little ground, the weather deteriorated and the battlefield became a morass. Mud jammed rifles and machine guns, shells failed to explode and men drowned if they slipped off the wooden tracks. Eventually by 10 November the Canadians captured the village of Passchendaele and the battle petered out.

The Third Battle of Ypres cost the British army about 300,000 men (and about 8,500 French) as against about 260,000 suffered by the Germans. While staggering, British losses were less than on the Somme the previous year when we lost 450,000 men between July and November.

 

1918 And The Aftermath Of War ...

 

"With our backs to the wall ... Each one of us must fight on to the end." Douglas Haig

Unrestricted submarine warfare had not driven Britain out of the war but it had brought America into it. After Russia collapsed the Germans moved large numbers of men west and attacked to defeat Britain and France before the Americans arrived in strength. From March to July they attacked mainly south of Arras but once to the south of Ypres when they recaptured Messines Ridge and nearly broke through to the railway centre at Hazebrouck which would have isolated the British army. During this offensive the British abandoned all the ground won near Ypres at such great cost in the previous year. It was a close run thing but, despite gaining a considerable amount of ground and getting nearer to Paris than they had in 1914, none of the German attacks were decisive. In August a British attack drove the Germans back from Amiens. Then, led by our army, the Allies launched their own series of attacks which broke through the German's defences in the Hindenburg line and almost pushed them out of France and Belgium. In November the Germans asked for an armistice and the war was over.

Ypres was rebuilt with important buildings being restored to their prewar appearance. It took time, 42 years in the case of the Cloth Hall. The wartime battlefield burials were replaced by formal cemeteries the largest of which, Tyne Cot, has over 10,000 graves. Additionally the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing records the names of 55,000 men who were killed near Ypres before August 1917 (not on the whole front) and have no known grave. The Memorial at Tyne Cot records a further 35,000 names of those killed after August. Of course many of them are in the cemeteries; as their headstones say they are "Known Unto God" - Kipling's famous phrase. Even now the aftermath of the war continues. A Belgian farmer was killed a few years ago when his plough hit an unexploded shell and the Belgian Army still disposes of, literally, tons of unexploded ordnance every year. British dead still come to light and are given military funerals; amazingly they can sometimes still be identified by name.

 

Bibliography

 

The main sources for these notes are:
The Real War - B H Liddell Hart (General Background)
The Great War - John Terraine (General Background)
Ypres 1914 Death of an Army - A H Farrar-Hockley (First Ypres)
1915 The Death of Innocence - Lyn Macdonald (Second Ypres)
Pillare of Fire - Ian Passingham (Messines)
In Flanders Fields - Leon Wolff (Third Ypres)

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Last Updated ( Saturday, 24 May 2008 09:04 )  

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