FIRST BATTLE OF YPRES - OCT/ NOV 1914
On 20th October, Allied positions were subjected to relentless attacks. The British held 35 miles of front along the low ridge that skirts the town of Ypres. The Germans attacked in massed ranks providing unmissable targets to the riflemen of the B.E.F. firing from their shallow trenches. At times the fighting was hand to hand with bayonets, fists and entrenching tools (short spades) all used.
The Brits are Outnumbered 7:1
Image: Around Ypres the trenches curved out to form the notorious ‘Salient’.
On 17th October 1914, a German patrol captured a British officer a few miles from Ypres. When searched he was found to have in his pocket a plan for a coming offensive. Sir John French was keen for the British army to advance from their trenches to meet the German force heading for Ypres. The capture of the plan meant that the Germans now knew the strength of the British holding the Salient while the British were unaware of what was coming. Fortunately pilots of the Royal Flying Corps spotted the masses of field grey clad soldiers heading towards Ypres and the potentially disastrous plan was scrapped. However the destruction of both Ypres and of the British army was merely postponed. In the battles for Ypres, around 600,000 people died.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 17th October 1914
Ypres - and the British Army - on the Verge of Destruction
Image: Ypres untouched, but on the 19th October, outlying villages were ablaze as the Germans pressed forward.
The First Battle of Ypres lasted from 19th October – 22nd November 1914. This was the first of three major battles that bear the name ‘Ypres’ although the salient was the scene of constant fighting. An estimated 80% of the original B.E.F. died here and it has been calculated that fighting to hold ‘Bloody Flanders’ (the area around Ypres), cost Britain seven soldiers per hour over the four years of the war!
The First Battle of Ypres Begins
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 20th October 1914
THE BATTLE BECOMES DESPERATE
Image : Langemarck cemetery lies 7 miles north of Ypres. It holds the remains of over 44,000 German soldiers including those who fell on 22nd October.
On the 22nd October 1914, there occurred near Langemarck an event that is often referred to as, ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’. According to legend, young soldiers linked arms and sang their national anthem as they marched towards the foe, happy to lay down their lives for the fatherland.
The innocents involved were teenagers who, weeks earlier, had been at school or university. They were not trained or equipped to the same standard as the regular German army. Some had only 6 weeks of drill and much of their kit dated from the 1870’s. Some of their geriatric officers were also of that period having been ‘dug out’ to serve one more time and bizarrely some units lost more officers through infirmity rather than injury! The N.C.O.’s (Non-Commissioned Officers such as corporal or sergeant) were generally the student’s teachers! What happened next was shocking.
The Massacre of the Innocents
Image: An artist’s impression of the German Kaiser at the front
On 25th October 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II was making ready to move his HQ to Flanders. He was taking with him his best dress uniform and plumed hat, as he planned soon to make a triumphal entry into Ypres. The man, who was hardly ever seen in anything but German military uniform had - at the outset of war - held the highest ranks in both the British army and British navy. These honours had been bestowed on him as birthday presents by his grandmother, Queen Victoria. In the autumn of 1914, the ruler, who as a child had threatened to stab a member of the British royal family, was on the verge of grinding the British army into the Flanders mud.... or was he?
Kaiser Wilhem on the Glory Road
THE BRITISH ARMY HOLDS ONTO YPRES
Image The Prussian Guard encounter men of the Ox and Bucks in the Battle of Nun’s wood.
In the last scene of the drama that was the First Battle of Ypres, soldiers of the Prussian Guard – the pride of the German army – were shot down like pheasants. The beaters were the remnants of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire light infantry who flushed them out of Nun’s wood and drove them towards the guns of the Scots Guards.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 11th November 1914
Prussian Guardsmen Were Shot Like Pheasants
Image: By late November 1914, German casualties amounted to around 750,000.
On 18th November 1914, Chief of the General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn suggested to his political bosses that Germany should seek peace. Repeated and costly attacks on Ypres had not brought about a breakthrough and he deduced that Germany’s opportunity to win the war was gone. Trench warfare favoured the defender and the fighting on the Western Front was haemorrhaging German manpower and munitions. Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg strongly opposed Falkenhayn’s view and both sides continued to slog it out for another four years.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 18th November 1914
German Army Chief Wants Peace
On Sunday 22nd November 1914 the heavy guns that had shelled the town sporadically for more than three weeks targeted the Gothic heart of Ypres. They were supported by an armoured train firing from Houthem, 4 miles to the southeast on the line to Lille. The Cloth Hall had already been hit by shells on four occasions and a German pilot had tried to bomb it but now properly coordinated explosive and incendiary shells rained down. The Germans were exasperated that they could not capture Ypres and set about destroying it. They also believed that the British were using the town’s towers and spires for artillery observation - although there is no evidence that this was the case. By the evening of the 23rd, all that remained of Ypres was a heap of ruins.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 23rd August 1914
Ypres' Iconic Buildings Ablaze
THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE IS LOST
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 19th October 1914
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 25th October 1914
Image: Flooding prevented a German advance north of Ypres.
On 26th October, the Belgians decided to stop the German military tide with a tide of their own. Having already lost 88% of his kingdom to the Kaiser, King Albert was determined to yield no more and gave the order to send in the North Sea. Selected culverts were blocked and the sluice gates at Nieuport were opened over several nights to inundate a two mile wide, and ten mile long strip of the flat Flanders countryside. The murky water was generally only a foot or so deep but it concealed scores of deep, drainage ditches. Heavily laden German troops could not attempt to pass through as the risk of drowning was too high!
The Floodgates Open
This ‘dismal’ prediction was recorded in his diary by a young British officer near Ypres on 5th November 1914. That day’s entry also includes the comment that things were reasonably quiet although “shells have been going over our heads all day” and “those beastly snipers are all over the place”. Sleep continued to be difficult for him but he wrote, “I have found some sacks which I get into at night and keep fairly warm, the nights being awfully cold”. He was aware of the arrival of the first Colonial troops in the U.K. and wrote, “I wish they would send out the Canadian troops, let’s get a move on these Germans and have done with it”. The officer survived the war, which in fact lasted 4 years and 6 days after his diary entry.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 5th November 1914
"This War Will Last Another 2 Months At Least"
Image: British soldiers await burial.
During the First Battle of Ypres (which officially ended on 22nd November 1914), a quarter of a million men shed blood. Worst affected was the German army which had suffered 134,000 casualties and - in Falkenhayn’s words - was now ‘a broken instrument’. In denying them victory, the British had lost 56,000 men and the French 50,000. The British Expeditionary Force now barely existed. Many battalions had been reduced to 10% of their initial strength - and there were no more reserves available. Hardest hit was the 7th Division which had crossed the Channel on 6th October with 17,948 men. By 23rd November more than 50% (9237) were dead.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 23rd November 1914
First Battle of Ypres - Counting the Cost
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 22nd October 1914
Image: From their shallow trenches north of Ypres, the British repelled attack after attack for 3 days.
As the Germans resumed their offensive, the professional soldiers of the B.E.F. were still reflecting on events of the previous day.
Through early morning mist, the German youths had been singing as they advanced over the turnip fields around Langemarck. When they reached a point around 50 yards from the front line, the British riflemen had fired volley after volley until smoke obliterated their view. They recalled that when the cease fire was sounded, the air was filled by a prolonged groan. As the smoke cleared the Tommies were faced with a ‘weird and awful sight’. A wall of bodies had been created and wounded men, some minus a limb, were trying to crawl away. One soldier from the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry took pity on the injured and went out with a barrow to collect them but not every German soldier appreciated his efforts, as he was continually under sniper fire. On this day and next day, the Germans regrouped and attacked again but the British line held.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 26th October 1914
This was not the outcome the German High Command had expected when the battle began at dawn on 11th November 1914. Previous failures to capture Ypres had been blamed on low grade infantry units and so the elite Prussian Guard were especially selected for this attack on what turned out to be a prophetic date. The British forces fought from shallow trenches defended by a strand or two of barbed wire. Despite their greatly depleted ranks and despite having no more reserves to draw on, the B.E.F. clung on to Ypres.