First Battle of Ypres
Germany's last attempt at a quick victory
19 October - 30 November 1914
author Paul Boșcu, January 2016
During the First Battle of Ypres the German Empire attempted to attack the Entente forces on a wide front in a attempt to, at last, secure victory in 1914. However, by the time of the attack the British, French and Belgian armies managed to solidify their defensive positions. The Germans could not break through and now faced the very thing which they sough to avoid: a prolonged war on two fronts.

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The First Battle of Ypres was a battle in World War One between the German Empire and the allied forces of France, Belgium and the British Empire. The battle took place around Ypres in Western Flanders, Belgium, after the end of the Race to the Sea, mutual attempts of the German and Franco-British armies to advance past each other's northern flanks. The battle proved to be indecisive because heavy fortifications on both sides nullified many offensive weapons. The battlefield became dominated by trench warfare in which defensive artillery and machine guns played a crucial part. The Great War had finally become a war of attrition.

The Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Sir John French, was becoming frustrated by his static positions on the Aisne Front. The old cavalryman sent a plea to French General Joseph Joffre to allow him to move to take up station on the left flank of the French, which would greatly facilitate supply arrangements via the Channel ports. Thus the BEF would become involved in the final operations in northern France and around Ypres where it would try to exploit – or defend – the last possible gap before the North Sea stopped any opportunity for outflanking maneuvers.

The farmland surrounding the Belgian town of Ypres was now the only sector where neither side had a real chance of outflanking the enemy. Far from striking a decisive blow, the Entente forces became embroiled in a fluctuating encounter battle during which they were compelled to feed in units piecemeal simply to hold their ground.

On the German side, the patriotism of the young volunteers could not disguise their limited training, and they fell in thousands at Langemarck, attacking in dense skirmish lines. Remembered by the Germans as the Kindermord von Ypern (Massacre of the Innocents at Ypres), their sacrifice was later accorded a special place in Nazi mythology. Although the front remained fluid, trenches were now snaking across the flat farmland.

The Entente forces experienced a major crisis when the British positions at Gheluvelt were overrun, but the Germans lost cohesion after the initial breach, again exposing weaknesses in their training. A bold British counterattack drove them from Gheluvelt.

The situation was stabilized with the deployment of extra French troops, but the respite was brief. Another German assault saw a composite Prussian Guard Division break through the British lines just north of the Menin Road. Once more employing obsolete tightly packed formations, the Germans were halted by a combination of point-blank British artillery fire and a scratch force which included cooks, brigade headquarters clerks and engineers. Not realising that this represented the last line of British resistance, the Prussian Guard faltered and were then cleared from the Nuns' Wood by a counterattack.

The battle that ensued raged almost continuously from early October, while the British and French were still attempting to push forwards round the imagined German flank, until late November, when both sides accepted the onset of winter and their own exhaustion. By the end of October the wider German offensive had failed, at enormous cost, particularly to the German volunteer corps. At their cemetery at Langemarck today, beyond a gateway decorated with the insignia of every German university, the bodies of 25,000 student soldiers lie in a mass grave; others lie in threes and fours under headstones inscribed to Volunteer Schmidt and Musketeer.

The BEF, alongside the French Second and Tenth Armies, would become part of the hastily assembled Northern Army Group, all under the control of the feisty figure of General Ferdinand Foch. Foch was a force of nature, endowed with incredible vigor, a considerable intellect and the ability to inspire those around him. The BEF had slowly begun to expand. As the BEF moved into the line north of La Bassée Canal, near Béthune, it soon became involved in severe fighting. In the end, the main attention would fall on Ypres, a small market town in Belgium.

Foch was a famed academic tactician and was closely linked with the French pre-war cult of the offensive. His performance in the first weeks of the war had not inspired confidence but, like Joffre, he had the ability to adapt his views to meet the realities he faced rather than the theories he had once taught. He gained new priorities forged in adversity: ‘Infantry was to be economized, artillery freely used and every foot of ground taken was to be organized for defence.’ Of course, morale was important, but most of all a successful attack needed numerical supremacy, backed up by overwhelming firepower. Having gained command of the Northern Army Group, Foch was determined to break through the gap he was convinced must exist between the German units that had captured Lille and those occupying Belgian Antwerp, which they had recently overrun.

Ypres had no particular value in itself, but it was the gateway to success for both sides. For the Germans it offered a way through to the Channel ports, and for the British the route to Menin, Roulers and the chance to cut German rail communications. German cavalry had briefly passed through the town, but then it remained unoccupied until the IV Corps under Rawlinson arrived, followed by Haig’s I Corps.

With the creation of a III Corps under Major General Sir William Pulteney and the makeshift IV Corps under Lieutenant General Sir Henry Rawlinson, the BEF was now a sizeable force.

At the outset of what would swell into the First Battle of Ypres, Sir John French still preserved hopes of mounting an attack that, in company with the French armies, would carry the Allies to the great industrial centre of Lille and thence to Brussels. His hope was shared by Foch, who now commanded the northern wing of the French armies and had convinced himself that the enemy could not find the strength to hold what he still believed was an open front on the coastal plain. Both deluded themselves.

Under General Erich von Falkenhayn’s plan, the new Fourth Army, assisted by the more northerly elements of the Sixth Army, were to smash through the thin trench lines scratched into the ground by British, French and Belgian units between Armentières and the sea. ‘The Fourth Army is to advance, without regard for casualties, with its right wing resting on the coast, first on the fortresses of Dunkirk and Calais, then to swing south at St Omer.’ This was a risky endeavor as most of these German troops fell far below the quality of the original assaulting divisions of August 1914.

The recruits were willing enough, motivated by raw enthusiasm, but they had not had the benefit of a methodical training in drill, musketry or field tactics. They were more like a militia, often poorly equipped and lacking in all but the simplest soldierly skills. They were used in action so early only because Falkenhayn and his staff could think of no alternative and they regarded this as probably their last real chance to finish the war that year.

A pool of five million men aged from twenty to forty-five was available to Germany for war service. Of those, the best were students exempted while they pursued their studies. They had responded to the outbreak of war by volunteering in huge numbers, together with high-school boys preparing for university, and other young men ineligible for the draft. Adolf Hitler, an Austrian citizen living in Munich, fell into the third category. Hitler, who had written a personal appeal to the King of Bavaria, was eventually embodied in the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division.

The III German Reserve Corps stationed on the right of the German Fourth Army tore into the Belgians and French, forcing them back towards the River Yser. The fighting was hard and at times they were harassed by heavy bombardments from naval units headed by the pre-dreadnought Venerable as they advanced towards the Belgian occupied town of Nieuwpoort. But, to their chagrin, the Germans were stymied when the Belgians opened the floodgates to systematically inundate the low-lying polders that protected the town, in effect forcing the Germans to retreat leaving a huge lake behind them.

There was no way through here. It appeared that any decision would have to take place further inland on the low ridges rising from Ypres towards the village of Passchendaele.

The main German assault began, with the initial pressure falling mainly on the British II Corps well to the south of Ypres who were caught somewhat unawares by the fury of the assault. The fighting was at times exceptionally severe and, despite drafts, the British had been reduced by the accumulated campaigns to a skeleton force of just 14,000 men. Then, the Indian Corps arrived to replace them in the line, although they soon betrayed their inexperience and suffered many unnecessary casualties. For the British, the focus of attention then shifted onto the front held by the I and IV Corps digging in on the ridges in front of Ypres itself.

The German recruits’ rawness led to scenarios that matched everything the British had claimed at Mons and Le Cateau, but there is no doubt that this time they really were slaughtering the German troops stumbling towards them. A typical British account is provided by Captain Harry Dillon of the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, in a letter written on 22 October: ‘A great grey mass of humanity was charging, running for all God would let them, straight on to us not 50 yards off. Everybody’s nerves were pretty well on edge as I had warned them what to expect, and as I fired my rifle the rest all went off almost simultaneously. One saw the great mass of Germans quiver. In reality some fell, some fell over them, and others came on. I have never shot so much in such a short time, could not have been more than a few seconds and they were down. Then the whole lot came on again and it was the most critical moment of my life. Twenty yards more and they would have been over us in thousands, but our fire must have been fearful, and at the very last moment they did the most foolish thing they possibly could have done. Some of the leading people turned to the left for some reason, and they all followed like a great flock of sheep. I don’t think one could have missed at the distance and just for one short minute or two we poured the ammunition into them in boxfuls. My rifles were red hot at the finish. The firing died down and out of the darkness a great moan came. People with their arms and legs off trying to crawl away; others who could not move gasping out their last moments with the cold night wind biting into their broken bodies and the lurid red glare of a farm house showing up clumps of grey devils killed by the men on my left further down. A weird awful scene; some of them would raise themselves on one arm or crawl a little distance, silhouetted as black as ink against the red glow of the fire.’

Geographically the battle was divided in four: a renewed offensive against the Belgians on the coast, nullified by the inundations; an attempt by the French under Foch to drive north of Ypres towards Ghent, deep inside Belgium, an over-optimistic project checked by the Germans' own offensive; the battle of Ypres itself, between the BEF and the German volunteers; and, to the south, a defensive battle conducted by the right wing of the BEF against the regular divisions of the German Sixth Army. Fighting on the three latter sectors merged effectively into one battle, so confused was combat and so unrelenting the German effort.

As the power of the assaults built up, there is no question that, for the most part, the British soldiers were making a better fist of the battle. As they gained the experience their pre-war training had not given them, their tactical dispositions slowly gained in subtlety, although there were still mistakes and instances of panic. Cooperation increased between neighbouring units, while the necessity of maintaining (if possible) a reserve at hand for plugging gaps or organized counterattacks seemed to have been grasped. The artillery, too, was generally better handled, and not left so exposed to the power of the German guns.

There was little doubt that the German troops lacked the skills of their predecessors. The concepts of ‘fire and movement’ – going to ground, coordinating rifle, machine guns and artillery to win the firefight, before the final attack and careful consolidation of gains – were often conspicuous by their absence.

Both sides were reliant on artillery to soften up the enemy before an assault. Many men were experiencing concentrated shellfire for the first time. It may have been a light shower compared to the artillery storms to come, but for them it was torment. Although they were indeed causing severe casualties, at the same time the British battalions were slowly being eroded away by the German attacks and the fierce artillery bombardments that preceded them.

A salient was formed, with the British lines bending back on either side of the Menin Road as the Germans edged forward, village by village, ridge by ridge, copse by copse. Yet still they did not quite break through: in consequence the increasingly desperate German High Command resolved to move some more experienced units from the south to form an impromptu Army Group under the command of General Max von Fabeck, slotting in between the German Sixth and Fourth Armies.

Dixmude, tenaciously held by the French marines, became the key to the movements of both sides. Foch's persistent attacks, although making no gains, contained the Germans and shamed both the Belgians and the British into abandoning thoughts of withdrawal. But the BEF was getting very tired: by the end of the month it had been in continuous action along its entire front for ten days.

Arriving in stages from the Aisne, the BEF began by pressing forwards east of Ypres towards the ridges that swell some five miles beyond. The names of these low heights – Passchendaele, Broodseinde, Gheluvelt, Messines – were to recur, had the first assailants but known it, throughout the four coming years of war, and to resound with menace. As the British arrived, so did fresh German corps to meet them. Under pressure, the British fell back. The British IV Corps was driven close to the ancient ramparts of Ypres. The arrival of I Corps, commanded by General Douglas Haig, secured Ypres itself, but that exhausted the army's strength on hand; reinforcements from the empire, including the Indians, were all that were promised, and they were as yet only on their way. A general German offensive began against the whole front. The line was held.

The British riflemen, of the infantry and cavalry alike, overcame the counter-fire of the attacking Germans who, coming forwards in closely ranked masses, presented unmissable targets. The BEF's trenches, at best hasty scratchings three feet deep, at worst field ditches, both frequently knee deep in rain- or groundwater, were as yet unprotected by barbed wire. At the wettest places the defenders crouched behind sandbag mounds or brushwood barricades.

In the absence of strong physical barriers to hold the enemy at a distance, it was the curtain of rifle bullets, crashing out in a density the Germans often mistook for machine-gun fire, that broke up attacks and drove the survivors of an assault to ground or sent them crawling back to cover on their start lines.

The Germans made initial gains along the Menin road, and the British were driven back from Zandvoorde and Hollebeke to within 3 kilometres of Ypres. By now the British position at Gheluvelt was collapsing and the path to Ypres lay open. The situation was restored by British troops in reserve north of the Menin road. They advanced at the double for a mile, driving the Germans off the crossroads to the south and east. South of the road, further cracks in the line appeared, but on the left of the German attack the British hold on the Messines ridge was consolidated.

The British were fortunate in the leadership provided by Douglas Haig, the commander of I Corps, which bore the brunt of the middle stages of the battle at Ypres. Haig kept his nerve and deployed his meager reserves as best he could. The crisis came at the ‘point’ of the salient at Gheluvelt, where a see-saw battle raged for two days. When Gheluvelt was lost, it appeared for a while as if the Germans had broken through. Haig rode forwards up the shell-bespattered Menin Road, where his insouciance under fire seems to have calmed the situation. In the end, the front stabilized at Gheluvelt.

‘Haig moved the cavalry brigade, his last reserves, to the support of 1st Division. He traced across his map a line a little more than a mile from the walls of Ypres, to which the Corps should retire if it were driven back. “And there,” he said, “it must fight till the end!” Then, with his personal staff and escort, he rode slowly up the Menin Road, through the stragglers, back into the shelled area, his face immobile and inscrutable – saying no word, yet by his presence and his calm restoring hope to the disheartened and strength to his exhausted troops.’ (Colonel John Charteris, Headquarters, I Corps)

When informed of the difficulties facing I Corps, Foch responded in very similar fashion to Haig: ‘It is absolutely imperative that no retreat is made, and to that end to dig in on the ground on which you happen to be.’ In the end, a successful counterattack by the British at Gheluvelt Château briefly stabilized the situation, and the ring around Ypres contracted a little – but held. Haig would always carry it in his mind that the Germans could have broken through at Ypres if they had just made one more concentrated assault. It would certainly influence his own conduct of battles later in the war.

Falkenhayn renewed the offensive on a narrower front, astride the road that leads from Menin, on the higher ground the Germans occupied, to Ypres. Pressing down into the low ground, through a belt of vegetation the British would continue to call ‘woods’ long after the trees had disappeared – Polygon, Shrewsbury, Nuns' Wood – the Germans secured territory everywhere, and at the height of the attack broke through at Gheluvelt. Their thrust was repelled by the hasty assembly of bits and pieces of broken and exhausted battalions.

Foch planned attacks towards Messines and Langemarck, timed for the beginning of November, and designed to widen and consolidate the allied salient around Ypres. Falkenhayn, however, pre-empted him. The assault was intended to embrace the whole front to the south of the Menin road, but was mounted principally by the 4th Army on the front between Langemarck and Dixmude. Dixmude itself was taken.

Recognizing the failure of the attempt to break through at Ypres itself, the German chief of the general staff resolved to attack at the pivots south and north of the salient. Even limited gains here would — as Foch had recognized in his attention to the same areas — allow the German artillery to overlook the city and its network of roads. A local victory would help cover the absence of a decisive breakthrough.

The capture of Dixmude is an index of how quickly the skills of position warfare could be learned, particularly by the Germans. A German reserve division, which three weeks previously attacked without sufficient artillery preparation and with inadequate reconnaissance, was put under the command of officers from the active list: they ordered the fortification of the ground gained, built up the heavy artillery, and gradually pushed the line forwards until it was within 200 metres of the Franco-Belgian positions. Only then, with artillery superiority and proper preparation, did the attack go in.

In November 1914, the BEF was being eroded away. The BEF fell back step by step, pushed off the Messines Ridge and thrown back from the Passchendaele Ridge. They just about clung on to the bulk of the Gheluvelt Plateau, although the village of Gheluvelt itself fell to the Germans. In the end, Foch and the French performed as near-perfect allies, moving up their reserves and gradually taking over more and more of the salient as the BEF shrank. The successful defence of Ypres was to the equal credit of the French and the British. In the end the Germans were held back.

A young French marine, thrust into the line near Nieuwpoort reflected on the remarkable ability of even a crude trench to blunt the power of the guns: ‘The German artillery is quite remarkable. The fire of the heavy guns is admirably precise and well regulated. The other day I saw six shell craters in a 30 metre diameter circle; and these shells came from more than 7,000 metres away. But however accurate their fire, a trench gives shelter untouchable by artillery. Well dug-in infantry can only be dislodged by infantry, and properly by enemy bayonets. Unfortunately we are little versed in trenches – being sailors – and lack any understanding of what is required! There is much talk of military engineering, but as far as the Naval Brigade is concerned, you don’t see it. So our trenches are really just holes in the ground, sited at random where men get precarious rest on slippery clay, covered with a thin bed of straw.’

Sir John French's anxiety for the state of the BEF was well grounded. Of eighty-four infantry battalions, seventy-five mustered less than 300 men, a third of their strength in August; eighteen battalions had fewer than 100 men of all ranks. To Foch, French appeared gloomy and anxious. At an allied conference, the British Secretary of State for War, Herbert Kitchener, offered to replace the BEF's commander with Sir Ian Hamilton, but the French decided they preferred the devil they knew. Moreover, as Foch and Haig realized, the crisis was now waning.

The Germans renewed their offensive. The point of pressure was Nuns' Wood, just north of the Menin road and only four miles from Ypres itself. Already the magnificent Gothic buildings of the ancient wool town, the Cloth Hall, the Cathedral, and the merchant weavers' houses were falling into ruin under the weight of heavy German artillery fire. The outlying country, too, was taking on the pockmarked, denuded look that would characterize its landscape for years to come. Its villages and farmsteads were broken by shelling.

Hooge was the target of a concerted attack by the Prussian Guard and the German 4th Division on the 11th of November. The battle raged all day. The initial assault by the Germans was stemmed by a collection of cooks and officers' servants. Later a few dozen strong British soldiers counterattacked and drove the Germans back.

By the end of the First Battle of Ypres, the trenches stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea. They had been repeatedly tested, but neither side could break through. It was clear that trench warfare was no temporary phenomenon. Despite gaining a great deal of valuable territory in Belgium and northern France, the Germans now faced their ultimate nightmare: a prolonged two-front war, the very scenario they had sought to avoid.

The Entente had survived the last crisis of 1914. Within a week or so, snow cloaked the battlefield, and the grandiose plans of the belligerents lay in ruins. The transfer of four German cavalry and eight infantry divisions to the Eastern Front by early December underlined Falkenhayn's acknowledgement of that fact.

The original, highly trained, professional BEF had also gone beyond recall. It had done much to halt the German drive on the Channel ports but suffered heavy casualties. The forces of the British Empire had begun their long and bloody association with Ypres, where the Allies occupied a hazardous salient dominated by German-held ridges to the south and east.

Those who did well were those who recognized that they must change their thinking. A British cabinet member reported that Foch and General Noel Castelnau had originally imagined that the course of this war, like previous wars, would be shaped by big battles punctuated by quiet intervals. They had not appreciated the continuous powers of resistance conferred by trenches; now they did. German politician and soldier Wilhelm Groener, despite being in the rear, recorded his appreciation that progress would be slow: 'The whole war has taken on the character of a battle of fortifications. Fresh, joyful open warfare is not, in the current circumstances, the order of the day.'

The British survivors, whose unwounded numbers were less than half of the 160,000 which the BEF had sent to France, were by now stolidly digging and embanking to solidify the line their desperate resistance over the preceding five weeks had established in the face of the enemy. The French, too, were digging in to secure the territory for which they had fought both north and south of the city. Everywhere the Germans held the high ground, dominating the shallow crescent of trenches the British, who were to be its guardians for most of the coming war of attack and defence, would call ‘the Salient’.

The prospect of any offensive, either by the Allies or the Germans, looked far away as winter fell in France at the end of 1914. A continuous line of trenches, 475 miles long, ran from the North Sea to the mountain frontier of neutral Switzerland. Behind it the opposing combatants, equally exhausted by human loss, equally bereft of supplies to replace the peacetime stocks of munitions they had expended in the previous four months of violent and extravagant fighting, crouched in confrontation across a narrow and empty zone of no man's land.

The experience of the French in Alsace and Lorraine, of the British in the Aisne, and of the Germans in Flanders had persuaded even the most bellicose commanders that offensives unsupported by dominant artillery would not overcome. For the meanwhile, the artillery of all armies was short of guns and almost wholly without ammunition. At the end of the First Battle of Ypres, British batteries were limited to firing six rounds per gun per day, scarcely enough to disturb the parapets of trenches opposite and wholly inadequate to support infantry in an advance against machine guns. A sort of peace prevailed.

Total German losses at Ypres were in the region of 80,000, and most of the newly formed reserve regiments had suffered at least 60 percent casualties. The BEF's losses for the war up to the 30th of November, 89,964, exceeded the establishment of the original seven divisions, with 54,105 of them falling around Ypres. The combat strength of the Belgian army had halved. France suffered a total of 265,000 deaths in 1914.

Although the character of the fighting — after the initial contact was made — was static, its commanders continued to see the battle as mobile. Falkenhayn and Foch ordered attack and counterattack. But the movement effected in response to these orders was limited. Indeed, most of the battle was outside their control. The landscape around Ypres was still closed, the roads converging on the city dividing it into self-contained compartments, and its woods and houses providing cover. Tactical command was therefore exercised at a much lower level.

The casualties of 1914 were the highest of the war in relation to the establishments of the participating armies. Such a rate of loss was unsustainable in the long run. So too were the pace and intensity of the first four months' fighting. Digging trenches in October and November was as exhausting — albeit physical exercise of a different form — as the sustained marches of August and September. But trenches also gave protection; they minimized casualties and they stabilized the line. The first battle of Ypres highlighted the fact that the conduct of war was on a cusp.

Foch did not fight the sort of battle which he imagined he fought. After all, the Entente success was defensive, not offensive. Furthermore, the ground on which the lines eventually rested reflected this attacking intent, not the needs of protracted defence: too often they were sited on forward slopes, observable by German artillery, or were indented by local German gains. But the hand-to mouth nature of such expedients had a wider benefit. When the battle closed, British and French units stood intermingled along the perimeter: adversity under fire had forced cooperation and trust.

Falkenhayn had, for all his independence of the Schlieffen school, fought Schlieffen's battle. He had continued, despite the Marne, to seek a rapid victory in the west. He had done so by moving towards the right flank, in the hope primarily of envelopment, but secondly of breakthrough should the enemy line weaken elsewhere. However, the Entente had constructed a solid and continuous line from Switzerland to the sea. Envelopment was no longer possible. Neither the shells nor the men were available to attempt a breakthrough. Falkenhayn ordered the German armies in the west to form defensive positions, and to hold the ground which they had already conquered. His instructions gave method to position warfare, and anticipated its adoption for some months. But its purpose remained that of enabling the creation of fresh forces for mobile and decisive operations. For both sides, trench warfare continued to be a matter of expedience, not a foundation for strategy.