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 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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.