First Battle of Ypres
THE FIRST BATTLE OF YPRES
Just over 100 years ago a four year struggle began for the control of a piece of ground to the east of the small Belgium city of Ypres when the German Imperial Army and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) clashed in October 1914. That clash lasted for just under a month, from the 19th October to the 11th November 1914, and was to lead to the formation of a bulge into the German frontline; a bulge which we now know as the Ypres Salient. Follow in the footsteps of the BEF during the First Battle of Ypres in the company of one of our expert guides.

The First Battle of Ypres

19th October to 22nd November 1914

On 7th October 1914 elements of the German Imperial Army arrived in Ypres; they requisitioned supplies, emptied the city's coffers of 62,000 Francs and spent that night in the city. The next day the infantry moved off in the direction of Dickebusch whilst the cavalry headed towards Vlamertinghe and the north. Having 'passed through Ypres' they continued to probe in their efforts to outflank the French and Belgium forces that were defending the area.

To the north of Ypres between the coast and Dixmude were 5 Belgium divisions. Between Dixmude and Ypres lay 4 French divisions — a French Marine Division, the 87th and 89th Territorial Divisions and De Mitry's Cavalry Division. South of Ypres in the vicinity of Armentieres was General Pultney's III Corps and further south was General Smith-Dorrien's II Corps. The French to the north of the city were subsequently augmented by the French 42nd Division and General Rawlinson's British IV Corps, that had been covering the withdrawal from Antwerp, arrived in the vicinity of Ypres on 14th October 1914.

The Opposing Armies Converge

The opposing armies converge on Ypres. [© Ian R Gumm, 2014]

General Rawlinson's IV Corps consisted of Major General Julian Byng's 3rd Cavalry Division and Major General Thompson Capper's 7th Infantry Division. The 3rd Cavalry Division pushed out to the south as a screen along the Messines Ridge and the 7th Division pushed out to the east in an effort to tie in their line with De Mitry's French cavalry that was somewhere to the north of the city.

General Allanby's Cavalry Corps followed close behind IV Corps and they were inserted into the line between Ypres and Armentieres covering the Messines Ridge. Major General Byng's 3rd Cavalry Division was consequently switched to the north of the city to cover the gap that still existed between the De Mitry's French cavalry and the 7th Division in the area of Langemarck and Zonnebeke. The French IX Corps and General Haig's I Corps were both moving north from the Aisne intent on reinforcing the defences in the northern sector of the Allied frontline.

Following their arrival at Ypres on 14th October 1914 Major-General Sir Thomas Capper's 7th Division pushed progressively east over the next four days. Late on the 18th they were ordered to advance and seize the city of Menin. It was too late in the day to set off on the 18th and the advance began at 06.30 hrs on 19th October 1914. Initially the advance went well and the first objectives were gained. However, as the 22nd Brigade angled its advance towards Menin from the north reports were received that the German Imperial Army had reinforced the front in the vicinity with two full Army Corps and Major General Capper ordered his Brigades to retire and re-establish the defensive line. The enemy showed no inclination to follow and the 7th Division's defences were re-established without any major incident along the line they had previously held on the night of 16th/17th October 1914.

Throughout the night of 19th/20th and into the following morning a steady stream of refugees began to pass westwards as the civilian population began their exodus of the area.

On 20th October 1914 the 7th Division was ordered to push forward a reconnaissance in force to determine the enemy's strength and intent. This cleared the enemy from Becelaere, but as they approached Trehand they were heavily shelled by German artillery. Thereafter attacks began to develop against Brigadier-General Lawford's 22nd Brigade and the 3rd Cavalry Division to their left.

By midday the situation had changed dramatically. The French cavalry to the left of the British withdrew unexpectedly exposing their flank. In danger of their flanking being turned Major General Byng ordered his 3rd Cavalry Division to retire to a line extending from Zonnebeke through St Juliaan to Poelcappelle; the British thereby giving up Passchendaele and Westroosebeke to the enemy. The Germans continued their advance and were soon pressing against the defences of the 22nd Brigade. By the afternoon of the 20th the battalions of the 22nd Brigade were heavily engaged by the enemy though they continued to hold their ground. To their right Brigadier-General Watts' 21st Brigade was also engaged, but they too held their ground.

Whilst this action was going on the Germans continued to make repeated and persistent attempts to break through the Belgium and French defences further north. The ill-equipped and weakened Belgian Army continued to fight valiantly, but as time passed it looked increasingly likely that the Germans would break through.

It was about this time that the leading elements of General Haig's I Corps began to arrive in the vicinity of Ypres and on 21st October 1914 the 2nd Division began to be pushed forward to the east of the city behind Major General Byng's cavalrymen.

By 21st October 1914 the situation along the Belgium front to the north of Ypres had deteriorated to the point where a German breakthrough looked imminent. King Albert, realising the predicament of his beleaguered forces, ordered the opening of the sluice gates that held back the sea at Nieuport. This flooded the land between the positions held by the Belgium Army and that occupied by the German Fourth Army along the 32 kilometre (20 mile) strip of land between Dixmude and Nieuport. It creating a 3.2 kilometre (2 mile) wide water barrier that forced the German Chief of Staff, General Eric von Falkenhayn, to halt his offensive aimed at driving along the coast to seize the Channel Ports. Reconsidering his plans; von Falkenhayn decided to swing the bulk of his forces south-westwards towards the city of Ypres in order to circumnavigate this new obstruction.

The Yasr at Nieuport

The Yasr at Nieuport.

On arriving in the vicinity of Ypres General Haig deployed his I Corps out to the east of the city. On 23rd October 1914 he pushed them forward intent on seeking to gain an advantage. Instead of gaining ground and taking the initiative, however, his forces were met head-on by the new German thrust. The main part of the German thrust was made by four of the newly arrived Reserve Corps that was part of Colonel-General Duke Albrecht of Wütterenberg's Fourth Army. They had been raised in Germany soon after the outbreak of the war and many of their soldiers were the patriotic students who had left their universities to fight for their fatherland. These student volunteers were sent to the front to bolster the German Imperial Army in the west with the minimum of training and they were woefully inexperienced and lacking in officers.

Situation 23rd October 1914

The Situation on 23rd October 1914. [© Ian R Gumm, 2014]

In close company columns, a tactic characteristic of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, they attacked along the line of Bixschoote to Langemarck. Here they came up against the experienced soldiers of the General Haig's I Corps who's skill with the rifle was legendary. The young Germans did not stand a chance and were moan down in their thousands in what has subsequently become known as the 'Kindermord bei Ypern', the Massacre of the Innocents at Ypres'.

Kindermord - German Infantry advance at Langemarck

The German Infantry advancing at Langemarck on 23rd October 1914.

The German High Command recognised that their Fourth Army alone could not break through the defending Allied line and while they took stock of the situation the fighting continued. This however, caused a lull in the battle which General Sir John French, commanding the BEF, used to reorganise his forces and realigned the divisions to the east of the city. The 1st Division was withdrawn and replaced by the French Territorials. The 2nd Division was inserted into the line and placed between the French Territorials and the 7th Division with its left anchored on Zonnebeke. To their right the 7th Division deployed covering the area between Reutel and Zandvoorde with the 3rd Cavalry Division to their left covering the area in front of Zandvoorde through to Hollebek.

On the night of 27th October 1914 the 1st Division pushed forward along the Menin Road to take up a position between Reutel and the Menin Road. This put them on the right of the 2nd Division and relieved the 7th Division of any responsibility to the north of the road. The British line was thus strengthened and now three Infantry divisions and one Cavalry division were holding the sector that had previously been held by the three brigades of the 7th Division.

On 29th October 1914 the German thrust was renewed by the combined efforts of Duke Albrecht's Fourth Army and Crown Prince Rupprecht's Sixth Army. The Fourth Army attacked against the French who now held the line of Bixschoote — Langemarck in the north. The French repulsed and comprehensively defeated this attack. Whilst this attack was unsuccessful it kept the French occupied and thus they were unable to come to the aid of the hard pressed BEF to their right.

In the early morning fog Thursday, 29th October 1914 the XXIV Reserve Corps advanced astride and to the north of the Menin Road. At 05.30 hrs they smashed into the thinly held British line deployed in front of the Belgium village of Gheluvelt. They were met by the rapid rifle fire of the British defenders and this initially checked the German advance. As the British fire began to slacken, however, the Germans pressed forward once more and they eventually broke into the defences close to the road, turned north and began rolling up the British trenches in the vicinity. There was no artillery available to support the British infantry and by 06.30 hrs these forward trenches had been lost. On receiving news of the break-in Brigadier-General Charles FitzClarence VC commanding the 1st (Guards) Brigade ordered the 1st Battalion, the Gloucestershire Regiment [1 Glosters] forward. They managed to stabilise the situation though some ground in front of Gheluvelt was lost. A similar situation occurred to the right of the Menin Road, but again the German advanced was halted.

On Friday, 30th October 1914 the newly formed Group Fabeck commanded by General Max von Fabeck, launched a ferocious attack against the hastily taken up positions of the defending British along the Menin Road and to the south. Augmented by Cavalry, Jaeger, Landwehr and Artillery, they greatly outnumbered the British defenders. They advanced against General Byng's Cavalry Corps and elements of the Indian Corps on the Messines Ridge and the General Rawlinson's IV Corps which was to the right and south of the Menin Road. In the Messines area the thinly spread elements of the 1st Cavalry Division and Meerut Division were hard pressed by the German 26th Infantry Division and it was only the timely arrival of the leading elements of the 5th Division that prevented the town of Messines falling to the enemy.

Situation 30th October 1914

The Situation on 30th October 1914. [© Ian R Gumm, 2014]

In the vicinity of Zandvoorde 1st Battalion, the Royal Welch Fusiliers [1 RWF] had taken up positions to the to the left of Captain Lord Hugh Grosvenor's C Squadron 1st Life Guards in rudimentary trenches to the east of the village of Zandvoorde. To their left were 2nd Battalion, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, then the 2nd Battalion, Alexandra, Princess of Wales's Own Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) and the 2nd Battalion, the Queen's (Royal West Surrey) Regiment. In reserve were the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and 1st Battalion, the South Staffordshire Regiment.

At 06:00 hrs the German guns opened fire. The German assault began further to the left of the 7th Division against the 1st and 2nd Divisions in front of Gheluvelt and Zonnebeke respectively. About 45 minutes later 260 guns of the German artillery turned its attention to the defenders in the vicinity of Zandvoorde, their shells falling on the men of the Household Cavalry and the 1 RWF. After an hour and a quarter of shelling, at approximately 08:00 hrs, the German Infantrymen of the 39th Division advanced. The Germans attackers drove into the defending British.

In front of Zandvoorde, the 1st and 2nd Life Guards were hit hard and an order to withdraw to the second line of defences was issued. This did not reach Lord Hugh Grosvenor's Squadron on the left of the line or the machine gun section of Lord Worsley who were eventually overrun.

1 RWF initially held off the German attack, but when Zandvoorde fell the enemy brought up field guns and fired into their flank. Lieutenant Colonel Cadogan's men were eventually surrounded and although Brigadier-General Lawford tried to send reinforcements to restore the situation they were overrun section by section; 1 RWF were vertically annihilated.

Saturday, 31st October 1914 is said to have witnessed the supreme effort of the enemy to break through the British defences to Ypres. The attack on this day was pressed simultaneously along the whole front from Messines to the Menin road, and lasted not only throughout the day but during the greater part of the night. It was to be a tremendous battle covering a frontage of twelve miles. The Kaiser waited at Menin to celebrate their victory, but at the nearby Gheluvelt Chateau the actions of these two Battalions, the 2nd Battalion, the Worcestershire Regiment and the 1st Battalion, the South Wales Borderers, were instrumental in thwarting the German attack and saving the day.

Sunday, 1st November 1914 saw the relentless pressure of the German offensive bear fruit when they finally managed to drive the thin line of the Cavalry and Indian Divisions off of the Messines Ridge. Fresh German formations had been brought up from Lille and Arras including a new composite Guards Division. These were brought into the line ready for another push along the Menin Road. The pressure was continued along the northern and southern edges of the salient to keep the French and British troops fixed in their defensive positions as preparations for renewed assault along the Menin Road took place.

On 5th November 1915 the relentless attacks against the northern sector along the line Bixschcoote — Langemarck were declared 'a useless waste of life' by the German Command. The XXII Reserve Corps had managed to storm Dixmude, but the defending Belgium Army demolished all of the bridges over the canal effectively setting the line for the next three-years.

The newly created Group Linsingen, commanded by General Alexander von Linsingen, was combined with Group Fabeck for what would be the final drive along the Menin Road to capture Ypres. At 06.30 hrs on 11th November 1914 the Prussian Guards of the 2nd Guards Composite Division advanced in the thick early morning fog. They smashed into the British defensive line strung out between Polygon Wood and Herenthage astride the Menin Road in front Ypres. The Prussian Guard broke through the British lines in the vicinity of Polygon Wood and Nonne Bosschen Wood pushing the survivors of the 1st (Guards) Brigade before them. The Black Watch and the Cameron Highlanders retired towards the two bunkers occupied by their Battalion headquarters where they held their ground. To their left in Polygon Wood the 1st Battalion, the King's (Liverpool) Regiment [1 Kings] holding the left flank of the British line also held firm firing into the flank of the advancing Prussian Guard. This caused the enemy veer away in the direction of Nonne Bosschen, which at that time was free of British troops. The situation for the British defenders was critical.

The gunners of the Royal Field Artillery to the rear of the British line had lost communications with the infantry during the battle. They were, however, alert to the situation and as the Prussian Guard came into view they opened fire with some well aimed shrapnel rounds. This convinced the enemy to take shelter in the wood where they were soon fixed with high explosive. Colonel Westmacott's 5th Brigade sent the 5th Field Company Royal Engineers and the 2nd Connaught Rangers forward to the edge of Polygon Wood to protect the flank of the 1 Kings who were holding fast to their position. Major General Charles Munro, commanding 2nd Division, sent forward three depleted companies of the Highland Light Infantry, the divisional cyclists and the remnants of the 1st Battalion, the Coldstream Guards to strengthen the line in Polygon Wood. He also sent forward the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry [2 Ox & Bucks LI] to augment Colonel Westmacott's defences.

The Germans were about to break into Brigadier-General Charles FitzClarence's 1st (Guards) Brigade headquarters when he called for help from his Divisional commander, Major General Landon. All that the Major General could send forward was the depleted and battle-weary 1st Battalion, the Northamptonshire Regiment.

Lieutenant Colonel H R Davies' 2 Ox & Bucks LI counterattacked against the Prussian Guard in Nonne Bosschen Wood from behind the gun line of the 41st Brigade RFA. They initially advanced towards the wood at a walk, As they closed on the edge wood the walk became a charge, and as they crashed into the enemy they commenced to killed or captured all who stayed to fight.

Brigadier-General FitzClarence, determined to win back the lost trenches, had returned to the rear to find new troops. At the head of 500 or so men, from the 2nd Battalion, the Grenadier Guards, the Irish Guards and a contingent of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, he returned to the battlefield. He had decided to lead the way, which was a decision that was to cost him his life as he was shot and killed by a German rifleman.

Following the assault of 11th November the weather deteriorated and on the 17th the German High Command called off their offensive bring the First Battle of Ypres to an end. The Germans had managed to seize some of the old British front line and advanced some 300 metres into Allied territory on a frontage of just over a kilometre (about ¾ mile). They had, however, failed to press home their advantage at the critical moment and Ypres remained in Allied hands never to fall to the enemy throughout the remainder of the war.

The Ypres Salient Battlefield Today