Great War Wednesday: First Battle of Ypres — The Carnage Properly Begins

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The beautifully rebuilt Cloth Hall in the Ieper city center.

The little Belgian town of Ieper, more famously known as Ypres, is no stranger to bloodletting. The Germanic tribal ancestors of the town fought Roman raids. The stubborn Flemish bled in a massacre by French troops in the fourteenth century Battle of the Golden Spurs. The War of Spanish Succession and the War of the First Coalition both raged outside the city’s walls.

All the bloodshed of the previous centuries paled however when compared with the series of battles fought here during the First World War. The first of these encounters, called aptly enough The First Battle of Ypres, began on 19 October 1914 and lasted over a month until 22 November 1914. The battle is most notable for being the first of the trench battles which came to symbolize the next three and a half years on the Western Front during the Great War.

Up until First Ypres, battles had been fluid. The German invasion through Belgium into France slowed somewhat at Mons and then halted altogether at The Miracle on the Marne early in September 1914. What followed is now called the “Race to the Sea” where each combatant tried desperately to outflank the other in what was quite literally a race northwest to get to the English Channel, turn the opponent’s flank, and secure a victory. Unfortunately, the race was a tie and the result was The First Battle of Ypres.

In many ways, Ypres became the training ground for the rest of the war and both sides paid in hogsheads of blood for the lessons. First, no one brought enough of anything. The Germans famously claimed the men would be home for Christmas and the French and British had similar overly optimistic assessments of the coming conflict. As a result, men ended up at the front without enough supplies. On the German side, captured Russian and Belgian small arms had to be pressed into service while on the Allied side, the artillery batteries were woefully under armed. Before this battle, doctrine of the day figured a few hundred shells would be expended in the course of a battle. By the time Ypres ended, the generals realized a few hundred shells wouldn’t last an hour. By the end of the war, individual guns were allotted a thousand shells EACH.

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The end of the line of trenches on the Western Front. The top barbed wire is German while the lower strands are Allied. The wire literally runs right into the sea.

As with most of the months long “battles” of the First World War, a detailed analysis is far beyond the scope of my little blog. Thousand page books litter libraries across the land devoted only to this one battle. I would like to note two major outcomes of the First Battle of Ypres, however. First, the battle introduced the trench system to the Western Front. After neither side managed to gain the other’s flank, no one could figure out what to do. Situations like this were somewhat unusual and given the flatness of the coastal terrain and the deadliness of the new machine guns and heavy artillery, both the German and the Allies figured nearly simultaneously the best thing to do would be “dig in.”

Now armies had dug in before. Trenches in warfare were nothing new, per se, but what was new was the scale of trenches developed up and down the front during and after this battle. By the beginning of 1915, an unbroken line of trenches and associated fortifications stretched all the way from the beaches of the English Channel roughly southeast to the border of neutral Switzerland. The saddest commentary of the Great War is probably the best known — those trenches would STAY more or less in a static position for three years during which time hundreds of thousands of men would hurl themselves across No Man’s Land under withering fire with the goal of taking the other side’s trenches. Massive carnage and miniscule territorial gains were the inevitable result each time.

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Cloth Hall circa 1918

The second development of the First Battle of Ypres is the area which became known as the Ypres Salient. This area directly around the ancient town was a “bulge” into the German lines. Vicissitudes of war in the early stages of the battle resulted in the Entente forces holding this one bulge several hundred yards into German territory. While that may seem like a good thing — being far out in the enemy’s lands — it was actually horrible. Because of the bulge of the Salient, the mostly British and Commonwealth troops stationed at the Salient came under fire from THREE sides simultaneously instead of just one. This Ypres Salient endured for the length of the war down to the final German “Hundred Days” offensive in 1918 and it ate men as a hungry cow eats grass.

During the six-week long battle, the British forces lost 58,155 men including the last of the professional army that arrived in August, the French lost 86,237 men and Germany suffered losing 134,315 men. The Belgian army — never large — ceased to exist altogether. Those seem like staggering numbers of dead and wounded and truthfully they are, but despite the ferocity of the First Battle of Ypres, the casualties were quite light when considered beside later battles such as the Somme and Verdun when it became de rigueur to have 50,000 men die in a DAY, not a six-week stretch. Still, it was a small taste of things to come.

That’s all for this episode of Great War Wednesday. Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

 

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