The First Battle of Ypres was fought October 19 to November 22, 1914, during World War I (1914-1918). The Commanders on each side were as follows:
- Field Marshal Sir John French
- General Joseph Joffre
- King Albert I of Belgium
- Chief of the General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn
- Field Marshal Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg
- General Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria
After the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Germany implemented the Schlieffen Plan. Updated in 1906, this plan called for German troops to swing through Belgium with the goal of encircling French forces along the Franco-German border and winning a quick victory. With France defeated, troops could be moved east for a campaign against Russia. Put into operation, the early stages of the plan were largely successful during the Battle of the Frontiers and the German cause was further bolstered by a stunning victory over the Russians at Tannenberg in late-August. In Belgium, the Germans pushed back the small Belgian Army and defeated the French at the Battle of Charleroi as well as the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at Mons.
Retreating south, the BEF and French forces finally succeeded in checking the German advance at the First Battle of the Marne in early September. Halted in their advance, the Germans withdrew to a line behind the Aisne River. Counterattacking at the First Battle of the Aisne, the Allies had little success and took heavy losses. Stalemated on this front, both sides began the "Race to the Sea" as they attempted to outflank each other. Moving north and west, they extended the front to the English Channel. As both sides sought an advantage, they clashed in Picardy, Albert, and Artois. Ultimately reaching the coast, the Western Front became a continuous line stretching to the Swiss frontier.
Setting the Stage
Having moved north, the BEF, led by Field Marshal Sir John French, began arriving near the Belgian town of Ypres on October 14. A strategic location, Ypres was the last obstacle between the Germans and the key Channel ports of Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer. Conversely, an Allied breakthrough near the town would allow them to sweep across the relatively flat terrain of Flanders and threaten key German supply lines. Coordinating with General Ferdinand Foch, who was overseeing French forces on the BEF's flanks, French desired to go on the offensive and attack east toward Menin. Working with Foch, the two commanders hoped to isolate the German III Reserve Corps, which was advancing from Antwerp, before swinging southeast to a position along the Lys River from which they could strike the flank of the main German line.
Unaware that large elements of Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg's Fourth Army and Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria's Sixth Army were approaching from the east, French ordered his command forward. Moving west, Fourth Army possessed several new large formations of reserve troops which included many recently enlisted students. Despite the relative inexperience of his men, Falkenhayn ordered Albrecht to isolate Dunkirk and Ostend regardless of the casualties sustained. Having achieved this, he was to turn south towards Saint-Omer. To the south, Sixth Army received a directive to prevent the Allies from shifting troops north while also preventing them from forming a solid front. On October 19, the Germans began attacking and pushed back the French. At this time, French was still bringing the BEF into position as its seven infantry and three cavalry divisions were responsible for thirty-five miles of front running from Langemarck south around Ypres to the La Bassee Canal.
The Fighting Begins
Under the direction of Chief of the General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, German forces in Flanders began attacking from the coast to south of Ypres. In the north, the Belgians fought a desperate battle along the Yser which ultimately saw them hold the Germans after flooding the area around Nieuwpoort. Further south, French's BEF came under heavy attack around and below Ypres. Striking the Lieutenant General Horace Smith-Dorrien's II Corps on October 20, the Germans assaulted the area between Ypres and Langemarck. Though desperate, the British situation near the town improved with the arrival of General Douglas Haig's I Corps. On October 23, pressure on the British III Corps in the south increased and they were forced to fall back two miles.
A similar movement was required of General Edmund Allenby's Cavalry Corps. Badly outnumbered and lacking sufficient artillery, the BEF survived due to its proficiency in rapid rifle fire. Aimed rifle fire from the veteran British soldiers was so fast that often the Germans believed they were encountering machine guns. Heavy German attacks continued until the end of October with the British inflicting heavy losses as brutal battles were fought over small patches of territory such as Polygon Woods east of Ypres. Though holding, French's forces were badly stretched and were only reinforced by troops arriving from India.
Renewing the offensive, General Gustav Hermann Karl Max von Fabeck attacked with an ad hoc force comprised of XV Corps, II Bavarian Corps, 26th Division, and the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division on October 29. Focused on a narrow front and supported by 250 heavy guns, the assault moved forward along the Menin Road towards Gheluvelt. Engaging the British, fierce fighting ensued over the next few days as the two sides struggled for Polygon, Shrewsbury, and Nun's Woods. Breaking through to Gheluvelt, the Germans were finally halted after the British plugged the breach with hastily-assembled forces from the rear. Frustrated by the failure at Gheluvelt, Fabeck shifted south to the base of the Ypres salient.
Attacking between Wytschaete and Messines, the Germans succeeded in taking both towns and the nearby ridge after heavy back-and-forth fighting. The assault was finally halted on November 1 with French assistance after British troops rallied near Zandvoorde. After a pause, the Germans made a final push against Ypres on November 10. Again attacking along the Menin Road, the brunt of the assault fell on the battered British II Corps. Stretched to the limit, it was forced from their front lines but fell back on a series of strong points. Holding, British forces succeeded in sealing a breach in their lines at Noone Bosschen.
The day's effort saw the Germans gain a stretch of the British lines running from the Menin Road to Polygon Wood. After a heavy bombardment of the area between Polygon Wood and Messines on November 12, German troops again struck along the Menin Road. Though gaining some ground, their efforts went unsupported and the advance was contained by the next day. With their divisions badly mauled, many of French's commanders believed the BEF to be in crisis should the Germans attack again in strength. Though German attacks did continue over the next few days, they were largely minor and were repulsed. With his army spent, Albrecht ordered his men to dig in on November 17. Fighting flickered for another five days before quieting for the winter.
A critical victory for the Allies, the First Battle of Ypres saw the BEF sustain 7,960 killed, 29,562 wounded, and 17,873 missing, while the French incurred between 50,000 and 85,000 casualties of all types. To the north, the Belgians took 21,562 casualties during the campaign. German losses for their efforts in Flanders totaled 19,530 killed, 83,520 wounded, 31,265 missing. Many of the German losses were sustained by the reserve formations that had been comprised of students and other youths. As a result, their loss was dubbed the "Massacre of the Innocents of Ypres." With winter approaching, both sides began digging in and constructing the elaborate trench systems that would characterize the front for the remainder of the war. The Allied defense at Ypres ensured that the war in the West would not be over quickly as the Germans desired. Fighting around the Ypres salient would resume in April 1915 with the Second Battle of Ypres.
- First World War: First Battle of Ypres
- History of War: First Battle of Ypres