October 20, 1914: Apocalypse at Ypres
One of the greatest battles in history, the desperate struggle at Ypres in October-November 1914 was the climactic fight of the “Race to the Sea” – an all-out German push to break through the Allied line and capture Calais and the other French ports on the English Channel, thus dividing the Allies, threatening to outflank the French forces from the north, and maybe even setting the stage for an invasion of Britain.
Reflecting these huge stakes, the First Battle of Ypres (so-called to distinguish it from at least two subsequent battles) was conducted on an epic scale, bringing together more men and more firepower than some whole wars did in the previous century. Including the armed clashes to the north on the River Yser and south to Armentières, it involved about a million men on both sides, including around 600,000 German soldiers, 250,000 French, 100,000 British, and 65,000 Belgians.
The losses were staggering. From October 12 to November 12, 1914 the British sustained 56,000 casualties, including 8,000 killed, 30,000 wounded, and 18,000 missing (of whom perhaps a third or more were also killed). While it’s harder to find precise numbers for the other combatants, the Germans suffered around 135,000 casualties across all categories, the French 85,000, and the Belgians 22,000. Assuming that one fourth of the casualties were fatal, as in the case of the British, it seems safe to assume that around 75,000 soldiers lost their lives at the First Battle of Ypres.
The First Phase: Langemarck
After the prelude at La Bassée, Armentières, Messines, and the Yser, the main battle of Ypres commenced on October 20 and lasted about three weeks. In this time the nondescript, low-lying countryside of Flanders, its farms and grazing land separated by neat hedges and crisscrossed by drainage canals under a gray sky, was converted into hell on earth by three huge but ultimately unsuccessful German assaults – one at Langemarck beginning October 20, the second at Gheluvelt beginning October 29, and the finale at Nonneboschen (the Nuns’ Woods) on November 11 (above, a German nighttime barrage).
The first German push at Langemarck began just as the British Expeditionary Force was arriving at Ypres, while to the north the Belgians fought desperately to hold off German forces along the Yser, with the help of French reinforcements organized as the new Détachement d'Armée de Belgique under General Victor Louis Lucien d'Urbal, composed of the II Cavalry Corps under de Mitry, a brigade of French marines, and the 87th and 89th Territorial Divisions (still en route).
As fighting raged across the entire Flanders front, British Expeditionary Force commander Sir John French, still unaware of the huge forces arrayed against the Allies, ordered the British I Corps (including the 1st and 2nd Divisions) to attack east of Ypres with the intention of liberating the Belgian city of Bruges. The move was to be coordinated with a French advance to the south. However this goal proved to be unrealistic to say the least; Henry Wilson, the British liaison to the French Army, sardonically observed, “Bruges for all practical purposes is as far as Berlin.”
The plan failed to survive contact with the enemy, as the British divisions, including the 7th Division holding the southern flank, slammed into five German divisions from the new Fourth Army advancing in the opposite direction. The British dug in but the Germans, determined to break through, sent wave after wave of infantry against the shallow, unfortified British trenches, advancing in close formation against machine guns and massed rifle fire. The result was an appalling massacre, with both sides sustaining very heavy casualties, but the Germans suffering most of all, as some regiments lost over 70% of their strength.
The Germans eventually succeeded in forcing the British back, capturing Langemarck on October 22, but the cost was out of all proportion to the gains. William Robinson, a volunteer dispatch driver with the British Army, recalled shocking scenes: “The enemy seemed to rise out of the ground and sweep towards us like a great tidal wave, but our machine guns poured steel into them at the rate of six hundred shots per minute, and they’d go down like grass before the scythe… The Germans were climbing over heaps of their own dead, only to meet the same fate themselves.”
In the same vein Alexander Johnston, a mid-ranking officer, wrote in his diary: “Two of the crack shots in the Regiment were able to methodically pick off Germans one by one, who were lost in the fog and did not know where they were, as they loomed out of the mist at about 50 yards range, and in this way alone disposed of over 100 of them!” And an anonymous British nurse recorded several officers’ account in her diary: “They said there were 11,000 Germans dead, and they were using the dead piled up instead of trenches.”
According to the “myth of Langemarck” which took hold in German memory, the Reserve divisions were composed of inexperienced, untrained college students who went to their deaths singing patriotic songs, and the battle was remembered as the “Kindermord bei Ypern,” or “The Massacre of the Innocents at Ypres.” Recently historians have cast doubt on the truth of this story (it seems most of the Reservists were older working-class men) but the “Kindermord” became a vital part of Nazi propaganda, dwelling on the tragic bravery of idealistic German youth, who died happily defending the Fatherland.
Reality wasn’t always so heroic. A German soldier from Alsace, Dominik Richert, was unapologetic about ducking out of battle with a friend when he could:
Then we hid in the cellar of a house which had been stocked with food by its inhabitants. In one corner sat a woman and a girl of about twenty. They were very afraid of us. By using gestures we were able to explain that they did not need to be afraid of us. We spent three pleasant days together… On the evening of the third day we heard footsteps crashing down the stairs. It was a lieutenant… “You damned cowards get a move on out of here!” he yelled at us.
Even when they weren’t fighting, soldiers on both sides endured rain, cold, hunger, lice, and rudimentary living arrangements, causing morale to plummet. In a letter to his wife another German soldier, Paul Hub, described their billets near the front line: “If there isn’t any straw then you just fall asleep on the bare floor. We never take our clothes off. Lots of houses are being shot to pieces, set alight and burning. It was a terrible sight when night came… Maria, this sort of war is so unspeakably miserable.”
Attack on Dixmude
While the main thrust of the first German offensive attack around northeast of Ypres, the Germans were also advancing against the Belgians and French positions behind the River Yser. On the far northern end of the front, the defenders were assisted by shallow-draft monitors from the Royal Navy which bombarded the advancing German Ersatz 4th Division, directed by artillery spotters in a balloon tethered further west on the Belgian coast.
The Germans tried to soften up the defenses with an unrelenting artillery bombardment along the entire Yser front. As village after village went up in flames, Philip Gibbs, a British war correspondent, described seeing:
an astounding and terrible panorama, traced in its outline by the black fumes of shell-fire above the stabbing flashes of the batteries. Over Nieuport there was a canopy of smoke, intensely black, but broken every moment by blue glares of light as a shell burst and rent the blackness. Villages were burning on many points of the crescent, some of them smouldering drowsily, others blazing fiercely like beacon fires…
To the south the Germans captured a bridge across the Yser at Tervaete on October 21, but the Belgians prevented them from crossing in force. Meanwhile French marines were fighting tenaciously to hold Dixmude against two German divisions, outnumbering the French by around six to one. From October 23-24 the Germans mounted fourteen separate assaults on Dixmude, but failed to capture the city, again encountering incredibly fierce resistance and sustaining heavy casualties. One German soldier, Kurt Peterson, described the fighting at Dixmude in a letter to his parents: “We all lay like logs on the ground and all about us death hissed and howled. Such a night is enough to make an old man of one… We have had enough of war. One is not necessarily a coward because one’s whole nature revolts against this barbarity, this gruesome slaughter.”
As German guns pounded the Belgians and French positions along the Yser, on October 24 the Germans succeeded in driving the Allies back north of Dixmude, and it became increasingly obvious that there was a real chance of a German breakthrough. Now at the suggestion of the French General Ferdinand Foch, Belgium’s King Albert decided to use his last, most drastic defense: they would open the dikes and flood the plains along the Yser.