The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 153rd installment in the series.
November 11, 1914: Ypres, the Final Fury
After their hard-won victories in October 1914, in early November the Allied commanders believed that the German attacking force was spent and the Battle of Ypres was effectively over. They were wrong on both counts: the Germans were about to make one last attempt to break through British and French defenses in Flanders and capture the strategic French ports on the English Channel. The final push would come at a place called Nonneboschen, or the Nuns’ Woods.
The Allies’ optimism was understandable: the Germans had sustained horrifying casualties at Langemarck and Gheluvelt, supplies were running low on both sides, rain was turning the countryside into a muddy morass, and winter was coming soon. To the north the Belgians had opened the sluices holding back the North Sea, flooding the low-lying area around the River Yser and making a German advance here impossible. Last but not least Germany faced fresh demands on the Eastern Front, where its ally Austria-Hungary was teetering on the point of collapse (again) following Russian advances in the northeastern province of Galicia.
At the same time the end of fighting in Flanders couldn’t come soon enough for the Allies, who were spread dangerously thin after suffering breathtaking losses. The British 7th Division, which bore the brunt of the fighting at Gheluvelt, had lost four-fifths of its original strength and had to be withdrawn from the front line, while the neighboring 2nd Division, having lost around a third, remained in the line east of Ypres. A new 8th Division assembled from fresh overseas troops was rushed south to back up the ragged 4th, 6th, and Indian (Lahore and Meerut) divisions near Armentieres and La Bassee. French reinforcements in the Détachement d'Armée de Belgique took over formerly British trenches north and south of Ypres. All the troops were in dire need of rest and resupply.
Unfortunately for them, the Allies underestimated the determination of German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn to obtain a final decision in the west before the year was out. What’s more, it turned out the decision to flood the plains around the Yser was a double-edged sword, because in addition to protecting the Belgian Army it freed up German troops from the Fourth Army to fight elsewhere. Falkenhayn drew additional artillery and troops from the Sixth Army under Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht. Finally, to lead the attack he chose the First Prussian Guards Division – an elite unit drawn from all over the German Empire, which was often detailed to ceremonial duties for Kaiser Wilhelm II, giving rise to the (possibly exaggerated) belief among the Allies that it was his “favorite” unit.
Overture on the Ypres-Comines Canal and River Yser
In the days leading up to the main assault, the Germans made a number of diversionary attacks to the north and south of Ypres in order to pin down the defenders and prevent the Allied commanders in Flanders, Ferdinand Foch and Sir John French, from moving troops to reinforce the Ypres front. To the south the Germans pushed British and French troops back near the Ypres-Comines canal, eventually capturing Wytschaete and Messines – but the ridges west of these towns remained in Allied hands, giving them a crucial defensive advantage.
To the north the German 43rd and 44th Reserve Divisions, along with the 4th Ersatz Division, renewed the assault on the key canal town of Dixmude – realistically the only place left in the northern portion of the battlefield to cross the River Yser and Yperless Canal, following the inundation of the floodplains. On November 10 the Germans finally succeeded in pushing the vastly outnumbered French marines back across the Yser and captured Dixmude, but Belgian engineers managed to destroy the bridges, rendering the town victory meaningless.
These attacks succeeded in distracting the Allies while the Germans amassed huge amounts of artillery east of Ypres in preparation for the final push on November 11, which would be preceded by the most intense bombardment in history up to that time.
At 6:30am on November 11, the pre-dawn stillness was shattered as the German guns opened up along a nine-mile front, with the shelling continuing to grow in intensity for several hours, followed by the Prussian Guards and German 4th Division advancing through thick mist, pitting 17,500 German attackers against around 7,800 British defenders.
The brunt of the attack fell against the British trenches located amidst three stands of trees straddling the Ypres-Menin Road: the Shrewsbury Wood southwest of Gheluvelt, and the Polygon Wood (so-called because of its odd shape) and the Nonneboschen or Nuns’ Woods (so-called because they used to belong to a Benedictine convent) north of the village.
Once again the Germans advanced in close formations, making easy targets for the defenders’ massed rifle fire, which hit the ranks of the German 4th Division especially hard, again leading the Germans to mistakenly conclude they were facing machine guns. But on the north side of the Ypres-Menin Road the Prussian Guards made more progress, approaching on the double while the German artillery hammered the British defenses in front of them. Soon the Prussian Guards had forced the British out of some of their frontline trenches, although troops from the 1st Royal Scots and 2nd Royal Sussex Regiments, along with some neighboring French Zouaves, counterattacked and prevented them from advancing further.
With the bombardment reaching its climax around 9am, a renewed German attack located the weak spot in the British lines, along a mile of front between the Polygon Wood and Gheluvelt. With their advance covered by thick clouds of mist, the Germans managed to approach within 50 yards of the front trenches, surprising the defenders, some of whom fled before the sudden onslaught, weakening the British line even further.
As the British defenders were forced to fall back to isolated strongholds, each held by a few dozen men, the Germans pushed forward, making the most progress at Nonneboschen, where around 900 Prussian Guards almost succeeded in breaking through the overstretched British line. Now, in another dramatic episode (uncomfortably reminiscent of the near-disaster at Gheluvelt on October 29-31) the British struggled to contain the German breakthrough with field artillery firing at point-blank, supported by infantry shooting out in the open, with no defensive cover.
The outcome of the battle hinged on pushing the Prussian Guards out of the Nonneboschen, and at this critical juncture Lieutenant Colonel Henry Davies ordered two battalions, the 2nd Oxfordshire Light Infantry and Bucks, to clear the Germans out of the woods. One British junior officer, C.S. Baines, recalled the suicidal counterattack across open fields towards the German positions in Nonneboschen:
We all did a sprint and then lay down and shot at the Germans. Up again and on as hard as we could, down and shooting, up again and into the wood, sweating in every pore, more from fright than exertion!... I don't think I missed one German that I fired at on this day. I fired fifty-two rounds through my revolver, and burnt my left hand on the barrel in reloading.
After pushing the Germans out of the woods, the British were able to rush reserves to the battlefield and establish a new defensive line, although a push to recapture their old trenches was called off when it was discovered the Germans had entrenched themselves inside the former British front line. Once again catastrophe had been averted, but only by the narrowest of margins.
As the main phase of the First Battle of Ypres drew to a close, three weeks of incredibly fierce fighting had reduced a large portion of Flanders to ruins, producing eerie and surreal landscapes all along the still-active front. Sarah Macnaughtan, a British volunteer nurse, described the town of Nieuport on the coast:
It is like some town one sees in a horrible nightmare. Hardly a house is left standing, but that does not describe the scene… Not a window remains in the place; all are shattered and many hang from their frames. The fronts of the houses have fallen out, and one sees glimpses of wretched domestic life: a baby's cradle hangs in mid-air, some tin boxes have fallen through from the box-room in the attic to the ground floor… There is a toy-shop with dolls grinning vacantly at the ruins or bobbing brightly on elastic strings.
Ypres itself was in flames thanks to heavy German shelling, which among other things destroyed the city’s famous Cloth Hall, the gift of wealthy medieval weavers and a leading example of secular Gothic architecture, on November 22 (top, the Cloth Hall burns). The rest of the town suffered a similar fate. Visiting Ypres a few months later, Edith Wharton described the strange scenes of the abandoned city:
…some house-fronts are sliced clean off, with the different stories exposed, as if for the stage-setting of a farce… A hundred signs of intimate and humble tastes, of humdrum pursuits, of family association, cling to the unmasked walls. Whiskered photographs fade on morning-glory wallpapers, plaster saints pine under glass bells, antimacassars droop from plush sofas, yellowing diplomas display their seals on office walls. It was all so still and familiar that it seemed as if the people for whom these things had a meaning might at any moment come back and take up their daily business.
Meanwhile even as the chances of a strategic breakthrough dwindled, the fighting continued, seemingly with a momentum all its own. On both side ordinary soldiers lived in terror and squalor, as unending rain filled trenches in the low-lying countryside with mud and water. Edward Fox, an American correspondent in the German trenches near La Bassee, described seeing the German troops use flares as they defended against a British night attack in the middle of a downpour:
Then a swift rush of air, as of a mighty exhalation, and rockets from our trenches began to swish, one after the other, in short flaming arcs that terminated in a burst of greenish light, turning the night into a mad radiance so that we might better see to kill…. I saw a confusion of color – the green, unearthly haze of the rockets; a wavering red hue of fire that had a way of rushing at you, vanishing and then appearing further back, rushing at you again; and I saw a patch of mud, glistening like mottled tarnished silver in the rain, and once when a whitish rocket burst, the air seemed to be sparkling with myriad drops of silver and diamonds. And the rain poured down; and the guns shook the sky; and the rifles rattled on… And it dawned upon you in horror that the fiery red lines had been lines of men, shooting as they had come; and that, when one line had been mowed down, another had rushed up from behind…
On the other side Herbert Stewart, a supply officer, saw an officer ask a Tommy what it was like in the trenches, receiving this concise reply: “O God, sir, it is Hell – just Hell.” And there was no end in sight.