Opening Round in the West (4)

Infantry of the British Expeditionary Force at Ypres, October 1914 (Imperial War Museum)

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For clarity, German units are rendered in italics.

Though the Battle of the Marne was an Allied victory, the German Army was not decisively defeated. The retreat of its right wing to the Aisne River, ordered on 8 September, was carried out in good order and by 13 December the Germans had taken up an entrenched position on that line. The Allies’ followup was slow, due both to caution and the troops’ fatigue, and their attacks on 15-16 September were repulsed.

But beyond the Aisne position lay open country and the opposing commanders, General Joseph Joffre and General of Infantry Erich von Falkenhayn, who had by now replaced Moltke as Chief of the OHL, both sought victory by turning the enemy’s open western flank. To that end, both sides began transferring troops from east to west. The French had begun to do so as early as 2 September, in line with Joffre’s inflexible determination to resume the offensive at the earliest possible moment. The Germans soon followed suit, taking troops from their left flank and also from Belgium to constitute an attacking force on their right. Thus between mid-September and mid-October there ensued a series of encounter battles as each side sought without success to envelop the other’s open flank. These seesaw battles extended the front west, then north, until the Channel coast was reached in the vicinity of Nieuport. Here and a little farther south around the town of Ypres the Germans were to make a final bid for the decisive victory that had eluded them on the Marne.

The "Race to the Sea" (Department of History, USMA West Point)

It will be remembered that early in the campaign the Belgian Army had withdrawn into the fortified camp of Antwerp, from which position it constituted a threat to the rear of the advancing German right wing. The Belgians, indeed, had conducted several sorties out of their fortifications in an attempt to support the British and French fighting on the main front. Some on the Allied side, Winston Churchill prominent among them, hoped that that the Belgian Army would prove able to hold Antwerp indefinitely, placing such pressure on the Germans as to compel their withdraw to the east. The First Lord of the Admiralty made the defense of Antwerp his personal crusade, extemporizing a brigade of Royal Marines for dispatch to the city and agitating for further British reinforcements. These were sent and Churchill himself spent considerable time in Antwerp: a diversion from his principal duties as civilian head of the Royal Navy that attracted much criticism.

But it soon became clear that the Antwerp position was untenable. Alarmed by the Belgian sorties, the Germans reinforced their besieging troops and opened a heavy bombardment on 28 September. Things quickly went from bad to worse for the defenders and on 10 October the Belgian Commander-in-Chief, King Albert, ordered his army to quit Antwerp and retire west along the Channel coast. With the Belgians went the British defenders: the Royal Marine Brigade and the Royal Naval Division—the latter made up of reservists excess to the RN’s requirements, organized as infantry. Along the way they linked up with further British troops: the 7th Division and the 3rd Cavalry Division, which had been landed west of Antwerp at Zeebrugge. The remaining garrison capitulated, 30,000 mostly Belgian soldiers being taken prisoner. But the bulk of the Belgian and British troops survived to reach the line of the Yser River, just east of Nieuport, on 14 October. Meanwhile the BEF was completing its transfer from the Allied center to Belgium, this to position it closer to its main base, Le Harve on the Channel coast.

General of Infantry Erich von Falkenhayn, Moltke's successor as Chief of the OHL (Bundesarchiv)

For his part Falkenhayn remained intent on a war-winning offensive. His intention was to deliver an “annihilating blow,” crushing the Allied left flank and driving along the Channel coast to capture Dunkirk and Calais. This, he calculated, would knock out the British Army and compel the French to ask for terms. The German attack was to be two-pronged: Fourth Army (Duke Albrecht of Württemberg; fifteen infantry divisions) would strike across the Yser while Sixth Army (Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria; eleven infantry divisions, six cavalry divisions) would capture the town of Ypres and strike west. Both German armies had been reconstituted and reinforced after their transfer from the left wing. The reinforcements for Fourth Army included four newly raised reserve corps (eight divisions) whose troops, sketchily trained and poorly equipped, were young volunteers who’d rallied to the colors in August. They were to suffer heavily in the ensuing battle.

The overall commander on the Allied side was General Ferdinand Foch, whom Joffre had appointed commandant le groupe des Armées du Nord (commander of the group of northern armies) on 4 October. Though he had no formal authority over the British and Belgian forces in Flanders, Foch was able to obtain their cooperation and it was he who coordinated the defense. The Allied order of battle embodied the Belgian Army (six infantry divisions, a French infantry division, six battalions of French marines) and the French Eighth Army (twelve infantry divisions, eight cavalry divisions) holding a line south from the Channel coast. The BEF (seven infantry divisions, three cavalry divisions) held Ypres area, its left flank linking up with French forces south of Ypres.

General Ferdinand Foch, who coordinated the defense of Ypres and the Channel coast  (Musée de l'Armée)

Belgian Flanders is a mostly flat plain enclosed by a system of canals linking the region’s major towns. On the Channel coast the ground is at sea level, fringed by sand dunes. Farther inland the terrain is mostly meadow cut by canals, dykes, drainage ditches, and roads laid on built-up causeways. A line of low hills stretches east from the town of Cassel to Mount Kemmel. From there, a low ridge stretches to the northeast, past the town of Ypres then curving north and northwest to the plain. In 1914 the area south of the La Bassée Canal around Lens and Béthune was a coal-mining district studded with slag heaps, pit-heads and miners' cottages. North of the canal, the city of Lille and its environs constituted a manufacturing area. Otherwise the land was given over to agriculture, crisscrossed by hedgerows, roads and narrow tracks. Because the water table in Flanders is so close to the surface, the ground in spring and summer often becomes an impassable morass. Overall, Flanders was a far-from-ideal setting for offensive military operations. Lack of observation limited the effectiveness of artillery, while the many obstructions—canals, streams, villages, slag heaps, etc.—hampered advancing infantry and made cavalry operations virtually impossible.

The First Battle of Flanders ran from ran from 18 October to 30 November 1914. For both sides, it was a sanguinary introduction to the realities of warfare between mass armies armed with modern weapons. And for the British in particular, the names associated with Flanders—Ypres, Passchendaele, Gheluvelt, Polygon Wood—would be inscribed with letters of scarlet in the regimental histories of the BEF.

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