Opening Round in the West (5)

The Old Contemptibles of the BEF: Soldiers of the Army Service Corps, 1914 (Imperial War Museum)

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For clarity, German units are rendered in italics.

The 1914 Battle of Flanders was actually a series of engagements in two areas. Along the fifteen-mile stretch of the Yser River between the Channel coast and the vicinity of the village of Oudecapelle, where the river bends west, the Belgian Army and two brigades of French marines fought to stop the advance of German Fourth Army, while in the vicinity of the town of Ypres the British Expeditionary Force opposed the advance of Fourth Army’s left wing and the bulk of Sixth Army. Between the Belgians and the BEF stood the newly constituted French Eighth Army, formerly the Détachement d'armée de Belgique (Army Detachment in Belgium).

After the Battle of the Marne the BEF had been transferred from the Paris area to Flanders, this to position it closer to its bases on the Channel coast. As things turned out the British Army would to fight in Flanders throughout the war, undergoing an ordeal that has passed into legend. The fighting in Flanders was rivaled only by the Battle of Verdun in its exemplary horror; nowhere else on the Western front was the essence of trench warfare so thoroughly distilled.

The First Battle of Ypres raged from mid-October to late November 1914: a month and a half in which the original British Expeditionary Force was effectively wiped out. Total British casualties from August to November 1914 were not far short of 90,000—nine-tenths of the original BEF. Some 60,000 of these casualties—killed, wounded and missing in action—were inflicted during First Ypres. For the British, the very name of Ypres thus came to symbolize the peculiar horrors of trench warfare on the Western Front: the rain, the mud, the misery, the unceasing artillery bombardments, the strain, the deadly fatigue, the ever-present shadow of death.

It has been said that the virtues and qualities of the Old Contemptibles—the soldiers of the prewar British Army—rendered inevitable their martyrdom in Flanders. Regimental loyalty, inarticulate yet deep patriotism, unthinking courage and sheer stubbornness kept them positioned in their waterlogged shell holes and rudimentary trenches, day after day, week after week, in the face of violent German attacks that stretched the defense to the breaking point. In the end the line held—but the price paid was intolerably high. Henceforward a new and different British Army would fight the war: Territorials, Kitchener volunteers and conscripts stiffened by the handful of Old Contemptibles who'd survived the war’s first campaign.

The First Battle of Ypres unfolded in five stages. As it redeployed to Flanders the BEF (Field Marshal Sir John French) clashed with German Fourth Army (Duke Albrecht of Württemberg) and Sixth Army (Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria) between 19 and 21 October, a little east and south of the town of Ypres, both sides seeking to advance. Thereafter the BEF was forced onto the defensive. Then followed the Battle of Langemarck (21-26 October), the Battle of Gheluvelt (29–31 October), the last big German push from 5 to 13 November, and finally a series of minor clashes that gradually petered out by the end of November. As mentioned above, First Ypres was fought concurrently with the Battle of the Yser, where the Belgians and French opposed the advance of German Fourth Army along the Yser River, terminating on the Channel coast. The French General Ferdinand Foch coordinated Allied operations and though he had no formal power of command over the Belgians and British, he generally was able to secure their cooperation. His management of the Allied reserves—mainly French—had a major impact on the outcome of the linked battles along the Yser and around Ypres.

The Yser-Ypres sector of the Western front: October-November 1914; the heavy black line delineates the stabilized front at the conclusion of the battle

The Encounter Battle

First Ypres commenced when advancing German troops made contact with units of the BEF moving into the Ypres area. Both sides were intent on an attack to roll up the enemy’s flak and advance along the Channel coast. The BEF made some initial progress but was stopped by German counterattacks, both sides suffering heavy casualties. The British then went over to the defensive and the Germans regrouped for a deliberate attack. General Erich von Falkenhayn, the Chief of the OHL and de facto German commander-in-chief, sought to deliver a decisive stroke by means of a major offensive down the Channel coast, capturing the ports that were so important to the BEF. For this purpose he reorganized his forces, setting up a new Fourth Army on the German right flank to which were assigned eight of the twelve reserve divisions raised in August and now judged ready for action. Fourth Army’s mission was twofold: (1) to cross the Yser River, annihilating the Belgian Army and driving down the Channel coast, and (2) to crush the BEF around the town of Ypres, capturing that town and rolling up the Allied left flank. Farther south, Sixth Army would attack with the mission of protecting Fourth Army’s left flank.

German infantry advances into battle, 1914 (Bundesarchiv)

The Battle of Langemarck

The German attack was launched on 21 October and the fighting came to center around the town of Langemarck, northeast of Ypres, where XXVI Reserve Corps of Fourth Army, attacking with two divisions, sought to smash IV Corps and an attached French territorial division, constituting the BEF’s left flank. The German divisions embodied a large proportion of young volunteers, enlisted at the start of the war in August, sketchily trained and poorly equipped. Attacking in dense formation, the Germans were repeatedly savaged by the defenders’ rifle, machine gun and artillery fire. But the British too suffered heavily and the fighting swayed back and forth until the exhausted Germans broke off their attacks around Langemarck. The battle entered into legend on the German side as the Kindermord (Massacre of the Innocents)—a reference to the heavy casualties suffered by the young volunteers.

Subsequently the German offensive was renewed farther south, along the Menin Road (25-26 October). Here the British defenses fell apart, but reserves were brought forward and managed to plug the gap, preventing a German breakthrough.

The Battle of Gheluvelt

By 26 October, Falkenhayn recognized that his attacks so far had failed. He therefore ordered Fourth Army and Sixth Army to revert to an active defense pending the assembly of a new attack group. This was Armeegruppe Fabeck (General of Infantry Max von Fabeck), a temporary formation consisting of three corps with eight divisions. It was to be inserted between Fourth Army and Sixth Army with the mission of attacking toward Ypres. Armeegruppe Fabeck would be supported by XXVII Reserve Corps of Fourth Army, attacking toward the Gheluvelt crossroads. Sixth Army was to stand on the defensive, giving up a proportion of its heavy artillery to Armeegruppe Fabeck.

The new German offensive commenced on 29 October, with XXVII Reserve Corps advancing against the BEF’s I Corps north of the Menin Road. Fog aided the Germans, who managed to gain the Gheluvelt crossroads by nightfall, capturing more than 600 British troops in the process. Farther south, Armeegruppe Fabeck fell on I Corp’s right flank and upon the BEF’s Cavalry Corps, fighting as infantry. Here the German attack penetrated to within two miles of Ypres itself and once again the battle seesawed back and forth. The timely arrival of three French battalions and the intervention of “Bulfin’s Force,” a formation improvised from a miscellany of British service troops and stragglers, just barely prevented a breakthrough. But the BEF had no more reserves and the situation looked desperate, Sir John French believing that his army faced total defeat. The Germans had also suffered heavily, however, and after a breakthrough at Gheluvelt on 31 October was contained by a British counterattack, the battle petered out.

The Final German Push

Twice now the Germans had come close to rolling up the Allied line in Flanders and Falkenhayn was determined to try again. His objectives this time were more modest: merely to capture Ypres and Mount Kemmel, thus compelling the British to abandon the Ypres salient. But by now both sides were close to exhaustion. Fourth Army’s corps had suffered up to 70% casualties at Langemarck; Armeegruppe Fabeck had suffered over 17,000 casualties in five days of fighting. As for the BEF, it was being bled white. Of its 84 infantry battalions, each originally 1,000 men strong, 75 now mustered fewer than 300 men—in some cases fewer than 100 men. Such replacements as arrived in France came nowhere close to covering the losses suffered. Help did come in the form of French XVI Corps, which backstopped the BEF’s hard-pressed Cavalry Corps. The French also conducted attacks farther north in support of the BEF’s I Corps, which by now mustered fewer than 10,000 men—less than the strength of a single division.

A battery of German 105mm light field howitzers prepares for action, 1914 (Bundesarchiv)

General Foch, coordinating the defense of the Allied left flank, planned an attack by Eighth Army toward Langemarck and Messines, to commence on 6 November. The idea was to take pressure off the BEF by expanding the Ypres salient, but German attacks on the flanks of the salient commencing on 5 November derailed the plan. On 9 November the Germans drove back the French and Belgians north of Gheluvelt and on 10 November the main German attack was delivered by Fourth Army, Sixth Army and Armeegruppe Fabeck with thirteen divisions. The attackers broke through in several sectors including the vital Menin Road, and once again it looked as though the British defense would collapse. But heavy casualties, lack of reserves and sheer exhaustion combined to stall the Germans when they seemed close to victory, and the British were able to restore their line.

The Battle Subsides

Mutual exhaustion and the onset of cold weather brought major operations in Flanders to an end after 13 November. Along the Yser River, where the Belgians had opened the sluice gates controlling the drainage system, flooding low-lying areas, both sides had become paralyzed. And though the British remained in possession of Ypres, the prize was a dubious one. Their line in the vicinity of the town constituted a relatively narrow salient projecting into German-held territory, exposed to observation and fire from front and flanks. That the Germans occupied most of the high ground in the area only worsened British problems. But having expended so many lives to prevent the enemy from capturing the town, the BEF’s commanders could not persuade themselves that it would be better to evacuate the salient. Instead they ordered their troops to dig in—ensuring that Ypres would become a name of ill omen in British military annals.

Analysis of the Battle

It may seem inexplicable that so many troops, concentrated in so small an area as Belgian Flanders, achieved in a month and a half of violent combat nothing but stalemate. But it was precisely that concentration of numbers that made stalemate inevitable. First Ypres demonstrated with crystal clarity what earlier battles had strongly suggested: that due to a combination of factors the defense had gained a decisive advantage over the attack. Various military thinkers, Carl von Clausewitz prominent among them, had preached that defense is the stronger form of war. In 1914, thanks to the Industrial Revolution with all its attendant political, social and cultural fallout, the superiority of the defense in war was maximized. This superiority was distilled into one deadly element: firepower. The rifles, machine guns and artillery supplied to the armies by industry were orders of magnitude more effective and deadly than anything seen on the battlefield since the dawn of history. And this superiority benefited the defenders far more than the attackers—particularly when the former were fighting from entrenched positions. Even a crude hole in the ground greatly enhanced the survivability, hence the effectiveness, of a defending rifleman. And if that hole sheltered the crew of a machine gun, troops attacking in dense formations could be shot down in droves.

A BEF map showing part of the Somme sector of the Western Front in late 1915. For security reasons only the British front line is delineated in blue, but the complete German trench system is depicted in red. (McMaster University Libraries, Lloyd Reeds Map Collection)

Thus the holes and ditches from which the defenders fought the First Battle of Ypres were rapidly transformed into complex entrenched positions, not just in Flanders but all along the Western Front. Protected by dense belts of barbed wire and backstopped by artillery, these trench defenses were, if not absolutely impregnable, extremely difficult to attack. So began the search for some tactical solution to the trench deadlock and the obvious one seemed to be more of what had produced it in the first place: firepower. The generals told one another and their political masters that with enough guns and shells, the enemy’s defenses could be battered down. Much blood was to be spent demonstrating the simplistic falsity of this idea.

Of the senior commanders on both sides, it was Erich von Falkenhayn who drew the most nearly correct lessons from the Battle of Flanders. He was now convinced that the strategy pursued so far by Germany—Vernichtungsstrategie or annihilation of the enemy—could not succeed. Germany, he perceived, lacked the strength to score a decisive victory over any of her foes. While recognizing that in many respects Russia— economically backward, internally unstable, its leaders fearful of revolution—was the weak link in the coalition confronting Germany, he doubted so large a country could be vanquished by the forces that Germany and Austria-Hungary were able to muster for the Eastern Front. Yet no less than his predecessor, Falkenhayn regarded the Western Front as the main theater of war. He therefore reverted to Ermattungsstrategie, exhaustion of the enemy, a strategy of attrition that would reach its culminating point in the Battle of Verdun.

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Copyright © 2020 by Thomas M. Gregg. All Rights Reserved

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