The Race to the Sea would reach its conclusion at the small Belgian town of Ypres. Ypres would become one of the bloodiest areas for the British and Germans over the 4 years of the war but in 1914 it was just a Belgian town where they met on the road north from the Aisne to the sea. The British Army, with their French allies, would march into Ypres where they would be tested almost to their breaking point.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 17. This week we are back on the Western front, after several episodes of being around the world, and on the Western front we arrive at the end of a chapter of the war with the conclusion of the Race to the Sea. These final battles bookend the cataclysmic conflict that has been happening in Belgium and France since the beginning of August. I consider this episode the final episode in the first act of the war. The battles we will cover today will run from the French area of Messines all the way to the Atlantic coast on the Yser river. Along the way we will visit one of the most famous British battlefields of the war outside the Belgian town of Ypres. We will then summarize the effects of the Race to the Sea and its conclusion before jumping into a programming note that details the plan for the podcast for the rest of the year.
It has been a few episodes since we were on the Western front so I will start with a bit of a recap of where we are at this point in time. After the Germans had advanced through Belgium and into Northern France they had been stopped at the Battle of the Marne by the combined forces of France and Britain. After they were stopped the British and French began driving them back before arriving at the Aisne river. Once they arrived at the River the Germans were able to take a breathe and dig in. With the Battle of the Aisne began the Race to the sea. The armies began attempting to outflank each other to the north. This would turn into a running battle that would last for weeks and span hundreds of miles through France and into Belgium. Each of the battles was eerily similar, there would be an attack by one side that would barely be stopped by the other before they were able to dig in and stop the advance. The troops on both sides would scoot a bit to the north and try to attack or defend again until they were stopped and they dug in again, etc. etc. Both sides were frantically pulling every available man from elsewhere on the front to continue this movement to the north. Through all of this effort and time neither side was able to really gain an advantage. We now end up in western Belgium as the battle continues right up the sea, which is what we will cover today.
We will start with two preliminary battles at Armentieres and Messines. These two battles started on October 13 and went for over two weeks all the way to November 2nd. These battles continued long into the Battle of the Yser and the First Battle of Ypres which were larger actions that started a bit later than Armentieres and Messines. These two battles continued the same pattern that we just talked about with both sides attempting to attack through the other only to be stopped and slowed down while both sides tried to dig in. These battles both involved the British Second Corps under General Smith-Dorrien and the German Sixth Army under Crown Prince Rupprecht. This is only important to note for when we call back to them later when discussing the fighting at Ypres. And that is pretty much all I am going to say about these two battles. I’m not going to say that they didn’t matter, that seems a bit harsh, but the same actions occurred here as in every other battle we have talked about during the Race to the Sea. In the end neither side was able to gain any real advantage over the other even after the weeks of fighting. What really matters about these two battles is that in conjunction with the Battle of the Yser they setup the First Battle of Ypres because they narrowed the possible corridor of advance even further until all there was left was Ypres.
As I have mentioned we have two battles to cover for the rest of this episode and the one we will cover first is actually the furthest to the north, the Battle of the Yser. This battle occurred during the last two weeks of October and was the climax of the German invasion of Belgium, or maybe more like a denouement depending on how you would categorize the script. The battle would be fought along the banks of the river Yser in extreme Western Belgium between the remnants of the Belgian army, with help from the French and British, and the German army. After the Belgian field army retreated out of Antwerp, before it fell to the Germans, they continued to slowly move westward until October 14th. Along the way they were fighting constant skirmishes and delaying actions against the advancing Germans. The Belgians continued to retreat until they reached the Yser river where they chose to dig in and await the German attack. The biggest reason they waited so long, and gave up so much Belgian territory was that the Yser river was the first place where they could be confident that if they could hold their ground the Germans wouldn’t be able to encircle them from the South because of the British and French forces were there to stop them.
The Belgian army dug in on the banks of the river on a 25 mile length of front that ran right to the English Channel and they used all of the troops that were available to them under the command of King Albert the first. They were assisted to the south by French troops and the British provided artillery support from the sea in the form of several ships. They were opposed by the German Fourth Army. The extremely astute listeners may remember that the German Fourth army had previously been positioned in the center of the German line around the Ardennes forest before being moved to their current position right on the coast. The Germans also had several reserve corps to back up the front line troops. Most of these troops didn’t have much experience, some of them being fresh from Germany. The Germans began attacking Belgian positions to the east of the river on the 16th of October and they experienced some mixed results but were able to continue to push forward. It took them several days to finally reach the river. It took them several more days of attacking to push some troops across the river and develop a bridgehead. The French and Belgian troops did a great job of constantly counter attacking any time the Germans were able to set even a foot across the river, but they couldn’t stop the Germans forever. By the 23rd the Belgian and French commanders were becoming a bit desperate. There started to be discussion of using mother nature against the Germans. The plan was to flood most of Belgian territory along the Yser river. The reason that this could be accomplished was because the whole area was right at, or even below, sea level. The area was only kept from being flooded due to a large series of dikes and levees that held water back at high tide. The Belgians opened the levee gates that held this water back and patiently waited for high tide which came in the last few days of October. On the 30th of October the Germans attempted to attack again but began to realize what was happening. As the flooding became more severe they began retreating away from the advancing water.
With the retreat on the 30th the German advance through Belgium, at least in the far north, was at an end. The flooding of the Yser plain just resulted in an environment where any form of offensive action was impossible. The front along the river stabilized to some degree and would end up being held, almost exclusively, by Belgian troops for the rest of the war. This was their own, and almost their only little corner of Belgium. It was a source of pride both to the Belgian Army and to the Belgian people that their army was able to hold on to even this small piece of the country. The odyssey of the Belgian army that had begun at Liege was over, 90% of Belgium was in German hands, but the Belgian army was still fighting.
Now we move to our final battle of the week with the First Battle of Ypres. There will be several battles at Ypres and it almost occupies a mythical status up there with Mons, The Somme, Gallipoli, in the British military history of the first world war for both good and bad reasons. After the battle of the Aisne Sir John French wanted to move his British troops northward. This was advantageous for him because it would bring him closer to his supply lines that began on the coast. Joffre was concerned that by being so close to the sea it would be too easy for the British to jump back on their ships and go home should things get a bit rough. Joffre did eventually give into Sir John French’s request and the British began moving northward with the understanding between the two Generals that the British, French, and Belgian troops would go on the offensive. A bit of a timeline note here, this occurs before the flooding of the Yser plain, at a time when offensive operations by the Belgians was still possible. Sir John French was optimistic that the Germans were weak in the area and that it would be an easy area to attack. In fact, as has often been the case up to this point in the war, the British were completely wrong and the Germans actually outnumbered the combined British and French forces. Can I just say, again, how confusing it is that the British commander is named French and he is interacting with a lot of French troops, I basically have to always say Sir John French instead of being able to use just his last name like everybody else I have discussed. This has been really annoying for me over the last few months, unfortunately it won’t be over soon. ON a similar subject let’s take a moment to discuss the word Ypres. If you only speak English, which I do and which most British soldiers and citizens did in 1914, there is absolutely nothing in the English Language that prepares you to pronounce the word Ypres. Y-P-R-E-S those letters straight up do not go together and they create an almost unpronounceable mush when put in the English language constructs. This basically just resulted in the British soldiers and citizens back home calling it Wipers and being done with it. I won’t go quite that far, especially after some butchering of pronunciations up to this point in this podcast, but I find it hilarious that everybody just gave up on trying to pronounce this very important location.
The forces that would meet in front of Ypres were the three Corps of the British Expeditionary Force now on the continent although Haig and the First Corps would play the primary role in the fighting. They would face 5 German army corps from the 4th German army which as I mentioned early was fresh from the fighting in the Ardennes. The British would finally start arriving in Flanders by train and on foot in the first few weeks of October. The 7th Division, which we will follow pretty closely today in the rest of the episode would arrive on the 14th. At this point Ypres, and most of the Flanders area was untouched by the war. Most of the fighting had been to the south and when the British arrived in the town Diners and shops were still open, causing the interesting scene of British soldiers trying to pay in British pounds for items from the Belgian shop keepers. Ypres was a Belgian town that was situated at the bottom of a ridge that ran from the east to the south of the town. The ridge was about 100 meters high at its highest and ran from Passchendaele in the north, then as we move south down through what would come to be called Polygon Wood, through Gheluvelt, then Sanctuary Wood, Hill 60, St-Eloi and then finally to Messines. I mention a lot of these places because we will revisit them later on. Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to remember them all now. Most of the British soldiers shared their commanders positive outlook on the situation and wanted to get into battle as soon as possible. The 7th Division had a particular urge to enter the fight because they hadn’t seen any action up to this point. After freshly arriving from England the unit had been marched back and forth across Belgium and France before finally arriving in action at Ypres. After arriving on the 14th they moved off on the 18th in the direction of Menin, a town to the south east of Ypres. As the units began moving out they began getting reports, from British pilots, of huge columns of Germans advancing toward them. The men of the 7th Division only had long enough to find the best possible positions nearby before trying to scrape out some defenses to await the German advance.
The battle would really begin on the 20th of October with the Germans advancing against the British. The British soldiers hadn’t had enough time to properly prepare their positions and were therefore stuck with nothing but some shallow trenches or no defenses at all, they were however aided by the make up of the terrain around Ypres. A German cavalry commander would comment on the area and the British Positions by saying, and I quote, “The entire countryside here is one mass of small enclosed fields and hedges reinforced with wire. How are we meant to attack through that? The enemy exploits its potential skillfully, firing from inside houses and trenches which they have dug extremely rapidly.” These British soldiers, much like the soldiers under Smith-Dorrien at Mons, had at least some experience in combat but they hadn’t seen battle upon the European battlefields in 1914. They would end up performing well and they were helped by the inexperience of the German soldiers they were facing. Many of the German soldiers were from reserve units who had seen minimal action up to this point in the war or units that were straight from Germany. Even though they were inexperienced the German troops were able to slowly push the British back. The town of Passchendaele, that the British would spend a ton of effort trying to retake, fell into German hands on the 20th. By the end of the day on the 20th the British were in a bit of disarray. The soldiers of the 7th were fighting and falling back but they were sustaining high casualties in the process. Thankfully on the 21st help began to arrive for the 7th Division and the French troops to their left and right in the form of the British divisions arriving from the south. These troops were being put into the line almost as soon as they arrived, which would become a theme for the British throughout the battle. This was necessary to keep the front from collapsing but didn’t do anything to help the disorganization of the British lines. As the attack continued the front began to expand to the north and the south.
The Germans were attacking from Langemarck in the north down to the Menin Road and then on to the south. This amounted to about 25 miles of front. On this front they were losing a lot of men while trying to punch through the British lines. They were sending inexperienced troops into the fighting which didn’t have the battlefield savvy of some of their veterans or the shock and irresistible numbers that the Germans had created during battles earlier in the war. I quote the book Catastrophe 1914 again “For decades afterwards, German nationalists sought to evoke a supposed ‘Spirit of Langemarck’, signifying exemplary courage in the face of adversity. This was a myth, which masked the fact that the German attacks of 21-23 October were exercises in futility, matching anything the French had done in the Battles of the Frontiers.” While these battles were happening it is important to keep in mind that the battles of Armentieres and Messines were still happening to the south. So the fighting front was actually far longer than the one found just at Ypres and it involved many French, British, and German divisions. The Germans also weren’t really taking a break from the fighting, they were attacking almost 24 hours a day. All through the days of the 21st and 22nd the attacks continued with a lot of casualties but without a lot of movement on the front lines. The Germans were still advancing, don’t get me wrong, but it was at a very slow pace. To the south of Ypres both the British and French troops were able to launch a few counter attacks that helped to blunt some of the pressure against Ypres. On the 23th in the north French troops also counter attacked toward Passchendaele without a lot of success and they were unable to retake the town.
One of the problems the British and French troops were having was maintaining a continuous line along the battlefront. Large gaps began to appear as units of troops were moved up to plug other gaps that were opening. At times there wasn’t enough time to fully coordinate with units to the left or right. One place where this was particularly true was in an area that came to be called Polygon Wood. This was a nice stand of pine trees just north of the Menin Road where there had been a riding school before the war. There was a round of intense fighting in these woods in the last week of October where engagements would be just a few hundred feet at most and men would often find themselves fighting in hand to hand battles. In this atmosphere it was almost infinitely more difficult to maintain any sort of line continuity. This meant that units of men were constantly being cut off, surround, and killed over the course of the fighting. It was not that unusual to have bayonet charges and wild melees among the rapidly degrading trees. The trees quickly began being picked apart by artillery explosions that left a set of skeletons standing where once there was a lush forest. The trees may have been even more destroyed if it wasn’t for artillery ammunition shortages that were experienced by both sides during the battle. This meant that the guns were limited in how many shells they could fire per day. This even after the rest of the western front was almost entirely stripped of artillery ammunition. On several stretches of the front the artillery was limited to 1 or 2 shots per day.
By the 25th of October the German attack began to slow as more and more British units came into the line and they began to stabilize the front. For any of you paying attention this may sound pretty familiar. From the 26th until the end of October the Germans launched another series of attacks that would continue to gain less and less ground. However by the 29th the Germans began an attack with 7 German divisions, far outnumbering the British in front of them and the British line began to tremble. As the Day moved on the British used their artillery to slow the German advance. On the 30th the strongest attack would begin to the south of Ypres by six German divisions under the command of General Max von Fabeck. This attack was just barely stopped by the British. On the 31st the British lost the town of Gheluvelt to forces under Crown Prince Rupprecht not through some great skill or finesse but from shear weight of numbers.
With this latest attack whispers began to circulate around the British headquarters that it was becoming more and more likely that the British would have to abandon Ypres if the Germans continued their pressure for much longer. The front had devolved into a series of fierce attacks that would often drive the British back, then the British would try to counter attack to retake the position. Sometimes the attacks would work, sometimes they wouldn’t. The British would try to rest units by taking them out of the line for a few days but would often have to send them back early. Sometimes these troops would retreat from chaos only to be rounded back up mere hours after reaching their recovery point to be sent back in to relieve other units. By the 1st of November the 7th Division that had begun the battle over 2 weeks before had lost 4/5th of its strength leading its commander to say “I’m a curiosity, a divisional commander without a division.”
On the German side casualties were almost as catastrophic. By the 3rd of November Fabeck had began to realize that a breakthrough with his troops, a set of divisions that had been put together solely to achieve a breakthrough, would be impossible after they had suffered 17,500 casualties in just 3 days of fighting. German troops were being ordered to attack after units had lost all of their officers and most of their men, leading to disorganized and fruitless attacks. Just as the two armies were hitting the climax of exhaustion it began to rain. Due to the nature of the ground in Flanders rain was simply disastrous for both armies. I have mentioned before that Flanders was right at or below sea level which meant that drainage was a serious concern. Around Ypres there was a lot of man-made drainage channels to try and keep the water moving. All of these channels were wrecked during the shellfire of the battle. Men on both sides continued to fight through the rain even though they were in situations where they couldn’t dig even the shallowest of trenches without it instantly filling with water. By the first week of November there were British units that were down to 150 men, having started the war with over a thousand. On November 11th the Germans brought their guns within range of the town of Ypres and began shelling the town. On the night of the 11th the Cloth Hall, hundreds of years old and the center of Ypres and its identity, began to burn. The Germans would continue their attacks for another week, although they were far weaker than they had been up to this point. The weather continued to deteriorate until there was snow mixed with the rain, adding freezing cold to the list of miseries experienced by the men.
The First Battle of Ypres began to wind down in the third week of November. The Germans had lost 80,000 men in the fighting and the British had lost almost 55,000. The British had technically won the battle though in the classical definition of winning, they held the ground after all, but the cost was dang high. The total British casualties up to this point in the war was almost 90,000 men. This is miniscule compared to the casualties of France, Germany, and Russia but the British Expeditionary Force had arrived in France with only 80,000 men back in August. With over 100% attrition rate Britain had a serious shortage of trained fighting men. The Experienced professional core of the British army was gone, they had been sacrificed to hold Ypres. It would be months before the British could even begin contemplating offensive actions The lack of experience in the British army would haunt them for years to come, it wouldn’t be fully rectified until after the battle of the Somme in 1916. That is two years, and a hell of a lot of fighting in the future.
So the battle at Ypres was winding down, and with it the Race to the Sea. The struggle that had begun in September at the Marne was for the most part over. There would still be fighting but it would be on a smaller scale than what had happened up to this point as both sides took a moment to take a breather. The classic western front line had been established and wouldn’t drastically change for several years. There would be constant raiding and small attacks and there would certainly be some gigantic clashes of men and steel but if you look at a map of the front in November 1914 there will be a lot of familiar places that you will hear me talking a lot about when we get to the events of 1915, 1916, 1917, and 1918. It is worth a bit of time to look at a map of the line in 1914 because I really am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say I am going to be talking about these towns, cities, and locations for the next hundreds of episodes.
So…what about those next bunch of episodes. This episode took a bit longer than expected and won’t be releasing the next one next week. If I am completely honest I am completely burnt out right now. Life has been having a serious habit of getting in the way recently and I was straight up not prepared for how much work this podcast was going to be. Back in June I figured I would be spending a few hours of week on this show, and let me tell you it is way more. As life has happened I have been feeling like I haven’t had enough time to spend on the show while at the same time feeling like it is consuming every bit of free time that I have. Because of this I have also felt that the quality of the episodes have decreased. So here is what is going to happen, I am going to take a break from episodes until the end of December. These 1.5 months or so will allow me to get my ducks in a row for 1915 and allow me to properly prepare for the next series of episodes. In fact the 1 and a half months of prep time for the next episodes is about 3 times more than I had going into episode one back in June. There are a lot of books to read and research to do and that seems to pair so well with my customary Coffee Stouts and other tasty holiday beverages. When I do come back it will be with a History of the Great War Christmas Special about one of the more peculiar and touching moment of the war, the Christmas Truce of 1914. During this time you can follow the progress of the show on Twitter at twitter.com/historygreatwar or at Facebook at facebook.com/historyofthegreatwar. I have also been kicking around the idea of an episode focused on listener questions, so if you have any of those send them over to email@example.com and if I get enough that episode will happen early next year. Thank you all for listening, and see you in a few weeks.