Ypres is a name synonymous with the First World War, and over its course three separate battles were fought there. The first began in 1914, as German forces attempted to punch through Franco-British lines. Heroic resistance, epitomised by a bayonet charge by the Worcester regiment, denied the Germans a breakthrough and stabilised the line in Flanders until the last months of the war.
The era of month-long battles begins
Ypres was a moment where war decisively changed. The first months of the war had already hammered home lessons about the realities of industrial war – with blue-uniformed French formations cut down mercilessly by machine guns in the opening days.
However, until Ypres the battles of the war, such as Mons, had been one-day battles which were not wholly different from what had gone before, with mobile warfare and relatively light casualties. Ypres, however, was fought over months, and for all that time was a matter of dogged attack against defence.
Even the men fighting changed; at the start of Ypres, the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) was a small professional force with a good deal of experience – but by the end these men were in their graves and fresh-faced civilians would be sent to replace them.
‘The race to the sea’ ends
The war had started with a swift and merciless German advance on Belgium and France, which was halted almost at the gates of Paris at the decisive battle of the Marne. As the Germans attempted to regroup to the north they were pursued by the French armies trying to outflank them in what is known as “the race to the sea.” Eventually both forces ran out of room in Flanders and faced up against each other.
France’s British Allies took up positions near the Belgian city of Ypres, slightly further to the north than French commander Joffre’s men. Here the Germans intended a decisive breakthrough designed to crush the small British army before steamrollering through Ypres and then south.
On 19 October 1914, their attacks began. At this early stage in the war the British were barely entrenched, and artillery ammunition was low, meaning that most of the killing was done with machine-gun and rifle fire, without the benefit of many defensive positions. As a result, these first days of the battle took on a frenetic intensity of attack and counterattack which is not usually associated with World War One.
The initial German attack, a wall of advancing men wearing the famous Pickelhaube helmets, gained ground, taking the village of Passchendaele amongst other positions. The British soldiers were desperately ordered to dig in in order to survive the onslaught, but many had discarded the digging tools with which they had been supplied – and had to rely on features of the local landscape, particularly its quaint hedgerows, for cover. However, they held the line magnificently through German attacks which carried on through day and night over the next few days.
Both sides took very heavy casualties as the fighting’s intensity failed to drop, and there were some reports of German soldiers overwhelming British positions where the men were literally too tired to resist or even wake up. As a result, reinforcements who had arrived by train through pristine countryside were sent straight to the front line.
On 24 October a German assault exploited a gap in the British lines and created a potentially decisive bridgehead. The only battalion able to face them now were the 2nd Worcesters, who had just been pulled out of the line on the grounds that they were too exhausted to continue. Seeing this threat emerging through the trees, the Worcester’s commander Major Edward Hankey led them in an almost suicidal brave bayonet charge, which, astonishingly, cleared the wood of the Germans and restored the British line.
Close-combat fighting was a feature at Ypres, where counter-attacks were often lead with clubs swords and pistols rather than more ponderous heavy guns or machine guns. Some British units broke under heavy artillery fire and German charges but an astonishing number held their ground, even the inexperienced reservists who had been poured into the front to make up the numbers.
However, on 31 October the Germans again built up enough pressure to threaten a battle-winning breakthrough. Extraordinarily, the very same Worcester battalion saved the British again. Ordered to counter-attack, they gained 1000 yards from the Germans with a charge, and then dug in at the old British positions where they repelled every assault with rifle fire. Winston Churchill’s words in a later war that “never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed to so few” might just as well have been applied to this battalion here.
A Pyrrhic victory
The battle rumbled on into November, with more and more Germans sent to their deaths for less and less gain, as the German Generals became desperate to achieve a breakthrough before winter. Eventually, on 17 November, their assaults ceased with the weather making further attacks impossible.
Though the Germans had captured ground, like the strategically important Messines ridge, they had lost 80,000 men in the process and Ypres was undoubtedly an Allied victory – one of the most impressive and important of the war. With the men exhausted by a month of fighting, and casualties over 50,000, however, the British were not in the mood to celebrate.
Despite this, and the terrible months of static warfare which followed, Ypres should always be remembered as a great if costly victory. The German Army, considered the finest in the world after the earlier Franco-Prussian war, had thrown everything it had at the British and been repulsed. And even if the consequences of the battle are forgotten, the unbelievable courage of the 2nd Worcesters should live on.