THE FIRST BATTLE OF YPRES
19th October — 22nd November 1914
defeating the Prussian Guard at Nonne Bosschen
by William Barnes Wollen
by: Ian R Gumm
Late on the 18th October 1914 the 7th Division was ordered to advance and seize the city of Menin. It was too late to set off that day and the advance began at 06.30 hrs on 19th October 1914. Initially the advance went well and initial contact with the enemy was made by the Northumberland Hussars who were acting as the northern flank screen for the 7th Division’s advance. The sizable enemy force they encountered near Ladeghem, however, withdrew after causing a slight delay. As the advance continued news reached Brigadier-General Lawford’s 22nd Brigade headquarters that the enemy to their front had been reinforced by two German Corps. He was consequently ordered to withdraw back to the positions they had vacated to re-establish the 7th Division’s defensive line. This was achieved after some confusion and after a brief but bloody engagement between the 1st Battalion, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and the enemy. The enemy showed no intention to follow and the 7th Division’s defensive line was re-established, though the left of the line had to be realigned due to the withdrawal of the French further left, and the Division reoccupied the positions they had previously held on the night of 16th/17th October.
Throughout the night of 19th/20th and into the following morning a steady stream of refugees began to pass westwards as the civilian population began their exodus of the area that was to become the Ypres Salient.
On 20th October 1914 the 7th Division was ordered to push forward a reconnaissance in force to determine the enemy’s strength and intent. This cleared the enemy from Becelaere, but as the approached Trehand they were shelled by German Artillery. Thereafter attacks began to develop against the 22nd Brigade and the 3rd Cavalry Division to their left and by midday the situation had changed dramatically. The French cavalry to the left of the British withdrew unexpectedly exposing their flank. In danger of their flanking being turned General Byng ordered his division to retire to the line Zonnebeke – St Juliaan – Poelcappelle, hereby giving Passchendaele and Westroosebeke up to the enemy.
The Germans continued their advance and were soon pressing against the defences of the 22nd Brigade. By the afternoon of the 20th the battalions of the 22nd Brigade were heavily engaged by the enemy though they continued to hold their ground. To their right Brigadier-General Watts’ 21st Brigade was also engaged, but they too held their ground.
Whilst this action was going on to the east of Ypres the Germans made repeated and persistent attempts to break through the Belgium Army defences north of the city along the Yser Canal. The Belgium’s, assisted by the French, doggedly held on to their positions in the face of the German Fourth Army’s onslaught. The ill-equipped and weakened Belgian Army continued to fight valiantly, but as time passed it looked increasingly likely that the Germans would break through.
During the 20th the leading elements of General Haig’s I Corps began to arrive in the vicinity of Ypres. The 2nd Division began to be pushed forward to the east of the city the following day behind General Byng’s cavalrymen.
By 21st October 1914 the situation along the Belgium front to the north of Ypres had deteriorated to the point where a German breakthrough looked imminent. Consequently, King Albert ordered the opening of the sluice gates that held back the sea at Nieuport. This flooded the land between the positions held by the Belgium Army and that occupied by the Germans along the 32 kilometre (20 mile) strip of land between Dixmude and Nieuport. It creating a 3.2 kilometre (2 mile) wide water barrier that forced the German Chief of Staff, Eric von Falkenhayn, to halt his offensive aimed at driving along the coast to seize the Channel Ports and reconsider his plans; he decided to swing the bulk of his forces south-westwards towards the city of Ypres.
On arriving in the vicinity of Ypres General Haig push out to the east of the city intent on seeking to gain an advantage. Instead of gaining ground and taking the initiative, however, his forces met the new German thrust head-on. The main part of the German thrust was made by four of the newly arrived Reserve Corps that was part of Colonel-General Duke Albrecht of Wütterenberg’s Fourth Army. They had been raised in Germany soon after the outbreak of the war and many of their soldiers were the patriotic students who had left their universities to fight for their fatherland. These student volunteers were sent to the front to bolster the German Army in the west with the minimum of training and they were woefully inexperienced and lacking in officers. In close company columns, a tactic last used in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, they attacked along the line of Bixschoote – Langemarck. They came up against the experienced soldiers of the General Haig’s I Corps who’s skill with the rifle was legendary. The young Germans did not stand a chance and were moan down in their thousands in what has subsequently become known as the ‘Kindermord bei Ypren’, the Massacre of the Innocent at Ypres’.
Thereafter there was a pause in the battle as the German High Command took stock and recognised that their Fourth Army alone not going to break through the defending British line. The General French commanding the BEF used this period to reorganise his forces and realigned the divisions to the east of the city. The 2nd Division was placed on the left of the line anchored on Zonnebeke with the 1st Division to their right facing Bacelare. To the right of the 1st Division the 7th Division deployed covering the area between Gheluvelt and Zandvoorde with the 3rd Cavalry Division to their left covering the area in front of Zandvoorde through to Hollebek. Further south covering the Messines Ridge were the brigades of General Allenby’s Cavalry Corps.
On 29th October 1914 the German thrust was renewed by Duke Albrecht’s Fourth Army and Crown Prince Rupprecht’s Sixth Army. The Fourth Army attacked against the French who now held the line of Bixschoote – Langemarck in the north. The French repulsed and comprehensively defeated this attack and an Army Order was issued to cease the assault. Whilst the German attack was unsuccessful in this area it kept the French occupied.
Further south the attack was made by Crown Prince Rupprecht’s Sixth Army. In the early morning fog Thursday, 29th October 1914 the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment, from the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division of the XXIV Reserve Corps advanced astride and to the north of the Menin Road. At 05.30 hrs they smashed into the thinly held British line deployed in front of the Belgium village of Gheluvelt at the juncture of the 1st and 7th Divisions. They were met by the now legendary rapid rifle of the British defenders and this initially checked the German advance. As the British fire began to slacken, however, the Germans pressed forward once more and eventually the Bavarians broke into the defences close to the road, turned north and roll up the immediate British trenches held by a company of the 1st Battalion, the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) and two companies of the 1st Battalion, the Coldstream Guards. There was no artillery available to support the British infantry and by 06.30 hrs these forward trenches had been lost. To the north of these trenches was a gap before the line continued and here the German attack was less successful.
On receiving news of the break-in Brigadier-General FitzClarence commanding the 1st (Guards) Brigade ordered the 1st battalion, the Gloucestershire Regiment forward. They managed to stabilise the situation though some ground in front of Gheluvelt was lost. A similar situation occurred to the right of the Menin Road, but again the German advanced was halted.
On Friday, 30th October 1914 the newly formed Group Fabeck commanded by General Max von Fabeck, that was under command of Crown Prince Rupprecht’s Sixth Army, launched a ferocious attack. Augmented by cavalry, jaeger, landwehr and artillery, they greatly outnumbered the British defenders and advanced against the General Rawlinson’s IV Corps defences to the right and south of the Menin Road and against General Byng’s Cavalry Corps and elements of the Indian Corps that had taken up positions along the Messines Ridge.
In the Messines area the thinly spread elements of the 1st Cavalry Division and Meerut Division were hard pressed and it was only the timely arrival of the leading elements of the 5th Division that prevented the town of Messines falling to the enemy. At Zandvoorde the defending cavalrymen of the 1st and 2nd Life Guards, fighting on foot as infantrymen, were overwhelmed and many were lost. To their left the remnants of 1st Battalion, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, that had already been mauled during the earlier clashes of 19th October, were virtually wiped out. The remaining Regiments of the 3rd Cavalry Division and the reserve of the 7th Division managed to stabilise the situation before the British defences caved-in.
Saturday, 31st October 1914 is said to have witnessed the supreme effort of the Germans to break through the British defences and capture Ypres. The attack on this day was pressed simultaneously along the whole front from Reutel to Messines, and lasted not only throughout the day but during the greater part of the night as well. It was to be a tremendous battle covering a frontage of 19 kilometres (12 miles). The Kaiser had arrived at Menin to witness the glorious victory of his army as they crushed the British defenders and entered Ypres.
The renewed attack was centred along the Menin Road toward Gheluvelt. Following the attack on the 29th the 2nd Battalion, the Welch Regiment and the 1st Battalion, the South Wales Borderers had been sent to the village to bolster the defences. It was they who were to bear the brunt of the German attack as it pushed forward along the Menin Road and struck home. The 2nd Welch were smashed and the 1st SWB were seemingly overwhelmed. To the rear of Gheluvelt in Polygon Wood Brigadier-General FitzClarence ordered the 2nd Battalion, the Worcestershire Regiment, who were in reserve, to plug the gap. They set off from their rest area in Polygon Wood and advanced to the wood line to the rear of the village. From here they made a series of mad dashes across the open space between; the last rush being made across 200 yards of open ground in the face of a terrific shrapnel fire. Over 100 of the Worcesters fell in that last rush, but the remainder charged home and were soon heavily engaged with the enemy. To their astonishment they found the men of the 1st SWB still valiantly fighting in the ground of the chateau and together these two battalions pushed the German attackers back. They held onto Gheluvelt until dark at which time they were ordered to withdraw.
Sunday, 1st November 1914 saw the relentless pressure of the German offensive bear fruit when they finally managed to drive the thin line of the Cavalry and Indian Divisions off of the Messines Ridge. Fresh German formations had been brought up from Lille and Arras including a new composite Guards Division. These were brought into the line ready for another push along the Menin Road. The pressure was continued along the northern and southern edges of the salient to keep the French and British troops fixed in their defensive positions as preparations for renewed assault along the Menin Road took place.
On 5th November 1915 the relentless attacks against the northern sector along the line Bixschcoote - Langemarck were declared ‘a useless waste of life’ by the German Command. The XXII Reserve Corps had managed to storm Dixmude, but the defending Belgium Army demolished all of the bridges over the canal effectively setting the line for the next three-years.
The newly created Group Linsingen, commanded by General Alexander von Linsingen, was combined with Group Febeck for what would be the final drive along the Menin Road to capture Ypres. In thick fog on the 11th November 1914 the Prussian Guards of the Guards Composite Division advanced. They broke through the British defensive line in the vicinity of Nonne Boschen Wood into the open country beyond. The situation for the British defenders was critical. Those infantrymen that had fallen back in the Face of the German onslaught were rallied and combined with the available Royal Field Artillerymen, Royal Engineers, transport men, cooks and other non-combatants to form a last ditch defensive line. Behind them the road to the English Channel and the vital Channel Ports were open and if the Germans got through then Ypres would be in their hands and perhaps all would be lost.
The Prussian Guards came on against the composite British force unaware of their weakened state. They were met by intense rifle fire from this notch-pot group of desperate defenders and then hit by a counter-attack launched by the 2nd Battalion, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. The timely counter-attack of the 2nd Oxs and Bucks saved the day and the line was once again stabilised.
Following the assault of 11th November the weather deteriorated and on the 17th the German High Command called off their offensive bring the First Battle of Ypres to an end. The Germans had failed to press home their advantage at the critical moment and Ypres remained in Allied hands never to fall to the enemy throughout the remainder of the war. The desperate fighting of the First Battle of Ypres did, however, use up all of the available forces of the BEF and by its end the old Regular British Army had virtually ceased to exist. The forces that made up the British I, III, IV Cavalry and Indian Corps had prevented Ypres falling into the hands of the enemy, but at a terrific cost with 2,298 Officers and 51,807 soldiers of the BEF becoming casualties. The French and Belgium Armies also plaid a significant part in securing the city and they too paid a heavy price with the French sustaining 85,000 casualties and ‘Brave Little Belgium’ 22,000. Thus the First Battle of Ypres should not be view just as a British victory but rather an Allied one as without the support of the French and the dogged defence of the Belgians along the Yser canal the BEF would not have been able to hold on.
The city of Ypres was at that time relatively unimportant in itself, but it quickly assumed strategic importance as the anchor of the Yser line and as the last vestige of Belgium remaining unoccupied; whilst Ypres remained in Allied hands Belgium was not defeated. Thus the retention of Ypres by the Allies took on a significant political perspective and became an imperative military objective.