(W)Archives: The World War I You Remember Began 100 Years Ago at Ypres
In October and November 1914, exactly 100 years ago, the British Expeditionary Force and the German Army fought the First Battle of Ypres in northern Belgium. Before World War I was over, Ypres was the site of two more battles, in April-May 1915 and July-November 1917. In the process, this part of Belgium, one of the soggiest, dreariest, flattest places in Europe, also became one of the most blood-soaked. Ypres, or “Wipers” as the Tommies came to know it, was the subject of a 1925 seven reel British documentary film, much of it shot on the actual battlefield with real soldiers. The film is available to us today thanks to British Pathé’s remarkable online film archive.
The First Battle of Ypres, which is featured in the first and second reels of the documentary, began on 20 October when the German army launched an offensive against British positions which were in a semicircle east of Ypres. The Germans made significant advances in the Langemarck area, north and east of Ypres. (One of the soldiers who took part in the battle was a young Adolf Hitler, who was almost killed in a German friendly fire incident on 29 October.) Then on 31 October, the Germans almost broke the British lines, but as John Buchan dramatically recounted after the war, the 2nd Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment managed to put a finger in the dike. However, on 1 November, the Germans captured Messines, to the south of Ypres. The battle finally sputtered out on 22 November.
When the battle was over, the British positions around Ypres formed a salient extending into the German lines and Ypres and the surrounding area was well on the way to being pounded into a moonscape. For most of the rest of the war, the British held onto that bit of real estate like grim death despite the fact that the Germans could pummel their forces from three sides. In the course of this battle, the British lost some 24,000 dead. The battle also represented the death of the old British Army, the “Old Contemptibles,” as they came to be known. The British Expeditionary Force that came to France in August had numbered some 180,000 men. It was already blooded before Ypres, but by the time the battle was over it had suffered accumulated casualties of more than 50%. They were replaced by a surge of volunteers that transformed the army By contrast, the Germans lost twice as many men as the British at Ypres and the majority of their casualties were taken by young student volunteers who had scant weeks of training before being rushed into combat. In fact, the First Battle of Ypres is known in Germany as the “Massacre of the Innocents.”
But perhaps Ypres greatest significance is that it is where the British began to dig trenches in earnest, and a place where one side’s willingness to bear appalling costs to hold onto every square inch of territory manifested itself in terrifying fullness. It would not be too much to say that the World War I that we remember began 100 years ago at Ypres.
Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.
Photo credit: John