YPRES was one of the great Flemish cloth towns of the Middle Ages. At its height, the town and surrounding countryside
had a population of 200,000 but by 1914 this had dwindled to less than 20,000. A once thriving centre had become a small market
town drawing its main income from hops.
The town is situated on the edge of the flat Flanders plain which extends to the west and north. To the east a series of
low ridges run round the town and join the Messines-Wytschaete ridge which runs south towards the French border like a tail
on a slightly skewed question mark.
In 1914, at the beginning of the Great War, the German Army occupied the town
for one night, 7th October, but subsequently it fell under the control of Allied Forces on 14th October.
Some five million British and Empire soldiers passed through Ypres (or ‘Wipers’ to the British troops) on their
way to the Salient.
A salient is a significant piece of land that juts out into enemy
held territory. The enemy arranges itself to fire upon the troops contained within the salient from 3 sides. In the case of
Ypres, Allied Forces were subject to fire not only on 3 sides but also from the rear until Messines Ridge was captured in
The Salient was established as the war of movement (Race for the Sea)
came to an end in October/November 1914. The Allies frustrated and stopped the German advance on the channel ports. This left
the Germans in possession of the ridges with mainly the British dug in on the lower slopes.
Occupation of the ridges gave the Germans a considerable advantage
being able to both observe all activity within the Salient and bring down large and accurate concentrations of artillery fire
almost at will. Over the next 3½ years the British would strive to take the ridges and break out of the Salient at not inconsiderable
cost in casualties. Unlike any other sector on the Western Front, the Salient saw action on a daily basis. Even in relatively
quiet periods the monthly rate of attrition in men dead or wounded was approximately 5,000.
After the war, the Battles Nomenclature Committee identified
October/November 1914, April-May 1915 and July-November 1917 as periods of intense activity to be known as 1st,
2nd and 3rd Battles of Ypres respectively. In April 1918 the German Spring Offensive left the British
holding little more than the town of Ypres itself.
The successful British counter attack at the Battle of Lys in July led to their successful break out of the Salient in
October. Both German and British offensives are referred to vicariously as the 4th Battle of Ypres.
From 14th October 1914 until the end of the
war, 11th November 1918, the town of Ypres was never surrendered by the Allied Forces which, for most of the period,
were mainly from Britain and her Empire. At the end of the war, the honours of the British Military Cross and the French Croix
de Guerre were conferred on the town of Ypres.
Reduced to rubble by constant bombardment, the town
has come to represent the apparent meaningless slaughter of the Great War. Although Sir Winston Churchill expressed his wish
for the ruined town to be left as a permanent memorial to the tragedy of the war, it has been steadily restored to its former
grandeur and now contains numerous poignant sites and monuments linked to the war.
THE MENIN GATE is the most famous Commonwealth
War Memorial in Flanders. The gate was designed in classical style by Sir Reginald Blomfield on the site of one of the old
town gates. Unveiled by Field Marshall Lord Plumer (formerly General Commanding British Second Army in the Salient) on 24th
July 1927, the gate bears the names of 54,896 British and Empire troops who were reported missing in the Salient between the
outbreak of war in 1914 and 15th August 1917 and have no known grave. At the ceremony Lord Plumer, making reference
to each of the dead whose names are engraved on the gateway, said: “He is not missing. He is here”.
Every evening at 8pm a deeply moving ceremony takes
place under the vast arch of the Menin Gate: the traffic stops, and buglers from the local Fire Brigade play ‘The Last
Post’. The ceremony was begun in 1928 and, to this day, has only been interrupted for the period of the German Occupation
in the Second World Ward 1940-44. The Brookwood Barracks in England took over the ceremony during the war, and the tradition
was immediately re-established on the first day after liberation in September 1944.
THE CLOTH HALL, built in the 13th
Century, was one of the finest Gothic buildings in Europe. Destroyed in the early months of the war, the building was faithfully
rebuilt in its original style from 1933 to 1967. Today it houses the ‘In Flanders Fields’ museum of the Salient
in the Great War.
SAINT GEORGE’S MEMORIAL CHURCH
was completed in 1929 in memory of the soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient. The foundation stone was laid by Lord Plumer
on the same day he unveiled the Menin Gate Memorial. The church was also designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield and is in the
style of an English parish church and contains many poignant memorials. The small school next to the church was called Eton
College and was intended for the education of the children of the British employees of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
|St George's Memorial Church
THE RAMPARTS were completely rebuilt
in the late 17th Century by the French military engineer, Vauban. Under the great earthworks are a series of tunnels,
chambers and casements. During the Great War, these housed dressing stations, shelters, HQ’s etc. The Wipers Times was
printed in one of these.
THE LILLE GATE also housed a dressing
station, the casualties from which were buried in the Lille Gate Cemetery on the adjacent ramparts – the only British
Cemetery within the walls of the town. Troop access to and from the Salient was generally made through the more sheltered
Lille Gate whilst heavy equipment and supplies left through the Menin Gate.
The First Battle of YpresFollowing the Battles of the Marne and Aisne in September 1914,
both the Allies and the Germans were involved in a ‘Race for the Sea’, each leapfrogging the other in an attempt
to reach the coast and secure the channel ports. The Germans were converging on Ypres and were to meet Belgian, French and
British forces in a series of engagements that would finally establish the Western Front and give birth to a trench line from
Nieuport on the Belgian coast through north-east France to the Swiss border. A pattern of siege warfare would be set for the
rest of the war that would change the political and social fabric of Europe.
This was not a set piece battle but rather an
encounter battle that could almost be likened to a brawl, where action
in one place was not necessarily co-ordinated with action elsewhere. The Allies were attempting to break out east past Lille
and turn the German line, whilst the Germans were trying to break through to the west and cut off the British from the channel
ports and their natural points of supply.
Accounts differ as to the precise dates of the Battle, but British Official History records that ‘First
Ypres’ consisted of four engagements:
Le Bassée - 10th October – 2nd November
- 13th October – 2nd November
Messines - 12th October – 2nd November
Ypres - 19th October – 22nd November
Ypres itself further consisted of three separate engagements at:
Langemark - 21st – 24th
Gheluvelt - 29th – 31st October
Nonne Boschen - 11th November
The early engagements south of Ypres involved the French Tenth Army, two French Cavalry Corps and,
from the BEF, Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps, Pulteney’s III Corps and Allenby’s Cavalry Corps. The line was held
at Ypres by Rawlinson’s IV Corps with two French territorial divisions linking them with the Belgian Army along the
On 11th October, General Foch was appointed Commandant de la Groupe des Armées du Nord,
which included the Tenth Army and all French forces north of Arras, and with which Field Marshal Sir John French, commanding
the BEF, and King Albert, commanding the Belgian Army, were obliged to co-operate. The British I Corps commanded by General
Sir Douglas Haig was brought into the line at Ypres on 18th October and was to play a major part in the Battle
Opposing the allies, the German Army had a new Chief of the General Staff, General Erich von Falkenhayn.
He initiated a series of savage assaults designed to break through to the channel ports. They were, for the Germans, the opening
moves in the ‘Battle for Calais’.
LangemarkConfident of success, the Kaiser waited behind the lines. Inspired by his presence, thousands of young
German student volunteers marched into battle, seemingly without a care, down through Langemark. Here they met the 2nd
Division of Haig’s I Corps and later the French 17th Division. Although heavily outnumbered, the professional
military skills of the British and French regular soldiers were more than a match for the young, inexperienced Germans. The
engagements around Langemark and others during First Ypres have entered German history as the ‘Kindermorde von Ypern’
– the ‘Slaughter of the Innocents at Ypres’. Many of the young Germans are buried in the vast German Military
Cemetery at Langemark, which today has become a place of pilgrimage for their countrymen.
A few days later the Germans launched a series of assaults between Messines and Gheluvelt. This time
their superiority in numbers finally broke the British line along the Menin Road. At the most critical time during the early
afternoon of 31st October Haig, grappling with the crisis, was trying to reform his line further along the Menin
Road west of Hooge and discussing with Field Marshal French, who had joined him, the possibilities for a further retirement
west of Ypres itself, when something miraculous occurred. A stunned staff officer reported that the German advance had halted.
It was not until some time after that the full truth
became known. Brigadier General Fitz-Clarence, commanding the 1st (Guards) Brigade in the 1st Division,
had sent in his last reserves but failed to stop the gap. On his way to report to headquarters the hopelessness of the situation,
he met a battalion on the south-west corner of Polygon Wood waiting in support. They were the 2nd Worcesters, part
of the 2nd Division. Fitz-Clarence immediately took command and ordered them to counter-attack in a series of rushes
over a distance of about 1,000 yards and under very heavy artillery fire. They came suddenly and unexpectedly upon the advancing
Germans, dug themselves in, broke up the German advance into bunches, enfiladed it heavily and brought it to a standstill,
thus re-establishing the British line. With no reserves, Haig sent sappers, cook, clerks and anyone who could hold a rifle
to shore up the line.
Further north, King Albert had ordered the sluices on
the Yser to be opened, flooding land between Nieuport and Diksmuide and stemming the German advance along the coast.
This was a particularly severe engagement, being part of a German attack along a line from Messines to
Polygon Wood. Elite troops of the Prussian Guard attacked British positions at Nonne Bosschen adjacent to Polygon Wood. The
British field artillery and the rapid fire of the British regular soldiers again took their toll of an enemy outnumbering
them by at least 2:1. The battle hung in the balance until Haig committed his last reserves, 500 men of the 2nd
Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, who attacked the Prussian Guard with rifle and bayonet and, by dusk, the Nonne
Bosschen position had been retaken and the Germans were in full retreat.
On following days spasmodic assaults were made by the
Germans, particularly against the Klein Zillebeke positions without success. The shelling of Ypres continued until the Cloth
Hall and the great Church of St Martin were in ruins. Eventually French reinforcements came up and relieved sorely tried British
troops from the trenches they had held for four stubborn weeks. The weather had changed to high winds and snow blizzards and,
in a tempest, the First Battle of Ypres died away.
The incomparable Regular soldiers of the original BEF
had suffered 90% casualties during the fighting of 1914 and, to all intents and purposes, it was no more. The few who were
left or had been hastily brought back from foreign stations held the line through winter, together with the ‘Saturday
Afternoon Soldiers’ of the Territorial Force.
The Second Battle of YpresIn April 1915 the Salient had a perimeter of 17 miles from Steenstraat in the north to St Eloi in the
south. At its deepest it extended 8 miles east of Ypres, just beyond Broodseinde.
The British V Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General
Sir Herbert Plumer, now held most of the Ypres salient. V Corps were attached to the British II Army, commanded by General
Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien.
Anxious as ever to gain high ground around Ypres, a
successful attempt was made by V Corps to capture Hill 60, an artificially created mound 60 metres (hence its name) high south
of Hooge, formed by the spoil from the excavation of a cutting on the Ypres-Comines railway line. After a period of determined
mining and tunnelling, the 13th Infantry Brigade captured the hill on 17th April. Over the next three days this
Brigade was subjected to fierce German counter-attacks and heavy artillery bombardment and, in retaining the hill, the British
suffered over 3,000 casualties.
Further north, men of the 1st Canadian Division
had entered the line on the night of 14th/15th April to take over the north-eastern section of the Salient
from Peolcapelle to Gravenstafel with two French divisions, the 45th Algerian and the 87th Territorial
on their left.
On the afternoon of 22nd April, the Germans
released chlorine gas from cylinders brought into the line over previous days towards the French and Algerian positions. The
effect of the gas was devastating; unable to breathe the French troops abandoned the line, streaming back towards Ypres. Although
the French artillery started to bombard the advancing Germans, they too were soon overcome by the effect of the gas and, as
the guns fell silent, this left a gap of over 4 miles wide in the Allied line to the left of the Canadian Division.
The gas began to permeate the Canadian positions but,
fortunately, two Canadian medical officers, Colonel Nasmith and Captain Scrimger, who identified the gas as chlorine, were
able to instruct the troops to urinate on their handkerchiefs (or any other cloth available) and place this over their mouths
and noses. The uric acid caused the chlorine to crystallise on the cloth and thus provide sufficient protection to enable
the Canadians to engage the German infantry with rifle fire.
The German infantry were checked by the courage, discipline
and determination of the Canadian troops and were also fearful of advancing too close to the cloud. It became apparent that
this was only a testing ground for a new weapon and the Germans were not prepared to take full advantage of their success
and had orders not to advance beyond their immediate objective of securing Pilkem Ridge.
Over the following days the Canadians, reinforced with
British troops, were ordered to mount several assaults in support of French counter-attacks which either never materialised
or were late and not pressed home with any vigour. This left the Canadian and British troops exposed and they took heavy casualties
as a result.
On 24th April the Germans renewed their attacks
against the Canadian line using chlorine gas once more following a heavy bombardment as a precursor to an infantry attack.
Although Canadian and British troops fought valiantly, they were steadily pushed back.
Smith-Dorrien, critical of the lack of effective French
support, saw no point in engaging in further rounds of fruitless attacks. He proposed in a letter to GHQ to pull his troops
back to some defensible position close to Ypres and evacuate every gun and piece of equipment he could out of the Salient
before it was destroyed by German artillery. Sir John French had never liked Smith-Dorrien and used this as an excuse to replace
him by Plumer.
Eventually, on two nights between 1st and
3rd May, French ordered the BEF to withdraw to a line closer to Ypres, all as recommended by Smith-Dorrien. On
5th May Hill 60 fell to a further artillery, gas and infantry assault and would not be regained until June1917.
Although further action was seen at the Battles of Frezenberg Ridge (8th-13th May) and Bellewaarde Ridge
(8th-10th May) the Second Battle of Ypres was over. The Salient had been dramatically reduced to a bulge
of a maximum depth of no more than 3 miles and it was to stay like this for the next two years.
The Third Battle of YpresAt the end of 1916 Joffre was succeeded as the French Commander-in-Chief by General Nievelle, the hero
of Verdun. Lloyd-George also replaced Asquith as the British Prime Minister in the coalition National Government.
Nievelle won support from Lloyd-George for a French
offensive against heavily fortified German positions on the Aisne along the Chemin des Dames Ridge. The attack was scheduled
for spring 1917 and intended to break the stalemate on the Western Front and
precipitate the defeat of the German Army in France.
In support, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig (Commander-in-Chief of the BEF since December 1915) was
required to mount an offensive in the Artois region around Arras, initially to divert German attention. The Battle of Arras
opened on 9th April and brought some early success, particularly the capture of Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Corps.
Buoyed by this success the ill-fated Nievelle offensive opened on 16th April and over a period of 5 days the French
lost more than 120,000 men. This spawned a mutiny in elements of the French Army, forcing Nievelle’s dismissal. He was
replaced by General Pétain who set about rehabilitating the army. The miracle was that the Germans were unaware of this development
which in no small measure must be due to the continuing British action in Artois and then Flanders.
Haig was acutely aware of the need to support Pétain and the French Army in their time of crisis but
was now unfettered by not having to co-operate with French planning. He closed down the Battle of Arras, which had become
a typical First World War battle of attrition with little hope of outright success, and turned his mind to an attack in Flanders.
This had the support of the Admiralty, who wanted the German Navy evicted from their submarine bases on the Belgian coast.
The plan was to force a breakout north and east from the Ypres Salient, which was still in its reduced form following the
battles of 1915, enabling a return to a war of movement and permitting the cavalry to play a decisive role at last.
Before this took place it was necessary to take the Messines-Whytschaete Ridge overlooking the Salient.
This task was given to General Plumer and his Second Army who had been planning and preparing for such an assault for almost
a year. The next phase was to seize the Gheluvelt Plateau and thus secure the centre and southern part of the Salient as a
firm footing from which to break out over the Pilkem Ridge. Haig wanted a breakthrough to the Roulers-Thourout Line, well
east of the Salient, to cut the German supply lines and force a German withdrawal eastward or be cut off. This was to be co-ordinated
by an attack along the coast by Belgian and French forces supported by a British amphibious landing to clear the ports of
Zeebrugge and Ostend.
At 0310 hours on 7th June a series of 19 mines under the Messines Ridge were detonated,
the sound and concussion of the explosion were heard and felt in London. The ridge was stormed behind a creeping barrage and
British, Australian and New Zealand troops were in the German front line positions within minutes. By the end of the day all
major objectives, including Hill 60, had been taken. Beating off strong German counter-attacks on the following day, the Second
Army continued to push forward throughout the next week, securing the Ridge in what was a textbook operation.
Plumer, anxious to reap the benefit of his success, requested 3 days to prepare his artillery and reserve
corps for an immediate attack on the Gheluvelt Plateau. This was refused and Haig placed this responsibility with General
Gough’s Fifth Army, which was to occupy the northern sector and prepare the breakout. Gough, new to the Salient, delayed
and took 6 weeks to make the necessary preparations. At this time Haig was recalled to London to justify his Flanders offensive
before Lloyd-George and the War Cabinet. Haig spent 6 days with the Cabinet before they authorised that preparations for the
offensive could start and he then had to wait until 20th July before qualified support for the offensive to commence
Third Ypres ran from 31st July to 10th November comprising eight officially listed
Pilkem - 31st July – 2nd August
Langemark - 16th – 18th
Menin Road Ridge - 20th – 25th September
Polygon Wood - 26th September
– 3rd October
Broodseinde - 4th October
Poelcapelle - 9th October
Passchendaele - 12th October
2nd Passchendaele - 26th October – 10th
A period of good weather now gave way to a period of wet weather, whilst not unseasonal certainly unusually
severe. The rain began to fall as the troops left their trenches just before dawn on 31st July following the most
intensive barrage yet seen in the war. The immediate attack at Pilkem on 31st July was successful, gaining an advance
of 2 miles along a 15-mile front. However, with the ground rapidly turning into a quagmire in the rain, the attack rapidly ground to a halt and was abandoned by Gough on 2nd August.
Fifth Army made further attacks in August at Langemark and along the Menin Road but each time any advance
was greatly hampered by wet weather and poor ground conditions. During a month of fighting in atrocious conditions, the intolerant
General Gough became increasingly unpopular with his forces. This, coupled with Fifth Army’s lack of progress, caused
Haig to transfer overall command of the Ypres offensive to Plumer on 25th August. Second Army would be responsible
for securing Passchendaele Ridge and any thoughts of breakout were now dismissed, as was the planned amphibious landing on
A month of good weather would now be wasted as Plumer made his preparations. The ground having dried
out, the weather held for the successful attack on the Menin Road from 20th – 25th September,
following which Haig authorised further attacks at Polygon Wood and Broodseinde. These attacks were made by the Anzacs, supported
by British divisions. Although these attacks were gaining ground, the Germans were exacting an increasingly heavy toll on
British forces. New tactics had been introduced which allowed lightly held front lines to give, drawing British and Anzac
infantry on to prepared pillboxes and strongpoints where they could be raked by machinegun fire, pounded by artillery and
repulsed by counter-attack.
This became more effective when the rains returned on the day of the Broodseinde attack and, on 9th
October, the attack at Poelcapelle was soundly beaten off by the Germans. Both Plumer and Gough counselled Haig to call off
the offensive but he was determined to capture Passchendaele and secure British positions on the ridges above Ypres for the
Unable to pull heavy guns across the mud, the II Anzac attempt to gain Passchendaele petered out on
Bellevue Spur as they met a hail of fire and died in their hundreds on the German wire. Determined to take Passchendaele,
Haig summoned the Canadian Corps, led by Lt General Arthur Currie, from First Army away to the south. Currie reviewed the
situation and recommended to Plumer that the attack should be cancelled.
Whilst respecting the views of two of his senior officers, Haig visited the Canadian Corps and addressed
“Gentlemen, it has become apparent that Passchendaele must be taken and I have come to ask the
Canadian Corps to do it. General Currie is strongly opposed to doing so, but I have succeeded in overcoming his scruples.
Some day I hope to be able to tell you why this must be done, but, in the meantime, I ask you to take my word for it. I may
say that General Currie has demanded an unprecedented amount of artillery to protect his Canadians and I have been forced
Normally thought to be inarticulate, Haig’s speech was masterly and the Canadians could not refuse
being ‘asked’ to take Passchendaele. Currie surveyed the ground himself and proposed a three-phase attack, which
commenced at 0540 hours on 26th October after a four-day barrage. Although ground conditions remained poor, Canadian
perseverance paid off and the first phase was largely completed on the night of 27th by the taking of Decline Copse,
south of the village of Passchendaele, at the point of the bayonet.
The rain now died out and on 30th October the second phase to take Bellevue Spur and Crest
Farm was completed against determined German resistance and resultant heavy casualties. Requiring time to bring guns forward
and re-register, the final phase commenced on 6th November with the taking of Passchendaele village itself. The
following days saw the Canadians consolidate their positions, beat off a German counter-attack on 10th and, on
that day, the Third Battle of Ypres officially ended.
|Soldiers wading through mud
The Fourth Battle of YpresFollowing the October 1917 Revolution,
the Russians sued for a separate peace with Germany, allowing the latter to release troops from the Eastern Front to bolster
the Western Front. General Luddendorf in effective control of the army realised that he would hold a temporary superiority
in numbers over the Allies on the Western Front until the Americans arrived in force.
Kaiserschlacht, the ‘Kaiser’s Battle’ opened with Operation Michael on 21st
March 1918. Following a hurricane bombardment, the assault by German stormtroopers punched a great hole through poorly prepared
positions held by General Gough’s Fifth Army.
The British were forced back across the old Somme Battlefield and the debacle resulted in the dismissal of Gough, and forced
Field Marshal Haig to place himself and his armies, with the other allies, under the overall command of General Foch, as Commander-in-Chief
of the Allied Armies on the Western Front.
Having overextended his supply lines and meeting stronger allied resistance east of Amiens, Luddendorf
called a halt to Operation Michael on 5th April. Switching his artillery to the Lys front, south of Ypres, he opened
Operation Georgette on 9th April. This second German attack was made against Horne’s First Army and Plumer’s
Second Army west along the River Lys, on a 12 mile front between La Bassée canal and Ypres and is often referred to as the
Fourth Battle of Ypres.
Over the next few days sustained German attacks pushed the British line back, taking Neuve Chapelle,
the Messines-Whytschaete Ridge, (including Hill 60) and Ploegsteert Village. The situation seemingly critical, Haig issued
his famous order on 11th April:
“There is no other course open to us but to fight it out! Every position
must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our
cause, each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend on the conduct
of each one of us at this critical moment.”
The danger would be that the British army would break, be cut off from the channel ports and destroyed,
leaving the French army to the mercy of the Germans. Foch eventually realised he needed to shore up the British Line and provided
French reserves. Plumer was given permission to pull back from Passchendaele Ridge, which had been won, at such cost just
a few months before. There was severe fighting around Langemark and the Germans took Mount Kemmel in the south. As the fighting
continued through April, the Germans again became overextended and, from the salient they had pushed into British Lines, were
fired upon from three sides. Finally the German attack ground to a halt and was called off on 29th April. The BEF
had made a noble and decisive stand and Ypres and the channel ports were saved once again.
As summer progressed further German attacks east of Noyen, principally against the French, ground fruitlessly
to a halt. From the Battle of Amiens in August the Allies, now including General Pershing’s American Army, turned the
tide forcing the Germans eastward back across the Hindenberg Line. The Northern Group of Armies, now under the control of
King Albert of the Belgians and including Plumer’s Second Army, launched an attack in the Salient on 28th
September, taking the whole of the Gheluvelt Ridge and sweeping on up the Lys Valley towards Roulers, one of the unattained
objectives of Third Ypres.
The German Army was now in retreat and the next five weeks saw the Allied Armies taking all before
them both forcing the resignation of Luddendorf and, coupled to the political situation in Germany, the abdication of the
Kaiser. The Armistice was signed in a railway carriage at Compiègne and hostilities ceased at 11am on 11th November
The Great War
The Battle of the Somme
The Battle of Cambrai
News & Links