The first battle of Ypres was the last of a series of battles that broke out between the British and the Germans during the Race to the Sea. Fighting began further south, at La Bassée, Armentières and Messines, as successive Allied attempts to outflank the Germans ran into German troops attempting the same thing.
The BEF had taken part in the great retreat from Belgium to the Marne. In the aftermath of that battle it was decided to move the BEF north to Flanders, where it would have easy access to the channel ports. Travelling by train, II corps reached Abbeville on 8-9 October, III corps reached St. Omer on 10 October, with I corps following behind. On 11 October IV corps (7th Division and 3rd Cavalry Division) was in the vicinity of Bruges and Ghent, moving west in the aftermath of an attempt to relieve the siege of Antwerp. Meanwhile larger German forces were advancing towards Ypres from the south and from the east. At the start of the battle elements of the Fourth and Sixth Armies would be involved in the German attacks on Ypres.
During the week before the battle began the main focus of attention was further south, where II corps and III corps were fighting at La Bassée and Armentières. On 14 October the last gap in the Allied line closed, when the 3rd Cavalry Division met the Cavalry Corps south of Ypres. On the same day 7th Division reached Ypres, and moved east of the city ready to take part in a planned offensive. On 19 October they were located on the Menin Road, in preparation for a planned offensive.
The first battle of Ypres was a great Anglo-French battle. When the battle began, the BEF held the line from La Bassée to Langemarck, and by 22 October had taken over the last section of the salient, west of Langemarck. However, by 24 October the entire northern half of the Ypres salient was in French hands after the French IX Corps replaced the British 1st and 2nd Divisions. The BEF then held the line down to La Bassée. The situation changed again as a result of the German attacks at the end of October, which threatened to break through the British lines south east of Ypres (battle of Gheluvelt). As the Germans pressed forward the line lengthened, and the French XVI corps arrived to fill the gap.
This remained the situation until the end of the battle. The BEF held the line from Le Bassée to the river Douve. The French then held the southern flank of the Ypres salient. The BEF then took over again, holding the line to the east of Ypres. The French then took over again, defending the northern half of the salient. North of the salient the French held the line to Dixmunde, where the Belgians took over.
The first battle of Ypres officially begins on 19 October. On this day the British IV corps was preparing to attack towards Menin, although its commanders were aware of the German build-up in front of them. It would be the Germans who took the initiative on 19 October, with a general offensive that began on the Yser and spread south along the line. Aerial reconnaissance gave General Rawlinson advance warning of the upcoming attack. At 11.45 am he issued orders cancelling the attack on Menin. These orders reached the forward troops at 1.05pm, just as they were coming under attack from the flanks. The main German attack on 19 October came to the north of the British position, and forced the French cavalry corps under de Mitry to pull back. The British 7th division and 3rd cavalry division were also forced to pull back toward Ypres.
Despite the evidence from the front, Sir John French remained convinced that the main German efforts would be made against the Belgians on the Yser and south of Ypres at La Bassée. He decided to go onto the attack, and ordered I corps to move into position north east of Ypres ready for the attack. The main effort of IV corps on 20 October went into maintaining its position in preparation for the upcoming attack.
The next phase of the fighting at Ypres is known as the battle of Langemarck (21-24 October). Langemarck is a village to the north east of Ypres, which on 20 October was held by a French territorial unit. The British IV corps was located to the south, with the I corps about to come into the line. Sir John French, believing only one German corps was present at Ypres, ordered the I corps to launch an attack on 21 October. At first this attack made some progress, but the British soon ran into much stronger German forces than expected. At 3.00pm Haig was forced to order a halt to the attack.
The Germans launched a major attack on the British line on 22 October. West of Langemarck the centre of the line of the 1st division was forced back late in the day, but Haig was able to scrape together enough reinforcements to close the gap. On the next day the French IX Corps attempted to launch a counterattack. Although the counterattack failed, the French took over the northern part of the Ypres salient, replacing I corps. This allowed the British to reinforce the line held by IV corps.
On 25-26 October the focus of the German attacks came further south, against 7th Division on the Menin Road. On 26 October part of the line crumbled under the impact of yet another German attack, but once again enough reserves were found to block the gap and give the retreating units time to withdraw.
The Germans now tried a new approach. A new formation, Army Group Fabeck, was formed with the sole purpose of breaking the British lines. General Fabeck was given five regular and one volunteer division to make the attack. His plan was attack the British line between Ploegsteert Wood and Gheluvelt (thus the official name of the battle – Gheluvelt, 29-31 October).
After preliminary attacks on 29 October, which captured a key crossroads close to Gheluvelt, the main attack began on 30 October. The hard pressed British line fell back, but did not break. The crisis came on 31 October. A German attack broke through the line, and reached Gheluvelt. The entire British line was close to collapse, and orders were drafted for a retreat to the reserve line, on the outskirts of Ypres.
The situation was restored by a counterattack made by 364 men of the 2nd Worcesters. This tiny force fought its way back to Gheluvelt Chateau, east of the village, where a small number of British troops still held out. The attack had been ordered by Brigadier-General FitzClarence, commander of the 1st (Guards) Brigade, who would be killed attempting to organise a counterattack during the last major German attack of the battle, at Nonne Bosschen on 11 November.
Despite being outnumbered by five to one by the time they reached the Chateau, the attack of the Worcesters successfully cleared the Germans from the area – the German troops had been from one of the reserve divisions, and were not ready to stand up to a bayonet charge. The real danger of a collapse was gone.
Fabeck’s offensive continued into early November. The British (and now French) line was pushed back, and the Germans captured the Messines Ridge, but the line held without any more major scares.
The last major attack on the British lines came on 11 November (battle of Nonne Bosschen). This became famous as the attack of the Prussian Guards, mostly because they were the only unit to break into the British lines. Eventually the 1st Guards Brigade was forced to take shelter in the woods of Nonne Bosschen (Nun’s copse), before being driven out by a counterattack.
There is no overall agreement about the end date of the battle. The French put the end of the battle as 13 November, the British as 22 November and the Germans as 30 November, although the German official history of the battle stops ten days earlier. Fighting continued on the Ypres front after the attack of 11 November, but not at the same level of intensity. The BEF and the French had held the line around Ypres.
British casualties in the fighting between 14 October and 30 November were 58,155 (7,960 dead, 29,562 wounded and 17,873 missing). It is often said that the pre-war professional army died at the first battle of Ypres. The army had arrived in France with 84,000 infantry. By the end of the battle of Ypres, the BEF had suffered 86,237 casualties, most to that infantry. The French suffered around 50,000 casualties during the battle.
The fighting at Ypres played a major role in forming a bond between the British and French armies. The two armies had fought side by side around Ypres in a way they had not in the earlier battles of the war.
German casualties are more difficult to assess. The German official history of the war divides the fighting around Ypres and the Yser into a different set of three battles (Lille, 15-28 October, The Yser, 18 October-30 November and Ypres, 30 October-24 November), covering different sections of the front. The total German casualties during all three battles were calculated as 134,315 (19,530 dead, 83520 wounded and 31265 missing). This figure includes 75,000 casualties suffered in what the Germans called the battle of the Yser, which covered the fighting from Gheluvelt to the sea. Many of the German casualties at Ypres were suffered by the volunteer corps raised at the outbreak of the war. Amongst these volunteers were a large number of university students, exempt from the draft during their period of study. 25,000 of these student volunteers were killed at Ypres, their enthusiasm unable to make up for their lack of experience. The battle would later be known as the “Kindermord bei Ypern”, the “massacre of the innocents at Ypres”.