The Battle of Ypres

As the Germans swung into Belgium and began their push to the Channel ports and on into France and ultimate victory, the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) were in many ways left in an unenviable position. Ypres was the last major town in Flanders still in Entente power hands. The Ypres salient jutted into German held territory so it could be fired in from three sides. Not a healthy place to be posted. The Germans had planned the obliteration of the town as the artillery were on the higher ground around the town and had the major land marks ranged accurately.

The first battle of Ypres in late 1914, occurred because of the outflanking encounter, and was the precursor to an epic fight to keep the town in Allies hands and resulted in stalemate and trench warfare. Many local names became synonymous with the Great War as a result of the actions that took place on the front to the east of the town. Langemarck, Hell Fire Corner, Gheluvelt, all became famous for one reason or another as the probing German attacks were repulsed one after another.

1915 saw the Second Battle of Ypres, which began with surprise German attack using poison gas against French North African forces holding defences near the village of Boezinghe. Both sides rushed reserves in and the battle developed into the second epic in that area. This took place either side of the Yser canal, the terrain was flat and conducive to the gas attack which elevated the level of warfare to a new low. Stalemate prevailed for the next eighteen months.

Essex Farm Cemetery by the banks of the Yser, was adjacent to the Casualty Clearing Station where John Macrae wrote the famous poem In Flanders Fields.

Essex Farm Cemetery is the last resting place of Valentine Strudwick, the youngest soldier to lose his life on the Western Front, he was 15 years old.

Passchendaele or the third battle of Ypres was a real chance to give the Germans a real bashing. The British saw this as a chance to break out of the salient and away from the trenches. Early signs were good as the offensive developed, but the weather took a major part in the outcome, summer rain started to bog down the offensive and logistics became a nightmare. By August the offensive was clearly failing in its objectives and had descended into attritional fighting. New techniques by both sides led to agonisingly slow forward movement for the British, at enormous cost in casualties. Bad weather in October led to the battlefield becoming an impossible quagmire.

Tyne Cot Cemetery created after the Battle of Passchendaele – Photos by John Westwood

Researcher and Author: John Westwood