Battles of the Ypres Salient

A view of Ypres from the higher ground at Hill 62, Zillebeke, south-east of the town.

The Great War Arrives at Ypres

German troops and supply columns on the march through Belgium, 1914. GWPDA
German troops on the march through Belgium, 1914.

According to local accounts, the first contact for the people of Ypres with the First World War was the arrival of thousands of German troops on 7th October 1914. They began to enter the town from the south-east along the road from Menin through the Menin Gate (Menenpoort) and from the south through the Lille Gate (Rijselpoort). Scouting parties advanced north and west beyond Ypres in the directions of Boesinghe, Vlamertinghe and Elverdinghe. By 9pm the town, its streets and market square were packed full of horses and riders, soldiers, carts, carriages, cars, field kitchens and guns. The local accounts reckon on about 10,000 troops. Soldiers were billeted for the night in the halls of the Cloth Hall, in schools, the army barracks, the waiting rooms at the railway station and in houses with the local people. The mayor, Mr Colaert, advised the people of Ypres to stay calm and remain in their homes.

German troops in Belgium buying fruit in Belgium, autumn 1914. GWPDA
German troops in Belgium buying fruit in Belgium, autumn 1914.

The shops were crammed full of German soldiers. By way of payment some offered German coins, some had paper notes. Others gave pre-printed coupons to the shopkeepers or locals for food and clothes. There were stories of damage to the railway station, stealing from local peoples' homes and drinking. The bakers were ordered to have 8,000 bread rolls baked and ready for 8.30am the next morning, 8th October, to distribute to the troops. Hay, straw and oats were requisitioned and the town's coffers were emptied of 62,000 Francs. Horses and wagons were requisitioned and paid for with coupons. Anyone in receipt of a coupon as payment was, however, unlikely ever to receive payment from the German Army because the next day, 8th October, the Germans started to move out of the town from about midday. The soldiers on foot went in the direction of Dickebusch. The cavalry went in the direction of Vlamertinghe. They were never to return.

The French and British Armies Enter Ypres

A few days later on 13th October troops of the French and British Armies arrived in Ypres, passing through the town to the east and taking up defensive positions to hold up the advance of the German Army. From that time the town was to become embroiled in war for the next four years. Almost every building would be razed to the ground by November 1918.

The first major battles to take place in the area of Ypres took place from October 1914. However, during the fierce fighting in the autumn of 1914 the German Army was unable to capture Ypres. The French and British forces had denied the German commanders a route across Belgium to the French coastal ports of Calais and Dunkirk.

Creation of the Ypres Salient

The German and Allied Armies first encountered one another at Ypres in mid October 1914. Battles took place for Messines in the south, Gheluvelt to the east, Zonnebeke and Langemarck to the north-east of the town.
First encounter between the Allies and the German Army east of Ypres, October 1914.

From January 1915 a stalemate situation existed between the Allied and the German armies. The Allies sat firm in a defensive semi-circular Front Line running from the northeast, east and southeast of Ypres. The occupation of this ground east of Ypres pushed a bulge, called a “salient” in military terms, into the German Front Line here. To the advantage of the Allies it forced the Germans to provide extra manpower to hold a longer section of Front Line. However, a serious Allied disadvantage here was that the Germans had knowingly secured relatively good positions along the edges of this salient. From the south of Ypres there is a naturally occuring spur of high ground which continues around the eastern side of the town of Ypres. It runs generally in a north-easterly direction creating a ridge of slightly higher ground from Messines in the south to Passchendaele in the north (indicated in brown on the map).

The Allied determination to protect Ypres at all costs left them in a difficult defensive position. The Allied forces found themselves defending a saucer-shaped salient of some 24 square kilometres. The town of Ypres was to the rear of their defensive Front Line in the centre of the saucer. The German Army, however, was digging into selected good defensive positions on the slightly higher ground around the rim of the saucer. The battlegrounds here became known as the “Ypres Salient” for this reason.

The advantages of the rise in ground on the naturally occuring spur becomes clear when visiting these battlefields. It is not only the crucial advantage of the view across the enemy's positions and rear areas. But also the daily life of the soldier is greatly affected by the better drainage of the positions located on higher ground. The area of Belgian Flanders around Ypres is generally low-lying, it consists of heavy, waterlogged, clay-based soil, has a damp coastal climate and is prone to flooding.

Ypres Salient Battles 1914

Ypres Salient Battles 1915

Ypres Salient Battles 1916

Ypres Salient Battles 1917

Ypres Salient Battles 1918

Further Reading

Book - A Storm in Flanders

A Storm in Flanders: Triumph and Tragedy on the Western Front (paperback)

by Winston Groom

Focusing mainly on the British experience in the Ypres Salient between 1914-1918, this book gives an accessible account of the story of the Ypres Salient from the generals commanding in their chateaus to the soldiers in the trenches. A gripping read.

Book - First Ypres 1914

First Ypres 1914 (paperback)

By David Lomas

This volume covers the first of the trench warfare battles of World War I. In the autumn of 1914 the original British Expeditionary Force made its last stand, aided by French troops, against the advancing German army racing towards the French ports. (Osprey Military Campaign Series)

Book - Ypres First Battle 1914

Ypres: The First Battle 1914 (paperback)

by Ian F.W. Beckett

The battle for Ypres in October and November 1914 represented the last opportunity for open, mobile warfare on the Western Front. In the first study of First Ypres for almost 40 years, Ian Beckett draws on a wide range of sources never previously used to reappraise the conduct of the battle, its significance and its legacy.

Book - The German Army at Ypres 1914

The German Army at Ypres 1914 (hardcover)

by Jack Sheldon

The first complete account of the German Army's battles in the sector of Belgian Flanders in 1914. Jack Sheldon uses material from German military archives in Munich and Stuttgart to provide the perspective of events from the German side.

Book - Gas! The Battle for Ypres 1915

Gas! Battle for Ypres, 1915 (hardcover)

by J L McWilliams & R James Steel

Excellent account of the British reaction to the first gas cloud attack by the German Army on the Western Front on 22nd April 1915. The ensuing battle to recover the lost ground north of Ypres, which became known to the British as the Second Battle of Ypres.

Book - Hill 60

Hill 60: Ypres (Battleground Europe) (paperback)

by Nigel Cave

One of the highly acclaimed guidebooks in the Battleground Europe series, giving an account of the story of the Battle of Hill 60 in April 1915. Includes maps, photographs and information on what to see on the battlefield today.

Book - Hell in Flanders

Hell in Flanders Fields: Canadians at the Second Battle of Ypres (hardcover)

by George H Cassar

Deeply researched history with maps and personal accounts of the experience of the Canadian 1st Division in the Second Battle of Ypres.

Book - Magnificent But Not War

Magnificent But Not War: The Second Battle of Ypres (paperback)

by John Dixon

A detailed, day by day account of the battle, using personal accounts, regimental histories and war diaries. Illustrated with maps and photographs. Includes the British Order of Battle for the Battle for Hill 60 and for Second Ypres, Officer casualties and a list of Victoria Cross winners.

Book - Pillars of Fire

Pillars of Fire: The Battle of Messines Ridge, June 1917 (paperback)

by Ian Passingham

A detailed account of the successful British Battle of Messines in June 1917 told from the British, ANZAC and German perspectives. Includes illustrations and maps. Revised and reprinted in 2012.

Book - Messines Ridge

Messines Ridge: Ypres (Battleground Europe Series) (paperback)

by Peter Oldham

An account of the Battle of Messines in June 1917 in the highly acclaimed Battleground Europe series of guidebooks. Illustration, maps, and information on what you can see on the battlefield today.

Book - They Called it Passchendaele

They Called it Passchendaele: The Story of the Battle of Ypres and of the Men Who Fought in it (paperback)

by Lyn MacDonald

Originally published in the 1990s this highly acclaimed account of the Third Battle of Ypres (Battle of Passchendaele) tells the story from the perspective of the men who fought it.

Book - Ypres 1917

Ypres 1917 (hardback)

by Norman Gladden

A fascinating personal account by Norman Gladden who served with the Northumberland Fusiliers during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917.

Book - The German Army at Passchendaele

The German Army at Passchendaele (hardcover)

by Jack Sheldon

An account of the German Army's experience of its defence against the British offensive of the Third Battle of Ypres in the summer and autumn of 1917. Using German archive material Jack Sheldon provides the perspective of events from the German side.

Book - Battle for Flanders 1918

The Battle for Flanders: German Defeat on the Lys 1918 (hardback)

by Chris Baker

This book tells of the defence by the Allied Armies in April 1918, against the might of the German Army in its final large-scale attack as part of its Spring Offensive. The Allies had their backs to the wall, and the Germans almost succeeded in breaking through the Allied line in the sector of the Western Front north of Lille and south of Ypres. The German attack encountered difficulties of supply and organization, leading to problems with low morale and an unsuccessful offensive.

Related Topics

Detail of the soldier's statue with “reversed arms” at Vancouver Corner near St. Julien, area of the Canadian defence against German gas attacks during the Second Battle of Ypres in April and May 1915.
The soldier's statue at Vancouver Corner near St. Julien.
Cemeteries in the Ypres Salient Battlefields Monuments in the Ypres Salient Battlefields Museums in the Ypres Salient Battle Remains in the Ypres Salient

Acknowledgements

(1) Despatch by Field-Marshal Sir John French, published in the Second Supplement of The London Gazette issue 28989 of Friday 27th November, 1914, the Supplement being dated 30th November, 1914, pages 10121-10132.

GWPDA Photographs with grateful thanks to the Great War Primary Document Archive: Photos of the Great War.

Hanslian sketch Sketch by Dr R Hanslian in Königlich Preussisches Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment 213, by Max Tiessen, J J Augustin, Hamburg-New York, 1937, p. 186.