Battles of the Ypres Salient
The Great War Arrives at Ypres
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.
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 Salient
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 occupied by the German Army.
- Battle of Messines, 1914
- Germans driven out of Ypres and the surrounding area by Allied forces.
- First Battle of Ypres, 1914
The line (blue dashed line) held by the British Army east of Ypres at the start of the First Battle of Ypres on 19th October 1914.
This battle occurred in the late autumn at a crucial point in the “Race to the Sea”, when the Allied Armies and the German Armies were engaged in an attempt to outflank one another in a desire to reach and secure the ports on the northern French coast. With the agreement of the French Commander-in-Chief (General Joffre), the British Commander-in-Chief (Field-Marshal Sir John French) withdrew British forces of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) from their positions on the Aisne battlefield. They moved to Artois and Flanders to extend the left flank of the French Army and hold back the German advance towards the coast.
At the same time the British 3rd Cavalry Division and 7th Division were covering the withrawal of the Belgian Army from Antwerp. These two divisions were then moved to the east of Ypres on a line between Langemarck - Poelcapelle - Zonnebeke - Gheluvelt - Zandvoorde.
In September 1914 four new German Army Corps had been formed (approximately 48,000 men in total). Over two thirds of the men were young, inexperienced volunteers between 17 and 19 years of age (known as Kriegsfreiwillige). As a result of the young age of so many of the soldiers, the Corps became known as the “Kinderkorps”. The word “Kinder” translates as “children” in English.
These four Corps were incorporated into the newly established German Fourth Army. By 19th October, with only a few weeks of training, they were on the march towards Ypres from the north east. From 20th October they encountered the experienced, well-trained soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) who were holding a series of positions making up the forward British Line north-east and east of Ypres.
The Front Line (red dashed line) stabilized east of Ypres at the end of the 1st Battle of Ypres by 22nd November 1914.
The First Battle of Ypres comprised three phases:
- The Battle of Langemarck
The four new German Corps of the German Fourth Army made an advance on the British Line north east of Ypres. German casualties were very heavy especially in the vicinity of Becelaere and Langemarck. The courageous but inexperienced young Germans in the “Kinderkorps” were cut down in their hundreds. Some regiments lost 70% of their strength in casualties. The British battalions fought to hold their ground but also lost casualties in dead, wounded and prisoners.
This battle has a special significance for the German people for this reason. Many soldiers who fell during this battle are now buried in the German military cemetery of Langemarck (nowadays it is spelt Langemark).Langemark German cemetery
- Battle of Gheluvelt
On 29th October the German Army attacked the British Line on the Menin Road at Kruisecke Crossroads, east of Gheluvelt. The German aim was to break through the British front and take Ypres.
- Critical day: The British line is broken but restored.
A very serious situation for the British developed with the German occupation of Gheluvelt but a successful counter-attack involving the 2nd Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment recaptured the village and restored the break in the British Front Line. Sir John French wrote of this momentous action: “I regard it as the most critical moment in the whole of this great battle.” (1)
- Messines village captured by the Germans.
- Battle of Nonnebosschen
- The Battle of Langemarck
- Battle for Hill 60, 1915
Location of the battle for the high ground of Hill 60 at Zillebeke, south-east of Ypres in April 1915.
Hill 60 was the scene of bitter fighting in April 1915. Hill 60 was a man-made hill at 60 metres above sea level in the area of Zillebeke, south east of Ypres.
The high ground of the hill was held by German troops from 10th December 1914, after they had captured this area from the French Army. German domination of this high ground enabled them to make life very difficult for the Allied troops in this part of the Ypres Salient. When the British 28th Division took over this sector from the French Army in February 1915 it was decided to retake the position because of this. A new concept of offensive mining for the British Army was carried out for the attack.
On 17th April 1915, five mines were exploded under the German position; four mines went up in two pairs and the fifth mine as a single mine. The top of the hill was literally blown off. The British took the hill and over the following four days fought off fierce german counter-attacks. On 22nd April the battle subsided with the British in control of the hill.
A study of the build-up to the Second Battle of Ypres (see below), which began on that same day, 22nd April, reveals why the German Army was so determined not to lose any ground in the area of Hill 60.Hill 60 Memorial Site
- Second Battle of Ypres, 1915
The Front Line (blue dashed line) is pushed closer to Ypres when the Second Battle of Ypres ends on 24th May 1915.
The Second Battle of Ypres began in the northern sector of the Ypres Salient. It started on 22nd April 1915 when the German Fourth Army carried out a surprise attack against two French divisions holding the Allied Front Line. On that day the warm, sunny spring afternoon was suddenly shattered at 5pm with a devastating and frightening new development in modern warfare: a cloud of poisonous gas.
Sketch by Dr. Hanslian of the gas bottles installed in the German Front Line trench in March and April 1915. Hanslian sketch
A unique feature of this website is a detailed study of the build-up to the Second Battle of Ypres and the events of the first day of 22nd April.
The story of the gas attack is told from both the Allied and the German sides of the wire. With the aid of maps and previously untranslated material this study offers a fascinating and original perspective on the start of this battle.Build-up to the Second Battle of Ypres, 1915
The Second Battle of Ypres comprised four phases:
- The Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge
- The Battle of St. Julien
- The Battle of Frezenberg Ridge
- The Battle of Bellewaerde Ridge
- The Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge
- Battle of Messines, 1917
The new Front Line (green dashed line) at the end of the Battle of Messines on 14th June 1917. The German Army had successfully been pushed off the Messines Ridge.
The Battle of Messines was an offensive by the British Second Army against the German Front Line on the high ground of the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge. The ridge lay in a north to south direction a few miles south of the town of Ypres. Two of the villages on the ridge were Wytschaete (called “Whitesheet” by the British troops) and Messines (now known by its Flemish name of Mesen). General Herbert Plumer was commander of the British Second Army. The German Army called this position the Wytschaete-Bogen, which translates as the Wytschaete Bow or Curve.
Planned from 1916, the Battle of Messines was to be a prelude to the Third Battle of Ypres, which had the high ground of the Passchendaele Ridge to the north-east of Ypres as its objective. The objective of the Messines June offensive was to remove the German Army from its domination of the positions on the high ground of the ridge south of Ypres, which they had held since October 1914. A successful operation at the Wytschaete-Messines ridge would break through the German Front and straighten the British Front Line, thereby reducing the manpower needed to man it, and place the Allies in an improved position south-east of Ypres. They would then be in a better position to protect the right flank of the large-scale British attack planned for the end of July to the east and north-east of Ypres.
Australian troops studying a large relief model of Messines Ridge before the battle. Thorough preparation and planning were a key feature in the success of the operation on 7th June. GWPDA
From the early spring of 1916 mining operations were carried out to dig the tunnels and lay the explosive for a total of 21 mines. The troops involved in the mining were military tunneling companies and engineers from the Australian, British, Canadian and New Zealand forces.
In the early hours of the launch of the attack, 7th June, 19 of the 21 mines were blown at 3.10am. The German defenders on duty in the Front Line were shocked and hurled into the air, along with concrete bunkers, equipment and tons of earth. 19 enormous craters were left after the debris had crashed back down again. A dull rumble from the explosions was said to have been heard in London.
British, Irish, Australian and New Zealand infantry carried out the assault on what was left of the German line and over 7,000 German prisoners were taken. Artillery and tanks moved up, German counter-attacks were held off and by the end of the first day the British objectives had been reached.
The largest of the mines, packed with 41 tons of ammanol explosive, was located over 80 feet below ground under the German position at Spanbroekmolen. This was the location of a windmill by that name. The crater has filled with water and has been preserved as a memorial site:Spanbroekmolen Mine Crater Memorial: the “Pool of Peace”
In the centre section of the attack on 7th June the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish Division advanced side by side. A memorial to the men of these Irish divisions and all men of Ireland who fought in the First World War is located at Messines (Mesen):Island of Ireland Peace Park
- Third Battle of Ypres, 1917
The Front Line (purple dashed line) extends to Passchendaele, several miles north east of Ypres, by the end of 10th November 1917 after the Allied offensive of the Third Battle of Ypres.
From early in 1916 it was the intention of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.), Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, to break out of the Ypres Salient. Having successfully secured the high ground of the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge in the Battle of Messines (7th-14th June) the plan for the next operation was to advance against the German Front Line east and north-east of Ypres. On reaching the strategically important high ground of the Passchendaele Ridge to the north-east of Ypres, the British intention was to continue to push westwards, cutting off access for the German forces to the Belgian ports of Ostende and Zeebrugge. German forces were in control of these ports and using Zeebrugge in particular for shipping and submarines (U-Boats).
A British offensive in Flanders before the autumn weather closed in would also draw the focus of German Army commanders away from the Aisne battlefield. The large-scale offensive on the Chemin des Dames Ridge in April of 1917, planned by the French Commander-in-Chief, General Robert Nivelle, was a failure. Very high casualties for the French Army resulted in a struggle to maintain discipline in some of its units and soldiers mutinied.
German prisoners being marched through Ypres during the Battle of the Menin Road in September 1917. The damaged building on the right is St. Martin's cathedral. The gateway on the left is the cloistral gate to the St. Martin's convent.GWPDA
In Flanders, the Third Battle of Ypres was launched on 31st July. The British Fifth Army commanded by General Hubert Gough advanced in a north-easterly direction away from its positions near Ypres with the Passchendaele Ridge in its sights. The French First Army was on its left. The British Second Army, under General Herbert Plumer, was on its right, holding the ground won during the Battle of Messines a few weeks earlier. Some ground, approximately two miles, was gained on the first day, but that night rain began to fall. The ground all around the British attackers quickly turned into a quagmire. Churned up by the artillery bombardment of the German Front Line and rear areas, the ground the British were now having to advance across was badly damaged and filling up with of rainwater which could not drain away through the heavy clay soil. Added to this, several small streams flowed through the area and their natural drainage channels had been destroyed. Due to persistent rain over the next few weeks the whole operation became literally bogged down in thick, sticky Flanders mud. Conditions were so bad that men and horses simply disappeared into the water-filled craters.
The German defensive line had been fortified during the previous months in their expectation of an attack here. The British advance turned into a battle of 8 phases, inching closer to the Passchendaele Ridge in a series of actions with limited objectives. The capture of the Passchendaele Ridge eventually took over 8 weeks to achieve.
British supply horse stuck in Flanders mud.GWPDA
The cost to both sides in human casualties was immense at between 200,000 and 400,000, although exact figures for British and German casualties continue to be a matter of discussion for military historians. The great tragedy for the British Army and the Imperial Forces of Australia, New Zealand and Canada, who suffered so many losses in the fight for the few miles from Ypres to the Passchendaele Ridge, is that only five months later almost all of the ground gained in the mud and horror of the battles for Passchendaele was recaptured by the German Army during its April offensive in 1918.
The Third Battle of Ypres comprised 8 phases. Formally called the Third Battle of Ypres, the battle which began on 31st July often takes the name it is more commonly known by, the Battle of Passchendaele, from the First and Second Battles of Passchendaele, which were in fact the last two phases of Third Ypres.
- Battle of Pilckem Ridge
- Battle of Langemarck, 1917
- Battle of the Menin Road Ridge
- Battle of Polygon Wood
- Battle of Broodseinde
- Battle of Poelcapelle
- First Battle of Passchendaele
- Second Battle of Passchendaele
Many thousands of the casualties on both the Allied and German sides were killed in the fighting during the Third Battle of Ypres. Thousands were listed as missing in action and whose remains, if found, have never been identified.
Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, Ypres
The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing commemorates United Kingdom and New Zealand servicemen who fell in action before midnight on 15th August 1917 and who have no known grave. The names of all Australian, Canadian, South African and Indian soldiers missing in action in Belgium are recorded on the Menin Gate Memorial.Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing
Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing, Zonnebeke
Memorial wall at Tyne Cot Cemetery, on the Passchendaele Ridge, bearing the names of 34,925 United Kingdom and New Zealand soldiers missing in action.
United Kingdom casualties and nearly 1,200 New Zealand casualties missing in action and presumed killed on and after 16th August 1917 are commemorated on the memorial wall at Tyne Cot military cemetery.Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing
Buttes New British Cemetery (New Zealand) Memorial
378 officers and men of the New Zealand Division are commemorated on the Buttes New British Cemetery (New Zealand) Memorial.Buttes New British Cemetery (New Zealand) Memorial
Tyne Cot Cemetery, Zonnebeke
11,956 graves of Commonwealth servicemen are located in Tyne Cot Cemetery. It is the largest British and Commonwealth cemetery in the world. Of these graves 3,588 are identified. The remains of the other 8,368 servicemen buried in the cemetery are known only to be Commonwealth forces and are identified on the headstone as such, with or without an identified rank and or military unit.Tyne Cot Cemetery
Langemark German Military Cemetery
Over 44,000 German soldiers are buried in this cemetery, many of whom died during the Third Battle of Ypres.Langemark German Military Cemetery
Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917
Located in the chateau at Zonnebeke village, the museum tells the story of the First World War in the Ypres Salient with special emphasis on the Battle of Passchendaele 1917.Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917
- Battle of Pilckem Ridge
- Fourth Battle of Ypres (Battles of the Lys)
The Front Line (orange line) at the end of the German April Offensive from 9th to 29th April 1918. This line marks the farthest point of the German Army's advance to the west. Ypres was not captured.
A Flanders offensive by the German Army was originally proposed in October 1917 by the Army Group Commander Field Marshal Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria as a large-scale attack either carried out on its own or as an attack to relieve pressure elsewhere on the German Front. Rupprecht's Army Group consisted of four German Armies holding the German Front in Flanders and Picardy; his command covered the Belgian coast to Ypres and on to Armentieres, from there through Artois to the east of Arras and southwards to St. Quentin on the river Somme.
In the original October 1917 plan the operation was given the codename of “George” and plans were submitted for an offensive on the Flanders Front between Ypres and Bethune. The breakthrough would be made in the British Front just south of the Belgian-French border in the Lys river area with the intention to pierce the Allied Front there and advance westwards making for Hazebrouck. This would cut the British Second Army holding the Front north of the Lys river away from the British First Army holding the line in Artois. The British-held rail centre of Hazebrouck would be captured and the British troops in Belgian Flanders could be pushed westwards and trapped on the Belgian coast. The operation would, however, only be possible to start from April at the earliest due to the high winter water table of the Lys river. The ground would not begin to dry out until the warmer spring weather arrived in April.
Between November 1917 and January 1918 the plans for a German offensive against the Allied Front in the spring of 1918 were developed. By January 1918 the German Supreme Command confirmed that the offensive would take place in a series of attacks rather than one great anihilating attack. Operation “George” was reduced in scale, renamed “Georgette” and timed to be launched in mid April after the first blow had been dealt to the Allies with the “Michael” attack in the Somme region from 21st March.
After initial success in breaking through the British Front Line and advancing several miles into Allied territory, the German Armies taking part in the “Michael” operation were held at a line east of Amiens. The German troops were exhausted, lines of supply had proved difficult to maintain across the shell-damaged ground, food was in short supply for men and horses. On 5th April the German Supreme Command sent a message to German Army Commanders that Operation “Michael” was terminated.
In the early morning of 9th April the German Fourth and Sixth Armies launched the Flanders offensive, operation “Georgette”, the second in the planned series of attacks on the Allied Front for spring 1918. South of Ypres the Portuguese troops holding the Allied Front in Artois were pushed westwards by four miles. In the south of the Ypres Salient sector the British Second Army was pushed westwards also, losing its hold of the Messines Ridge, Wytschaete and Messines villages which had been captured from the German Army in June 1917, just under a year before. The village of Passchendaele, captured by the Allies after such hard fighting during the Third Battle of Ypres, was retaken by the German Army on 16th April. South of Ypres the German advance was held at Kemmel Hill (Kemmelberg). However, a German attack on Kemmel Hill on 25th April succeeded in pushing French troops, recently arrived in the area as reinforcements, off this important high ground. The Georgette operation continued for another four days but was terminated on 29th April with no more significant German gains and without the capture of Hazebrouck.
The Fourth Battle of Ypres (Battles of the Lys) comprised 7 phases:
- Battle of Éstaires
German forces break through the Allied Front to Éstaires, causing very high casualties to two Portuguese divisions.
- Battle of Messines 1918
German forces attack north of Armentieres and capture Messines. The British situation is desperate. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.), issues his now famous order: “There must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one must fight on to the end.”
- Battle of Hazebrouck
A German attack with the intention of capturing Hazebrouck is stopped by the Australian 1st Division. French reinforcements are sent on their way to the British sector, specifically the Kemmel sector south of Ypres, to help stem the German advance.
- Battle of Bailleul
A German attack captures Bailleul. General Plumer, commander of the British Second Army, withdraws British troops on his northern flank from Passchendaele closer to Ypres.
- Passchendaele is reoccupied by German forces.
- First Battle of Kemmel Ridge or First Battle of Kemmelberg
The British repulse a German attack on the high ground of the Kemmelberg.
- Battle of Béthune
German forces attack to capture Béthune but are unsuccessful.
- Second Battle of the Kemmelberg
A French division arrives at the Kemmelberg to relieve the British defenders. However, the German forces attack and capture it from the French.
- Battle of the Scherpenberg
A German attack captures the Scherpenberg heights to the north-west of Kemmelberg.
- Battle of Éstaires
- Battle of Ypres 1918
This battle was also known as the Advance in Flanders or the Battle of the Peaks of Flanders. Unofficially it is sometimes known as the Fifth Battle of Ypres. On 28th September 1918 the Allied Army Group of Flanders attacked and broke through the German Front to the north, east and south of the city of Ypres. This Allied Army Group comprised British, French and Belgian divisions and was under the command of King Albert I of Belgium. Casualties were over 4,500 for both the British and the Belgian forces. The progress of the advance was significant, with the recapture of the Kemmelberg and several miles of territory lost to the German advance in April earlier that year.
- Messines is retaken by British forces.
- Passchendaele is retaken by Allied forces.
The Allied advance to the west, pushing the German Army further away from Ypres and the destruction left in the area from four years of fighting, continued with the Battle of Courtrai.
- Messines is retaken by British forces.
A Storm in Flanders
The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front
by Winston Groom
Focusing mainly on the British experience in the Ypres Salient between 1914-1918, this book moves seamlessly between the generals in their chateaus and the soldiers in their trenches. A gripping read.
First Ypres 1914
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.
Ypres: The First Battle 1914
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.
(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.