The Ypres Salient

“They march tonight’ said the Man-at-Arms,
With the moon on the Menin gate.
They march when the midnight bids them go.
With their rifles slung and their pipes aglow,
Along the roads, the roads they know,
The roads to the Menin gate.” 

[Anon]

Ypres has become an increasingly popular destination for British holidaymakers, sight-seers and for those with a thirst for history. This town was the centre of British military efforts in World War One; the salient surrounding Ypres was the scene of more battles fought by the British than anywhere else during that war; and it was the place that, over four years, more British soldiers died than anywhere else including those killed at the Battle of the Somme.

There is plenty to see and do as the area around Ypres (“The Ypres Salient”) is littered with museums and memorials, remnants and remains (including actual trenches) of the efforts and sacrifices of British soldiers in that conflict.  A visit to the salient provides a much clearer understanding of the conflict and, today, increasing numbers of Brits make the journey to Ypres to learn more about what their forefathers did in World War One.

To help set the scene we explain below why Ypres was such an important location for the British Army between 1914 and 1918. How the First Battle of Ypres in the autumn of 1914 was possibly the most important battle of the entire war which, if lost, could have meant that victorious German soldiers would have been home for Christmas that year. But a dogged British spirit and sheer determination meant that the British Army held this section of the line even in times of its greatest adversity.

The Ypres Salient

(1914-1918)

Every Night at 8pm in Ypres the Traffic stops at the Menin Gate

Members of the local Fire Brigade parade and Last Post (a British Infantry Bugle Call) is sounded on the roadway under the Memorial’s arches. This has been carried out without interruption since 1929 (except for the period of German occupation during World War Two) in remembrance of the British and Commonwealth troops who fell in the First World War.

The people of Ypres have never forgotten the loss of civilian and military life in Ypres and the Ypres Salient. Standing today in the main square of Ypres looking at the ornate buildings, it is hard to believe that the whole area was razed to the ground during the war.  It has all be rebuilt precisely from pre-war photo with the Cathedral and Cloth Hall finally completed in 1935.

The town of Ypres, is more correctly, using the local Flemish tongue, called Ieper (or “Wipers” as the British troops humorously called it).  It was the centre for much of the British and Commonwealth effort in the First World War. It is situated in an area referred to as Flanders which is a centuries old word meaning flooded land.

The town itself sits on a wet plain astride a complex of waterways designed to drain the surrounding land. Beyond that, running in a broad sweep clockwise around Ypres from Passchendale in the north-east via Messines in the south to beyond Kemmel in the south west is a low ridge that puts the town at the centre of a natural amphitheatre.

Last Post at the Menin Gate

Troops March past the ruins of the Cloth Hall towards the Menin Gate

Essentially, during WWI the Germans occupied this ridge surrounding Ypres. They could observe everything that moved in the Ypres Salient forcing the allies to move troops usually only by night.

For four years the British and their allies tried to force their way up onto the ridge while the Germans attempted, equally as hard, to capture the town of Ypres.

The fighting was continuous. Consequently there was always death and destruction. The town of Ypres was reduced to rubble.

The magnitude of the losses were so great that the Salient has numerous British and Commonwealth Cemeteries including Tyne Cot which is the largest such cemetery in the world.

During the battle of Messines in April 1918, the German forces attacked and captured Messines making the British situation so desperate that Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, issued his 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.”

Holding Ypres was Vital

So why did the allies decide that they needed to hold the town of Ypres so desperately and seemingly at whatever the cost in human life? 

In pure military terms, taking account of the terrain, it was not a suitable defensive position. British and commonwealth troops were under constant observation by Germans on higher ground; and they were living in waterlogged conditions that would only exasperate disease and illness amongst the troops.

Two hundred years earlier, the Duke of Marlborough during the War of Spanish Succession had declined the opportunity to besiege and capture Ypres from France’s Louis XIV.  He believed, he would loose too many of his troops to disease if they were expected to camp on the ground conditions that exist around Ypres.

The answer to why the British wanted to hold Ypres, whatever the cost, is largely due to its proximity to the channel ports.  If captured by the Germans, it would mean that Britain would become a mere spectator in Germany’s defeat of France. 

At Ypres, the British prevented Germany from executing their battle plan, a plan designed on the back of a core strategy that had resulted from a series of national alliances that had developed over the previous decades.

The rebuilt Cloth Hall & Cathedral today

The Dual Alliance & Entente Cordial

In 1882 a Triple Alliance was established between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. This left the Russians feeling vulnerable and the French, still nursing their wounds after their defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1871, diplomatically isolated.

Meanwhile, having dismissed Otto Von Bismarck, the new German Emperor Wilhelm II allowed Germany’s secret Reinsurance Treaty with Russia to expire in 1890, despite Russian requests to renew it.

The answer for both France and Russia was a Dual Alliance in which Russia would gain cheap loans from the Paris Bourse to help rebuild deficits in their army and to build strategic railways that could bring troops to their German front.

After extensive negotiations, the Franco-Russian alliance was agreed in August 1892 and it stipulated that if one of the countries of the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary or Italy) attacked either France or Russia, its ally would attack the aggressor in question.

This treaty is by no means the cause but is a crucial step towards the First World War because most treaties aim to solve conflicts of interest between countries whereas the Franco-Russian alliance was effectively an alliance directed against another country, most notably Germany.

To this was added the Entente Cordiale, a written and partly secret agreement signed in London between France and Britain on 8th April 1904.

The agreement was a change for both countries (even thought there had been an earlier Entente Cordial between them in 1843). Britain and France had been natural enemies for centuries but the situation had changed:

  1. France had been isolated from other European powers by Germany who wished to estrange them from potential allies and thus prevent them from seeking revenge for their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71.
  2. Britain had maintained a policy of “splendid isolation” on the European continent only acting when protecting their interests and to maintain a balance of power on the continent. But their situation was changing; they had lost confidence during the Boer War and were becoming increasingly fearful of growing German aggression as was demonstrated in the Dreadnought Arms Race between Britain and Germany during the first decade of the 20th Century.

The Schlieffen Plan

So German military tacticians now found themselves with a grave concern.  Germany could find itself having to fight both France and Russia on two fronts and forcing them to divide their resources.  Their strategic solution a Plan that aimed to knock out one of her antagonists quickly (the French), and then deal with the other (the Russians).

It was called the Schlieffen Plan, a battle plan drawn up by German tacticians under their Chief-of-Staff, Field Marshall Count Von Schlieffen in which they aimed to defeat France first in just six weeks.

Field Marshall Count Von Schlieffen

Germany Potential Two Fronts

If hostilities did start, Germany expected France to concentrate its forces in the Alsace-Lorraine region along their border with Germany.  So in the Schlieffen Plan, the idea was for Germany to attack France through Belgium but this could bring Britain into the conflict due to the Entente Cordial and, more importantly, because Britain had guaranteed Belgium’s existence and neutrality in the 1839 Treaty of London.

Therefore in the Schlieffen Plan, Germany prioritised the capture of the French and Belgium channel ports as quickly as possible in order to deny Britain easy access to the conflict.  This is one of the reasons behind what became known as, “The Race to the Sea”.

Von Schlieffen died in 1912 and is supposed to have said on his death-bed, “Keep the right wing strong,” referring to the need to capture the channel ports as quickly as possible.

The Route to the Sea

Hence the importance of Ypres.  If held by the British, it blocked the route of the German Army to the ports on much of the French and Belgian coast.

Ypres occupies a strategic position at the centre of a road network that leads to the coast.   (The defence of Ypres was also to become important because it eventually became the last major Belgian town that was not under German control.)

Indeed the British Chief of the Imperial Staff, Field Marshal Sir William Robertson advised the British Government on 25 June 1915 against retreating to the Channel Ports, an option contemplated by the Cabinet after the defensive losses at the Second Battle of Ypres.

He described such a withdrawal as, “Leaving the British helpless spectators in France’s defeat”.

Ypres proximity to the Channel ports of Dunkirk & Calais

The Ypres Salient

Ypres never did fall into German hands after the opening months of the war. But, according to British Official Military History, the danger of the Allied line being broken and rolled up at Ypres in October & November 1914 was, “One of the most momentous and critical moments of the war.  Only by the most desperate fighting did the Allies succeed in maintaining their front”.

Had they given ground at that stage, the whole of Belgian territory may well have been lost and the Germans would have reached Dunkirk & Calais and secured their first objectives.

Further this would have allowed then to have swung left, capture Paris and attack the French army in its rear.

Had Britain (and other Commonwealth Countries) not entered the war, the German Schlieffen plan may well have worked.  France could well have been knocked out of the war as planned.  Britain saw this as a potential threat to their sea communications which would have been detrimental to running of its Empire.

Today Ypres remains an attraction for British tourists who flock there in seemingly ever increasing numbers to learn about and pay homage to the losses that were so great one hundred years ago “In Flanders Fields”.

The Menin Gate

It is often said that more men marched to their death through the Menin Gate than anywhere else on earth.  British and Commonwealth soldiers passed through the Menin Gate on their way to the front lines where some 300,000 of them were killed in the Ypres Salient. Of these, 90,000 soldiers have no known grave.

Out along the Menin Road to Hellfire Corner, the road became one of the most infamous and dangerous places for the British to move about on the Western Front.  

A crossroads and railway crossing about 2 kilometres due east of Ypres on the Menin Road became known as “Hellfire Corner” because the Germans, with a view from their positions on the ridge, shelled it constantly.

The Menin Gate, the Menin Road and Hellfire Corner have become three names bound together in British Military History.

Hell Fire Corner

The remains of the original Menin Gate by the end of the War

The Menin Gate War Memorial was built and opened in 1927. It commemorates the British and Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies were never found.

On its huge panels are carved 54,896 names of men with no known grave who died in this area from the outbreak of war until August 1917.

The designer thought there would be plenty of room for all the names, but there was not, so a further 34,984 names of missing soldiers (from August 1917 to the end of the war) are carved on panels at Tyne Cot Cemetery (see picture at foot) not far away.

Hill 62

When the farmers and other civilians returned to the salient at the end of the war, one landowner decided to fence off an area containing British and Commonwealth trenches and to leave it untouched as a lasting memorial.

The name of this site is Hill 62, named from the identification given to it on allied military maps of the time.  A visit here gives the visitor a clear understanding of the invidious and frightening position of the allies in their trenches which are in close proximity to the German trenches which, being on higher ground, overlooked them.

The advantages of the rise in ground can be seen and understood when visiting these battlefields. Tyne Cot is a fine example as the Cemetery was built on a site occupied by two German Concrete Machine-gun Bunkers with a view across the open land as far as Ypres itself. Allied troops would have to have advanced straight into their withering fire when attacking this German-held position.

Untouched Trenches at Hill 62

Shell Holes still remain from the War

It was not just the crucial advantage of views across the enemy’s positions and rear areas that gave the Germany an advantage.  The daily life of their soldiers was much preferable because their positions were on higher ground with better drainage.  Belgian Flanders around Ypres is generally low-lying with a damp coastal climate; it has a heavy, waterlogged, clay-based soil, and it is in an area that is prone to flooding.

The site at Hill 62 demonstrates life in a trench when being overlooked by the enemy. Steel plates still exist that gave allied riflemen some protection when trying to return the enemy’s harassing fire.  Three tunnels still exist showing how the allies had to dig tunnels forward in order to reach a position where they could capture land. At Hill62 there is a network of tunnels forward of the held trench line.

The Battles of the Ypres Salient

1914

7th October:  Ypres occupied by the German Army.

12th October – 2nd November: Battle of Messines 1914

13th October: Germans driven out of Ypres and the surrounding area by Allied forces.

19th October to 22nd November: First Battle of Ypres

The First Battle of Ypres comprised three phases:

  • 21st to 24th October: The Battle of Langemarck
  • 29th to 31st October: The Battle of Gheluvelt
  • 11th November: The Battle of Nonnebosschen

Critical moments:

  • 31st October: The British line is broken but restored.
  • 1st November: Messines village captured by the Germans.

First Battle of Ypres – 1914

1915

17th April to 22nd April: The Battle for Hill 60

22nd Apr to 25th May: The Second Battle of Ypres

The Second Battle of Ypres comprised four phases:

  • 22nd April to 23rd April: The Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge
  • 24th April to 4th May: The Battle of St. Julien
  • 8th May to 13th May: The Battle of Frezenberg Ridge
  • 24th May to 25th May: The Battle of Bellewaerde Ridge

1916

2nd June to 14th June: The Battle for Mount Sorrel

1917

7th June to 14th June: The Battle of Messines 1917

31st July to 10th November: The Third Battle of Ypres (often called the Battle of Passchendaele)

The Phases of the Battle:

Phase One : July – August

  • Battle of Pilckem Ridge
  • Capture of Westhoek
  • Battle of Hill 70
  • Battle of Langemarck
  • Subsidiary operations

Phase Two : September – October

  • Battle of the Menin Road Ridge
  • Battle of Polygon Wood

Phase Three : October – November

  • Battle of Broodseinde
  • Battle of Poelcappelle
  • First Battle of Passchendaele
  • Battle of La Malmaison
  • Second Battle of Passchendaele

1918

9th April to 29th April: The Fourth Battle of Ypres (also called the Battles of the Lys)

The Fourth Battle of Ypres comprised 8 phases:

  1. 9th April to 29th April: Battle of Éstaires
  2. 10th April to 11th April1918: The Battle of Messines 1918
  3. 12th April to 15th April: The Battle of Hazebrouck
  4. 13th April to 15th April: The Battle of Bailleul
  5. 17th April to 19th April: The First Battle of Kemmel Ridge (aka First Battle of Kemmelberg)
  6. 18th April: The Battle of Bethune
  7. 25th April to 26th April: The Second Battle of the Kemmel Ridge
  8. 29th April: The Battle of the Scherpenberg

Critical day: 16th April: Passchendaele is reoccupied by German forces.

28th September to 2nd October: The Fifth Battle of Ypres 

Critical moments:

  • 28th September: Messines is retaken by British forces.
  • 29th September: Passchendaele is retaken by Allied forces.

October onwards: The Allies advance to the east, pushing the German Army further away from Ypres and away from all the destruction left in the area from four years of fighting.

This is Tyne Cot Cemetery situated in the Ypres Salient.  It is the resting place of 11,954 soldiers of British & Commonwealth Forces. It has the largest number of burials contained in any Commonwealth cemetery of both the First and Second World Wars. It is the largest Commonwealth military cemetery in the world.