The First Battle of Ypres was a bloody WWI Battle fought October 19 – November 22, 1914, around the city of Ypres in West Flanders, Belgium. It was the climactic fight of the “Race to the Sea,” an attempt by the German army to break through Allied lines and capture French ports on the English Channel which opened access to the North Sea and beyond. The battle was extraordinarily costly in terms of casualties. Allied losses included 54,000 British soldiers, 50,000 French soldiers, and 20,000 Belgian soldiers either killed, wounded, or missing. German casualties numbered more than 130,000. The battle was an attempt by both sides to advance past the northern flank of their opponents, but neither achieved significant breakthroughs leading to an indecisive win. During the battle, both sides settled into trench warfare which became commonplace all along the Western Front for the remainder of the war.
In September 1914, German forces advanced through Belgium and eastern France but were stopped by Allied troops in the Battle of Marne. Both Armies then began the “Race to the Sea,” an attempt to outflank each other as they headed northward. The armies came face to face near Ypres, the gateway to the English Channel and key ports including Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer.
Fighting began on October 19, 1914, and with the real possibility of losing the Channel ports, Allied soldiers were ordered to entrench and hold their position to prevent German soldiers from pushing through.
On October 25, Belgium’s King Albert took drastic action to prevent a German incursion north of the Lys River. He ordered Belgians to manipulate the canals and floodgates in the Yser valley. As the tide came in, they opened the floodgates, then closed them before the water could recede. On October 29, Albert ordered the sluices opened and a rush of water destroyed the town of Nieuport. It also flooded the battlefield occupied by three German divisions, forcing them to retreat. With this action, the Allies secured the left flank.
Meanwhile, German forces continued their assault southeast of Ypres pushing back British troops. On October 31st, German troops broke through the line and captured Gheluvelt but a counterattack pushed them back out of the village.
In early November, Germany captured Messines and Wytschaete, but fresh French reinforcements stopped the advance. As temperatures fell, the onset of winter brought miserable conditions. Soldiers were holed up in trenches half-filled with freezing water. After a lull of several days, German troops planned one final assault with plans to break through into Ypres. On November 11, after an intense bombardment on Messines Ridge, they broke through and penetrated Nonne Bosschen. Once again, counterattacks drove the Germans back. After a final attack at Herentage Wood on November 17th, German forces moved into a defensive mode and sent available troops to the Russian front. Sporadic fighting continued until November 22nd when the arrival of winter forced the battle to end. Both sides suffered appalling casualties and the city of Ypres would be the scene of two more battles before the end of the war. To research your ancestors that fought in the First Battle of Ypres, search WWI collections including British Army Lists, British Army WWI Pension Records; British WWI Wounded and Missing; Airmen Died in the Great War; and Biographies of Fallen British Officers. Search Fold3 today to learn more about the First Battle of Ypres.