Fighting on the Western Front in the fall of 1914 is often known as the “Race to the Sea.” The term is ironic; both sides, clinging to a military philosophy that held true a century earlier in the Napoleonic Wars, were trying to mass sufficient troops at the enemy’s northern flank, only to find that the enemy was simultaneously trying to do the same thing. This blow-by-blow extension of the front lines through Belgium became easy fodder for jokes about the combatants’ efforts to reach the coast first. The effort to outflank the enemy culminated in the First Battle of Ypres at the end of October, and left in its wake the stagnation of trench warfare.
In one respect, the irony of the “Race to the Sea” held true: in late September, the Germans had taken an interest in the ports on the North Sea. It was the combined efforts of the French, British and Belgians that interfered with German plans, and while French and Belgian forces were supported by home territory, British forces were being ferried across the English Channel. If the Germans could slow the delivery of British troops and supplies, it might yet be possible to gain the upper hand against the French and Belgians. Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne were the primary ports of disembarkation; and so, when Erich von Falkenhayn assumed the role of Chief of Staff on September 14, these became priority targets.
At the same time, the Channel ports figured substantially in Allied planning. Because these ports served as the main avenues of reinforcement and resupply for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), it only made sense for the British to concentrate their forces nearby. In September 1914, doing so also accomplished another end: if the British could safely extract their forces from positions further south and concentrate them in the north, they might be able to strike a powerful blow at the German right flank, and begin to push the Germans back.
The French agreed, and the exchange of French for British forces in the southern positions proceeded seamlessly. In part because the Germans were transporting substantial forces to the north for their own objectives, it became easier to hold the southern positions with fewer forces, and the Allies felt that they had good chances of giving the Germans a surprise in the north.
While the English redeployed, the Germans made a serious push in Belgium. After capturing Antwerp, they drove on the River Yser. King Albert of Belgium had already chosen the Yser as the defensive line for his army, despite efforts on the part of the French to persuade him to deploy his men deeper inland, where they might be more useful to a French offensive. Making full use of the opportunities afforded by the river, the Belgians opened the locks along the eastern bank of the river, flooding the river valley from Nieuport to Dixmude. The sudden flood halted the northern part of the German advance by October 24, killing thousands of soldiers and engulfing large quantities of supply.
Prior to this setback, the Germans had been advancing on a wide front. Forces approaching La Bassee and Armentieres stalled their advance in mid-October. While the fighting there would continue until the beginning of November, the Germans considered the northern part of the line to be their best chance of making a breakthrough. The flooding of the Yser then constricted the front to a zone between Dixmude and Armentieres. This was, however, an area where maneuver was still possible.
British and French forces occupied a bulge or salient around the city of Ypres. Here it was possible for the Germans to attack from three sides. British and French forces occupied the salient in some numbers, but most were newly arrived and defensive positions were primitive. Trenches were merely extended foxholes. Attacks on the salient began in earnest on the 22nd of October, but then the flooding of the Yser basin halted German progress north of Dixmude. After this, the German Fourth Army under Grand Duke Albrecht of Württemberg turned its attention to the area north of Ypres, striking from Dixmude to Passchendaele. From the south, Sixth Army under Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria struck at Messines and the woods east of Zillebeke Lake. The French sustained most of Fourth Army’s attacks, but it was the BEF under General Sir John French which was squeezed between the two armies.
The pressure soon increased. The Germans received reinforcements in the form of six divisions commanded by General von Fabeck. Fabeck’s troops were deployed in the southeastern part of the Ypres Salient, between the zones of Fourth Army and Sixth Army. Between October 30 and November 4 Fabeck attacked from Messines to Gheluvelt with a two to one advantage in numbers. The British I Corps under General Sir Douglas Haig was especially hard-hit, and the Germans briefly took Gheluvelt before Haig was able to recapture it. German gains further south, around Messines and Wytschaete, proved more durable.
Fighting continued for about a week without any respite. The lines had largely stabilized by November 4, however, and so, the Germans attempted one last escalation between the tenth and eleventh. On the tenth, they struck at the French lines near Dixmude; on the eleventh, another new combat formation under General Linsingen mounted an attack near Gheluvelt. In one of the more iconic engagements of the early war, the German 4th Guards Division faced the 1st Guards Brigade of the BEF. Eventually, the Germans achieved a breakthrough; the British threw all of the defenders that they could muster at this breakthrough, including support personnel, and overestimating the remaining British strength, the Germans advanced slowly. The delay permitted the British to regroup and drive the attackers back.
The end of this offensive also marked the end of mobile operations on the Western Front until 1918. Officially, the battle ended on November 12; small-scale fighting continued for ten days until winter weather ended all operations. By springtime, both sides would be locked in the extensive trench systems that would characterize the remainder of the war. The Germans recognized this state of affairs almost at once; in December, Falkenhayn reoriented his strategic thinking to the Eastern Front, redeploying twelve divisions to the East.
For the Allies, First Ypres was a substantial victory; by holding the city, they prevented the Germans from seizing the Channel ports, and that in turn kept the British in the war as a useful partner in land operations. It came at a heavy cost in lives, however. British casualties numbered about 58,000, with French casualties adding a further 50,000. In one sense, this can be balanced against German losses, which exceeded at least 130,000, and may be substantially higher, but the numbers tell only part of the story. It is well known that many of the German casualties were green troops in newly-raised replacement formations, while British losses included a substantial mass of skilled veterans. The survivors would be needed as the skeleton of a rebuilt force fleshed out by new volunteers.
Livesey, Anthony. Great Battles of World War I. Smithmark Publishers, Inc. 1997
Ibid. The Historical Atlas of World War I. Holt, Henry & Co., Inc. 1994
Lomas, David. First Ypres 1914: The Graveyard of the Old Contemptibles. Osprey, 1998
Simkins, Peter. The First World War (2): The Western Front 1914-1916. Osprey, 2002
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