The First Battle of Ypres

On 19 October, nine days after the surrender of Antwerp, the Battle of Ypres began, a fight for the last stretch of Belgium soil that had not fallen to the Germans. Erich von Falkenhayn, the new German army chief-of-staff, aimed to capture the town, thereby completing the total defeat of Belgium, and from there gain easier access to the Channel ports of Calais and Dunkirk, denying Britain its most direct route to the Continent for supplies. The Race to the Sea was still on. A gritty British defence blocked the Germans’ advance on Ypres. The Kaiser, determined that victory had to be won, visited his troops several times, hoping to boost morale and provide the impetus for a successful breakthrough. On 29 October, the Belgians opened the sluices to the River Yser, flooding the plains and impeding the German advance. The Germans put into battle a large number of young, inexperienced recruits, many of them students that had volunteered. Twenty-five thousand of them would die in what became known in Germany as the ‘massacre of the innocents’. After a month of fighting, from 19 October to 22 November, the Allies claimed the victory but at a high cost to all sides, totalling over a quarter of a million men killed or wounded.

While the line of trenches extended north through Flanders and to the coast, a similar pattern extended the line south from the River Aisne to the Swiss border. The war of movement had come to an end. The consolidation of defence had triumphed over attack. Stretching 450 miles, from the English Channel to Switzerland, lay a network of trenches. They were to remain, by and large, in place for four long years.

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