The pendulum is swinging back towards the Germans. Their latest major offensive begins today, from La Bassee, through Armentieres and Messines, to Menin and Roulers, and soon enough to Ypres itself. The First Battle of Ypres is underway.
Menin, Roulers and Ypres
The situation about to unfold for the BEF is pretty awful even without it. Once again, they’re about to be hideously outnumbered. Advancing with poor intelligence and vast over-confidence. Towards a position that they should only be holding a day or two before resuming the advance. And this time, they have to do it against an enemy who knows exactly what their intentions are. Yesterday, some hapless adjutant got himself captured while in possession of every set of orders for every unit from here to Armentieres.
So, when 7th Division continues down the Menin Road, they come under immediate and overwhelming attack. By half-past ten in the morning, two ominous reports arrive on Sir John French’s desk at St Omer. The first one is from the infantry, informing him that the advance towards Menin has been brought almost to a standstill. The second is from the Royal Flying Corps, finally able to operate properly again now that the recent awful weather is beginning to blow over.
In the space of a morning, GHQ’s assessment of British prospects in Flanders has gone from “Quite good, actually”, to “(gulp) Can we talk about this later?” The Germans will soon have unchallengeable control of Zeebrugge and Ostend. The hills to the immediate west of Ypres are the last high ground, and the last defensible position, before the sea. Everything behind it is flat plains with no waterways worth mentioning. If they fail, then for you, Tommy, ze var is over!
It will not mean the end of the war in 1914, but the consequences will still be dire. A German victory now can only come with the complete humiliation and demolition of the BEF as an effective fighting force. The Belgian Army will almost certainly go with it. If the British are very lucky, they might be able to arrange a mini-Dunkirk and save a few crumbs of comfort. The Germans will be in position to seize control of the coast from Antwerp to Boulogne, with all the vital Channel ports, an operational gift for the Kaiserliche Marine. And France will fight on, alone on land.
The Royal Welch Fusiliers were about two miles distant from Menin when the order to retire came. Back they went, marching all day. The Germans were arriving in Roulers as well as Menin. A line is hastily arranged, from Passchendale to Roosebeke. Quartermasters back in Ypres search hardware stores and houses, desperate for digging tools to requisition.
This is the opening of what will become known as the First Battle of Ypres. The battles to come will all have their own individual character, but they will all play their part in transforming “Ypres” into “Wipers”, the place where the British Army goes to die.
It can be easy to forget that there’s anywhere else in Belgium or France at the moment, but Ypres is in fact just part of a general northern offensive; and in order to understand how the later situation at Ypres came about, it’s vital to understand what else was going on. A force, primarily cavalry, had been detached a couple of days ago from the main group moving to Armentieres. They were to cross the River Lys and head north-east along the Belgian border, hopefully linking up with the infantry somewhere near Menin.
Now they’re coming under attack. A highly mobile day of warfare follows, with the cavalry units fighting (and winning) a large number of mounted and dismounted actions. They end the day considerably the worse for wear. However, they are still in possession of now-vital defensive positions at Messines Ridge, Hollebeke to the north, and Ploegsteert to the south. (N.B. This town will be referred to as “Plugstreet”, and a vital position nearby as “Plugstreet Wood”, in line with the common contemporary British mangling of the name.) The action around Messines in the coming days will be as vigorous and as bloody as anywhere else in Flanders.
Orders are quickly drafted for the men at La Bassee and Armentieres to immediately stop attacking and dig for their lives. The men obey as far as they are able, but are quickly stymied by the exceptionally high water table, swollen by the recent rain. In many places, digging more than a foot down turns trenches into fast-flowing streams. The Engineers are called for to build breastworks; it’s like a trench, except you construct it upwards out of wood and sandbags. It’s also rather easier to destroy with artillery than a good dirt trench is.
A few German units are ready to cross the Yser to the north, but the artillery fire from the Royal Navy monitors is so intense and destructive that they are ordered to hold position.
Actions in Progress
The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: A front-page Harrods advert (top left) for palm trees. No, I’m not making that up. Elsewhere, the football correspondent visits the new Arsenal Stadium for the first time and is impressed with both the ground and Arsenal’s promotion prospects (page 14), a minor correction appears on page 11 (they should have reported the Russian army being on the defensive, not the offensive), and page 9 reports a German retreat of 30 miles and a consequent opening of the road to Lille. Which would be easy to make fun of, but that’s only because we know what’s about to happen. For once, on the information both they and the Army had at the time, this optimism is actually quite reasonable.