Ypres | 14 Oct 1914

The offensive spreads northwards, and the BEF marches into Ypres for the first time.


In British memory, the Somme probably stands alone for outright notoriety as a name; but so much of that is bound up in the events of a single day. The reputation of Ypres will lay its foundation stone in a week’s time, and solidify in a year. The BEF and the Germans will be here for about three years and 355 days. When it is finally left behind, it will have extracted in the order of 900,000 casualties on both sides. It will carry the same fearsome reputation for the Tommies as Verdun carries for a poilu.

But, for now, all we have is one unit, planning to march away and leave Ypres far behind it. Is it really surprising to know that when 7th Division becomes the first British unit to march into Ypres with the intention of staying there for a while, they do so through a torrential rainstorm? I hope not. The chaps pass a quiet day, cleaning themselves up a bit and pronouncing “Ypres” very badly. They’ll be on the march again soon enough, to launch the great northern offensive that’ll sweep the Boche out of Belgium. It will not be the last Flemish place-name to be mangled by British tongues.


The weather is foul everywhere at the moment, and once again aircraft are grounded. The chaps push on anyway, expecting at any moment to run into the German reinforcements that are surely on their way. They don’t find any spiky helmets, though. The German Sixth Army has been ordered to stop attacking, fall back to good defensive positions west of Lille, and stand on the defensive.

La Bassee

The forces here are preparing to launch a two-pronged attack down each side of the La Bassee Canal. 3rd Division’s commander, General Hubert Hamilton, decides to travel up to Bethune in order to see the situation at the front of the battle for himself. Almost as soon as he has dismounted from his horse, a shell lands nearby. Hamilton (not to be confused with the rather better-known Sir Ian Hamilton) has already survived one hairy moment, when a shell almost landed on his head at Le Cateau and then declined to explode. This one is not so accomodating, and he is killed with a single fragment of shrapnel through the forehead. He is the first of 232 British generals who will become casualties; 78 of them dead generals. (This dwarfs the number of generals’ casualties from the Second World War, and hopefully shows that they didn’t all sit in their chateaux swilling claret like General Melchett.)

Actions in Progress

Battle of the Vistula
Battle of La Bassee
Battle of Armentieres

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: Large numbers of Belgian refugees are arriving in Britain, and for once there is no desire to chuck the foreigners back into the sea. Also, people are attempting to take out insurance against Zeppelin bombing raids, and a discreet advert shows us how much it cost an Army officer of the day to buy his uniform.

The excellent tumblr Today in World War I provides an alternative view on the question of Zeppelin insurance, from the New York Times.

Antwerp | 7 Oct 1914

Back to Richard Tobin and his Royal Naval Division mates in the ‘trenches’ at Antwerp.


Antwerp is a lost cause. The Belgian field army is evacuating as quickly as possible down every west road. The Royal Naval Division remain in their scrapes in the ground and continue to wait. They’re not even coming under attack. The Germans have chosen to concentrate their fire on areas held by the local garrison troops, left behind to cover the army’s retirement. They’ve now advanced far enough for their heaviest guns to fire on the city itself. All the Royal Naval Division can do is keep their heads down and wait for orders. They’ve now gone from feeling neglected to feeling useless as Antwerp burns behind them.


Meanwhile, the 7th Division has arrived at Zeebrugge, and marches towards Bruges. The Channel ports are no longer wide open, although the Allies are still many miles from winning what’s often (inaccurately; it completely mischaracterises the nature of the battles) referred to as the Race to the Sea. So, where’s everyone else?

The Royal Naval Division and Marines are still mouldering in Antwerp. The original BEF is divided many ways as it crawls north; the ones making the best time are just crossing the River Somme at Abbeville. The Germans are still trying to push the French off Vimy Ridge. A line has established itself east of Arras, but the French can’t move enough men north quickly enough to stop the Germans installing themselves in Lens, and the line begins to form just west of the city.

To the north, a critical Belgian railway line runs from Bruges through Roulers and Mouscron to Lille and then into Lens. From Lille, even in 1914 you can get everywhere; including places like St Quentin, now firmly in German hands, where reserves might be usefully kept for maximum flexibility in travel. If the Allies can seize and hold that railway, they will likewise be able to reinforce the area as needed while keeping their reserves in a more flexible position. It could all go either way.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Antwerp
Battle of the Vistula

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: The archivist gives a nice pencil-sketch of the sort of things that might appear in a typical day’s paper, which I hope they won’t mind me reproducing.

By now the Telegraph has pretty much settled into a pattern with its war reportage, with whatever official news comes out from France, Russia and Serbia taken at face value, German reports denigrated, articles about how dreadful the Germans have been in Belgium/France, plus any opportunity we can take to have a pop at the enemy armies, reports culled from letters from our soldiers home, articles from a number of reporters mainly somewhere around the western front, and analysis from some writers, such as Archibald Hurd’s “British Navy and Its Work” column, and today is a pretty typical example of such a paper.

There’s also an amusing story on Page 4, about an actor’s prosecution for actual bodily harm after assaulting the director of his current play with a stage dagger. By the time it gets to court, the two are now friends again, and the magistrate contents himself with binding over the actor to keep the peace. On the same page, Disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells complains that someone (most likely himself) can’t get served in a pub while wearing his army uniform, a highly interesting manifestation of the traditional British suspicion of uniformed soldiers and standing armies.

On Tumblr, Today in World War I looks at the arrival of 7th Division in Belgium.

Middle East | 2 Oct 1914

As the war continues to tick over, let’s have a look at the situation in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, with Italy and the Ottoman Empire still neutral.

Middle East

While the Ottomans had declined to declare war on anyone in early August, and unlike Italy they weren’t members of the Triple Alliance, they were still clearly aligned with Germany and Austria-Hungary. This was as much by default as anything else. Diplomatic overtures to Russia, France and Britain had been rebuffed in the years and months before the war. The situation in the Middle East has been growing considerably more unstable.

The problem in the Middle East is of course Egypt, and the Suez Canal. Egypt was nominally an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire, but it had been occupied and administered by Britain since 1882. This ensured the ongoing availability of the Canal for ships travelling to and from India and east Africa, a vital link between Britain and the Empire. Regular Army battalions were brought back from the Middle East for French service, replaced by large and increasing numbers of Territorial Force reservists.

Of course, the expected assurances were given to the Ottomans about the troops being for defensive operations only. It’s not hard to understand why the Ottomans might not have been particularly enthusiastic about large numbers of British troops appearing in the Middle East, close to their borders. Relations continued to deteriorate through the month, not least because the Ottomans were having serious disagreements with Russia. Their entry into the war is not far off.


The Germans continue making steady progress towards Arras, but French reinforcements are arriving in the area. They extract a fair price for the ground that they must give up. Antwerp continues to be worn down. The Royal Naval Division takes ship, and is rather surprised to discover that they will be sailing to Dunkirk, not Antwerp. The city itself is still under pressure, but western Belgium is still a mostly German-free zone.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Antwerp
Battle of the Vistula
Battle of Arras

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: the usual reports about falling German morale and rising Allied morale, and time-travellers return from the past to tell heroic stories of the Battle of the Somme. (They are of course referring to the recent fighting that we know either as “Picardy” or “Albert”.)

On Tumblr, Today in World War I is still at Antwerp, discussing Churchill’s role in events..

Albert | Lille | 29 Sep 1914

A day of endings. The hardest fighting is about to move away from Albert and towards Lille.


Like Picardy before it, the Battle of Albert (During the war!) peters out into stalemate as the participants flow north in search of that elusive flanking battle. The line of the Somme will probably elude the Germans now, but they can still take the Channel ports and greatly impede British efforts to continue the fight. To the south, French attacks against the St Mihiel salient reach their peak. The line continues to hold.

Both sides are now heading towards the area of Lille and Arras. A vitally important north-south rail line runs through this area. Whichever side takes control of it will have a major advantage in Belgium and the northernmost areas of France.


In the East, the Battle of the Vistula judders into an uncertain start. This will be a joint operation between German and Austrian troops, and the opposing Russians are obliged to fall back from their advanced positions near the German frontier. They retire so quickly that the attackers aren’t really sure how many men they’re facing, or what the composition of the Russian forces is.

It’s also becoming obvious to the Serbian commanders that they can’t afford to keep fighting static warfare; the sheer weight of ammunition and guns to fire it on the Austrian side is beginning to tell. Serbia can only manufacture about 100 shells a day, and her artillery is horrendously out of date.

Actions in Progress

Battle of Flirey
Battle of Albert
Siege of Antwerp
Battle of the Vistula

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: a lot more old news, reflective of the iron grip that was maintained on information. Also, it’s Ulster Day in Ireland, and the Telegraph takes the chance to sing the praises of the Ulster Unionists.

The excellent tumblr Today in World War I looks at the opening of the Siege of Antwerp.

Maricourt | Meuse | 27 Sep 1914

If in doubt, try another flanking move. Am I right? Am I right? Heavy fighting today around Maricourt and St Mihiel, on the River Meuse.

Maricourt and the Meuse

The fighting south of the Somme slacks off. Now, stop me if you’ve heard this before; but, once again, troops on both sides are heading rapidly northwards for a flanking operation. I wonder what the next occurrence in this saga will be???

North of the Somme, the French succeed in holding the line of the River Ancre, one of the You-Know-What’s tributaries, and some extremely vigorous fighting occurs around the town of Maricourt. Meanwhile, over by the Meuse, the French are pushing the edge of the German salient slowly backwards. However, the German engineers are working frantically and every time their infantry falls back, it’s to a stronger position. St Mihiel itself also comes under attack; since the Germans are all now well-installed on the heights, this goes as well as you’d expect.


In the East, at Przemysl, we’ll remember that General Dimitrev (a candidate for my planned Military Wazzocks of the Great War series) was rather eager to begin besieging the fortress. He decided to launch infantry attacks without much in the way of artillery support, which is still in transit. He’s spent the last three days bashing his blokes’ heads against brick walls, trees, barbed wire, concrete emplacements, and a rather unhealthy dose of bullets.

40,000 casualties later, he is forced to break off the attack and send men north. The Germans are moving in the general direction of Warsaw, and he needs a screening force against the possibility of being rudely interrupted. This also works in favour of a large number of approaching Austrian reinforcements, who can now be sure of reaching the fortress without being too badly harassed.

Actions in Progress

Battle of Flirey
Battle of Picardy
Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Albert

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: a number of feature articles and a hilariously gung-ho front-page advert for “The Best War Library Available”. Apparently generations to come will be reading the books. Anyone who has any of these, drop me a line.

The excellent tumblr Today in World War I is looking at the scrapping in Cameroon.