The First War of Ypres

  August 21, 2021   Read time 2 min
The First War of Ypres
Moltke, an unstable character at the best of times, now suffered a nervous collapse, and was replaced in command of the German armies by the Minister for War, Erich von Falkenhayn.

Falkenhayn knew as well as anyone the importance of gaining victory before winter set in. He rushed every unit he could lay hands on to rescue what he could of the Schlieffen plan by outflanking the Allies to the north. Joffre responded in kind, placing the northern section of the front under the command of the most inspiring of his subordinate commanders, General Ferdinand Foch.

The coast was held by all that was left of the Belgian army, which had made a brief stand at Antwerp, gallantly if ineffectually assisted by a scratch relief force from Britain, before having to fall back on 6 October. The British Expeditionary Force, now three corps strong, just had time to take up positions on the right of the Belgians around Ypres before, on 30 October, the German attack began.

Both sides knew that this might be the decisive battle of the war. The British had put into the line virtually the whole of their old regular army, whose quality more than compensated for its diminutive size. Falkenhayn attacked with four newly created army corps, some units of which consisted largely of untrained students below military age. They attacked with desperate courage, to be mown down in their thousands by British rifles and machine guns outside the village of Langemarck in what became known in Germany as the Kindermord, the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’. But the British line just held, and on 11 November beat off the last German attack.

The First Battle of Ypres, as it came to be called, saw the end of the old British army. It also saw the end of mobile war on the Western Front. The trenches hastily scrabbled in the boggy soil round Ypres became part of a line stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier that was, as we have seen, to remain essentially unchanged for four more terrible years.

On the Eastern Front the situation was a great deal more confused. Political logic would have led the Austrians to concentrate their attack on Serbia, the original occasion for the war, and the Russians to advance south as quickly as possible to rescue the Serbs. It did not work out like that. Both governments had divided purposes. The Russian government was certainly under strong pressure to help the Serbs, mainly from the Panslav nationalists who had for fifty years past been the driving force behind Russian expansion in the Balkans. But there was equally strong pressure to help the French from the liberal bourgeoisie whose ties with the West had been cemented by French loans and investments.

There was also a significant pro-German faction, especially among the court aristocracy, that had been momentarily silenced but was to become increasingly powerful as the war went on. The High Command was riven by political and professional rivalries that the Czar tried to resolve by creating two totally separate army groups under the nominal command of his uncle the Grand Duke Nicholas. These were to fight separate wars, one in the north-west in Poland and East Prussia against Germany, the other in the south in Galicia against Austria-Hungary.