A centre of sustained fighting between the Allied and invading German forces, Ypres saw many intense battles during the First World War. The first of these, the Battle of Ypres,began in October 1914, shortly after the war began. It was to be one of the most vicious of the war, ultimately cementing a stalemate on the Western Front as both sides realised that it would be difficult to break through the enemy’s defences.
Once the Battle of the Aisne had finished the “Race to the Sea” began and the Allied and German forces attempted to outflank one another in a northwards movement towards the coast. Clashes occurred one after the other at the Somme, Lens, Armentières and, finally, the city of Ypres. The city was not particularly valuable in itself, but it presented a gateway to success: for the Germans, it was a way through to the Channel ports and for the British, a chance to take Menin and cut off German rail communications. Under General Erich Von Falkenhayn’s plan, the German Army intended to use its Fourth Army to smash through the Allied trenches between Armentières and the sea. On 20 October, this offensive began with the most pressure falling on the Allies south of Ypres. The Allied forces held the attack until 31 October, when the Germans began pushing the British Expeditionary Force back from the Messines Ridge. However, commanders of the French and British Armies Ferdinand Foch and John French moved up their reserves and gradually took over much of the Ypres Salient around the city. By 22 November, the German army was halted in its tracks.
The Sphere reported this first battle of Ypres as the famous Prussian Guard’s last desperate attempt to break the British lines, illustrated by Fortunino Matania [pictured]. Ypres also featured in The Illustrated London New’s “Great War Deeds”. Reproduced in a painting by R Caton Woodville, it portrayed a spectacular defeat of the Prussian Guard by the British Army. Of course, the success of Ypres was as much a French victory as it was British. The Graphic chose to portray this fact the following year with an illustration of French infantry charging alongside Irish guards and Grenadiers at Ypres [pictured].
This battle is a particularly significant event in the history of the First World War because it marks the beginning of “the war of attrition”. By the end of the battle, trenches stretched all the way from Switzerland to the North Sea and it became clear that trench warfare was no temporary phenomenon. The old style of mobile warfare effectively ended and trenches would come to define the war in the minds of the public, then and now, and the soldiers that fought in them.