Monday, 5 January 2015

First Ypres Part 1 The next great decisive event

Pre-war Ypres in 1914
As a result of the strength of the German pressure on the north and south side of Ypres, the salient - pointing due east and created by the town and the surrounding heights - became more pronounced and more pivotal to the outcome. Ypres had for centuries sat at the centre of trade routes criss-crossing the flat terrain of Flanders. The beautiful Cloth Hall dated from the 12th Century, and along with St. Martin's Church, formed the centre piece of the proud Flemish town. It was to become a focal point of bitter action throughout all years of the war. Like Verdun at the other end of the western front, it almost comprised a bookend for the stalemate and intermittent carnage that continued in between. If the third battle for Ypres (Passchaendale) involved the infamous and most grisly slaughter; and the second held the horrors of the gas attack, it was the first that was perhaps the most important and significant for the entire war. Had Ypres been lost in 1914, Falkenhayn's alternative strategy - control of the Channel ports - would likely have succeeded, and changed the entire course of events.
Post First Ypres 1914

On the evening of 20th October, Sir John French in Ypres had an anxious conversation with his senior generals. It was now evident, despite earlier optimism,  that the most they could do was to hold the Ypres salient from the Lys to Dixmude until Joffre could send help in the form of the French reinforcements. This would not be for at least 3 days, leaving a precariously and thinly stretched line of defence.
On 22nd October Haig’s 1st Corps, now north of Ypres ran into a heavy German assault at Pilkem, and they had to dig in there. Heading north to Bixschute and Langemarck the Germans were unable to break through, and held their line there. Further south there was a long line from the Zandvoorde ridge to south of Messines held only by two cavalry divisions, dismounted in trenches. The loop round Ypres from Bixschute to Messines was approximately the line holding on 23rd October. 
Falkenhayn was determined to push this line and break through and he began to move reserve armies and redirect front line troops from elsewhere to create an unstoppable force that he intended to unleash by 30th October. Continuing pressure on the left of the British line came from direction of Zonnebeke, and it was only thanks to some timely French reinforcements from the extreme left of the allied line towards the coast that it held. On the 24th the eastern point of the salient cracked, and the Germans penetrated into Polygon Wood at Becelaere for the first time, following through to Kruseik, close to Zandvoorde. Heavy fighting continued for several days.

Advanced posts on the salient were pulled back gradually over the next few days to try and stabilize the line. On27th Haig and French met and decided to relieve Rawlinson’s exhausted and depleted 7th Division, with Rawlinson returning home to supervise formation of the 8th Division reinforcements, and to take the remains of the 7th under command of Haig.
On the morning of 29th, the British intercepted a German wireless message, and became aware of the huge assault force about to break all over them. The next week produced the most severe carnage of the whole of the Ypres 1 phase, characterise by desperate Allied defence against overwhelmingly superior numbers and weaponry. The points of maximum danger were at the northern (Bixschoote/Zonnebeke) and southern (Zandvoorde/Messines) aspects of the salient. However, the first full frontal assault came at the point, on Gheluvelt crossroads, as a reconnaissance for even stronger reinforcements behind. In the south Pulteney’s 3rd Corps came under heavy attack at Ploegsteert.
30th October was the day for the main attack. Early on Wurtemberg took Bixschoote, but failed to drive the French from Langemarck. The Germans blew the British trenches on the Zandvoorde ridge to pieces, and soon the whole Division was compelled to fall back a mile towards Klein Zillebeke, and south westwards back to Hollebeke, which fell to the Germans. This made Gheluvelt a very sharp point to the salient, but Haig resolved that the line to the canal south of Klein Zillebeke must be held at all costs, in order to protect the lines of communication, otherwise Ypres would fall. Kaiser Wilhelm was with the German army at the front, and had told the Bavarian army that winning control of Ypres would determine the war. He expressed the wish to stay in Ypres that day.

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