War history: Not all over by Christmas as stalemate on The Western Front takes heavy toll

The Menin Gate, near Ypres, which honours many of those killed in the area during The Great War

The Menin Gate, near Ypres, which honours many of those killed in the area during The Great War - Credit: Archant

I am really looking forward to leading a series of Galloway day excursions to Ypres between now and Christmas. The autumn and winter weather adds to the atmosphere of these tours as we visit the battlefields and Christmas Truce sites. You really get a sense of what it must have felt like to be a soldier outside Ypres during the autumn of 1914.

Ipswich soldier was killed at Ypres on August 6, 1915. If only the war had finished the previous Chr

Ipswich soldier was killed at Ypres on August 6, 1915. If only the war had finished the previous Christmas... - Credit: Archant

Last week’s column looked back 100 years to the timely arrival in France of the Indian Army Corps. Those Indian troops disembarked from troopships in France and were then quickly deployed to Belgium. Once in Belgium, the Indians reinforced the BEF and were then drawn into the protracted struggle to hold the town of Ypres.

British and Commonwealth troops were destined to be embroiled in a series of hard-fought campaigns around the small Belgian town: fighting that would go on for the duration of the First World War.

The physical evidence of those battles still litters the landscape around the town that the British Tommy, Australian Digger and Indian Sepoy universally referred to as Wipers. There is also a far more symbolic and emotional legacy that binds us all to Ypres and the fields that surround it. It is that emotional bond that continues to draw visitors across the English Channel today. But why is that? What is so significant about Ypres?

The men who held onto Ypres in October, 1914, had been through a lot since Britain’s declaration of war back in the August. They had endured the retreat from Mons, the battle of the Marne and the battle of the Aisne. Casualties had been high and many of them were physically and mentally shattered. It looked almost certain that the war that was supposed to be over by Christmas would last much, much longer.

The Belgian town of Ypres would be devastated during the First World War.

The Belgian town of Ypres would be devastated during the First World War. - Credit: Archant

In Government and military circles it had become apparent that Lord Kitchener had been right from the start. The old campaigner had stated that this was going to be a long war that would last for years. Our soldiers and sailors would be away from home for many more Christmases yet.

The battles of the summer had been fluid, both sides manoeuvring to outflank or block the other, but in October, 1914, things started to shift. The character of the war on the Western Front was changing. The seemingly inexorable advance of the German army was steadily losing its momentum. This was due to a combination of factors, not least of which was the resistance of the armies of France, Belgium and Great Britain.

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There were, however, other variables at play. The further the Germans moved into France and Belgium, the longer their supply chain became and the more open their flanks were to counter-attack. Much-needed troops were detached to protect supply lines and to guard vulnerable flanks.

The figures are not insignificant: 25,000 German troops were employed keeping the captured French and Belgian railway lines open and running. Roughly the same number were required to protect those railway lines and the rolling stock from attack. As the allied armies withdrew further into France, the German supply lines became longer and more difficult to defend.

Lord Kitchener had been right from the start, says Mike Peters. 'The old campaigner had stated that

Lord Kitchener had been right from the start, says Mike Peters. 'The old campaigner had stated that this was going to be a long war that would last for years. Our soldiers and sailors would be away from home for many more Christmases yet.' - Credit: Archant

In September the French, aided by the BEF, finally attacked the Germans on the Marne. Exhausted and over-extended, the Germans were forced into a hurried withdrawal to more favourable ground. The French now had the initiative; rather than attack them head on, they sought to outflank the Germans to the north. The Germans blocked these attacks and then lunged north to threaten the now-exposed French flank. This series of lunges, blocks and counter attacks pushed the fighting further and further north.

Neither side was able to gain superiority. What is now described in history classrooms as “The Race to the Sea” finished as a dead heat. The two combatants eventually ran out of battlefield and their flanks came to rest on the North Sea coast – deadlock. There was no open flank to exploit. Stalemate ensued – a state of affairs that would last for three long and bloody years.

At about the same time, Ypres became strategically important to both sides. The Germans realised that if they could seize the town, the road to the Channel ports would be open. If Calais and Boulogne could also be threatened, the British would have to bring their supplies in via more distant Le Havre and Cherbourg. This and the prospect of German ships ? or worse, U-boats ? operating from the Channel ports was unthinkable for the British. The scene was now set for a desperate battle for control of Ypres. I will be writing about the events that followed between now and Christmas.

Our next Galloway day excursion goes out to Ypres on November 15. Christmas Truce tours are scheduled for December 4 (Stowmarket) and December 16 (Norwich) – details available on our website, or visit one of our Galloway shops for information.

For more on the First World War, visit our coommemorative web page here

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