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Webmatters : The First Battle of Ypres: 23rd October 1914

Ypres 1914


23rd October 1914

Facing Houthulst Forest, 2nd Brigade of 1st Division were on the alert for any attempt by the Germans to try to break through the left flank which hinged on the Yser Canal — by now the French were on the western side.

At about 0800 hours, following incessant artillery fire, the Germans launched an attack on Langemark from the north. Holding the line were the 1st Bn Coldstream Guards, a company of 1st Gloucesters and the 2nd Bn Welch regiment.

The attack forced the Guards back but was then halted in its tracks by the rifle fire of the Gloucesters and the Welch who were reported as having fired off 500 rounds per man. By 1300 hours the Germans were retreating and when they advanced again in the evening it would be to the right against 2nd Division. That too was severely punished, though some Germans managed to get within twenty-five metres of the British position.

Thousands of young German soldiers were killed this day and many of them lay in the large German Military Cemetery at Langemark — known as the Students’ Cemetery.

That evening the French 17e DI (Infantry Division) relieved the 2nd Division. Scouting the area the following day the Frenchmen counted 740 German dead lying in front of them.

On the Menin Road the 2nd Bn Green Howards fought a dogged battle as the entire front of IV Corps was heavily bombarded and subjected to attacks from 0900 hours until darkness fell.

With the arrival at the front of the French reinforcements and the steadiness of the Allied line against three times its number a certain optimism crept back into the Allied camp.


24th October 1914

The final day of what is known as the Battle of Langemark offered the Allies a lot to be pleased with even though their own plans did not come to quite the fruition intended.

Général d’Urbal, now the local French commander issued his orders to his IX Corps with the remark that the Germans were now at the point where another push would have them off balance. The troops facing the French had been hastily put together and were of little value. Attack !

The spanner in the works for such fine sentiments was that his 18e DI was not yet actually at the front and as his 17e DI (which had just relieved the British 2nd Division) advanced it was met by a counter-attack from the 51 Reserve Division.

At the same time, German troops succeeded in getting into Polygon Wood (Held by the British 7th Division). Taking advantage of a gap, the Germans got behind the 2nd Bn Wiltshire Regiment and by working its way from one set of trenches to another managed to capture all that was left of the battalion.

The infiltration was stopped by the Northumberland Hussars together with the 2nd Bn Warwickshire Regiment who were brought up from reserve. The arrival of 2nd Division units finally cleared the wood but on reaching its eastern edge the British were met with machine-gun fire and they in turn could go no further.

Whilst its 5th Brigade were assisting in Polygon Wood the 2nd Division’s other Brigade, the 6th, were on the right flank of the French 17e DI. Once the French had beaten off the German counter-attack they were able, at about 1600 hours, to continue their own advance with the 6th Brigade. Although met by heavy rifle fire, they were able to advance about a kilometre before digging in.

On the Menin Road the 7th Division was once more forced to undergo a day of heavy bombardment and constant attack. Once more their line held — just.

The Division was now battle weary. It had been fighting without interruption for three days and had lost almost 40% of its effective strength. Some battalions were down to under half their strength and the 2nd Bn Wiltshire Regiment had all but been destroyed.

The plight of the 7th Division was not the most pressing concern for Field Marshal French. Lack of ammunition was. In a message sent back to London, the BEF’s Commander in Chief warned that he was fast approaching the point where he would run out of shells for the artillery.

Some, back in Britain, thought that the requests were outlandish and quite unachievable. At the front batteries would be temporarily moth-balled because they had nothing to fire. In places, counter-battery fire was limited to two rounds an hour.

Although things improved, the lack of shells (and of good quality) would raise its head again in May 1915 after the disaster on Aubers Ridge.

For the moment though, the front between Ypres and the Sea had been held. On the other side of the front, Duke Albrecht commanding the German Fourth Army came to accept that his Reserve Divisions were not going to break the French and British at Ypres but that there was still a chance to break through at the coast where the Belgians were at the point of buckling.