On November 22, 1914, the first extended battle fought between Allied and German forces in the much-contested Ypres Salient during World War I comes to an end after over one month of fighting.
After the aggressive German advance through Belgium and eastern France was decisively halted by the Allied victory in the Battle of the Marne in late September 1914, the so-called “Race to the Sea” began, as each army attempted to outflank the other on its way northward, hastily constructing trench fortifications as they went. The race ended in mid-October at Ypres, the ancient Flemish city with fortifications guarding the ports of the English Channel.
On October 19, the Germans launched their so-called Flanders Offensive, aimed at breaking the Allied lines and capturing Ypres and other channel ports, thus gaining control of the outlets to the Channel and the North Sea beyond. The Allies held fast in their resistance, seeking the chance to go on the attack themselves whenever possible. On the last day of October, German cavalry units began a more concentrated assault, forcing British cavalry from their position at Messines Ridge, near the southern end of the salient. Further to the north, General Douglas Haig’s 1st British Corps managed to hold its lines with superior rifle fire, leading many Germans to mistakenly believe they were facing British machine guns. Another German attack on November 11 almost toppled the British in the town of Hooge, but a motley crew of British defenders–including cooks, medical orderlies, clerks and engineers–was able to exploit German indecisiveness and eventually drive the enemy back to its own lines.
Chaotic fighting continued without respite throughout the next three weeks at Ypres, with heavy casualties suffered on both sides. On November 22, fighting was suspended with the arrival of harsher winter weather. The protracted First Battle of Ypres–or simply “First Ypres” as British survivors referred to it–had taken the lives of more than 5,000 British and 5,000 German soldiers and the region would see far more bloodshed over the four years to come, as both sides struggled to defend the positions established during that first month of conflict. In the memorable words of one British soldier, Private Donald Fraser, “one was not a soldier unless he had served on the Ypres front.”