On this day in 1914, in a bitter two-day stretch of hand-to-hand fighting, German forces capture the Flemish town of Langemarck from its Belgian and British defenders during the First Battle of Ypres.
The trench lines built in the fall of 1914 between the town of Ypres, on the British side, and Menin and Roulers, on the German side—known as the Ypres salient—became the site of some of the fiercest battles of World War I, beginning in October 1914 with the so-called First Battle of Ypres. The battle, launched on October 19, was a vigorous attempt by the Germans to drive the British out of the salient altogether, thus clearing the way for the German army to access the all-important Belgian coastline with its access to the English Channel and, beyond, to the North Sea.
The German forces advancing against Ypres had a numerical advantage over the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), as General Erich von Falkenhayn was able to send the entire German 4th and 6th Armies against the BEF’s seven infantry divisions (one was held in reserve) and three cavalry divisions. For reinforcements, Sir John French, commander of the BEF, had only a few divisions of Indian troops already en route to Flanders; in the days to come, however, these replacement troops would distinguish themselves with excellent performances in both offensive and defensive operations.
After the initial rapid movement of the German offensive, the Battle of Ypres became a messy, desperate struggle for land and position, leaving the countryside and villages around it in a state of bloody devastation. A German artilleryman, Herbert Sulzbach, wrote on October 21 of his experience in the battle: “We pull forward, get our first glimpse of this battlefield, and have to get used to the terrible scenes and impressions: corpses, corpses and more corpses, rubble, and the remains of villages.” After the German capture of Langemarck on October 22, fighting at Ypres continued for one more month, before the arrival of winter weather brought the battle to a halt. The Ypres salient, however, would see much more of the same bitter conflict before the war was over, including a major battle in the spring of 1915—also a German offensive—and an attempted Allied breakthrough in the summer of 1917.