- from the War Illustrated Deluxe volume II page 474
- 'The Incomparable Defence of Ypres'
The Great Episodes of the War
defence of British positions at Ypres
There are many fine things in the annals of the British Army, but none finer than those in the chapter that is being written. If the road to Calais were forced by the Germans to-morrow, the stand made by our troops at Ypres would still remain one of the highest military achievements of our race. For well-nigh six weeks our countrymen have fought under conditions that make even the sleepless, battling retreat from Mons seem, in retrospect, a summer adventure.
Unwashed for weeks, plastered with mud, now wet, now frozen, and generally dog- tired always, our troops have lived in burrows like primitive cave-men. Besides snow, rain, chilling sea-fog, and other natural rigours of a winter campaign near the coast, they have had to endure an incessant bombardment of high-explosive shells and bullet-laden shrapnel. Continual night attacks by hostile hordes of infantry have robbed them of sleep, and called for sudden exertions of an extraordinary nature. Yet, tested to the very edge of human endurance, our men have exulted in the terrible ordeal and conquered.
The Proof of Britain's Hero Breed
We are a people with fourteen hundred years of culture behind us. In the last century we have created a new industrial civilisationthe grandest instrument of power in the world. To develop it we have had to crowd millions into mine, factory, workshop, mill, and office, and live in the smoky, stifling air of great cities. It was supposed to be very weakening for the nation. But the grand test has come, at Ypres, against half a million German soldiers picked from agricultural districts. Less than two hundred thousand of osr troops have held, driven back, shattered, and worn out more than double their number of enemies. Our stock is as virile as ever it was, and far more numerous. We have peopled continents, and, in spite of our new industrial life, we can still produce men eminent in endurance and fighting ability.
Towards the middle of October the British army was railed from the Aisne valley to the critical point in the battle front near Lille. There, British, French, and Indian cavalry, fighting against German, Austrian, and Hungarian horsemen, beat the enemy back from the road to Calais. By October 14th the German commander's right wing was turned so that the whole of his line was endangered. To save himself, he drew in and uncovered the country to the north, and our army pressed forward and occupied Ypres. Then, with our glorious allies, the French, we reached out towards Ghent, and helped the brave Belgian army retreating from Antwerp to escape being encircled.
A Daring Challenge to the German Commander
The British advance was stubbornly contested. Village after village occupied by the Germans had to be blown to ruins by our howitzers before we could make headway. Some hamlets were taken and retaken three times before they were finally secured. At last, however, the British force, with its allies on either side, entrenched in the woods north and east of the quiet, lovely old Gothic city of Ypres, on the sandy Flemish plain.
Our position was a daring challenge to the German commander-in-chief. It formed a thick, blunt wedge between the Duke of Wuertemburg's eastern army operating near the coast and the three western armies commanded by the Crown Prince of Bavaria, General Fabech, and General Daimling, operating from Douai to Tourcoing. A wedge positionknown in military language as a salientis the most difficult of all to defend. It can be assailed on both sides and subjected to a cross-fire bombardment.
Moreover, by attacking a salient at either of its bases that is to say, near either of the two points at which it connects with the general battle frontit is possible to cut off and surround the forces holding it. Altogether, the British salient at Ypres fascinated the Kaiser and his General Military Staffas. no doubt, it was intended to do. From the point of view of good strategy, their chief point of attack was the La Bassee Canal, miles to the south, where the British left wing connected with the French army under General de Maudhuy. Here, if they could break through, they would win the direct road to Calais, and have the Belgian, French, and British forces in the north at their mercy. Also, the entire French line would be turned.
But though the Germans, with three-quarters of a million troops crowded between Ostend and Douai, hammered dutifully at the La Bassee trenches, it was the challenging, audacious British salient that, raising their furious hopes, engaged their chief attention. Against Ypres they continually concentrated. Day after day the Kaiser held parades behind the fighting-lines, and, by vehement speeches to his troops, excited their ardour of combat. One of the men of the army of the Crown Prince of Bavaria wrote at bivouac the notorious " Poem of Hate " against the English, which was circulated among the soldiers. Much of the heavy siege artillery used at Antwerp was moved from before the Belgian lines to points opposite our position at Ypres. Vast new armies of reserves needed against Russia were railed to Belgium to help in exterminating the British force. Then, in a pulverising bombardment of the strengthened artillery, the attack began.
Our Men Cool but Conscious of their Danger
At one point on our front a single division had been thrown forward on Sunday, October 18th, to hold some difficult intersected ground, eight miles long from flank to flank. In all, there were 12,000 bayonets to defend a position needing at least 60,000 infantrymen. At a frugal estimate, 5,000 men were required to the mile. There were only 15,000 in all. The troops were well aware of the peril they ran, but they faced their job coolly.
For every man in the British Expeditionary Force was then doing more than any ordinary soldier ever dreamed of doing. Cavalrymen, after winning a beetroot field by a charge, dismounted, found some shelter for their horses, scraped out a trench, and held it against guns and infantry. Gunners, at times, pulled their guns within 600 yards of the German lines, and blazed away at the grey masses charging down, night and day, on our troops, hastily dug in a few feet in front of their supporting artillery. Men in the advanced trenches went without food or water for a couple of days, because the enemy's gun fire so continually swept them, front, flank, and rear, that nothing could be brought to them. A spirit of fierce, high, transfiguring heroism invaded the souls of the British soldiers.
Our Indian troops, fighting by their sides or outspread behind them as supports, felt the stress of this great mood. They were all men of the warrior classRajputs, Sikhs, Pathans of the border, Gurkhas, scions of the Mahrattas and the Moguls. Men of fine fighting tradition, glorying in death on the battlefield, they might well have been moved by a generous desire to outrival, if possible, their British comrades. But when, with shell, shrapnel, and machine-gun fire sweeping them, they relieved the soaked, mud-caked, weary, undaunted figures in the front trenches, their only wish was to prove themselves worthy of a companionship in heroism. This they did, not only by some superb charges, but by the tenacity, skill, and endurance with which they, too, held the ditches.
The Supreme Height of Human Effort
But the division that kept the eight-mile front without succour for nineteen days, touched the supreme height of human effort. From Sunday, October 18th, to Friday, November 6th, these 12,000 infantrymen, with perhaps thirty-seven guns in pits behind them, fought off, first 75,000 Germans, and then 200,000. In light and darkness the strangely unequal struggle went on. The guns alone at times must have been outnumbered by eight to one, and the men, in the last grand mass assault, by something like sixteen to one.
How, between night attacks, dawn surprises, and the unending bombardment, they found time to snatch in shifts sleep enough to keep them alert and uncrazed, is a marvel. A captured German officer said that his General Staff was certain that this part of the British lines was held by at least two army corps. Such would be the garrison that any German commander would use to defend eight miles of difficult ground. Less than a fourth of this number held a great host at bay and saved Ypres from being taken. Probably half the 12,000 were out of action killed, wounded, or sickin the last fights. In the history of no race is there a finer example of heroic endurance. The names of the battalions composing the Incomparable Division are not known at the time of writing. But soon they will ring through the world, and then echo down the ages. Oh, the fight, the fight for nineteen nights and nineteen days of the Twelve Thousand at Ypres! By the God of Battles, we do breed men!
The Part Played by the Indians and Territorials
Even our Territorial troops, young men pursuing a civil career and learning soldiering in their spare time, helped gallantly to make Ypres a name to thrill the blood of those of our race who shall come after us. South of the town, by the village of Messines, was a beet-field rising to a ridge. On the ridge, on the last day of October, 2,000 of our cavalry, dismounted, had held for days five miles of country. The Germans at last, by a strong attack, drove them back to their Indian supports, and the next day the London Scottish were sent up to help to defend the second line of trenches. There were 20,000 Bavarians attacking, but the Territorials fought like tigers, took Messines with the bayonet, and with their aid and a counter-attack on the German right made by a French division, the situation was for the time saved.
The Kaiser was beside himself with disappointment. A wireless message was tapped from him to the Duke of Wurtemburg, declaring that "Ypres must be taken by November 1st, otherwise we must withdraw to the Rhine." Practically every German regiment of the line with a warlike reputation was railed up and hurled at the semi- circle of trenches at Ypresthe Brandenburg troops, the Bavarian corps, the Saxons, even a dismounted Hungarian cavalry corps, containing the flower of the Magyar nobility.
A subtler mode of attack was also tried. Multitudes of half-trained, new recruits and men of the militia class, were brigaded together and launched, in close-packed storming parties, at our positions. On they came chanting "Die Wacht am Rhein," badly led by new officers, who did not know their work, but full of admirable courage. Boys or oldish men many of them were, and the slaughter of them was dreadful, pitiable. Our troops waited till they approached to very close range, and brought them down with almost point-blank magazine rifle firetwenty-rounds a minute sometimes.
It seemed cruel of the German commander-in-chief to employ troops such as these against British soldiers. But there was something of a plan in this apparently insane waste of food for powder. On Wednesday, November 11th, when it was expected that our men were at least somewhat worn out through night and daybreak attacks by the numerous troops of poorish quality and masses of regulars of the first line, the grand attempt was made to pierce our front. Some 15,000 men of the Prussian Guard, brought up on purpose to carry out the crowning effort to capture Ypres, advanced against our First Army Corps and its supports.
The Defeat of the Vaunted Prussian Guard
The First Army Corps rested on the road running from Ypres towards Menin, with a wood between it and the town. The Prussian Guard was smitten by a frontal fire, and taken on the flank by artillery, rifles, and Maxims. In spite of heavy losses, they charged onward with their traditional bravery, and broke through our line in three places. Still onward they swept into the wood, and there the British supports trapped them, according to the usual custom in such cases. For our army makes a speciality of having its first line broken, and then breaking the breakers against the second defence. The Prussian Guards were counter-attacked and swept with enfilading fire from machine-guns. Most of the scattered bodies who penetrated into the wood were either killed or captured. With the failure of this great attack by the Guards Corps, the first phase of the defence of Ypres was rounded off. Altogether, it probably cost the Germans 100,000 men
Back to Index