October 20th, 1914 - Ypres: German Offensive Begins
Pictured - German troops take a rest on the road to Dixmude.
The war of movement that happened in August and September 1914 ended in October. Battles would no longer be for provinces and cities, they would no longer be to encircle the enemy and end the war in one decisive victory. At Ypres, battles were fought for little hamlets, for obscure little patches of earth that barely deserved to be called hills or forests. The war of attrition began.
Falkenhayn was determined to make one more effort to do what von Moltke could not. The only place left with any space to maneuver was right on the Belgian coast, by the city of Ypres. Here a salient jutted out into the German lines, manned by British troops. They defended a low line of hills and ridges that stretched 35 miles. It was the best line to defend the city, but it was perilously exposed to German artillery. French troops manned the areas north and south of Ypres, and the Belgians clung tenaciously to the Yser river.
The Entente forces had been optimistic about launching a counter offensive to drive the Germans out of Belgium. On the 20th, Falkenhayn launched his own attack and ended such Allied optimism. Germans forces surged forward to cut the British off from the Channel ports at Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne.
General Horace Smith-Dorrien and his II Corps caught the brunt of the German attack, spearheaded by the German Fourth and Sixth Armies. Douglas Haig’s I Corps was en route to help but had not yet arrived. Since French had hoped to advance, no defensive preparations had been made and the British troops had to fight in the open, leading to horrible casualties. The 2nd Royal Irish Regiment, defending Le Pilly, was cut off and surrendered en masse.
At Entierres, the 2nd Sherwood Foresters hastily scraped out shallow trenches, but two German divisions overwhelmed them. The Foresters tried to retreat, but in the confusion of battle they mistook arriving Germans for British reinforcements. The entire regiment was killed or taken prisoner.
Seven British divisions were facing the concentrated attack of eleven German infantry divisions and eight cavalry divisions. While the British were outnumbered all along the line, the Germans did not yet appreciate the weakness of the British position. The stubborn British defence had so far convinced the German commanders that they faced specialized troops in strong fortification. In reality, most of the 35-mile line was held by small groups of Tommies with trenches no more than three feet deep, without dugouts, barbed wire or machine guns.
The battle of the Ancre Heights of 1 October-11 November 1916 was part of the wider first battle of the Somme. It was fought on the left of the British line of the Somme, with the aim of pinching out a German salient on the Ancre River created by the limited British advances further along the line. The attack was to be launched by the Reserve Army, which held the front on either side of the Ancre.
(Colourisation by Benjamin Thomas from Australia)