Along with the Somme, the battle of Ypres (and the numerous battles surrounding this town in Flanders, Belgium), are forever linked with the First World War. Passchendaele in particular has gone down in history. It was the strategic position of Ypres that summarised the futility of battles fought in the Great War.
British troops entered Ypres in October 1914, unaware of the size of the German force, however, numbers did not make up for experience as the enemy were using what were effectively students to fight professional British soldiers. These young men had had just 6 weeks training. Eye-witness reports saw young men, arms linked, singing patriotic songs as they advanced towards the British – 1500 Germans were killed and 600 taken prisoner. No-one truly controlled the area but in Wijtschate, roughly 10 miles south a German corporal named Adolf Hitler rescued a wounded comrade and was awarded the Iron Cross. These first days of fighting directly affected the town, civilian casualties were high, and this set scene for several more years – this first battle limped to a halt during a terrible winter.
Once the weather had cleared, the Germans prepared for a new attack using deadly chlorine gas against defending French troops, who never having experienced such an attack, fled, thus leaving their positions. This situation was alleviated by Canadian troops who used urine-soaked hankies as gas-masks and launched a counter-attack which was successful, forcing the German army back. Also at this time the French exploded mines under the German position at Hill 60 – a major strategic position having a perfect view of Ypres. The British took Hill 60 but were pushed out by another poison gas attack, the Germans holding on to Hill 60 until 1918.
“When we got to the French lines the trenches were empty but in a half mile the bodies of French soldiers were everywhere. It was unbelievable. Then we saw there were some English. You could see where men had clawed at their faces, and throats, trying to get breath. Some had shot themselves. The horses, still in the stables, cows, chickens, everything, all were dead. Everything, even the insects were dead.”
Willi Siebert, a German soldier
South of Ypres is Mesen where the hills around the town had been controlled since 1914 by the Germans, so to give the Allies a morale boost, High Command ordered an attack on Mesen ridge. The Allies had spent time digging tunnels underneath the ridge and these tunnels were now packed with explosive. On June 7th 1917, nineteen tunnels were detonated, the explosion being heard in London. Stunned German troops were easily taken by Australian and New Zealand troops after the explosions. To the north of Ypres, plans went less well and if one battle alone sums up the pains of war it was Passchendaele.
During October 1917, it rained for a month. Conditions were appalling, trench foot was common on both sides but the battle began on the 12th. By November 6th the area had been captured by the Allies, 900 metres of land only with a terrible loss of life on both sides. In 1917 the Americans arrived, hastened the defeat of the Germans and the last shell fell on Ypres on the 14th October 1918. In the area around Ypres, including Hill 60, Passchendaele, Lys, Sanctuary Wood etc. – over 1,700,000 soldiers from both sides were killed or injured and an uncounted number of civilians.