Ypres, a town in West Flanders, Belgium, 32 miles south-west of Bruges, with a population of 18,000 before the war, is a town that saw 5 years of critical fighting throughout the entirety of World War One. The ’Schlieffen Plan’ was Germany’s plan for war which had been drawn up in 1897 (although it was revised several times and took a further nine years to fruition). Germany‘s borders of 1914 were the Empire of Russia, the Empire of Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark. The plan assumed that if Germany went to war it would be on two main fronts - France and Russia - with an imagined hammer-blow on Paris. In order to achieve this Germany would also need to sweep through Belgium to reach France in the north and the strategic position of Ypres stood in this path. The Belgians’ refused to allow the German troops access on the 2nd August 1914 because it would be breaking the Treaty of London 1839. The Treaty of London 1839 was a treaty signed on 19 April 1839 between the Concert of Europe, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Kingdom of Belgium. Under the treaty the independence and neutrality of Belgium was guaranteed and Britain was to defend Belgium if this position of neutrality was compromised. The German army ignored this refusal and invaded France, Luxembourg and Belgium at the beginning of the war, breaking the terms of the treaty, so Britain entered the war on August 4th 1914.
Modern day Flanders refers to the Dutch speaking northern portion of Belgium which has a small section of coast on the North Sea, key to the Channel ports. Renowned for its linen trade with England, it has long been fortified to keep out invaders. Historically (in around 1000AD) it refers to the country of Flanders which stretched from the Strait of Dover to the Scheldt Estuary.
In early October 1914 the Germans staged a series of attacks on a salient in the Allied line around the town Ypres. The Flanders area is mainly flat with a series of undulating hills - the higher ground dominating the battlefield. The Germans captured and occupied an area of land called Hill Sixty. Hill Sixty was man-made when earth was evacuated and dumped when building the Ypres-Comines Railway. At 750 ft long and 150 ft high, a man-made ‘caterpillar’ shaped mound was also created adjacently. The hill and caterpillar formed a low rise on the crest of Ypres ridge leaving the town vulnerable to attack from higher ground. The Germans occupied the hill, the fighting lasted until 24th November and the casualties were high - 58,200 British troops, 50,000 French and 134,000 Germans. It was the beginning of entrenched warfare along the Western Front.
In an attempt to recapture Hill Sixty the Allies had recruited experienced miners from Northumberland and Wales to mine a series of tunnels under the hill. The Second Battle of Ypres began on 17th April 1915 when a number of mines were detonated beneath the hill and at the same time shells were poured in. The hill was reduced to a pile of rubble and infantry secured possession of the ruins. The attack caused a furious rebuke from Germany. On the 24th May 1915 they used a series of asphyxiating shells and gas from Shelltrap to Bellewarde Lake. It was the first time gas had been used effectively in war and the use of gas was a total surprise to the Allies who were entirely unprepared. Chlorine Gas caused choking and stripped away the lining of the lungs - the victims dying of suffocation. The first counter measures were very unpractical - a cloth soaked in urine and held over the face or a fire lit along the front of the trench - the hot air lifted the gas clouds above the men and out of danger. Chlorine gas had two major flaws - it could be seen - a visible greenish/yellow cloud approaching - and it’s affects were immediate. If the wind suddenly changed direction it would affect the troops on the opposing side instead. Over the next three years both sides used gas, the Germans released about 68,000 tonnes, the British and French 51,000 tonnes. By the end of the war 1.2 million soldiers were gassed, of whom 91,000 died horrendous deaths.
By the end of 1915 the Germans had discovered Phosgene, eighteen times more deadly than Chlorine Gas. Unlike Chlorine it could not be seen and it’s affects were not immediately felt. Suffering only minor discomfort soldiers breathed in higher doses. It was not until 24 hours later that the affects would be seriously felt, spasms of vomiting could last up to 48 hours, the lungs filling up with yellow liquid and eventually the victims died from drowning. Although early models were incredibly crude, Gas masks were introduced in 1916 and were effective against both these gases but no counter measure was ever found against Mustard Gas, first used in 1917. Only 2% of victims died but the casualty rate was high. The gas attacked the surface of the skin causing intense burning, swelling of the eyes, blindness and choking.
The Third Battle of Ypres was actually comprised of six separate battles in an attempt to recover the Flanders Plain and occupy a strategic ridge in the small village of Passchendaele. Fighting began in July 1917 and took place during various phases at Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde Ridge, Poelcapelle, Messines Ridge and Passchendaele. Stubborn fighting bought huge numbers of casualties, 500,000 in four months of fighting. ‘Hellfire Corner’ was a junction in the Ypres salient across the Menin Road. The road provided a critical supply route for the Allies and German troops occupied positions overlooking this junction. With their guns permanently registered on this vital route, any movement was met with heavy gunfire making it the most dangerous spot in Flanders.
During 1917, the Third Battle of Ypres (also known as Passchendaele), the British planned a massive attack against the German front line around Ypres. The Allies aimed to capture the channel ports, stopping the German submarines from using them as a base to attack British shipping. In June 1917 Plumers Second Army placed nineteen mines under German positions at Messines Ridge, six miles south of Ypres, which were exploded simultaneously. The noise could be heard in London 140 miles away. Heavy fighting in the surrounding areas continued until Canadian troops captured Passchendaele village on November 6th 1917. The Flanders area was far from secure however and intense fighting and entrenched warfare continued until the end of the war. Huge swathes of land were reduced to complete rubble. Heavy rainfall and constant shelling reduced the area to a deadly mud bath. Troops were unable to lift themselves and stretcher bearers were unable to carry the wounded to dressing stations. Thousands of men died a terrible death in the quagmire.
‘The Wipers Times’ is perhaps one of the more enduring stories of human strength in the face of adversity during the hell that was the First World War. When Captain Fred Roberts discovered an abandoned printing press in the ruins of Ypres in 1916 he decided to publish a sample page which developed in to a trench magazine which was literally printed under enemy fire. ‘Wipers’ was the nickname given to Ypres because many British troops had been unable to pronounce the correct name of the town. By the end of the war Roberts had been awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry.