Ypres history - a short overview

‘A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world.’ Sir Winston Churchill.

The article is one of a series which may interest you if you are considering visiting the Great War battlefields of Northern Europe.  

Ypres history will tell you about the battles that took place, visit Ypres and Ypres monuments and cemeteries  describe some specific sites to visit to give you a real feel for what happened in that dreadful conflict. 

Ypres is a small town in Belgium  and Ypres history came to epitomise the British will to resist the power of the German army. Five battles were fought around Ypres and the town never surrendered. Over 300,000 thousand soldiers from Britain and the Commonwealth still reside there in Commonwealth War Graves, together with another 90,000 soldiers who have no known grave.

My first connection with Ypres started when, with over 200 other 18-year old school leavers, I reported to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst to start a two-year course to become an officer in the British army. A Sergeant quickly scanned the list of new arrivals. ‘Bray, AJC?’  he asked. ‘Yes, Sergeant.’ ‘Over there - to the Colour Sergeant in the red beret. You’re in Ypres Company.’ But, although I proudly wore a tie with the town’s crest, it was several decades before I actually visited the place which is synonymous with sacrifice in the British army.

I started visiting Ypres and other European battlefields by adding a few days to continental holidays, so gradually became familiar with the places and what they have to offer. Although the battles were fought nearly a century ago there is so much to see. You could spend months walking all the battlefields and still not see it all.  

The military history

This Ypres history is not intended to be a detailed military history briefing – there are many far better qualified experts on the history of Ypres. But this short explanation will help you to understand why the battles took place between 1914 and 1918. 

When the Great War started in 1914 the British army was ill prepared for the conflict. It had little experience of fighting in large formations – it was only 120,000 strong compared with the 2,000,000 of the German army. So the first few years of the Great War were a very painful learning experience, with very heavy casualty lists. The experienced regular army soldiers were replaced by the inexperienced but willing Kitchener’s army, who suffered huge casualties. 

The commanders also expected it would be fought on the same principles which had governed war for centuries – fire and movement. Whilst the infantry and artillery fired at the enemy, the cavalry charged to exploit gaps between enemy positions, and would then encircle them from behind. The infantry would then move forward to hold the ground. 

But two things happened to change all this. The trenches the infantry dug and occupied to form local defensive positions were quickly joined up, so the front line became a continuous series of trenches from the English Channel to Switzerland. That made battlefield movement by mounted cavalry impossible.

The other thing was the ruthless killing efficiency of modern weapons; the artillery was capable of firing massive amounts of ammunition in very concentrated patterns, aided by the appalling efficiency of machine guns.

So once the initial lines of trenches became established, commanders had little option but full frontal attacks. Poor communications between the front line units and rear headquarters meant that senior commanders had little idea of the progress being made, and the level of casualties being suffered. 

Ypres occupied a strategic position, preventing Germany's planned sweep across the rest of Belgium. By October 1914, the battered Belgian army broke the dykes on the Yser River to the north of the City to keep the western tip of Belgium out of German hands. Ypres, being the centre of a road network, anchored one end of this defensive feature and was also essential for the Germans if they wanted to take the Channel Ports through which British support was flooding into France. 

During the first battle of Ypres in October 1914 the Allies halted the German army's advance to the east of the city. The German army eventually surrounded the city on three sides, bombarding it throughout much of the war. The second battle of Ypres was fought in April 1915. The third battle in 1917, often called Passchendaele, was a complex, five-month engagement. The fourth and fifth battles occurred during 1918.

Ypres history is hidden, with the town centre looking as though it has been undisturbed for centuries. It has been said that in November 1918 a soldier on horseback could see right from one side of the town to the other, such was the total destruction  after four years’ of shelling. 

You have to get really close to the magnificent Cloth Hall to see where the new stones were built on the originals.   

If you found Ypres history of interest link to:

Visit Ypres

Ypres Monuments and Cemeteries

Ypres where to stay

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