The First World War, 1914-1916

Author: John Buchan  | Date: 1914

Show Summary

The First Battle of Ypres

BETWEEN two and o’clock on Saturday, the 31st, was the most critical hour in the whole battle. The 1st Division had fallen back from Gheluvelt to a line resting on the junction of the Frezenberg road with the Ypres-Menin highway. It had suffered terribly, and its general had been sorely wounded. On its right the 7th Division had been bent back to the Klein Zillebeke ridge, while Bulfin’s two brigades were just holding on, as was Moussy on their right. Allenby’s cavalry were fighting an apparently hopeless battle on a long line, and it seemed as if the slightest forward pressure would crumble the Ypres defense. The enemy was beginning to pour through the Gheluvelt gap, and at the same time pressed hard on the whole arc of the salient.

There were no reserves except an odd battalion or two and some regiments of cavalry, all of which had already been sorely tried during the past days. French sent an urgent message to Foch for reenforcements, and was refused. At the end of the battle he learned the reason. Foch had none to send, and his own losses had been greater than ours. Between 2 and 2.30 Haig was on the Menin road, grappling with the crisis. It seemed impossible to stop the gap, though on its northern side some South Wales Borderers were gallantly holding a sunken road and galling the flank of the German advance. He gave orders to retire to a line a little west of Hooge and stand there, though he well knew that no stand, however heroic, could save the town. He foresaw a retirement west of Ypres, and French, who had joined him, agreed.

And then suddenly out of the void came a strange story. A white-faced staff officer reported that something odd was happening north of the Menin road. The enemy advance had halted! Then came the word that the 1st Division was reforming. The anxious generals could scarcely believe their ears, for it sounded a sheer miracle. But presently came the proof, though it was not for months that the full tale was known. Brigadier-General Fitz-Clarence, commanding the 1st (Guards) Brigade in the 1st Division, had sent in his last reserves and failed to stop the gap. He then rode off to the headquarters of the division to explain how desperate was the position. But on the way, at the southwest corner of the Polygon Wood, he stumbled upon a battalion waiting in support. It was the 2nd Worcesters, who were part of the right brigade of the 2nd Division. Fitz-Clarence saw in them his last chance. They belonged to another division, but it was no time to stand on ceremony, and the officer in command at once put them at his disposal. The Worcesters, under very heavy artillery fire, advanced in a series of rushes for about a thousand yards between the right of the South Wales Borderers and the northern edge of Gheluvelt. Like Cole’s fusiliers at Albuera, they came suddenly and unexpectedly upon the foe. There they dug themselves in, broke up the German advance into bunches, enfiladed it heavily, and brought it to a standstill. This allowed the 7th Division to get back to its old line, and the 6th Cavalry Brigade to fill the gap between the 7th and the 1st Divisions. Before night fell the German advance west of Gheluvelt was stayed, and the British front was out of immediate danger.

On Sunday, 1st November, the wearied British line received reenforcements. Divisions from the French 16th and 20th Corps arrived to take over part of the line held by Allenby’s cavalry. With them came Conneau’s 2nd Cavalry Corps, transferred from its place between the 2nd and 3rd British Corps. That day was remarkable for the hard shelling or our front, and two isolated attacks, one against Bulfin’s 2nd and 4th Brigades at Klein Zillebeke, and the other against Allenby on the Messines Ridge. The first was beaten back with the assistance of Byng’s cavalry, who continued for the next few days to act as a general reserve and support to the Gheluvelt salient. But the assault on Allenby was a serious matter. During the night the Germans, breaking through on the left flank of the 1st Cavalry Division, reached the edge of Wytschaete, on the Ypres Armentieres road. In spite of a most gallant defense by the French the Bavarians carried the village before the evening. Messines, too, had been since early morning in German hands, making an ugly dent in our line, which now ran from Le Gheir to the west of Messines, west of Wytschaete, by St. Eloi and Klein Zillebeke to west of Gheluvelt.

For five days the battle slackened into an artillery duel, and our weary men had a breathing space. On 5th November the line was readjusted, and some relief was given to the 7th Division, which was now reduced from 12,000 men and 400 officers to a little over 3,000. Fourteen battalions from the 2nd Corps, two Territorial battalions, and two regiments of Yeomanry now took their share of the line. The enemy also rearranged his plans. The Fabeck group had failed in its main purpose, and must be strengthened both with guns and troops. The two minor groups under Gerok and Urach on the Messines Ridge had also exhausted their impetus. Accordingly a new group was formed under Linsingen, consisting of the 15th Corps and a corps under Baron von Plattenberg, which included a composite division of the Prussian Guard. This group was to attack on the 11th north of the Ypres-Comines canal. Meantime, on Friday the 6th, a sudden assault was made on the Klein Zillebeke position, held by Bulfin’s 2nd and 4th Brigades and Moussy’s French division. In the afternoon the French on the right towards the canal were driven in, and Cavan’s 4th Brigade was left in the air. The only reserve available was Byng’s cavalry north of the Zillebeke-Klein Zillebeke road. Kavanagh deployed the 1st and 2nd Life Guards, with the Blues in reserve behind the center, and his advance assisted the French to resume their trenches.

But the German attack was being pressed in force, and the French came back again upon the Household Cavalry, a couple of whose squadrons were doubled across the road to stem the rush. For a moment there was wild confusion—French, British and the oncoming Germans being mingled together in the village street. Major the Hon. Hugh Dawnay, who had come from the Headquarters Staff to command the 2nd Life Guards, led his men to the charge, and inflicted heavy losses upon the foe. Two hundred years before, the French Maison du Roi had charged desperately in Flemish fields, the splendid Gants glaces, with their lace and steel, their plumed hats and mettled horses. Very different was the attack of the British Household Cavalry—mud-splashed men in drab charging on foot with the bayonet. In this action Hugh Dawnay fell, but not before his advance had saved the position. In him Britain lost one of the most brilliant of her younger soldiers, most masterful both in character and in brain, who, had he lived, would without doubt have risen to the highest place. He would wish no better epitaph than Napier’s words: "No man died that night with more glory—yet many died, and there was much glory."

Once more came a period of ominous quietness. It lasted through the 8th, 9th, and 10th, when nothing happened but a little shelling. Then on Wednesday, the 11th, came the supreme effort. As Napoleon had used his Guards for the final attack at Waterloo, so the Emperor used his for the culminating stroke at Ypres. The 1st and 4th Brigades of the Prussian Guard were launched on both sides of the Menin road. At first they used their parade march, and our men, rubbing their eyes in the darkness of the small hours, could scarcely credit the portent. Long before they reached the shock our fire had taken toll of them, but so mighty is discipline that their impact told. The 1st Brigade and the left brigade of the 3rd Division bore the brunt of the charge, and at several points the enemy pierced our front and won the woods to the west. Thence he was presently driven out with heavy losses, and his 1st Regiment, which had got beyond the Nonne Bosch Wood, was checked and routed by the 2nd Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. A line of strong-points prepared by Haig’s engineers was the high-water mark of the attack. On that day fell Brigadier-General Charles Fitz-Clarence, V.C., commanding the 1st Brigade, the hero of October 31st, a soldier whose military skill was not less conspicuous than his courage.

With the failure of the Prussian Guard the enemy seemed to have exhausted his vitality. His tide of men had failed to swamp the thin Allied lines, and, wearied out, and with terrible losses, he slackened his efforts and fell back upon the routine of trench warfare. To complete the tale we must glance at what had been happening on the extreme left of the Ypres salient, where the bulk of Dubois’ 9th Corps held the line from Zonnebeke to Bixschoote, and linked up with the battle on the Yser. He had with him to complete his front Bidon’s Territorial divisions and most of Mitry’s 1st Cavalry Corps, and against him came, as we have seen, the bulk of the new German formations. The enemy tried to press beyond the ruins of Bixschoote to the canal, the winning of which would have turned the Ypres position on the north—and objective much the same as the corner of the Ypres Comines canal at Klein Zillebeke. In spite of desperate efforts he failed to advance at that critical point, and Langemarck remained untaken. By 15th November the vigor of the assault was ebbing, as it had ebbed four days before at the point of the Ypres bastion.

On 12th November and the following days a spasmodic assault was made on the Klein Zillebeke positions, and along the whole line towards Messines. On the 16th an attempt was made on the southern reentrant, which failed, and the shelling of Ypres continued, till its Cloth Hall and its great Church of St. Martin were in ruins. On the 17th the German 15th Corps made a desperate effort at the same point, but was repulsed. Presently further French reenforcements came up, and the sorely tried British troops were relieved from the trenches which they had held for four stubborn weeks. The weather had changed to high winds and snow blizzards, and in a tempest the First Battle of Ypres died away.


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Chicago: John Buchan, "The First Battle of Ypres," The First World War, 1914-1916 in America, Vol.11, Pp.212-220 Original Sources, accessed April 13, 2024,

MLA: Buchan, John. "The First Battle of Ypres." The First World War, 1914-1916, in America, Vol.11, Pp.212-220, Original Sources. 13 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Buchan, J, 'The First Battle of Ypres' in The First World War, 1914-1916. cited in , America, Vol.11, Pp.212-220. Original Sources, retrieved 13 April 2024, from