The “race to the sea” was to culminate in Flanders in October 1914. The last attempt by Allied and German forces to outflank each other and force a decisive breakthrough led to simultaneous advances and a series of bitterly contested actions in which superior German numbers forced the Allies into the fiercest of defensive battles.
A sketch map made by boy soldier William J Hayman who served with Royal Engineers shows the movement of British Forces as they withdraw from the Aisne early in October moving north, and the landing of the 7th Division at Zeebrugge on the 7th of October.
Antwerp was yet to fall and elements of the 7th Division had advanced towards Ghent via long marches and train by 12th of October. The deteriorating situation at Antwerp led to their withdrawal, and by 14th October the hungry and tired troops of the 7th Division had reached Ypres. They made contact with French troops of 87th Territorial Division who were already in the town, and other British units who had reached Ypres on the 13th.
The Germans had briefly been in Ypres for one day on 7th October 1914 when about 8,000 cavalrymen and soldiers of an Imperial German cavalry division had arrived. They either took what they wanted or paid with useless pre-printed German coupons and then left.
Ypres, now known by its Flemish name of Ieper, had a history which stretched back to medieval times and had been a centre for the wool and cloth trade. The medieval Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall) and St. Martin’s cathedral were notable landmarks.
In 1914 the official language of the city was French and the town was known by its French name of Ypres, as were most places in the locality. It was a prosperous place with a population of about 17-18,000. To the soldiers of the BEF it was always “Wipers”
Ypres in October 1914 found itself at the centre of the strategic ambitions of both the Allies and the Germans. It was an obstacle to the Germans reaching Calais, while if the Allies could advance across Flanders, they could threaten the German supply lines.
The German Command planned a trap for Allied forces in Flanders in October 1914. The anticipated eastward advance by British and French forces was to be checked by a German Army recently transferred from Lorraine, the superiority of German numbers was not expected by the Allies. Simultaneously, a strong German attack was to be made westward along the Belgian coastal plain, with additional troops released from the siege of Antwerp, to make a breakthrough to the Channel ports.
On the 14th, Belgian engineers began to prepare the defence line on the Yser. Belgian and French forces were to hold a twelve mile line north of Ypres, from Nieuwpoort on the coast, to Diksmuide which was first attacked on 16th October.
After a desperate struggle, King Albert of the Belgians agreed to a policy of last resort to open the sea defences at Nieuwpoort to flood the low lying battle area. The Belgians managed to open the sluices at Nieuwpoort on the nights of 26–29 October during high tides, steadily raising the water level until an impassable flooded area was created about 1-mile (1.6 km) wide, stretching as far south as Diksmuide.
The Germans launched another large attack on the Yser on 30 October. The final attack, planned for the next day was called off, when the attacking Germans became aware of the flooding of the land in their rear. They withdrew in the night before 31 October. But Diksmuide did finally fall in 10th November 1914.
By the 16th of October elements of the 7th Division of the BEF were placed on the Zonnebeke road one mile East of Ypres. By the 19th of October, the British 3rd Cavalry Division and 7th Division were east of Ypres on a line between Langemarck – Poelcapelle – Zonnebeke – Gheluvelt – Zandvoorde with the French holding the line to the immediate north of Ypres.
It will be the 7th Division who hold off repeated German assaults to the east of Ypres, while British I Corps to the north-east will meet with massed concentrations of German troops around Langemarck in what is now called the “Battle of Langemarck” in the opening stages of the First Battle of Ypres.