Ieper has become a very British place of pilgrimage since the war. Every night at 2000 hours the Last Post is sounded under the Menin Gate, which records the names of tens of thousands of soldiers from the Empire who have no known grave. The nightly gathering offers the listener a multitude of English accents from across the globe. Amongst them you will also hear the Flemish of local visitors and quite often French as well.
The French come to participate in this very British ceremony (organised by Belgians it should be added) and probably do not realise the large role that French soldiers played in and around the town.
By October 1914 Ypres was the last remaining Belgian town in Allied hands. Attempts to save Antwerp had failed and once again the Germans were marching south.
To set the scene for the events that happened in this area it is important to understand that following the 1st Battle of the Marne in September 1914 (The famous one where the taxis from Paris ferried French troops to the front) there was a sequence of actions that have become known as the Race to the sea.
Having held the Germans on the Marne and then pushed them back to the Aisne the French now found that the Germans were fortifying their positions along the Chemin des Dames. Moving troops to the west the French tried to get around the western flank of the Germans.
The Germans not only succeeded in beating off these assaults but also managed to stabilise their line, up through Picardie then into Artois. Arras was regained by the French but would remain within kilometres of the front until September 1918.
As the Germans were generally being pushed back, they invariably got to choose where they would defend. Often as not, that meant the high ground along the ridges. For four years Allied soldiers would have to climb to meet them.
The Allied front line, by comparison, was situated at the last point we had reached — not necessarily where we wanted it to be.
With the fall of Antwerp on 9th October the German III Reserve Corps was sent off in hot pursuit of the Belgian Army which had managed to escape. As the Corps gave chase, a new Fourth Army under Duke Albrecht of Württemberg was created. Their orders were to crush the Belgians and open the way to Calais.
On the 6th October the British 7th Division landed in Belgium with the intention of taking part in an Allied relief force for Antwerp. The town having fallen the Division slowly fell back through Gent and then Brugge until it arrived on the outskirts of Ypres on the 14th. And so the British Army had arrived at Wipers, as it became known to its soldiers, and prepared to fight.
With a threat to Calais already quite clear, Field Marshal Sir John French, commanding the BEF made the argument that the remaining British Corps (The original BEF) should be moved further north from the Aisne.
Realising that Ypres was the key to the area (politically as well as strategically because it was important that King Albert I, did not find himself in exile) Général Ferdinand Foch had already ordered the 87e DIT (French Territorial troops) to occupy the town with the 89e DIT in reserve.
To help distinguish French units from British, I have kept their French titles.
87e is the equivalent of 87th.
On the left of the French the exhausted Belgian Army concentrated around Nieuwpoort; their King installing himself at Veurne. Fighting on Belgian soil the Belgian Army remained under the orders of its King who insisted on that right throughout the war; though he made it clear that he was always open to advice from his Allies.
The key to this area was the town of Diksmuide, defended by a Belgian Brigade (Colonel Meiser) and the French Fusiliers Marins of Amiral Ronarc’h. To the north the front ran along the IJzer with the Belgians defending the bridges.
The entire area in front of the Belgians was low-lying and part of it was below sea-level. Getting across the river was only possible by a number of bridges that would become important in this and future battles. West of the river was the Nieuwpoort-Diksmuide railway embankment which was hardly two metres above ground.
Although the railway line has gone, the embankment has become a very popular cycle track.
On 18th October 1914 the Germans began the Battle of the Yser (IJzer — the word means iron) with the III Reserve Corps (General Beseler) attacking the Belgians along the Yser River — which in places is canalised.
Although the Germans made some gains, they were unable to get across the river. The only possibility that presented itself was at Nieuwpoort but the 4th Ersatz Division was ordered not to try as the town was also being defended by a flotilla of the British Royal Navy.
This rapid offensive by the Germans put an end to plans by the French Northern Army Group under Général Ferdinand Foch to catch the right flank of the German army and throw it back. That plan had been to drive a wedge between the German III Reserve Corps and the remainder of the German Fourth Army.
What is quite clear from the attitude of both belligerents is that the realisation was upon them that their offensives here at the sea were the last chance to resoundingly win the war. The battles would be as bloody as anything that would follow in later years as Generals sought the knock-out punch.
French casualties in the first few months amounted to almost a third of their entire losses of the war.
Although the Allies had grand ideas (Sir John French at one point told Sir Douglas Haig to advance and seize Brugge) they ended up being forced to react to the German battering ram which had already begun pounding the 49,000 Belgian walking dead, who were only hanging on by a thread.