Flanders Fields History
On 4 August 1914, the German army invaded Belgium. The Germans demanded King Albert to grant them free passage through the country, so that they could attack the French from the rear and defeat them. The king refused and the famous Schlieffen plan was launched to impose Germany’s military will by force. On 12 August 1914 at Halen (in the province of Limburg) Uhlans of the German cavalry (light cavalry armed with lances) attempted to charge a strong Belgian position with naked swords.
The Way to Flanders Fields
The German advance was now moving more slowly than the German high command had originally hoped. At several places, the Germans believed that they were shot by ’civilians’. The often incomplete uniform of the Civil Guard indeed made it hard to recognise the soldiers. A large number of civilians were executed in retaliation in Dinant, Aarschot and Leuven.
In Leuven 2,000 houses were also burnt to the ground, together with its fabulous university library. The fortress of Antwerp fell in October 1914. After the fall of Antwerp, the tired troops of the weakened Belgian Army withdrew behind the line of the River Yzer.
First Battle of Ypres (19 October - 22 November 1914)
After the German advance through Belgium and eastern France was stopped by an Allied victory in the Battle of the Marne in late September 1914, the so-called "Race to the Sea" began.
The First Battle of Ypres occurred at a decisive point in this ‘race’, when each side attempted to outflank one another’s northern and western wing taking the conflict up to the shores of the Belgian North Sea. In October, the German army launched an offensive aimed at breaking the Allied lines and taking Ypres and the roads leading to the channel ports, thus controlling the outlets to the North Sea. However, the German advance was brought to a halt with the flooding of the Yser plain by the deliberate opening of the locks at Veurne-Ambacht, Nieuwpoort by the Belgian Army.
The flooding caused the water level between the Yser and the railway embankment at Nieuwpoort-Diksmuide to rise, thus bringing the battle to a halt. At the same time, to the south, British and the French reinforcements successfully prevented a German breakthrough at Ypres.
The First Battle of Ypres would linger on until November when the arrival of severe winter weather interrupted the hostilities. In the end, the Allies managed to hold a salient, the Ypres Salient, extending 6 miles into German lines, while the Germans held the ring of high ground which overlooked the city. Armies from both sides had constructed fortified trench fortifications during their manoeuvres and dug themselves in along the Western Front. This entrenchment of the Race to the Sea turned the war of movement into a static trench warfare which would dominate the Great War for the years to come.
Second battle of Ypres (22 April - 25 May)
The Second Battle of Ypres began on 22 April 1915 as a German surprise attack, witnessing for the first time the use of chlorine gas on the Western Front.
The poisonous gas had a devastating effect on the Allied troops and killed thousands of soldiers within minutes whereas others were left blind or condemned to a slow death. The Allies were forced to withdraw for several miles, but the Germans, as surprised as the Allied troops about the devastating effect of the gas, failed to take full advantage of the situation and no breakthrough was reached. Fighting was fierce and spread south to the man-made Hill 60, situated at 60 metres above sea level south east of Ypres.
The British decided to retake this strategically important position through an underground mine war. On 17 April 1915, five mines exploded under the German position which literally blew off the top of the hill.
The fighting of the Second Battle of Ypres subsided with the British in control of the hill. As a consequence, the German army gave up its attempts to take the town, choosing instead to reduce Ypres to piles of rubble through constant bombardment. Although condemned by the Allies as barbaric, the British subsequently used gas in their attack at Loos in September 1915. By the end of WWI, all sides had made extensive use of poison gas as a weapon of mass destruction.
Third Battle of Ypres (31 July - 10 November 1917)
In 1917, British forces planned to seize the railway running behind the German lines in an attempt to advance on the German submarine base at Bruges. At this time of the conflict, the German U-boat campaign had become even more intense and was threatening Britain with defeat.
This major British offensive heralded the beginning of the Third Battle of Ypres. As part of the attack plan, 19 mines were detonated under the German lines at Messines Ridge, causing explosions which could be heard as far away as London (Battle of Messines).
Yet, waterlogged conditions, caused by frequent periods of rain, and the strongly fortified German defence lines enclosing the Ypres Salient made an Allied advance impossible.
The following ‘Battle of Passchendaele’, which ended with the capture of Passchendaele village, merely widened the Ypres Salient by 8 kilometres and resulted in 400,000 killed, wounded and missing soldiers on the British side alone.
For the first time, during the Third Battle of Ypres, German troops made use of mustard gas as opposed to chlorine gas in the Second Battle of Ypres. It was also named ‘Yperite’ after the city of Ypres where it was used for the first time. It blistered the skin, eyes and lungs, and killed thousands of soldiers in a most painful and often slow way.
The tragedy for the Allied armies, who suffered so many losses, was that only a few months later almost all of the ground won in the Third Battle of Ypres was regained by the Germans during the Spring Offensive in 1918.
German Spring Offensive (April 1918)
In the spring of 1918, the Germans were strengthened by the arrival of fresh divisions from the Eastern Front, where the October Revolution of 1917 had led to Russia’s withdrawal from the war.
During the Battle of Merkem on 17 April 1918, the Belgian Army had to withstand a severe attack by the Germans. However the Germans were forced back to their original positions by nightfall. During the Battle of Mount Kemmel the French in particular were very hard pressed. On 25 April this strategically important hill was lost to the Germans and Ypres was almost captured.
The final offensive (28 September - 11 November 1918)
By now, German reserves had been exhausted and the Americans were starting to arrive on the Western Front in huge numbers. In Germany itself, the home front began to disintegrate. From 28 September until the Armistice on 11 November, a series of Allied offensives pushed the Germans back to the River Scheldt.
On Saturday, 28 September 1918 the Belgian Army attacked the fortress in Houthulst Forest (Battle of Houthulst Forest). Almost every Belgian unit was involved in the attack, which was supported by the British Second Army and a number of French divisions. By the end of the first day the Belgians had succeeded in capturing the German lines on a front which was 18 kilometres wide and 6 kilometres deep.
The Armistice of 11 November 1918
At the beginning of November an armistice was signed in a railway carriage near the French town of Compiègne. The First World War finally came to an end at 11 o’clock on the morning of 11 November 1918.
The Reconstruction (1919 - 1967)
After the war, the majority of refugees returned home, ruins were cleared away and the battlefields were cleaned up. The old houses and monuments were gradually rebuilt, one by one. The Nieuwerck - an annex to the Cloth Hall in Ypres, now used as part of the town hall - was only completed in 1967.