With the German failure at the First Battle of the Marne, both the Allies and the Germans began “The Race to the Sea” with each army moving north from Paris in an attempt to outflank each other, all the while leaving a line of trenches to their rear. The race came to an end at the Flemish city of Ypres (pronounced “ee-priss”), near the channel coast.
The French Army was overextended occupying the trenches all the way to the Swiss border so the inevitable battle was fought by the Belgian Army which had just recently escaped the capture of Antwerp, a single French army, and “The Old Contemptibles” of Sir John French’s British Expeditionary Force (Kaiser Wilhelm made an offhand comment that he would “destroy French’s contemptible little army”, the name stuck.) The highly trained and experienced British Expeditionary Force was comprised of all volunteers, seasoned veterans from colonial campaigns, and reinforced by tough Indian troops.
In mid-October 1914, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Sir John French, and German Field Marshal Erick Von Falkenhayn all came to the same conclusion: this was the last chance to maneuver before winter set in and the trenches solidified. Both sides attacked.
On 19 October 1914, the Allies struck first and ran directly into German troops staging in their assault positions. The two sides hammered at each other for a month. The First Battle of Ypres was characterized by failures of command and control, leadership, logistics, fratricide, and tactics. It was confusement of the highest order. The First Battle of Ypres was the wake up call that 19th century systems could not keep up with 20th century warfare. Veterans on both sides referred to it as “The Battle” for the rest of their lives, including a young Austrian corporal in the German Army, Adolf Hitler, who received the Iron Cross 2nd Class during the battle for rescuing a comrade under fire.
The British, Germans, Belgians and French were spent by the middle of November. Von Falkynhahn had done the Kaiser’s bidding and destroyed the Old Contemptibles, but he had not broken through. British veterans of “The Battle” were disbanded and they formed the cadres for a larger British Expeditionary Force with Lord Kitchener’s “New Armies”. The battle cost the four armies nearly 300,000 casualties, or almost 9,000 a day. The British, Belgian, Canadian, German, Indian, and French soldiers spent the rest of the cold and wet maritime winter in the brown, barren, and bleak moonscape around Ypres digging the trenches that became a symbol of what they would call “The Great War”.
The next spring the soldiers were greeted with what would become another of the First World War’s symbols: the poppy flower. In those Flanders’ fields, the first flower to bloom every year is the poppy. In May 1915, the shattered fields around Ypres were a sea of blood red poppy flowers. Canadian Lt Col John McCrae was inspired by the sight to write the hauntingly beautiful poem “In Flanders Fields” that would come to define the war. It begins:
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…”