"On the grim fields of Flanders, the old battle plain,
Their armies held the iron line round Ypres in the rain,
From Bixschoote to Baecelaere and down to the Lys river."
—Margaret Woods (The First Battle of Ypres).
When two armies meet each other face to face, and are in such positions that neither can dislodge the other, the commanders endeavour to strike a blow round one or other of the enemy's flanks. Such was the position in France at the end of September 1914. The Germans, forced back, as we have seen, at the height of their first victorious rush, were now firmly established on a line stretching along the Chemin des Dames above the Aisne, north of Rheims, Verdun, and Nancy, to the mountains of Switzerland. The Belgian army was still at this time holding out in Antwerp.
General Joffre, the French Commander-in-Chief, began by sending troops north of the Oise against St. Quentin. The Germans sent troops to meet them, and so move and counter-move followed each other until the line of stalemate was extended as far north as Lille.
In all these moves, and in all future movements on the Western Front, it must be remembered that the Germans held the great advantage of being on the inside of a circle, whilst the Allies were on the outer edge. Therefore any move between two points on the line was shorter for the Germans, and whichever side made the move first, the Germans always had a slight advantage in the all-important matter of time.
Whilst the French were extending their line to the north, the British Expeditionary Force, successfully withdrawn from their positions on the Aisne, were hurrying round behind them, with the object of filling the gap between them and the Belgians in Antwerp, and of attacking the German lines of communication, which led back into their own country through Belgium. A British naval division had also been sent hurriedly to Antwerp, and the 7th Division was working its way to the same place through Flanders.
Up to this time the Germans had been too busy with the battles of the Marne and the Aisne to take any measures against the fortress of Antwerp; but now, threatened by the advance of the British and French towards the Scheldt, they decided to capture this place.
As had happened at Liege and Namur, the fortifications of Antwerp proved no match against the gigantic new guns with which Germany had surprised the world, and on 8th October the Belgian army left the city, and the Germans took possession next day, as has already been described.
The gallant little Belgian army, led by King Albert himself, having stood up so bravely against the first onslaught, was now driven from its last stronghold. Some of them, together with a part of the British Naval division, were forced into Holland, while the remainder, hard-pressed and outnumbered, retreated down the Belgian coast, past Ostend, until they reached the River Yser. The line of this river had to be held at all costs, or Dunkirk and Calais would be threatened, the last thin strip of Belgian soil lost, and the armies at Ypres surrounded. On 10th October British ships, carrying powerful long-range guns, came rushing across the North Sea to Nieuport, and soon across the dreary, rain-sodden sand-dunes heavy fire descended on the Germans. Day after day the Belgians held on, but on 2nd October the Germans succeeded in crossing the river between Dixmude and Nieuport: then they played their last card, they opened the lock-gates and flooded the country. The Germans, caught in the rising tide, were drowned; some escaped, many were made prisoners. The attack had failed. The Kaiser, who had been watching the coast operations, shut up his glasses and turned away.
Meanwhile the British were still advancing in Flanders, but this advance was met by the unexpectedly strong attacks of the German armies released by the fall of Antwerp. Once again outnumbered, and in a hazardous situation, the British began to be forced back.
It was only now, their dreams of reaching Paris shattered on the Marne, and their eyes opened by their successes in the north, that the Germans began to consider seriously the capture of the Channel ports—Calais, Dunkirk, and Boulogne. They realised the tremendous value of this stretch of coast-line; how by commanding the Straits of Dover, they would cut off the English Channel from the North Sea, and at the same time sever the link by which the British Army was maintained in France. The Channel ports, the gateway to England, would be a richer prize than Paris, and the winning of them became, for the time being, the aim and object of the German Higher Command. The Kaiser appeared himself to conduct operations.
Deadlock had now been reached along the whole front from Switzerland to the vicinity of Neuve Chapelle, and the door had been locked to the advancing Germans from Dixmude to the sea by the inundations on the Yser. There remained only the gap, in the centre of which lay Ypres. Ypres, the old capital of Western Flanders, with its famous Cloth Hall, was a landmark amidst the flat lands of Flanders, and was destined to become the centre of the greatest clash of arms the world had ever seen.
Behind the gap lay Calais, and in the gap stood all that remained of the British Expeditionary Force. They had enjoyed no rest since 23rd August, had lost many of their best officers and men, and knew that the armies, preparing in England, were not yet ready to take the field.; and that, if they gave way now, those armies might never have the opportunity of doing so. The Germans, feeling the approach of winter, and not having yet won any material success in the West, collected all their available troops and flung them against this thinly held line. Their progress at first was slow, for the British fell back stubbornly, fighting every inch of the ground, but on 31st October they reached a line just east of Ypres, from which they could not in safety retire another yard, and the order went forth, "Hold on at all costs!"
The situation was critical in the extreme: the line was so thinly manned that it might well be broken at any point at any moment, and there were no reserves behind with which to mend the breach. But the line held, and on 1st November some relief was afforded by the arrival of French troops.
The rain came, and the whole countryside became a quagmire of mud: movement became almost impossible, and the men in the trenches fought under the most terrible conditions. Reduced to a minimum in numbers there was no possibility of any system of relief, but wet through, worn out, and often without food, the men held out against the almost continuous attacks of the enemy.
On 11th November these attacks culminated in the onslaught of the Prussian Guard, when the flower of the German army, under the eyes of their Emperor, flung themselves against the British Line. With magnificent dash and amazing valour, they poured over the British positions, only to be mown down in thousands by rifle and machine-gun fire. Again and again they advanced, and again and again they recoiled.
"So all day long the noise of battle roll'd."
But the line held!
After the failure of this grand attack, the German efforts grew weaker, until about 17th November the first battle of Ypres may be said to have finished, and the fighting waned away in utter exhaustion. The casualties in human life during the six weeks were little short of 300,000 men, including both sides. Nearly 10,000 fell on 11th November alone.
The positions were now consolidated on both sides, and the deadlock was complete from Switzerland to the North Sea.
Such is the story of the formation of the Western Front, brought about partly by the enormous number of men employed, and partly by the undreamed-of power of modern weapons. The old methods of war were gone, although the principles remained unchanged, and both sides spent the winter in devising new methods with which to overcome the novel situation. For it was realised then, and never lost sight of by the men who knew, that ultimate victory must be sought on the Western Front.
The Russian Front and the Balkan States.