The Battle of Flanders (battle of The Yser And Battle Of Ypres)
Opposed in her advance toward Dunkirk and Lille, Germany now resolved to break through the opposition. Only the fifty-mile west wing of the battle-line from the North Sea to La Bassee had not become a series of trenches and Germany resolved to break through this gap at all cost. She refused to accept as final her defeat at the Marne—she was about to make one more great effort before abandoning the offensive.
The country in southwestern Belgium was admirably suited for defence. It is low and flat, but it is intersected by innumerable ditches, marshes, canals and dykes. Some of it is below the level of the sea, and many parts of it can be flooded by letting in the ocean; and from the end of fall to the beginning of spring it is one homogeneous mass of bog.
To oppose the German thrust, the Allies had stationed from Nieuport to La Bassee all the forces available, comprising troops of many nationalities, mingled according to the press of circumstances. The Allied defence of this fifty-mile stretch of Flanders fields may nevertheless be read1ly divided into three commands. At the left were the Belgians, from the sea along the Yser River; in the centre, around and in front of Ypres, were the British; and at the right were the French. French and British colonial troops, from India, from Africa, from Australia, and even from Canada—white, black and brown regiments—were also all on the very front of the firing-line.
The Germans opened the Battle of Flanders by a sharp attack on the Belgians at Dixmude, about ten miles from the sea. For eight days, the German troops rushed up in assault, supported by heavy German artillery fire; but the Belgian infantry rolled back the German troops, and the Belgian guns answered the German guns shot for shot. Throughout this long struggle along the banks and canal of the Yser (the Battle of the Yser) the Belgians held firm; and the Germans could not break through here.
Three days after the inauguration of the attack against the Belgians on the Allied left, the Germans launched a terrific offensive against the British in the centre of the line in front of Ypres (the Battle of Ypres). The British had already advanced, with the hope of penetrating the German centre, of cutting their communications, of flanking the troops attacking the Belgians to the west, or at least of relieving the pressure on the Belgians. But the German offensive soon crumpled up the British offensive, and the British were thrown back on the defensive. The fighting was of the fiercest nature imaginable—in none of the long four and one-quarter years struggle was the combat to rage with greater violence, or were the losses to be greater, comparatively, than in this test of strength before Ypres. Step by step the British were forced back, until by October 22, 1914, they had yielded much ground to the Germans. On that day, the Germans even managed to cross the Yser to the north of Ypres, and to threaten a flanking movement. At the same time, the assault on Dixmude was renewed with increased intensity.
But a French division came to the relief of the Belgians and a British division to the relief of their fellow-countrymen; and on the night of the twenty-third both the Belgians and the British held their ground and beat back the German attacks. So close to the sea-coast was the fighting northwest of Dixmude that a number of British warships managed to get close enough to rain shells upon the Germans and thus to provide material assistance to the Belgian army. Nevertheless, the Belgians, although never routed, were being slowly forced back, and Joffre determined to utilize his strongest remaining defence. On October 25, 1914, the dykes were opened and the waters of the ocean began to flood the land. But the waters of the ocean moved slowly, and gave the Germans still several days' breathing space. Until October 28, 1914, the army of the Imperial German Government managed to press steadily forward at the expense of the Belgians, although never making considerable gains; but by the latter day the German lines were disarranged by the oncoming water, and their manoeuvres were hampered. Further reinforcements arrived to strengthen the Belgian ranks; and by October 31, 1914, the Germans had been definitely halted along the sea. Their hopes for breaking through to Dunkirk and Calais, and perhaps even for another flanking movement along the Allied west, were now concentrated on their attack against the centre of the gap, on their attack upon the British defending Ypres. After their momentary check on the night of October 23, 1914, the Germans came to the attack against Ypres on the following day with renewed fury. For the next several days, they gained slowly, but surely; but by October 27, the British again held their ground and again drove back every German assault. The struggle was now a man-to-man combat, and the result depended on the manhood of the opposing soldiers. If the Germans had been indeed a super-race, and the British and the French degenerate races, the Germans would have had little difficulty in breaking down resistance at Ypres. But the Battle of Ypres augured ill for the German claim of racial superiority. Indeed, on October 28, 1914, the British themselves assumed the offensive and drove back the Germans. The British advanced through Gheluvet, and threatened to capture Neuve Chapelle. Then the Germans rallied and re-captured Gheluvet, only to be driven out once more. On the following day, the French forces to the south of the British attacked the German line opposite them, with the effect of lessening for several days the pressure against the British.
On October 31, 1914, however, the Germans returned to the attack. Orders had been given to break through despite the sacrifices involved, and the orders were being obeyed. For a day, the Germans advanced, but after the first impetus of the assault had passed, the British held firm. On November 1, 1914, and November 2, 1914, the struggle was an absolute deadlock. To and fro the battle-line swerved, with no decision possible. On the following day, the French again attacked to the south, and once more pressure on the British was relieved.
Rallying all their strength, the Germans resolved upon one last desperate effort. Baffled in the centre, on November 10, 1914, they drove at both wings—against the Belgians again at Dixmude and against the French to the south, while at the same time they attacked the British with enough force to prevent the Allied centre from rendering assistance to the Allied wings. The attack on the Belgians failed, and after one day's success, the attack against the French also failed. Human flesh and blood could do no more. The Germans abandoned their last attempt to break the Allied line, and entrenched as they had entrenched along the rest of the battle-line.
It was a final quietus upon the attempt to overwhelm France within two months. The French line had held, finally; no French army had been surrounded or captured; Germany's hope of a short war was forever blasted.