British Army graveyard at Ypres
The first battle of Ypres began on October 20, 1914, near the end of the Race for the Sea. It took a heavy toll on three nations but Britain reeled from 58,155 casualties made up mainly of its pre-war professional soldiers. The ground around Ypres became known as the graveyard of the old professional army: for the next four years fresh recruits from all walks of life would don khaki uniforms.
As fighting spread northward through France the Belgian army defended the end of the Allied line along the River Yser, opening sea gates and flooding the land. The Germans looked to open land further south around the medieval cloth trade city of Ypres to try to break through to the Channel ports.
With Ypres surrounded on three sides, the Allies doggedly held against a series of attacks. On November 5 the Germans attacked furiously, desperate to break through before winter worsened. They threw 12 crack divisions at the line, breaking through in the Menin Road area but unable to advance further. As fighting died down, exhausted, freezing soldiers on both sides dug in for winter.
About a million men fought in the three-week struggle: 600,000 Germans (casualties 134,000), 250,000 French (casualties 50,000 to 85,000), 65,000 Belgians 65,000 (26,000 casualties) but the British army lost heavily, seeing almost 60% of its 100,000 men fall. Ypres shuddered from shelling for another four years, held tenuously by the Allies but torn by two more full-scale attacks.
Kindermord: Slaughter of the Innocents
The Germans had superior numbers in the fighting around Ypres in late 1914 but many of their recruits were older men or poorly trained but enthusiastic students. Allied counter-attacks took a savage toll on the young men.
After cursory training under elderly soldiers with little experience of modern artillery and machine gun warfare, the fervently nationalistic students were sent into battle. They were slaughtered in catastrophic attacks against experienced British troops near Langemark but their willing sacrifice was idealised in a German newspaper that claimed the students charged and marched to certain death singing Das Deutschlandlied.
About 3000 students lie in the mass grave of 25,000 Germans at Langemark.
Myth and legend about the tragic Kindermord, or Slaughter of the Innocents, was used for propaganda during the war. Its influence permeated World War II, promoted by Adolf Hitler, a private in a 16th Bavarian Regiment at Ypres. The 3000-strong regiment had 2500 casualties. Of the 250 men in the 1st company, only 42 survived. The disturbed Austrian loner with a pathological hatred of Jews escaped without a scratch.