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check the further advance of the Germans. Divisional and corps
reserves were hurried up at once and that evening a counter-
attack by the loth and i6th Batts. temporarily recovered a
wood W. of St. Julien. But the position was critical in the
extreme. Between " Shell Trap Farm " and the canal a 2-m. gap
lay open, Ypres itself was dangerously exposed and all the troops
in the salient might have been cut off by a rapid German ad-
vance in force. Moreover, during the night of April 22-23 the
Germans succeeded in capturing the bridge at Steenstraate over
the Yser canal and established themselves on the western bank.

The first need was therefore to close the gap between the
Canadians and the French right. But conditions were all
against counter-attacks. There was little time for reconnoitring
or for coordinating advances, there was hardly any heavy
artillery to support them for over 50 French guns had fallen into
the enemy's hands. In the course of April 23 attacks were made



by a detachment drawn from the reserves of the 2 Sth Div. by
the Canadian ist and 4th Batts. and by the i3th Bde. (sth Div.)
hastily fetched up from the rest camp where it was recuperating
after its heavy fighting for Hill 60. These attacks did not dis-
lodge the Germans from the position they had already dug and
wired along the ridge running westward past Pilckem, but they
prevented further advance and by the evening a continuous
line had been established from the canal to St. Julien. Else-
where the position remained unchanged; though heavily shelled
and under reverse and enfilade fire the Canadians stuck stub-
bornly both to their original trenches and to the new flank
thrown back to cover St. Julien, and more than one German
advance was beaten off.

But with the Germans on the Pilckem ridge their guns could
not only enfilade all the roads leading east ward into the " Salient "
but could fire into the backs of the troops S. and E. of Ypres
whose situation was therefore rendered most unsatisfactory.
However, encouraged by promises of large French reinforce-
ments, Sir John French endeavoured to maintain his original
position until the French could reestablish theirs. He had
brought up a brigade of the 4th Div. and the newly arrived
Northumbrian Territorial Div. (later numbered Soth), while in
the course of April 24 the Lahore Div. reached Ouderdom.
But before a systematic counter-attack could be launched a
successful German attack on the Canadians had changed the
position for the worse. On the morning of April 24 an ex-
tremely heavy bombardment developed on the original Canadian
trenches, followed by the discharge of gas and by infantry attacks
in force. The troops N. of St. Julien were overwhelmed and in
the course of the morning the Germans, pressing on, made
themselves masters of St. Julien and drove its defenders back
upon Fortuin. Between Fortuin and the trenches of the Can-
adian 2nd Bde., which still held out, there was for a time an open
gap, but the German efforts to advance were checked by artillery
fire at short range and before dark the gap was filled mainly by
units of the 28th Div. to whose position, around Broodseinde,
the German attacks had now extended though without success.
But St. Julien was gone and the next counter-attack had to
make the recovery of St. Julien its objective.

This, delivered early on April 25 by the loth Bde. and various
attached units, advanced the line a little, but failed to recover
the village. With equal gallantry and equally heavy casualties
the Lahore Div. and the French attempted on April 26 to regain
the Pilckem ridge, but just as success seemed within reach gas
drove the French back and the advanced troops of the Lahore
Div., overcome by this new weapon, could not maintain the
positions they had reached. The Northumberland Fusilier
(T.F.) Bde. attacked St. Julien with the same ill-fortune and
meanwhile the Germans had managed despite the stubborn
resistance of the Canadian 2nd Bde. to capture most of the
Gravenstafel ridge. The 28th Div.'s left, N. of Broodseinde, was
thus seriously exposed while simultaneously its infantry attacked
it in front, but the arrival of the nth Bde. (4th Div.) enabled
some sort of line to be established across the N. of " the Salient."
Still it was only with great difficulty and heavy losses from shell-
fire, that the newly arrived units managed to dig themselves in
and establish touch with each other. Luckily the German
infantry attacks lacked vigour and determination and afforded
the defenders welcome opportunities for retaliation. '

By the evening of April 26th, however, the situation had
not improved. A second attempt by the Lahore Div. (April
27), though gallantly pressed, achieved nothing; the French
had made no progress and with the Pilckem ridge firmly held
by the Germans the advanced position of the V. Corps was
clearly untenable. Accordingly Sir John French decided upon
a withdrawal to a new line running N. of St. Jean, N.E. of
Wieltje, by Frezenberg, E. of Hooge, through the woods S. of
the Ypres-Menin road to join the original line of the V. Corps
N. of Hill 60. This line was much less liable to reverse and
enfilade fire, but the evacuation of the Broodseinde ridge and
Polygon wood meant losing valuable positions only to be re-
captured at a heavy cost in the autumn of 1917. The move



YPRES AND THE YSER, BATTLES OF (1914)



PLATE II.




YPRES AND THE YSER, BATTLES OF



1103



was, however, postponed to allow the French and the Lahore
Div. one more attempt upon the Pilckem ridge but this also
achieved nothing substantial and was followed by renewed Ger-
man attacks and desperate fighting. On May i an attempt upon
Hill 60 in which gas was effectively used was only just beaten
off by the gallantry and steadiness of the ist Dorsets. Next day
a violent attack was launched against the northern face of the
salient from St. Julien to the canal, bearing hardest upon the I2th
Bde., who suffered terribly from the gas. Prompt counter-
attacks by the local reserves, including dismounted troopers of
the 3rd Cav. Bde., restored the situation and drove thfe Germans
back with heavy losses while elsewhere the line was successfully
maintained. The actual withdrawal, begun on the night of May
2-3 and completed on May 4, was covered by a stubborn defence
of the left of 28th Div.'s line N. of Broodseinde by the 2nd
Buffs and the 3rd Royal Fusiliers, thanks to which the final
stages of the retirement were unmolested by the Germans, who
did not indeed discover what was happening until too late to
interfere. Their one substantial success was the recovery of Hill
60, recaptured on May 5 by a renewed gas attack.

The evacuation of the advanced position of the V. Corps may
be taken as ending the first stage of the battle. Fighting con-
tinued, however, for another three weeks during which the Ger-
mans delivered three major attacks, on May 8, May 13 and
May 24. The first of these broke through the 28th Div. near .
Frezenberg and resulted despite several counter-attacks in the
loss of most of that division's front line, though on its left the
4th Div., which had replaced the Canadians, maintained its
position. Between May 8 and May 13 there was particularly
bitter fighting round Hooge where the 27th Div. was posted
astride the Menin road. After repeated attacks the Germans
contrived to make a few lodgments in the line, but their advances
in mass formation had given good targets and they lost heavily,
more than one local counter-attack meeting with success.
South of the road against the 8ist Bde. they gained nothing sub-
stantial, though N. of it the front trenches had to be evacuated
in favour of a line just W. of the Bellewarde wood. The attack
of May 13 extended from Hooge to the left of the British line.
The exhausted infantry of the 28th Div. had now been relieved
by the ist and 2nd Cav. Divs. acting as infantry on whom fell
the brunt of the exceedingly heavy bombardment. This was
followed up by infantry attacks which had little difficulty in
occupying positions which had been almost obliterated. Counter-
attacks by the yth and 8th Cav. Bdes. (ist and 2nd Life Guards,
Royal Horse Guards, loth Hussars and Essex and Leicester
Yeomanry) reached the front line only to be forced back again
by the violence of the bombardment, and the day resulted in the
establishment of a new line some distance in rear of the original
position, while the hamlet of Valorenhoek passed into German
keeping and the left of the troops in the Bellewarde position had
to be flung back to connect up with the cavalry's new line. On
the other flank, however, in front of Wieltje the 4th Div. held
firm and inflicted heavy losses on the enemy, retaking such
portions of the line as the Germans had temporarily captured.

After May 13 ten days of intermittent heavy shelling and
occasional sharp local fighting followed, during which the
French recovered Streenstraate and thrust the Germans back
across the canal. But the Germans had not finished. Early on
May 24 a tremendous bombardment opened upon the whole
front from the Menin road, northward. Gas was discharged in
great quantities and at certain places, notably Hooge, " Shell
Trap Farm " and the Bellewarde ridge, the defenders were com-
pletely overcome by the fumes. The Germans therefore had
only to advance against positions practically denuded of defend-
ers. Counter-attacks were launched, but without much success
beyond preventing the Germans from penetrating deeper than
the front line, while just S. of Hooge the determined resistance of
the ist Cav. Div. checked the extension of the German success.
During the night of May 24-25 some units of the 27th and z8th
Divs., hastily recalled from rest camps where they were seeking
to assimilate the large drafts with which they had just been
replenished, were put in to try another counter-attack. This,



however, failed to recover Hooge or the Bellewarde ridge, and
similarly, though the 4th Div. maintained most of its front, its
centre had to be retired to a new line through Wieltje.

This fighting, however, marked the last serious German
effort on this front. With all the advantages of surprise derived
from their use of gas, they had not succeeded in taking Ypres
and if they had made substantial gains of ground and had
inflicted heavy casualties on the defenders their own losses
whenever they had ventured on an infantry advance had been
heavy. When viewed as a whole the defence of the Ypres
salient during April and May 1915 stands out as a splendid
achievement. Many battalions were in the front trenches for
three weeks and more on end, without any relief, constantly
shelled, subjected to repeated attacks, at a fearful disadvantage
in having to face gas-attacks with only the most inadequate
and improvised protection. Ground was lost, but the main
position was held and the II. Army's tenacious resistance
supplies a good example of " economy of forces." When the
German attack on Ypres was launched the Allied offensive
further S. was about to be resumed. The II. Army was asked
to maintain its ground without depending upon the men and
munitions needed elsewhere. Only one division of the I. Army
was employed in the defence of Ypres and it was not because of
any diversion of resources to the Ypres area that the British
offensive of May 1915 proved a bitter disappointment.

(C. T. A.)

HI. BATTLES OF 1917

Continuous fighting of a violent character took place in the
Ypres- Yser region during many weeks in the summer and au-
tumn of 1917, but the operations as a whole may be said to have
consisted of two distinct phases. The undertaking started with
the brilliantly successful combat lasting only a few hours which
has come to be known as the Battle of Messines. There followed
a period of comparative lull, although progress was made at
some points and although counter-attacks had to be beaten off.
Then there were launched immediately to the N. of the scene
of the Messines combat a series of attacks at short intervals
which gained ground as successive waves do on a rising tide and
which lasted for more than four months.

The object in view throughout was the occupation of the
whole of the belt of high ground which extends from a point
about three miles directly N. of Armentieres to near Dixmude,
beyond the forest of Houthulst. Its general direction is at
first north-eastward to about Gheluvelt, then it turns north-
ward to near Staden, and from that point it veers back west-
ward toward the Yser, N. of the above-named forest. A con-
tinuation of somewhat more conspicuous high ground lying N.
of Hazebrouck and Bailleul, this belt represents the watershed
between the basins of the Lys and of the Yser. It rises generally
some 100 to 150 ft. above the great Flanders plain, and it reaches
a height of over 200 feet at a few points. Its southern portion
in the spring of 1917 inclosed to a great extent the Ypres salient
and had been the scene of many desperate encounters during
the Ypres- Yser battles of 1914 and 1915; here the Allies' trenches
gave them possession of some of the lower slopes on their side of
the high ground, although all the upper portion was in German
hands. Further to the N. the enemy held the whole of the high
ground as well as stretches of plain to the W. of it, as from
opposite Gheluvelt the direction of the Allies' front ran north-
westward, i.e. diverging from the line of heights. The general
plan of operations was to begin at the southern end, where the
belt of high ground was almost contiguous with the British front,
and to work from thence northward. This procedure was indeed
almost dictated by the fact that the Ypres salient would have to
be extended outward ere full use could be made in later under-
takings of the important communications which diverge from
Ypres itself toward Bruges and Ghent and Oudenarde. The
capture of the line of high ground its total length was about
23 m.-^only represented the first part of the general strategical
plan, which contemplated the initiating of subsequent operations
in the coast district by another force.



1 1 04



YPRES AND THE YSER, BATTLES OF



The line which the Allies had been holding to the N. of
Armentieres since the spring of 1915 formed in plan an inverted
letter " S," the lower loop turned to the W., the upper loop
turned to the E. and creating the Ypres salient. The lower loop
on the other hand represented a pronounced enemy salient
jutting into the territory in occupation of the Allies and causing
them great inconvenience. Its area consisted almost entirely
of high ground which had come to be known as the Messines-
Wytschaete ridge. From this dominating position the Germans
effectively enfiladed, and to some extent took in reverse, the
Allies' trenches to the S. and to the N. of the salient and also
commanded the communications leading up to these from the
rear, while they overlooked the town of Ypres from within
easy field-gun range. Quite apart from any projects for an offen-
sive on a great scale, the filling in of this enemy salient -the
wresting of the Messines-Wytschaete ridge out of hostile hands
was bound to ameliorate the situation in Flanders from the
point of view of the Entente and to render the task of barring
the invader's way toward the Channel ports so much the easier.
In framing his plans for the Flanders offensive Sir. D. Haig had
already decided to make the high ground about Messines and
Wytschaete his first objective months before the date when the
attack upon the position, formidable by nature and rendered
infinitely more formidable by the labour that had been expended
upon it, actually took place.

General Plumer and his II. Army, who had been acting as
the wardens of the Ypres front for more than two years, had
been selected to carry this operation out. To enable the II.
Army to bring its full force to bear, the V. Army under General
Gough had been transferred from the positions which it had been
occupying between the III. and IV. Armies in Artois during
1916, to the Ypres salient and it was thus on the left of the II.
Preparations for the undertaking had been afoot since the pre-
vious summer but they had only been carried on in earnest dur-
ing the preceding winter. Moreover all the necessary labour
and material had not been available until the prior demands of
the Arras scheme of offensive operations had been satisfied, and
very strenuous work had consequently to be carried on up to
the last moment so as to insure that all would be ready. The
preparations included an elaborate railway scheme. Much road
construction was an indispensable part of the plan. Special
provision for securing an ample water supply had been made.
A great force of artillery had been quietly assembled. But the
most noteworthy item of all, owing to its virtual novelty, was
the carrying into effect of arrangements for a deep mining
offensive on a colossal scale. Twenty great mines had been
established at the end of galleries running right under the
enemy's front line of defence, but one of them had been blown
up by the Germans; a total length of 8,000 yards of gallery had,
in spite of very active countermining on the part of the enemy,
been driven by the tunnelling companies of miners since Jan.,
and 600 tons of explosives had been distributed between the 19
mines that were effective. The simultaneous explosion of these
mines at the moment when the assault was launched was the
most remarkable feature in a battle, the exceptionally decisive
issue of which was primarily to be attributed to the labour that
had been expended in advance, and to the care and forethought
of commander and staff which had preceded the opening of the
combat. It should be mentioned that the preparations above
ground had been carried out under special difficulties owing to
most of this area being overlooked from the German lines.

For the defence of this salient which they occupied, and the
importance of which they fully realized, the Germans depended
upon two separate sets of lines, coinciding in trace with its arc.
The more advanced set of lines of the two was close to the
trenches that were occupied by General Plumer's troops, and
it was at most points pushed down the forward slope of the high
ground. The second set of lines on the other hand, which formed
an inner curve, followed the crest of the Messines-Wytschaete
ridge along most of its extent. The villages of Messines and
Wytschaete had been organized as main centres of resistance
capable of offering a stout defence, and many farms, hamlets



and copses existing along the line had been utilized to form
defensive posts. The Germans had moreover also constructed
two chord positions stretching along the base of the salient
partly on and partly below the reverse slopes of the high ground.
The front one of these two positions represented the final objec-
tive given to the assaulting columns by General Plumer.

The troops of the II. Army detailed for the enterprise con-
sisted, enumerating them from right to left, of the II. Anzac
Corps under Lt.-Gen. Sir A. Godley (Australian 3rd Div., ISJew
Zealand Div., 25th Div.), with the Australian 4th Div. in support;
the IX. Corps under Lt.-Gen. Hamilton-Gordon (36th Div.,
i6th Div., igth Div.), with the nth Div. in support; and the
X. Corps under Lt.-Gen. Sir T. Morland (41 st Div., 47th Div.,
23rd Div.), with the 24th Div. in support. There were thus nine
divisions in front line and three in support. As the final objective
of the troops along the whole battle-front was the chord of the
arc forming the salient, it followed that the divisions in the
centre would have a greater distance to cover than the divisions
on the flanks; this had been taken into account and had been
provided for in the time-table. The moment of assault was
fixed for 3:10 A.M. on the morning of June 7, and at that
hour the 19 mines were exploded beneath the enemy's front line
with devastating effect. At a number of points the hostile
trenches were completely obliterated and their garrisons wiped
out, so that when the assailants reached the enemy's front line
under cover of a tremendous bombardment, very little resistance
was offered and the first objective was secured almost at once.
The consequence was that, as had been anticipated in the
programme, the advancing infantry could proceed without
delay to the execution of their next task, that of carrying the
second German line. The capture of this proved more difficult
than had that of the front defences. In some of the skilfully
prepared localities the enemy detachments would not yield
for some time, in spite of the storm of shell pouring down upon
them; but such localities speedily became isolated as the assail-
ants pushed on between them, and their fall was not then long
delayed. The strongly fortified village of Messines was, accord-
ing to the programme, taken by the New Zcalanders. Wytschaete
was captured after a determined struggle by portions of the 36th
(Ulster) and of the i6th (Irish) Divs. fighting side by side. On
the left, where a trough which is followed by the Ypres-Comines
canal cuts through the belt of high ground, the 47th (London)
Div. had very formidable obstacles to overcome but pressed
steadily forward and took many prisoners. The movements of
the attacking side had been somewhat hampered at the outset
by the dim light and by the air being dust-laden owing to the
great explosions; but as the morning wore on this impediment
to advance disappeared. An interesting feature in the opening
phase of the battle had been that the tanks told off to assist
the advancing battalions had in many cases been unable to get
up in time to share in the struggles for the German second line
of defence, so rapid had been the movements of the infantry.
The operations had proceeded in almost exact accordance with
the time-table, and by early in the forenoon all the upper part of
the Messines-Wytschaete ridge and of its extension north-
eastward to the limit of the battlefield was in the hands of
British and Australasian troops. These moreover had consoli-
dated the ground that they had won, and they were holding a
line which, along most of its extent, was on the reverse slope of
the high ground and overlooked the German chord lines of
trenches; guns had also been pushed forward promptly to assist
at closer range the advance which was to be made against these
as the final operations of the day.

This closing effort took place in the afternoon and it was
completely successful, although the enemy showed some dis-
position to counter-attack and at some points offered a stubborn
resistance. So it came about that by the evening the last objec-
tive had been fully attained, and that General Plumer and his
army had placed an extraordinarily complete and decisive
tactical success to their credit. The extent of the success was
not to be measured merely by the importance and extent of the
area of ground which had been wrested out of the enemy's



YPRES AND THE YSER, BATTLES OF



1105



hands by masterly soldiership. Great captures in men and
material had also been effected. 7,200 prisoners (including 145
officers) had been taken, together with 67 guns, 94 trench mortars
and 294 machine-guns. Nor had the victory been purchased at
a heavy cost in casualties. The total number of killed and
wounded the latter in many cases representing trifling injuries
only amounted to 16,000 in an army of sixteen divisions
assailing a position of exceptional strength and that was strongly
held. That the defenders realized how thoroughly vanquished
they were, was shown by the feeble nature of such counter-
attacks as were attempted during the day, as well as by the fact
that the conquerors were during the night permitted to consoli-
date the ground that they had secured, almost unmolested.
The battle of Messines was from the point of view of the victors
a veritable masterpiece of design and of execution.

Not until the evening of the following day, the 8th, did the
Germans adventure a general counter-attack upon the positions
which the II. Army had won and which it had by that time
prepared satisfactorily for defence. Covered by an intense bom-
bardment, the hostile infantry then advanced to the assault
along practically the whole of the new front; but they were
beaten off at all points. The enemy drew back somewhat from
in front of the southern portion of the ground conquered by the
II. Army during the next few days, and on the evening of the
I4th General Plumer's troops carried their line forward some


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Online LibraryJessie FothergillThe Encyclopædia Britannica : a dictionary of arts, sciences, literature and general information (Volume 32) → online text (page 405 of 459)