Fierce Fighting in the Ypres Salient;
Corpses, Corpses, and More Corpses.
Special to The Great War Project
(20-21 October) Fighting intensifies on the “Ypres salient.”
The trench lines dug by both sides around the Belgian city of Ypres, create an extension or salient, and ignites some of the fiercest fighting so far in the war.
But neither side yet understands just how important the fighting here is. General John French, one of the British top commanders, writes to Lord Kitchener, the British minister of war on October 21, “In my opinion the enemy are vigorously playing their last card and I am confident they will fail.”
“That last card,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “proved to be far more than a series of cavalry skirmishes.”
The fighting reveals a German effort to drive the British out of the Ypres salient altogether, Gilbert writes, “as part of a wider strategy aimed at breaking through to the North Sea and Channel coast.”
The action at the Ypres Salient is only a part of a wider German effort along the Western Front “to push the British back…But….
“the German grand design was nowhere within sight of success”…..
“The war of rapid movement was over,” writes Gilbert. “The struggle had become one for villages, hills, and roads.”
On October 21 a German artilleryman, Herbert Sulzbach, who is in action for the first time, writes in his diary, “we pull forward, get our first glimpse of this battlefield, and have to get used to the terrible scenes and impressions: corpses, corpses, and more corpses, rubble and the remains of villages.”
“The bodies of friend and foe lie tumbled together. Heavy infantry fire drives us out of the position which we had taken up, and this is added to by increasingly heavy British artillery fire. We are now in an area of meadowland, covered with dead cattle and a few surviving, ownerless cows…
The ruins of the village taken by assault are still smoking. Trenches hastily dug by the British are full of bodies.
“We get driven out of this position as well, by infantry and artillery fire.”
That night, in another diary entry marking the end of his first day in battle, Sulzbach writes: “A dreadful night comes down on us. We have seen too many horrible things all at once, and the smell of the smoking ruins, the lowing of the deserted cattle, and the rattle of machine-gun fire makes a very strong impression on us barely twenty years old as we are, but these things also harden us up for what is going to come.
“We certainly did not want this war! We are only defending ourselves and our Germany against a world of enemies who have banded together against us.”
On these October days a century ago, a general German offensive begins, writes war historian John Keegan, “against the whole front.”
Reconnoitering reveals “huge columns of Germans,” according to historian Max Hastings, “vastly outnumbering the British infantry and screening cavalry. It would be upon them within hours.”
The British advance is countermanded. “Here was the beginning,” says Hastings, “of what became known to history as the Ypres salient.”
On the morning of October 20th, Hastings recounts that “throngs of local civilians began hastening westward,” out of Ypres.