Whitby High School

Battlefields Tour 22nd-25th March 2009

Flanders Field, Belgium - Ypres Salient tour
Tuesday 24th March

Tour of the Ypres Salient

No Mans Land in Flanders

After lunch we were met by our guide, Raul, a local History Teacher, who was to take us on a fascinating and most informative tour of the Ypres Salient to the north of the town.

A salient is a piece of land pushing into hostile territory so that the enemy is ranged around it on three sides and is therefore an extremely dangerous place to be. British troops in the Ypres Salient were subject to fire not only from 3 sides but, until the capture of the Messines Ridge in 1917, from the rear. A combination of geography, the military technology of the period, and the differing tactics of the two sides made it a terrible place - the most hated and feared sector of the whole Western Front.

The name Flanders derives from the old Flemish for flooded land and consequently this area of heavy clay soils is a bog requiring constant and careful drainage. Nowadays the landscape looks solid enough, but to this day a farmer failing to keep his drains in good order is heavily penalised. Under constant shelling the drainage quickly broke down and this very fragile landscape reverted to a bog. It was bad enough for the Germans on the high ground, and they were able to drain much of their water away into the lower British trenches.

The town of Ypres is situated on the edge of a flat plain which stretches off to west and north. To the east a series of low ridges run round the town, roughly in a semi-circle, before joining the Messines Ridge which goes off south towards the French border, like the tail on a slightly skewed question mark. The hills making up the ridge look insignificant enough - their names, Hill 60, Hill 62, etc. refer to their height above sea level in metres - yet they gave the Germans a huge advantage.

In World War One the biggest killer was artillery. The key to successful use of artillery was not so much the position of the guns themselves as the availability of vantage points from which to observe the enemy and direct the artillery fire. With good observation points, which the Germans had, huge and accurate concentrations of artillery fire could be put down in the Salient where movement could be seen.

The Salient came into being during the last phase of the war of rapid movement of 1914, when a German attempt to break through the coast failed but left them in possession of the ridges. The British dug in on the lower slopes. The Germans strengthened their position by constructing a series of ferro-concrete defences (e.g. Tyne Cot) whereas the British High Command did not think them necessary or desirable. The losses sustained by both sides in the Salient were terrible. Of all the more than one million British and Empire servicemen who died in the First World War, about 1 in 4 died there. Given such losses and such disadvantages, the obvious question to ask is why did the British hold on to the Salient at all? (A staff officer who asked this very question in 1915 was immediately sacked.) There are several reasons why the British High Command thought it worthwhile.

a) Only 25 miles away from the Channel ports, the British were aware of having their backs to the sea and felt that they could not pull back any further. The loss of the Channel ports would disrupt the supply line of the B.E.F. and almost certainly force a British withdrawal from mainland Europe.
b) The British were fighting as the allies of the Belgians, whose land this was. The Belgians and the French would not give an inch of ground to the invader, so neither should the British. Coupled with this the British High Command believed more fervently than the Germans that any retreat was bad for morale. The Germans would give up land when necessary to pull back to a better defensive position.
c) After a series of retreats in 1914, the defence of Ypres caught the popular imagination in Britain, as well as that of the popular press. It was considered important for morale at home that the town was held. The more lives that were invested in its defence, the more this became true.

The Battle of Ypres

More than any other sector of the Western Front, fighting here was continuous. Quiet months in other areas could literally be that, but in a quiet month here the British might lose up to 5,000 troops. The Germans, aware of their advantage, kept the pressure up the whole time and shelling occurred daily. The British, aware of their disadvantage, made frequent attempts to acquire some of the higher ground. After the war the Battles Nomenclature Committee identified three periods of more intensive activity which became known as 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battles of Ypres.

1st Ypres - 19th October -22nd November 1914

In the closing phases of the 'race to the sea' a German attempt to break through to the French Channel ports was stopped on the ridges above Ypres. There were terrible casualties on both sides - the B.E.F. the old regular army, was more or less destroyed in the fighting. The German drive to the sea was halted but they were left in possession of the ridges. The Ypres Salient had come into being.

2nd Ypres - 22nd April -25th May 1915

On the 22nd April the Germans experimented with the first use of poison gas in the north of the Salient. The extent of their success was so unexpected that they failed to take full advantage. A desperate situation for the Allies was relieved by an effective but costly series of counter attacks, largely by Canadian troops. By the end of May a German breakthrough had been prevented but a large dent had been made in the north of the Salient. Plumer, the British commander, pulled the line back to form a semicircle running in an arc not much more than two miles from the town. Throughout 1916 things were fairly static in the Salient as attention was turned to the Somme, 70 miles to the south.

3rd Ypres - 31st July -10th November 1917

a) Messines Ridge, June 1917 In the summer of 1917 French morale was at breaking point in the aftermath of the Nivelle Offensive and there were serious mutinies. It was decided to take the pressure off the French by a limited offensive at Ypres, the main aim of which was to dislodge the Germans from the high ground to the south of the town - the Messines Ridge.

The main feature of the battle was the use of 19 huge mines totalling nearly one million pounds of high explosive. The effect was like an earthquake and so effective were these that most of the ridge fell on the first day. Although the offensive was limited in its aims, Piumer's second army secured all its objectives at the relatively low cost, by Western Front standards, of 17,000 casualties. b) Passchendaele

The British Commander in Chief, Haig, now planned a further offensive with much more ambitious aims. The plan was to attack north east of Passchendaele ridge, break out of the Salient, capture Ostend and Zeebrugge, at the same time swinging south and east in the drive towards Germany that would end the war. The offensive began on 31st July and the rain that fell that day was a prelude to the wettest August on record. In the preparatory bombardment, the British had fired four and a half million shells and had shattered what was left of the drainage system. The land turned to a quagmire. The one period of dry weather in September coincided with a lull in the Allied offensive. In the swamps below Passchendaele, through which the British battled in October, the mud was up to twelve feet thick. The fighting for Passchendaele has become synonymous with the misery and suffering of trench warfare. Men drowned, guns became useless, artillery sank and it could take up to 12 hours to walk from Ypres to the front line. The village and the ridge finally fell at the beginning of November. No one knows exactly how many died in the 99 days that it took the British to reach what was supposed to be a week's objective but the total figure for both sides is probably about a quarter of a million. It was one of the costliest and most futile campaigns in military history and the 7 miles of mud captured were lost in the spring of 1918.

Canadian 4th Division troops in the mud of Passchendaele, 14 Nov 1917

Dressing station at the Battle of the Menin Road


The main thrust of the German March Offensive was further south but a secondary drive in early April succeeded in capturing Mount Kemmel. The Allies had no choice but to give up all gains of 1917 and pull back. A full scale German breakthrough in Flanders was prevented but the British were left holding little more than the town of Ypres itself. This was the position until the end of September when the Allies broke out of the Salient at last, as part of the drive which ended the war. N.B. Although the term British is used throughout, the term covers troops from all over the Empire and Dominions who fought in the Salient.

Canadian soldier lighting German prisoner's cigarette, Passchendaele, Nov, 1917

British troops blinded by gas attack and British troops dead in trenches

Maps of Ypres Salient area. Click the 'Back' button on your browser to return.

Holts Salient Map

Modern Salient Area

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Updated April 2009 by Mike Royden
The Whitby High School, Cheshire County Council.