This is the Cloth Hall in Ypres at the end of 1914. Ypres was where the Canadians lost their innocence. It was where the war took a new turn in horror.
All of this because it could not be lost. (More context here)
Here it is at the end of the war. Still in allied hands but without one building standing.
Why was Ypres so important? Why did the Canadians play such a role here early in 1915 in the 2nd battle of Ypres and later at the 3rd battle of Ypres?
This map shows why Ypres was so important. In the closing months of 1914. The Germans had almost reached Paris but had been turned back on the Marne. Each side tried to outflank the other from the North. This process lead to the establishment of trenches that ran from the Channel in the North to the Swiss border in the south.
Ypres was the end of the line. (Here is more on this time)
If the British lost Ypres, the whole trench system could be rolled up and the BEF could be blocked from thre ports.
The "Race for the Sea" ended in November 1914 at Ypres. Here it was finally revealed to the Germans that courage was not enough. That faced with rapid fire from trained men with rifles, machine guns and artillery firing high explosive flesh and blood had no chance.
By January 1915, both armies were now spent. (Source for quote)
The losses were staggering. From October 12 to November 12, 1914 the British sustained 56,000 casualties, including 8,000 killed, 30,000 wounded, and 18,000 missing (of whom perhaps a third or more were also killed). While it’s harder to find precise numbers for the other combatants, the Germans suffered around 135,000 casualties across all categories, the French 85,000, and the Belgians 22,000. Assuming that one fourth of the casualties were fatal, as in the case of the British, it seems safe to assume that around 75,000 soldiers lost their lives at the First Battle of Ypres.
The BEF was eviscerated. (Source for quote)
One soldier, Private Donald Fraser, explained it this way: "one [a man] was not a soldier unless he had served on the Ypres front." Less than half of the 160,000 men the BEF sent to France came out of the encounter unscathed. After November 1914, the British would come to call these trenches 'the Salient" and would remain as Ypres' guardians for the rest of the war.
The BEF had to be reinforced. The First Division of the Canadians would be amongst the first reinforcements. They will arrive in February 1915. At the same time the Territorials and reservists from the British army also arrived. It would take until the summer of 1916 for the new Kitchener army to arrive. By which time the Canadians would be a Corps.
In spite of the losses, hopes on the allied side were still high.
It looked in January that the Allies had nearly won the war. They had pushed the Germans back a long way. They had held the Ypres salient. To many it needed just one more push. .
But these hopes were misplaced. The Germans held all the best defensive ground. At at Ypres they held 3 sides of a box.
The Germans were on high ground and could fire into the shallow trenches of the new front. They could see everything and everyone. The Salient was a death trap.
This is the infamous Hellfire Corner. The road feeding the front from Ypres town. Defenders were exposed all the time. The screens on the left were an attempt to shield people on the road. You can see that the gunners are going at a gallop here.
The British Army had settled into shallow and makeshift trenches. The thinking was that they were not going to be here for long. Here is what life looked like then.
Strewn in front of the trenches were the dead of the battles in the autumn. It was too dangerous to move them.
This dead Frenchman lay exposed for a year.
So this was the place where the Canadians would find themselves in 6 weeks time. This what what any oberserver could see.
But things were going on that no one could see.
Back in Germany, a world renowned scientist who had invented nitrogen fertilizer, was working on a secret plan to give the Germans the edge and enable them to break through here at Ypres.
In our next post we will look at the use of Gas.