Primary Documents - Joseph Joffre on the First Battle of Ypres, October-November 1914
Reproduced below is the text of French Army Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre's report on the events before and during the First Battle of Ypres, launched by the German Army during October and November 1914.
In Joffre's view the battle was launched primarily to support German military operations against the coast. His verdict is clear: both failed definitively at great cost to German manpower and resources. Joffre however is less inclined to dwell however on the great losses also incurred by Allied forces during the battle.
An Account of the First
Battle of Ypres
by French Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre
On leaving Antwerp on October 9th the Belgian army, which was covered by 8,000 British blue-jackets and 6,000 French blue-jackets, at first intended to retire as far as to the north of Calais, but afterwards determined to make a stand in Belgian territory.
Unfortunately, the condition of the Belgian troops, exhausted by a struggle of more than three months, did not allow any immediate hopes to be based upon them. This situation weighed on our plans and delayed their execution.
On the 16th we made progress to the east of Ypres. On the 18th our cavalry even reached Roulers and Cortemark. But it was now evident that, in view of the continual reinforcing of the German right, our left was not capable of maintaining the advantages obtained during the previous few days. To attain our end and make our front inviolable a fresh effort was necessary. That effort was immediately made by the dispatch to the north of the Lys of considerable French forces, which formed the French army of Belgium.
The French army of Belgium consisted, to begin with, of two territorial divisions, four divisions of cavalry, and a naval brigade. Directly after its constitution it was strengthened by elements from other points on the front whose arrival extended from October 27th to November 11th. These reinforcements were equivalent altogether in value to five army corps, a division of cavalry, a territorial division, and sixteen regiments of cavalry, plus sixty pieces of heavy artillery.
Thus was completed the strategic manoeuvre defined by the instructions of the General in Chief of September 11th and developed during the five following weeks with the ampleness we have just seen. The movements of troops carried out during this period were methodically combined with the pursuit of operations, both defensive and offensive, from the Oise to the North Sea.
On October 22nd our left, bounded six weeks earlier by the Noyon district, rested on Nieuport, thanks to the successive deployment of five fresh armies - three French armies, the British army, and the Belgian army.
Thus the coordination decided upon by the General in Chief attained its end. The barrier was established. It remained to maintain it against the enemy's offensive. That was the object and the result of the battle of Flanders, October 22nd to November 15th.
The German attack in Flanders was conducted strategically and tactically with remarkable energy. The complete and indisputable defeat in which it resulted is therefore significant.
The forces of which the enemy disposed for this operation between the sea and the Lys comprised:
(1) The entire Fourth Army, commanded by the Duke of Wurttemberg, consisting of one naval division, one division of Ersatz Reserve (men who had received no training before the war), which was liberated by the fall of Antwerp; the Twenty-second, Twenty-third, Twenty-sixth and Twenty-seventh Reserve Corps, and the Forty-eighth Division belonging to the Twenty-fourth Reserve Corps.
(2) A portion of another army under General von Fabeck, consisting of the Fifteenth Corps, two Bavarian corps and three (unspecified) divisions.
(3) Part of the Sixth Army under the command of the Crown Prince of Bavaria. This army, more than a third of which took part in the battle of Flanders, comprised the Nineteenth Army Corps, portions of the Thirteenth Corps and the Eighteenth Reserve Corps, the Seventh and Fourteenth Corps, the First Bavarian Reserve Corps, the Guards, and the Fourth Army Corps.
(4) Four highly mobile cavalry corps prepared and supported the action of the troops enumerated above. Everything possible had been done to fortify the morale of the troops. At the beginning of October the Crown Prince of Bavaria in a proclamation had exhorted his soldiers "to make the decisive effort against the French left wing," and "to settle thus the fate of the great battle which has lasted for weeks."
On October 28th, Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria declared in an army order that his troops "had just been fighting under very difficult conditions," and he added: "It is our business now not to let the struggle with our most detested enemy drag on longer. The decisive blow is still to be struck."
On October 30th, General von Deimling, commanding the Fifteenth Army Corps (belonging to General von Fabeck's command), issued an order declaring that "the thrust against Ypres will be of decisive importance." It should be noted also that the Emperor proceeded in person to Thielt and Courtrai to exalt by his presence the ardour of his troops. Finally, at the close of October, the entire German press incessantly proclaimed the importance of the "Battle of Calais."
It is superfluous to add that events in Poland explain in a large measure the passionate resolve of the German General Staff to obtain a decision in the Western theatre of operations at all costs. This decision would be obtained if our left were pierced or driven in. To reach Calais, that is, to break our left; to carry Ypres, that is, to cut it in half; through both points to menace the communications and supplies of the British expeditionary corps, perhaps even to threaten Britain in her island - such was the German plan in the Battle of Flanders. It was a plan that could not be executed.
The enemy, who had at his disposal a considerable quantity of heavy artillery, directed his efforts at first upon the coast and the country to the north of Dixmude. His objective was manifestly the capture of Dunkirk, then of Calais and Boulogne, and this objective he pursued until November 1st.
On October 23rd the Belgians along the railway line from Nieuport to Dixmude were strengthened by a French division. Dixmude was occupied by our marines (fusiliers marins). During the subsequent day our forces along the railway developed a significant resistance against an enemy superior in number and backed by heavy artillery. On the 29th the inundations effected between the canal and the railway line spread along our front.
On the 30th we recaptured Ramscapelle, the only point on the railway which Belgians had lost. On the 1st and 2nd of November the enemy bombarded Furnes, but began to show signs of weariness.
On the 2nd he evacuated the ground between the Yser and the railway, abandoning cannon, dead and wounded. On the 3rd our troops were able to re-enter the Dixmude district. The success achieved by the enemy at Dixmude at this juncture was without fruit. They succeeded in taking the town. They could not debouch from it. The coastal attack had thus proved a total failure.
Since then it has never been renewed. The Battle of Calais, so noisily announced by the German press, amounted to a decided reverse for the Germans.
The enemy had now begun an attack more important than its predecessor, in view of the numbers engaged in it. This attack was intended as a renewal to the south of the effort which had just been shattered in the north. Instead of turning our flank on the coast, it was now sought to drive in the right of our northern army under the shock of powerful masses. This was the Battle of Ypres.
In order to understand this long, desperate, and furious battle, we must hark back a few days in point of time. At the moment when our cavalry reached Roulers and Cortemark (October 28th) our territorial divisions from Dunkirk, under General Biden, had occupied and organized a defensive position at Ypres.
It was a point d'appui, enabling us to prepare and maintain our connections with the Belgian army. From October 23rd two British and French army corps were in occupation of this position, which was to be the base of their forward march in the direction of Roulers-Menin.
The delays already explained and the strength of the forces brought up by the enemy soon brought to a standstill our progress along the line Poelcapelle, Passchendaele, Zandvoorde, and Gheluvelt. But in spite of the stoppage here, Ypres was solidly covered, and the connections of all the Allied forces were established.
Against the line thus formed the German attack was hurled from October 25th to November 13th, to the north, the east, and the south of Ypres. From October 26th on the attacks were renewed daily with extraordinary violence, obliging us to employ our reinforcements at the most threatened points as soon as they came up.
Thus, on October 31st, we were obliged to send supports to the British cavalry, then to the two British corps between which the cavalry formed the connecting link, and finally to intercalate between these two corps a force equivalent to two army corps. Between October 30th and November 6th Ypres was several times in danger. The British lost Zandvoorde, Gheluvelt, Messines, and Wytschaete. The front of the Allies, thus contracted, was all the more difficult to defend; but defended it was without a recoil.
The arrival of three French divisions in our line enabled us to resume from the 4th to the 8th a vigorous offensive. On the 10th and 11th this offensive, brought up against fresh and sharper German attacks, was checked. Before it could be renewed the arrival of fresh reinforcements had to be awaited, which were dispatched to the north on November 12th.
By the 14th our troops had again begun to progress, barring the road to Ypres against the German attacks, and inflicting on the enemy, who advanced in massed formation, losses which were especially terrible in consequence of the fact that the French and British artillery had crowded nearly 300 guns on to these few kilometres of front.
Thus the main mass of the Germans sustained the same defeat as the detachments operating further to the north along the coast. The support which, according to the idea of the German General Staff, the attack on Ypres was to render to the coastal attack, was as futile as that attack itself had been.
During the second half of November the enemy, exhausted and having lost in the Battle of Ypres alone more than 150,000 men, did not attempt to renew his effort, but confined himself to an intermittent cannonade.
We, on the contrary, achieved appreciable progress to the north and south of Ypres, and insured definitely by a powerful defensive organization of the position the inviolability of our front.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. II, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
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