Primary Documents - The Paris Mail on the First Battle of Ypres, 31 October 1915

British Expeditionary Force Commander-in-Chief Sir John French Reproduced below is an article which appeared in the Paris Mail on the first anniversary of the First Battle of Ypres.  The editorial article essentially comprised a celebration of the British Army's prompt action in saving the Channel ports from falling into German control - and with that, it opined, a rapid end to the war resulting in a decisive German victory.

With the Channel ports saved, suggested the newspaper, the Kaiser's hope for a rapid victory was at an end.

The First Battle of Ypres
An Anniversary Report by the Paris Mail, 31 October 1915

If it is ever permissible to speculate shudderingly on what might have been if certain events had or had not happened, it is clearly justifiable to declare that at 2 o'clock on October 31, 1914, the fate of Europe was decided.  It was the crucial hour of that heroic day.  It is the hinge upon which the future history of the world turns.

Today we celebrate the triumphal but bloody anniversary of the first battle of Ypres.  We have lived through vivid, valorous months and years, we have watched battle after battle, terrible, intense, full-fraught with significance; and we have not even yet, in the vortex of events, realized how supreme was the crisis through which we passed three years ago, and how frightfully our fate trembled in the balance.

There should be, in those who understood the peril of that great afternoon, a spirit of profound thanksgiving, incandescent in the glow of mighty memories.

As in all the big moments of history, it was an accident, a providence if you will, that turned the faltering scale.  Lord French, Sir Douglas Haig, and General Gough, in earnest, anxious consultation in the chateau at Ypres, had taken all their dispositions, had done all that the high command could do.

They could only trust in the traditional bravery of the British soldier to stay the overwhelming German masses - a mere 150,000 men against over half a million.  They were tired, perturbed, but borne up by unconquerable faith, and their brains were as alert as ever.

The Yser was in the rear of the thin British line.  Retreat threatened irreparable disaster.  If the line broke the Germans would roll up the Allies, would menace Paris more desperately than before, and, above all, the Channel ports would be laid bare.

Messengers followed each other in hot haste, the telephone brought its burden of news from all parts of the field, and the generals must have felt the icy breath of fear touch their ardent faith.

For the line did break.  The day was lost.  Disaster had arrived.  Against such odds, what could mortal man do?  The gallant General Lomax was wounded at Gheluvelt, and the 1st Division recoiled, shattered.  The breach was made.  The whole front must give.  The reserves?  There were no reserves.  Every man was fighting, and men were falling everywhere.  Gheluvelt was, then, the grave of civilization.

But then a wonderful thing happened.  Destiny changed its face.  There occurred, as so often in the annals of our empire, at the exact second when the clock of doom was about to strike, the Miracle.

Brig. Gen. Charles FitzClarence, whose name cannot be too highly honoured (alas! that he perished splendidly at the head of his men a few days later), had shown himself many times to be a soldier of mettle.  Thrice he had earned the V.C. in beleaguered Mafeking.  He was as skilful as he was courageous, a soldier with the true genius of a soldier.

In the press and confusion of the moment he saw in a flash the debacle that was imminent.  The 2nd Worcesters were there.  They were not under his command.  But what mattered ceremony in such a moment?  He gave his orders to Major Hankey, and the Worcesters flew forward to the rescue.

It was not a question of hours.  A minute more or less would have made all the difference.  The Worcesters came up in time.  The 1st Division rallied.  Gheluvelt was retaken.  The line was repaired.  The day was retrieved.  The Channel ports were saved.  Liberty lived again in a civilized world.

For consider the problem which had faced Field Marshal French in those latter doubtful days of October.  The Germans, foiled in their sweep on Paris, had begun their dash to the sea.

Their object was plain; their military strategy was simple, bold, and apparently conclusive.  If the Marne had destroyed their first plan, their second was even greater.  If they swung down on the northern coast of France - and what could stop them? - they would dominate the Channel and cut off the prospect of further British reinforcements.

Think of the course the war would have pursued without the Channel ports in Allied hands.  How many millions of men and of shells have since passed safely across that narrow strip of sea?  With that door to France barred the task of Britain would have been immeasurably harder.

But without looking far into the future, Germany might reasonably expect to outflank the Allies, to deal a decisive blow which would end the war, to possess (in the alternative) a jumping-off place from which to invade England.

The Germans rushed west; the Allies pushed northward to interpose a barrier against this flood of armed barbarians.  Joffre thrust out his forces to La Bassee, leaving Lord French and his troops in the centre.  But French, with the sure knowledge that the place of the British regiments was on the left flank, nearest the coast, a post of danger, a post of honour, and a post of vital importance to Great Britain since the control of the Channel was essential to the glorious little island with the glorious little army, came to an understanding with the French commander and distributed his men accordingly beyond La Bassee.

The position toward the end of the month was roughly as follows: Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and the 2nd Corps were fighting and incurring enormous losses between La Bassee and Aubers; Sir William Pulteney was with the 3rd Corps east of Armentieres to the Bois Grenier (French cavalry filling up the gap); Sir Edmund Allenby and the Cavalry Corps were on the left, on the eastern side of the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge; while to the north lay the 4th Corps (which included the 7th Division and the 3rd Cavalry Division), under Sir Henry Rawlinson, panting after its efforts in covering the retreat of the Belgians from Antwerp and in attempting to take the bridge at Menin, on the Lys.

There remained Sir Douglas Haig and the 1st Corps, who came up from the Aisne on October 19th, and were on the Belgian frontier.  The question for Lord French was how to employ them.  To strengthen his hard-pressed troops, already too extended?  Or to fill up the empty sector between General Rawlinson and the Belgian army, then on the Yser?

The dilemma was dreadful; the risk in either event was huge.  The British commander did not shrink from the danger.  Coolly, deliberately, he took his desperate decision to defend at all costs the unprotected portion of the line.  Haig planted himself from Zonnebeke to St. Julien, and from St. Julien to Bixschoote, and the epic period of the first battle of Ypres began.

British battalions "disappeared."  Two thousand three hundred men and forty-four officers were left to the 7th Division, which a few days earlier numbered 12,000 men and 400 officers.  But if the losses were terrific the performances of the little band against crushing forces were prodigious.

The climax of the furious battle was reached on October 31st, and the culminating hour was that between 2 o'clock and 3 o'clock.  It was then that the German hordes seemed for a moment to have triumphed, it was then that the stroke of genius of General FitzClarence sent the right men to the right point at the right time.

The peril passed; the line steadied; and thereafter all the declamation of the Kaiser, all the assaults of the Prussian Guards, could not shake the deathless army that fought its greatest fight on the Flanders battlefield for the keys of France and of England.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. III, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

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