Ypres, Belgium (1914 AD, 1915 AD & 1917 AD)
The Battles of Ypres were a series of five major military engagements along the Western Front, some of which were among the largest and deadliest battles of the First World War. This made the area around Ypres one of the most active fighting zones of the war, where perhaps one and a half million or more troops on all sides lost their lives over the course of four years. Some of the war’s most important moments took palce around Ypres, including the first mass use of poison gas, and the final, failed German offensive in 1918. Because of its historical importance, and because it represented the futility of trench warfare to all sides, Ypres has become an important historical and military site to Belgians, French, British and Germans alike.
The first battle of Ypres was one of the most decisive engagements of the war. Fought in the late Autumn of 1914, it was the last stage of the “race to the sea”, in which the Germans sought to outflank the Allies to the north. Millions of soldiers fought on each side as the trenches rapidly extended through Belgium to the coast of the North Sea. Over the course of a month of fighting in and around Ypres, the Allies managed to halt the German advance. Over a quarter of a million men died in the fighting, the last major battle before the trench warfare set in.
The second battle in the Spring of 1915 was much smaller, but achieved an infamy that has had repercussions to the present day. In that engagement, the German army attempted to brweak the stalemate with the first mass use of poison gas. The assault was nearly successful, and the Allied army took heavy casualties before driving the Germans back.
The third battle, also known as the Battle of Passchendale, took place over three months in late Summer of 1917. This time it was the British who launched the offensive in an effort to relieve pressure on their Russian allies. It was by far the largest and deadliest of the engagements at Ypres, with as many as four hundred thousand casualties being taken on each side. Although the British gained ground, they were unable to exploit their advance in any meaningful way, and just moved the front eastwards before returning to a stalemate.
The fourth battle, also known as the Battle of Lys, took place in April 1918 and was part of the final German offensive along the Western Front. However, like most of the trench warfare of the previous four years, Lys was a stalemate, with each side taking over a hundred thousand casualties. This ended the final German offensive campaign of the war. A few months later, a final, much smaller action took place near Ypres, wherin thousands of demoralized German soldiers were captured as the war drew to a close.
The Battles of Ypres left the city and the surrounding area for miles utterly devastated. When the city was reconstructed, a memorial arch was built at the Menin Gate where thousands of Allied soldiers had marched off to the front. The memorial arch commemorates the unknown British soldiers who died at Ypres. Also in and around Ypres are several military cemetaries where thousands of the dead of both sides are buried.
Collectively the Ypres battlefields are immense, spreading out for miles around the city of Ypres approximately fifty miles west of Belgium. The Menin Gate and cemetaries are open sites. There is no cost of admission. Also in pockets near the city are a few reconstructed and preserved trenches that can be visited. Web: www.toerisme-ieper.be (official tourism website of the Ypres Battlefield).