The First Battle of Ypres and Problem of Counting Casualties

by DR ROBERT T. FOLEY

On a recent staff ride to the battlefields of northern France and Belgium, I had occasion to discuss the 1st battle of Ypres, or the 1st and 2nd battles of Flanders as the German army named the events from 19 October to 22 November 1914. One striking aspect of my research into the fighting was the disparity between the German casualty numbers cited by different sources. Volume 2 of the British official history of the war puts German casualties from 15 October to 24 November at 134, 315. Volumes 5 and 6 of the German official history put total losses of the 4th and 6th Armies at 103,500 between 15 October and 18 November. Although the German official history’s figures cover a period a week shorter than that of the British official history, this alone cannot explain the 30,815 difference – Major fighting in Flanders, if not local attacks, was all but over by 18 November.

At first glance, the differences in numbers might not seem a particularly significant thing, but the discrepancies in these statistics are important for several reasons.

First, the battles in 1914 around what would become the Ypres salient developed into important myths for both the British and the Germans. From the German side, the so-called ‘Kindermord bei Ypren,’ or ‘slaughter of the innocents at Ypres,’ quickly entered the social and cultural consciousness. This myth focused around the large numbers of supposed ‘war volunteers’ who marched to war at Ypres with more enthusiasm than tactical sense and whose advance while singing ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’ was brought to a murderous halt by the rapid fire of their better-trained British opponents. Although later historians, not least Karl Unruh, have systematically dismantled this myth, it was used during and after the war, particularly by the Nazis, to rally support for the war and to show the unity of a federal Germany. The death of so many young ‘volunteers’ further symbolized the sacrifices ordinary Germans were willing to make for the Fatherland.

From the British side, the 1st battle of Ypres was also an iconic experience. The battle represented the destruction of the old British army, which the British official history stated as being ‘gone beyond recall’ by the end of November 1914. The British calculated that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had suffered 58,155 killed, wounded, and missing between 14 October and 30 November. In other words, almost two-thirds of the casualties suffered by the BEF in the 1914 campaign had occurred during the battles around Ypres. The myth of the small, but plucky BEF holding off an enemy vastly superior in number, and at the same time inflicting a disproportionate number of casualties on their foe, is a powerful part of British memory of the battle.

In these twin myths of German sacrifice and of British bravery, the numbers of casualties mattered. For the British, the defence of the ‘immortal salient’ of Ypres had to be worth the high cost. Having seemingly inflicted twice the number of casualties, the BEF could be seen to have performed to the highest standards. The ratio of casualties also suggested how the relatively small BEF faced an enemy superior in numbers, if not in quality. This made the BEF’s destruction all the more heroic.

The second thing the difference in figures demonstrates is the challenges in comparing statistics between armies within battles, particularly in the First World War. The German figures cover losses of the 4th and 6th Armies, and these two armies conducted offensives in October and November 1914 between Arras in the south and the Channel coast in the north. Indeed, the Schwerpunkt of the 4th Army’s attacks for much of October was around Dixmuide, where the III Reserve Corps attempted to break through the Belgian and French defensive line along the Iser. In other words, fighting around the Ypres salient was only a relatively small part of a broader German offensive during this period – hence the German term for the battle, the battle of Flanders. The figures given by the British official history imply, if not state explicitly, that the German losses were inflicted during the battle around the Ypres salient, rather than the larger scale of the German offensive. Unsurprisingly, the British official history, and many subsequent histories of the battle, have focused on British involvement, but this has tended to obscure the bigger picture that provides crucial context for the fighting around the Ypres salient.

Another challenge we can see in comparing statistics for the battle of Ypres/Flanders applies equally to all battles during the First World War: How casualties were recorded differed greatly between armies, within armies, and across time. Again, several issues are apparent here. First, during the war, men who were not present after a battle were usually listed as ‘missing’ on casualty returns immediately after a battle. Some of these men were simply ‘lost’ and reappeared with their units after a period of time. Some had been captured by the enemy. Some had been killed and might be identified later. Some might never be found. Thus, how these men were listed as statistics varied across different casualty reporting periods.

Second, different units reported casualties differently as well. In some units, lightly wounded that remained with the unit were counted as wounded, in other units they were not. This could create large differences in casualty figures within armies, let alone between armies.

Finally, compiling an accurate count of casualties in the early stages of the war proved immensely difficult for later historians due to incomplete records. The German official medical history of the war published in 1934, the Sanitätsberichte über das Deutsche Heer (Deutsches Feld- und Besatzungsheer) im Weltkriege 1914/18, noted that the 10-day and/or monthly casualty reports from some units in the battle were either non-existent or had important gaps. While there were ways around some of the problems (e.g., using regimental records), guesses had to be made. The destruction of the bulk of the Imperial German army archives in 1944 has made any later investigation impossible. The task may have been easier for the smaller, more cohesive BEF, but undoubtedly gaps would have arose in the chaos of the initial months of the war.

The long and short of this is that calculating battle casualties, particularly in 1914, but also in the rest of the First World War, poses huge problems for historians. The existing sources are simply too variable to allow an accurate picture. The inaccuracy in the sources means that debates over who ‘won’ or ‘lost’ a particular battle in the First World War based on numbers of relative casualties rates are statistically futile. The variation, though, has allowed subsequent historians to pick and choose numbers that fit their arguments. In telling the tale of the outcome of the First World War all too often ideology has trumped historical accuracy.

Photo: Soldiers from the German, British, French, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, and Canadian armies salute the German fallen at Langemarck Cemetery, 8 September 2014, during Operation Reflect. © Robert T. Foley

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