The First Battles of Trench Warfare 1914


On 22 November 1914, the 1st battle of Ypres, as it was known to the British, or the 2nd battle of Flanders, as it was known to the Germans, sputtered to an end. Neither side had achieved its original goal, and the British were left with their French allies defending a salient surrounded on three sides by Germans, who also held most of the high ground. The human cost of the battles was enormous. The German army admitted to some 103,000 casualties. The French army seems to have lost around 85,000. However, it was the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that suffered most, having lost some 58,000 men. While the BEF lost fewer men then the Germans and the French, it was unable to make good these losses easily. Indeed, the British official history noted that by the end of the battle, ‘the old British army was gone past recall.’

The battle began on 22 October as a classic ‘encounter battle’: Both the Germans and the Anglo-French forces advanced north of the Belgian town of Ypres without expecting a prolonged, desperate struggle for the terrain. Instead, both expected only weak opposing forces, which could be easily brushed aside to permit maneuver around the flank of their enemy. This is what should have happened. However, several factors conspired to make this battle the first significant battle of trench warfare during the First World War.

The German army had trained extensively for operational maneuver and for encounter battles before 1914. It expected the war would be won via army- and corps-level battles, and its officers and men were well versed in what they termed Truppenführung. The German army used this training to great effect in the encounter battles against the French during the so-called battles of the frontiers before the battle of the Marne. (The BEF had been caught up in this in what they termed the battles of Mons and Le Cateau.) Despite recent research to the contrary, their real weakness was in the handling of battles at division and below. Report after report from the German army in August and September 1914 laments the poor tactical performance of its troops, in particular, poor cooperation between the infantry and artillery. The German army in 1914 believed itself outfought at the lowest levels, if not at the army- and corps-levels.

This poor tactical performance is in evidence during the battles around Ypres between 22 October and 18 November 1914. Of course, this poor performance was exacerbated by the nature of many of the German units fighting in these battles. Four reserve corps had been hastily raised on the outbreak of war and were all that was readily available for the German 4th Army’s offensive in late October 1914. Two-thirds of the men of these units had never received military training before August 1914. These men were thrown together into brand-new units that had no previous existence before August 1914. Thus, untried and untrained men were pooled together into units with no history or identity, and hence had little or no esprit de corps.

If the German army in 1914 excelled at large-scale maneuver battle and was weak at the lower-level tactics, the opposite is true for the BEF of this period. By the 1st battle of Ypres, the BEF had grown to seven infantry divisions organized in four army corps and three cavalry divisions in a cavalry corps. Over the course of the battle, the BEF would be joined by an army corps from the Indian army as well. Before 1914, the leadership of the BEF never expected to have to fight such a large force in a maneuver battle against the German army. In August 1914, the BEF was placed on the far left of the French line because this was presumed by the French and British high commands to be out the way of the main German and French advances. Given this and given the state of the British army before 1914, the leaders of the BEF had never trained to fight army- or corps-level actions. Pre-war training and pre-war experience in the BEF had been at combat below the division, and units within the existing BEF divisions generally worked well together.

Moreover, the terrain in the Ypres salient favored the British defenders. While the British trenches may have been primitive by later iterations, the many small valleys and thickly forested areas around Ypres conspired to break up the momentum of offensives, to provide cover for defenders, and to make communication between attacking units extremely difficult. The nature of the terrain meant that attacks quickly became small-unit tactical actions, fought at battalion or regimental level, where the superior training and cohesion of the British units could be brought most effectively to bear against the ill-prepared German attackers.

Throughout the battles in October and November 1914, the German 4th and 6th Armies repeatedly tried to break through the weakly held Anglo-French defensive lines around Ypres, but to no avail. In almost every attack, they were forced to fight the type of battle at which the BEF, in particular, excelled – small-unit actions from solid defensive positions in close terrain. While small German units might break into British positions, such as those of Adolph Hitler’s Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment 16 at Gheluvelt on 31 October, the German weak forces usually fell easy prey to British counter-attacks and no breakthrough could be delivered.

Of course, the battle also demonstrated to the sharp-eyed observer the challenges of breaking through a defensive line, even one so thinly held and so primitively constructed, backed by modern weapons. This was a lesson that the British and French would themselves learn so painfully over the course of the rest of the war.

For more First World War research at the Defence Studies Department, see the First World War Research Group page.

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