Following the stalemate on the Aisne, in September 1914, both Armies tried to outflank the other northwards in the so-called “race to the sea”. The Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, Sir John French, proposed to the French Commander-in-Chief, General Joseph Joffre that the British Army should take over the Northern section.
Through the channel ports, England could supply the BEF far more easily. Joffre agreed and arrangements were secretly made whereby the BEF relinquished their lines, which were smoothly taken over by the French units and the BEF regrouping in Flanders between 16th to 18th October 1914.
The Belgian army were besieged in Antwerp. Although unable to offer any real assistance, Winston Churchill, understood the strategic importance of Antwerp. As First Sea Lord, he successfully argued the case for the Naval Brigade to defend this city. This gesture sustained Belgian morale, even though Antwerp fell into German control. The Belgians were forced to retreat, and Sir Henry Rawlinson’s 4th Corps covered the retreat. The “race to the sea” had established the hard-pressed Belgian army from the North Sea coast to the River Yser and Dixmude. The French army occupied the area between Dixmude and the Ypres-Roulers railway line, where upon the BEF occupied the area around the Eastern flanks of Ypres. The French army occupied the line from Armentieres southward to the Swiss border. This established the almost 500 miles of the trenches known as “The Western Front”.
The Belgian army had opened the lock gates at Nieuport allowing the sea to flood the low-lying land halting the German advance. In the oncoming flood the Germans lost many troops, together with masses of weapons, artillery and equipment. They were forced south to attack the Northern flank of the British held salient, to the East of Ypres. The Ypres salient was a defensive semi circle to the East of the city. When finally established the salient allowed the German artillery to attack from both front and sides.
The German army turned their attention against the British salient, to the north, east and south of Ypres. With the beginning of winter, the mud dominated the almost continuous night and day fighting. The Germans broke through the British line in the north. At the same time, the numerical superior German army broke through the lines at the southern end of the salient. After three days, constant fighting the central area caved in around the village of Gheluvelt and the BEF withdrew to a line just covering the city of Ypres. A surprise British counter-attack saw the British once again defending Gheluvelt. The Germans had failed to exploit the penetrations they had made. They did attack the southern part of the salient, at night, thus securing the high ground at Messiness’ Ridge. On the 10th November, the Germans launched an attack against the French army towards Dixmude. The French line held halting the attack. The following day the Germans again attacked and broke through the British southern sector. By the German’s failure in not being able to follow up their attack, British reserve forces were able to drive back the German advance. Intense cold effectively halted any further large-scale activities therefore establishing the line around Ypres, thus forming the salient.
The First Battle of Ypres denied the Germans the channel ports but the cost to the BEF was enormous. Britain lost nearly all of the professional army. Halted at Ypres, the Germans adapted a defensive strategy on the Western Front. The First Battle of Ypres settled the Western Front as both sides dug trenches, stretching nearly 500 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss border. The BEF defended the northern line from Ypres to the sea, and the French Army defended the southern line to the Swiss border.
The end of 1914 and most of 1915 devoted the war to trying to force a victory on the Eastern Front.