The Ypres Salient - CWGC

The ancient Belgian city of Ypres, located at the corner of the coast plain at the junction of the Comines and Yser (Yperlee) canals, was of vital importance as a protector of the routes to the Channel ports of Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne. In a climate never short of rain, the low-lying countryside in which YpresThe Grand Place, Ypres, before the town was shelled, November 1914. stood was almost permanently damp; water was always very close to the surface and it only took a matter of digging to an average depth of eighteen inches in the saturated earth to reveal and release this excess.

Flooded trenches were a persistent and unpleasant characteristic of the defensive positions in this sector; indeed in some areas the surface water was so abundant that attempts to dig trenches were abandoned and instead high ramparts of earth, logs and sandbags ('breastworks') were constructed the better to provide shelter for troops and protect them from small arms and artillery fire.

During the First World War Ypres and its outlying arc of villages to the north, east and south, were the focus for three immense and important battles: First Ypres, October-November 1914; Second Ypres, April-May 1915 (in which poison gas was first used on a large scale on the Western Front); and Third Ypres, July-November 1917 (widely known as the 'Passchendaele Offensive' this battle became a source of bitter historical controversy). The city was also perilously near to being captured during the great German March offensive of 1918. Ypres became of symbolic importance to the British Army (as Verdun was to the French) and the British High Command was loath to relinquish its hold; it became, in the words of the war artist Paul Nash, 'a monument to doggedness'.


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