The German Army’s attempt to secure a quick and decisive defeat of France ended in failure at the Battle of the Marne in September 1914. French and British attacks were unable to breach the German lines along the River Aisne and the opposing forces began to move northwards, attempting to outflank each other.

In early October, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) moved into Flanders. To the north, German attacks along the Belgian coastal plain were held back by the remnants of the Belgian Army, supported by French Marines in a series of actions known as the Battle of the Yser. Albert I, King of the Belgians, sanctioned the opening of the sea defences at Nieuport, which flooded the battle area and forced the German Army further south in its attempt to reach the Channel ports.

Soldiers of the 7th Division discussing the news during a halt by the roadside, near Ypres, October 1914
Soldiers of the 7th Division discussing the news during a halt by the roadside, near Ypres, October 1914. IWM (Q 57204)

Around Ypres, strong German forces moving west clashed with the BEF and French units in a series of confusing but fierce encounters between 19 October and 22 November from Langemarck in the north-east through Zonnebeke, Gheluvelt, Zandvoorde, Wytschaete and Messines in the south. Among the British Empire troops engaged in the desperate fighting were units of the Indian Army, recently arrived in Europe and put straight into action.

Between 21 and 24 October, British forces to the north-east of Ypres collided with strong advancing concentrations of German troops around Langemarck. A series of determined defensive actions prevented a breakthrough with British rifle fire wreaking havoc against repeated German mass infantry attacks. Subsequently mythologised as the ‘Kindermord’, the German losses would become infamous.

Men of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry sheltering from shrapnel behind the Headquarters of 20 Brigade, Ypres, 1914
Men of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry sheltering from shrapnel behind the Headquarters of 20 Brigade, Ypres, 1914. IWM (Q 57205)

Fighting along the entire front continued in deteriorating weather conditions until further German attacks were called off. The cost in casualties of the fighting had been enormous. Between 14 October and 30 November 1914, the BEF suffered more than 58,000 killed, wounded and missing. German losses during a similar period in the fighting between the French border and the sea are estimated to have been more than 120,000.

Wounded of the men of the 7th Division, October 1914
Wounded men of the 7th Division, October 1914. IWM (Q 57209)

related Cemeteries & Memorials

Ypres Town Cemetery was first used by the British Army in October 1914 and today alongside the many thousands of Belgium civilians burials are the graves of more than 140 servicemen of the British Empire, of which nine remain unidentified. Next to the cemetery is the Ypres Town Cemetery Extension which commemorates more than 670 servicemen of the British Empire, of which more than 150 remain unidentified.

Zillebeke Churchyard is the final resting place of 32 servicemen of the British Empire, six of whom remain unidentified. For much of the war the village of Zillebeke was close to the front line for much of the war and virtually obliterated by artillery fire.

Zantvoorde British Cemetery was made after the Armistice when remains were brought in from the battlefields and nearby German cemeteries. It contains the graves and memorials to more than 1,580 servicemen of the British Empire, of whom more than 1,130 remain unidentified.