Discover more about the Ypres Salient
The Ypres Salient
Stretching from Langemarck in the north to Ploegsteert in the south, the Ypres Salient was an area where Allied lines projected into enemy-held territory so that those holding it were exposed to fire from three sides. It was formed during the First Battle of Ypres in October and November 1914, when the small British Expeditionary Force and its French allies met the advancing German army and heavy fighting took place over the crucial low ridges to the east and south of the town. Clashes to the north and south of the Menin Road saw the front-line move back and forth over the next three weeks, before German forces were finally pushed back to the Passchendaele Ridge to the east, and Ypres was secured before the onset of winter.
The defence of the Salient against a German offensive in the spring of 1915 became known as the Second Battle of Ypres. For the next two years, trench raids, sniping and artillery fire continued every day, as Commonwealth servicemen fought to hold their ground and German troops strove to drive them from it. The experience of living and fighting in the Salient was one of the defining features of the Western Front for Commonwealth soldiers. By 1917, the British were suffering thousands of casualties, wounded and killed, each month.
Men of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry sheltering from shrapnel behind the Headquarters of 20th Brigade, Ypres, 1914. IWM Q 57205.
At the end of July 1917, Allied forces launched an offensive which became known as Third Ypres. General Sir Douglas Haig's primary objective was to dislodge the Germans from their dominant positions on the high ground, but this would also be a battle of attrition: drawing in and wearing down German forces on land they could not afford to yield, perhaps creating the conditions for a breakout towards the railhead at Roulers, five miles to the east. Haig then envisaged an advance on Belgian coastal ports from where German U-boats threatened Allied shipping.
A successful assault on the Wytschaete-Messines ridges in June marked the opening of the campaign, but the main offensive began almost seven weeks later. On 31 July, after a fortnight's intense bombardment of German positions, nine divisions of the Fifth Army assaulted the high ground to the north-east of Ypres, and made good progress across Pilckem Ridge, but by late afternoon German counter-attacks had regained much ground and wet weather had set in. Ceaseless unseasonal rain in the following days turned the shell-damaged ground into a quagmire, severely hampering the movement of advancing men, the relocating of artillery, and the carrying of casualties and supplies.
Members of a South African infantry regiment (9th Division) in support trenches during the Battle of Menin Ridge Road, 22 September 1917. IWM Q 11681.
The offensive continued at Langemark on 16 August. After a break in the weather and a change in command, an attack on the Gheluvelt Plateau was carefully prepared. So-called 'bite and hold' tactics with more limited objectives achieved success in September, encouraging Haig to continue the offensive into October. Commonwealth soldiers faced well-established enemy defences, and the return of torrential rain turned much of the battlefield into the muddy morass which came to dominate the memory of the campaign. Canadian forces struggled through to occupy the village of Passchendaele on 6 November, and operations were ended four days later. Both sides had suffered major losses, but there had been little strategic gain. In all, some 250,000 Commonwealth servicemen were wounded, captured or killed during the offensive.
In spring 1918, the Germans began a series of major offensives along the Western Front which, in Belgium, swept through much of the ground that had been won at such cost the previous autumn. Commonwealth forces were pushed back almost to Ypres itself. By the end of April the German onslaught had been halted and, in August, the Allies began their own offensive which would end with victory. By mid-October, the success of Allied operations along the line from Nieuport to Verdun meant the Salient had seen its last fighting. Commonwealth and Belgian soldiers were out of their long-held foothold in Flanders and pushing the German forces back to the eastern Belgian frontier.
Four men of the 4th Battalion Coldstream Guards perch on a wrecked gun outside a German concrete blockhouse captured during the Battle of Poelcappelle, 9 October 1917. IWM Q 6046.
No less than a quarter of those killed in action during the war were lost in the Salient. By 1919, it held hundreds of soldiers' cemeteries. Most were little more than bare expanses of trodden earth, a few untidy rows of graves with battered wooden markers. There were clusters of graves in fields, on canal banks, along roads and light railway lines, and countless bodies still lay out on the old battlefields. With the civilian population beginning the long work of rebuilding their farms, towns and lives, many of the graves in smaller burial grounds needed to be moved into larger cemeteries nearby.
Much of this work was done by the Army Graves Concentration Units, who also undertook the task of clearing the battlefields. They uncovered remains of thousands of men killed in the fighting whose bodies could not be recovered at the time, many of whose identities were impossible to determine. These servicemen - numbering more than 40,000, a third of the marked graves in the Salient - were buried beneath headstones bearing Kipling's phrase 'A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God'.