|Ypres was a strategic position during World War I because it stood in the path of Germany's planned sweep across the rest of Belgium and into France from the North (the Schlieffen Plan). Moreover, the neutrality of Belgium was guaranteed by Britain: Germany's invasion of Belgium brought the British Empire into the war. The German army surrounded the city on three sides, bombarding it throughout much of the war. To counterattack, British, French and allied forces made costly advances from the Ypres salient into the German lines on the surrounding hills. |
In the First Battle of Ypres (31 October to 22 November 1914) the Allies captured the town from the Germans. In the Second Battle of Ypres (22 April to 25 May 1915) the Germans used poison gas for the first time on the Western Front (they had used it earlier at the Battle of Bolimow on 3 January 1915) and captured high ground east of the town. The first gas attack occurred against Canadian, British, and French soldiers; including both metropolitan French soldiers as well as Senegalese and Algerian tirailleurs (light infantry) from French Africa. The gas used was chlorine gas. Mustard gas, also called Yperite from the name of this city, was also used for the first time near Ypres in the autumn of 1917.
Ruins of Ypres – 1919Of the battles, the largest, best-known, and most costly in human suffering was the Third Battle of Ypres (21 July to 6 November 1917, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele) in which the British, Canadians, ANZAC and French forces recaptured the Passchendaele ridge east of the city at a terrible cost of lives. After months of fighting, this battle resulted in nearly half a million casualties to all sides, and only several miles of ground won by Allied forces. The town was all but obliterated by the artillery fire.
English-speaking soldiers in that war often referred to Ypres by the (perhaps humorous) mispronunciation "Wipers". British soldiers even self-published a wartime newspaper called the "Wipers Times".