Book Review: Ypres: The First Battle 1914

By Ian Beckett

Being a male historian sometimes I just have to put down the books on economic and social history and stop putting everything into a cultural context and just read a dam good military history book. It was whilst infected with this bimonthly brooding, masculine need for war that I purchased this book. The first few months of the First World War, before the conflict became thoroughly 'entrenched', have always interested me and Ypres by Ian Beckett is a superbly researched and fascinating insight into this, the final major battle of 1914. The First Battle of Ypres, coming at the end of the phase of mobile operations in 1914, marked the point at which Allied forces halted the German advance. Despite its importance, Ypres is the first major treatment of the battle since 1967. Ian Beckett skilfully weaves the view from the battlefield into his discussion of strategy and high command to produce a very readable account that will be welcomed by specialists and casual readers alike.

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Price: £12:99
ISBN: 978-1405836203
Publication Date: 2006

While the main focus is on the British experience, Beckett also pays some attention to the French, Belgians and Germans. For the British and Germans, the battle came to have iconic status. ‘First Ypres’ came to symbolize the last stand of the pre-war British Regular army. It would have been militarily sensible to abandon the salient created by the battle, yet such had been the bloodshed that it was emotionally impossible to do so; giving up the last major Belgian city left in Allied hands would also have presented political difficulties. Ypres became sacred ground, epitomizing the Empire’s sacrifice. The German myth of Ypres was based on the notion that formations of inexperienced volunteers, many recently students, attacked at Langemarck. Singing patriotic songs, they were cut down by British fire. This ‘Kindermord’ (massacre of the innocents) was taken up by German propaganda, and eventually became a symbol beloved of post-war German nationalists.

The ‘Kindermord’ has interesting parallels with the more recent British myth concerning the ‘pals’ battalions’ on the first day on the Somme, 1 July 1916. Both myths involved the destruction of the ‘flower of manhood’. Yet, just as 1 July 1916 was a good deal more complicated than the popular version allows, the reality of Langemarck was, as Beckett shows, somewhat different from the myth. General Sir Douglas Haig’s reputation was made by First Ypres. Haig’s I Corps bore the brunt of the German attacks on the critical days of 31 October and 11 November. Haig’s generalship in this battle is not beyond criticism but his calm, competent conduct contrasted sharply with the idiosyncratic behaviour of his boss, Field Marshal Sir John French. Beckett acknowledges Haig’s importance but the book is marred by its generally anti-Haig tone. Beckett refers to Haig’s supposed tendency to surround himself with ‘obsequious mediocrities’. However, if Haig’s judgement was as poor as this implies, what are we to make of Haig’s reliance on his highly competent Chief of Staff in 1914–15, Brigadier General John Gough Or of Haig’s championing during the war of a number of other demonstrably competent men?
Beckett is on much stronger ground when he criticizes Haig’s decision, on hearing on 31 October that the British line had been broken, to ride to the front line. In the First World War, the closer a general got to the fighting, the fewer troops he could command. Beckett argues, correctly, that it was unhelpful for a corps commander to remove himself from the command chain at such a critical point. He suggests that ‘anxiety . . . clouded [Haig’s] judgement’ and there is something in this. But one should also recognize that, in a moment of crisis, Haig fell back on the Victorian regimental officer’s instinct, to lead by example. Beckett points out that Haig was later influenced by his memory of the German failure to press their attacks at First Ypres when the British line was vulnerable. On several occasions, notably in July 1916 and October 1917, the German line was indeed in danger of cracking, and given the circumstances and the information at his disposal, it is understandable that Haig took the decision to continue the assault.
Beckett ends on a sombre note, assessing the appalling cost of the battle. In doing so he refutes the notion – currently fashionable in some quarters – that the First World War was a ‘futile’ conflict from which the British should have remained aloof. He concludes that, if ‘the defence of Belgium had not necessarily been a British obligation, it had assuredly been in the British national interest. The allied victory had been a true soldiers’ battle, albeit won at great cost. . . . But then freedom has rarely been won cheaply’.
I have absolutely no uncertainties that everyone, no matter what their specialist interest might be, will find something of interest to them in this work.