Primary Documents - British 'Eye Witness' Journalist Reports on First Battle of Ypres, 11-12 November 1914
Reproduced below are extracts from the wartime reports written by the official British War Correspondent, Colonel Ernest Swinton. Writing under the byline 'Eye Witness', Swinton's reports were personally reviewed and censored by Lord Kitchener, the War Minister - but were nevertheless widely regarded as a largely fair and accurate summary of events on the ground.
The report below deals with events at the First Battle of Ypres in November 1914, specifically dealing with events on 11-12 November 1914. While celebrating the Allies' success in throwing back a determined German attack, Swinton nonetheless paid full tribute to the fighting spirit of the German forces.
Swinton later gained renown as one of the (many) fathers of British tank development.
The First Battle of Ypres, 11-12 November 1914 - 'Eye Witness' Reports by Official British War Correspondent E. D. Swinton
Wednesday, the 11th of November, was another day of desperate fighting. As day broke the Germans opened fire on our trenches to the north and south of the road from Menin to Ypres. This was probably the most furious artillery fire which they have yet employed against us.
A few hours later they followed this by an infantry assault in force. This attack was carried out by the First and Fourth brigades of the Guard Corps, which, as we now know from prisoners, have been sent for to make a supreme effort to capture Ypres, since that task had proved too heavy for the infantry of the line.
As the attackers surged forward they were met by our frontal fire, and since they were moving diagonally across part of our front they were also attacked on the flank by artillery, rifles, and machine guns. Though their casualties before they reached our line must have been enormous, such was their resolution and the momentum of the mass that in spite of the splendid resistance of our troops they succeeded in breaking through our line in three places near the road.
They penetrated some distance into the woods behind our trenches, but were counter-attacked again, enfiladed by machine guns and driven back to their line of trenches, a certain portion of which they succeeded in holding, in spite of our efforts to expel them.
What their total losses must have been during this advance may be gauged to some extent from the fact that the number of dead left in the woods behind our line alone amounted to 700.
A simultaneous effort made to the south, a part of the same operation although not carried out by the Guard Corps, failed entirely, for when the attacking infantry massed in the woods close to our line, our guns opened on them with such effect that they did not push the assault home.
As generally happens in operations in wooded country, the fighting to a great extent was carried on at close quarters. It was most desperate and confused. Scattered bodies of the enemy who had penetrated into the woods in the rear of our position could neither go backward nor forward, and were nearly all killed or captured.
The portion of the line to the southeast of Ypres held by us was heavily shelled, but did not undergo any very serious infantry attack. That occupied by the French, however, was both bombarded and fiercely assaulted. On the rest of our front, save for the usual bombardment, all was comparatively quiet.
On the right one of our trenches was mined and then abandoned. As soon as it was occupied by the enemy the charges were fired and several Germans were blown to pieces.
Thursday, November 12th, was marked by a partial lull in the fighting all along our line. To the north a German force which had crossed the Yser and entrenched on the left bank was annihilated by a night attack with the bayonet, executed by the French.
Slightly to the south the enemy was forced back for three-quarters of a mile. Immediately on our left the French were strongly attacked and driven back a short distance, our extreme left having to conform to this movement. Our allies soon recovered the ground they had lost, however, and this enabled us to advance also.
To the southeast of Ypres the enemy's snipers were very active. On our centre and right the enemy's bombardment was maintained, but nothing worthy of special note occurred.
The fact that an this day the advance against our line in front of Ypres was not pushed home after such an effort as that of Wednesday tends to show that for the moment the attacking troops had had enough.
Although the failure of this great attack by the Guard Corps to accomplish their object cannot be described as a decisive event, it possibly marks the culmination if not the close of the second stage in the attempt to capture Ypres, and it is not without significance.
It has also a dramatic interest of its own. Having once definitely failed to achieve this object by means of the sheer weight of numbers, and having done their best to wear us down, the Germans brought in fresh picked troops to carry the Ypres salient by an assault from the north, the south and the east.
That the Guard Corps should have been selected to act against the eastern edge of the salient may be taken as proof of the necessity felt by the Germans to gain this point in the line,
Their dogged perseverance in pursuance of their objective claims wholehearted admiration. The failure of one great attack, heralded as it was by an impassioned appeal to the troops made in the presence of the Emperor himself, but carried out by partially trained men, was only the signal for another desperate effort in which the place of honour was assigned to the corps d'elite of the German army.
It must be admitted that the Guard Corps has retained that reputation for courage and contempt of death which it earned in 1870, when Emperor William I, after the battle of Gravelotte, wrote: "My Guard has found its grave in front of St. Privat," and the swarms of men who came up bravely to the British rifles in the woods around Ypres repeated the tactics of forty-four years ago when their dense columns, toiling up the slopes of St. Privat, melted away under the fire of the French.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. III, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
An 'Old Sweat' was slang to denote an experienced soldier.
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