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War history: Ypres was the ‘bulge’ defended ferociously for years, but at a massive cost to our soldiers

PUBLISHED: 10:04 23 June 2014 | UPDATED: 10:59 23 June 2014

Messines Ridge

Messines Ridge

Archant

A pocket of land and ruins known as the Ypres Salient. On average, 5,000 men died each month as British and Commonwealth forces fought to hang on to it. By the end of 1918, the dead numbered hundreds of thousands, explains Galloway’s resident military historian, Mike Peters.

Messines Ridge Messines Ridge

The small Belgian town of Ypres features prominently in our history of the First World War. The British and Commonwealth armies doggedly hung on to their possession of its ruins and a pocket of land around it for four bloody years.

This fiercely-contested pocket created by the defenders around what they knew as Wipers caused a bulge in the German lines. In military terms, such an unwanted bulge in the line is known as a salient.

The cost of holding what Churchill would later describe as “the immortal salient” is beyond modern comprehension. The casualty rate during these battles is staggering by 21st Century standards. On average, 5,000 men were killed every month. Hence the town’s significance and The Times newspaper stating that “The World has no such other battlefield”.

Although the fighting around Ypres rumbled on for almost the entire war, there were three major battles that are known unimaginatively as the first (1914), second (1915), and the third (1917) battles of Ypres. If we include the German offensive of 1918, we can even add a fourth to the list.

Poppy Poppy

By the end of 1918 almost a million British and Commonwealth men had been wounded in the fighting. The dead would number hundreds of thousands; within that total were almost 90,000 officers and men with no known grave. The missing are listed on the Menin Gate in Ypres and on the memorial wall at Tyne Cot cemetery outside the town. A visit to the salient is made even more poignant as many of the names included in these seemingly endless lists were from East Anglia.

Such was the ferocity of the fighting that guns around Ypres were often heard in southern England. In fact, the battlefields are not far from the channel coast and within easy reach of Suffolk. Galloway coaches are a familiar sight in the now peaceful and reconstructed town. The day excursion itinerary includes a carefully selected series of visits that build up a picture of the geography and an understanding of what the salient looked like during the war. Expert historians from the International Guild of Battlefield Guides will enhance your experience by bringing the personal accounts of soldiers who fought in Ypres to life.

Over the next few weeks I will be highlighting places visited in the Ypres area, explaining their significance and their importance during that time.

The next commemorative day excursion to the Ypres Salient departs from Suffolk on Tuesday, September 23. More details can be found at www.travel-galloway.com/ww1centenary. You can also keep up to date with the centenary and Galloway battlefield tours on twitter @GallowayBattles.

For more from Mike Peters, click here

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