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Ypres – ‘The eye of the storm’ Assignment

1. Why was control of the Belgian City Ypres considered so important by both sides in the First World War?

With almost constant fighting, the Belgian city of Ypres was obviously significant to both sides during World War One. One reason for this is that it was only around 25 miles from the channel ports of Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne. The British wanted the city in order to continue the supply of their men to Europe. If the Germans took the ports, the B.E.F. wouldn’t be able to get to Europe, pressuring a withdrawal from the continent.

Secondly, the British were fighting as allies on Belgian and French soil. Neither of the nations would have given any ground, so neither should the British. The British High Command believed that a loss of land would also lead to low troop morale. However, the Germans would pull back to a better defensive position when necessary, solidifying their position without being pushed back too far at once. Finally, the British media had given the British people the belief that Ypres was crucial, therefore it must be kept for high morale at home. British people would have thought many lives had been wasted if possession Ypres was lost.

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2. The following are reasons why casualties in the Ypres Salient were so huge:

* The technology of warfare

* The quality of the generals’ plans

* Geographical factors – weather, relief of land, geology

Which of these was the most important reason for such a high casualty rate?

A combination of technology, tactics and geographical factors led to the Ypres salient becoming a terrible region at which at least 5000 men became casualties each month.

One reason for these high casualties was the technology of warfare. Firstly, on the 22nd April, the allies were surprised by a short German bombardment, followed by the first use of chlorine gas on the unprepared allied forces. This occurred in the north of the salient, capturing the village of Langemark. Two days later, another gas attack was launched near St. Julien. Around 104,000 British, French and German troops became casualties. Another technology introduced was tunnelling. During the battle of Messines, the British hired tunnelling companies to dig tunnels in which they could plant 1 million pounds worth of explosives under German positions.

The morning after a bombardment of over two weeks long, the mines were detonated, killing 10,000 Germans. Also, the German trenches were a great deal better than the allies’. Improvements included concrete for extra strength and support, which the British High Command thought ‘unnecessary.’ They also had electricity and running water, contrasting dramatically to the poor condition of the British trenches, where many lives were being claimed. Tanks made a first appearance Great War, but never made it to the front line as they became victims of the mud in the wettest period on record.

Generals’ tactics also contributed to vast casualties. British Commander in Chief, Douglas Haig, was hated by many troops. He was quoted to be “the biggest murderer of all.” A first error was that the British possession of a devastating new technology, tanks, which they used extremely ineffectively. They were sent out to the bog-land at Passchendaele to sink uselessly into the mud. More men would have to give their lives for each of the tanks that were destroyed. However, Hague was unaware of conditions as he lived miles behind the front line and nobody told him about the situation because “he didn’t like criticism or discussion.”

This meant he sent repeated waves across the marshes, where men were as likely to drown as to be shot. A plan was used that was similar to the one at the Somme in 1917, which saw over a million men die. Although there was the addition of aircraft, more shells, experienced men and higher success in the use of heavy guns, Passchendaele saw a terrible number of casualties. Another mistake made by the commanders was brushing aside the prospect of concrete in the trenches, for extra strength and stability.

The Germans employed this idea, which they proved a sound asset and, ultimately, the saviour of many German lives. Lastly, The British planned an offensive which would see around 4.5 million shells fired. However, on the night of the attack, the wettest autumn on record began. The bombardment was not halted, which meant the entire destruction any drainage. With the British holding the lower ground, they took the full force of this blunder. No man’s land and British trenches became exceedingly waterlogged. This battle saw over half a million men killed, wounded or missing.

Geographical factors also helped add to the huge number of casualties. Firstly, the August of 1917 was the wettest on record. This turned the fragile land into a swamp-land. There would not only be men and tanks getting stuck in the mud, being prevented from attacking, but supplies via horse and cart would often be known to get stuck or disappear completely into the bog. The British had the lower ground.

This meant that they had the worst of the flooding and the mud, taking a great number of lives both outside and inside the trenches. This also meant the Germans could enhance their use of artillery. With much better viewpoints, they would be able to shoot any movement they saw with far greater accuracy than the British, killing many using the advantage of occupying the high ridges of the salient.

Geographical factors were the biggest reasons for the huge number of casualties in the Ypres salient as without them, the other two reasons may not have been errors, but successes. Without the awful conditions, the plans of the generals would have had different results. Without such circumstances to deal with, bombardments and waves of troop would have been much easier to apply successfully and tanks could have been used.

3. “It is almost 100 years since the First World War ended. It is time to move on. The extension to the A19 motorway should go ahead.” How far do you agree with this statement?

Construction of the A19 has been halted as it has reached land fought on in World War One.

The motorway construction in Ypres should resume for a number of reasons. Firstly, it would reduce the congestion in the villages and make the roads much safer. Journeying through these villages will see huge traffic problems. Not only is there the issue for the passengers, but also pedestrians. Children are being hit by the many vehicles travelling through the villages everyday.

Troops did not sacrifice their lives to see future generations being killed. Also, the motorway will boost Belgian economy. With more vehicles being able to travel through Belgium faster, businesses will be able to import and export using the channel ports at the end of the motorway. This will lead to a much higher trade rate, increasing income. Finally, people are saying the men that died will be forgotten. This is never going to be the case. With memorials such as the last post, given every day, and one of the largest war memorials in the world, the Menin Gate, along with many others, none of the men who gave their lives will ever be forgotten.

However, there are reasons why work shouldn’t continue. To start with there is the basic lack of respect. These men gave their lives and now lie where the fell, which is where many believe they should stay. Disturbing them where they rest peacefully is considered very disrespectful to those who sacrificed their lives, especially with 50,000 still unfound in the fields which the motorway proposes to run through. It also may be dangerous to the builders. With shells still being uncovered on an average of 250 tonnes a year, lives are at risk during construction.

They already know of a strip of metal in the way. People also say workers may become careless and discard bones which are dug up. The Motorway also destroys the atmosphere of visiting the war sites and memorials in the area. The last unspoilt part of Pilckem Ridge will be built on if the road goes ahead, leaving many the impossibility of getting the full experience out of visiting the graves, but also the ridge itself. With this motorway, many will find it hard to picture where over 250,000 men died, 50,000 still lay.

To conclude, I believe the road should be built. The majority of the reasons for the motorway are logical and for the future, whereas those that are against are mainly emotional and thinking of the past. 1/4 million men gave their lives for the future of a free Belgium, and if the motorway is what Belgium needs, it should be done. If it won’t be done for the good of Belgium, it should be done for all those that sacrificed themselves for a better future. Without the lives of those men, Belgium may not even have had the opportunity to think of a motorway, but an autobahn.

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