Ypres: murder, pure and simple. Why hold it?

“There is no doubt that the Salient at Ypres is simply an inferno. It is not war, but murder, pure and simple.”

Imperial War Museum image Q61646, Norman Ellison Collection. The destruction in the town square at Ypres, showing Cloth Hall and the Cathedral, May 1915 .

“The massacre which has been going on here since April 22 is not realised at home. From May 1-16 we were losing men at the rate of 1,000 a night. Our casualties for May show we lost 3,600 officers and 26,346 men.

This is all the Ypres Salient. Why we don’t give it up now, God alone knows. As a strategic or tactical point Ypres is worthless. As a political centre it does not exist.

The town is a mere heap of rubble, cinders and rubbish. Not a cat lives there now, it is the abomination of desolation.

And it is to preserve this muck heap that we lose nightly 1,000 men.

We cannot conceive why the Salient is not straightened and given up. Sentiment is nothing to modern Commanders.

… We need not give it to the Germans, it can lie between the two lines and be made untenable by our guns. The effect on morale would be nil, in fact it would cheer up our Army, and be forgotten in a week.

Our men are pulverised, their trenches blown in, and not a shot in reply. If only Sir John French and all the sleek deadheads of the Headquarters Staff could spend an hour in the front line when one of these bombardments is going on, they would return gibbering idiots.

The only reasons I can see in favour of retaining the Ypres Salient are

  1. That it takes up more Germans to hold than a straight line would, and so it helps keep them stretched out on a longer line.
  2. That it detains Germans here who might do more mischief elsewhere.

But whatever it is, the fact remains that it is damned unpleasant to be anywhere near the place.”

Imperial War Museum image Q56696, Owen Mortimer Lanyon collection. Lieutenant Colonel Owen Mortimer Lanyon and Captain Charles, Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General, 4th Division, collecting roofing glass for periscope making. Ypres, May 1915.

The text quoted above is from “Ypres Diary 1914-15: the memoirs of Sir Morgan Crofton”, edited by Gavin Roynon, The History Press 2010. First published in 2004 by Sutton Publishing under the title “Massacre of the innocents”. This text is from Crofton’s entry for 5 June 1915.

Crofton was born in 1879 and commissioned into the Lancashire Fusiliers in 1899. A veteran of the Second Boer War, he was serving with the 2nd Life Guards by the time of the Great War. He was with his regiment in France and Flanders from November 1914 onwards, and witnessed the loss of many of his friends and comrades, particularly during the Second Battle of Ypres. Clearly an educated, well-connected man (he became a Baronet in 1902), his practical and objective view of the value of holding Ypres and of the General Staff is noteworthy.

The diary is an exceptionally interesting read.

Buy it

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Life Guards

Second Battle of Ypres