Following the landing at Fao on November 6, British forces moved inland, converging on the city of Basra. They defeated the Ottoman forces in a chain of smallish conflicts, leading to capture of the city on November 21. Though the capture of Barsa substantially aided in securing the Persian oilfields and refineries, this was a mission slightly ambiguous in nature . . . the British forces eventually felt it necessary to begin to advance up the nearby river.
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South of the flooded plains at Neuport, North of the chain of battlefields stretching from Aisne to Lille, rested the Belgian town of Ypres (pronounced EEP-wres). Ypres had a history of strategic importance, as it was located near the port towns in the Belgian region of Flanders. In late 1914, this importance was clear: the British desperately needed to break through here (or at least to not give ground) in order to have a better chance of securing the port facilities at Antwerp, much needed for seaborne supplies and reinforcements. The Germans, on the other hand, apart from wanting to prevent British access to the ports, saw Ypres as their last opportunity to break through a not-yet-entirely-static defensive front and re-engage in mobile warfare, pouring across France and forcing victory.
Fighting in the region of Ypres had begun around mid-October. Sir John French, leading the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), fell back to Ypres following the fall of Antwerp. Supreme German commander, Erich Falkenhayn, ordered a breakthrough in this area, and attacks began on October 20. The Neuport region became hopeless soon after October 27, when Belgian King Albert ordered the sluice gates opened . . . a huge area flooded, blocking advance for both Entente and Central forces for the entire war.
Falkenhayn reorganized his forces, and ordered a narrow advance on Ypres itself with a collection of troops far out-numbering the BEF’s seven infantry and three cavalry divisions. Though the discrepancy in force strength forced the British onto the defensive, this may have been the British strength: troops of the BEF had been specially trained to fight against long odds in defensive warfare, each man was required to be able to hit a target fifteen times a minute at a range of three hundred yards. Most could do even better than that, for the soldiers had been granted unlimited ammunition for practice, and cash prizes were awarded for high scores.
The Germans were cut down so rapidly that they mistakenly believed that they were up against a great many machine guns.
Nevertheless, the Germans still had both the troops and motivation to continue attacking. On November 11, they commenced attacks on the Menin Road, only four miles away from Ypres. Using two premier divisions, the Germans tore huge holes in the British front, clearing the way for British disaster.
Unfortunately, this battle was indicative of an emerging trend of warfare on the Western Front: breakthroughs were so uncommon that neither men nor officers were prepared to exploit them. Perhaps even more importantly, however, the desperate fighting took an immense toll on the men themselves. Both physically and mentally exhausted, it may have been too much to ask the men to achieve victory for themselves: they had seen too many of their comrades fall.
German losses amounted to about 47,000, while the Entente lost a total of aver 150,000 (including French and Belgian casualties). Most telling of all since the beginning of the war was the price that the British alone had paid so far: of over 160,000 men of the original BEF sent to France, less than half remained by the end of the Battle of Ypres. Though they fought well, the bloodiness of the battlefields, including Ypres, showed no mercy. The First World War would be long and immensely costly.
By November 22, Falkenhayn had to admit that the Ypres front had become static, like the rest of the Western theatre.
Worst of all, the static nature of the Western Front would mean the most miserable of existences for the front-line soldier: Trench Warfare.