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The battle of Langemarck, 21-24 October 1914, was part of the wider first battle of Ypres (19 October-22 November). It began as an encounter battle, between troops of the British I corps and German troops, both advancing to make an attack. It ended with the Allies on the defensive around Ypres, holding off the first of a series of fierce German attacks that would be typical of the remained of the battle of Ypres.
At the end of 20 October the two divisions of I corps were separated by Ypres. Sir John French ordered the corps to move to Langemarck and then launch an attack to the north, with the ambitious aim of liberating Bruges. French believed that there was only one German army corps north of Ypres, when there were actually five between Ypres and the coast.
The start of the British attack was delayed by the time needed for the two divisions of I corps to reach Langemarck. Some progress was made, before the advancing British began to encounter an increasing number of German troops, also advancing to the attack. At 3 p.m. General Douglas Haig, commander of I corps, cancelled the advance and ordered his men to hold their positions. The new front line was only 1,000 yards beyond Langemarck.
The British defences on the new front line were not particularly powerful. Rather than the continuous line of trenches, protected by barbed wire, of later periods, the trenches around Langemarck were at best three feet deep, and were not yet connected in a continuous defensive line. Travel between the isolated trenches could be very dangerous, and at night they were vulnerable to infiltration.
At the end of 21 October the Allies finally realised that the Germans were present in much more strength than expected. Any idea of an offensive by the BEF was abandoned for the moment, and Joffre agreed to send the French IX corps to Ypres.
The fighting on 21 October had left the 1st Division of I corps badly stretched out west of Langemarck. On 22 October the Germans launched an attack along a large stretch of the British line, against the 1st, 2nd and 7th Divisions.The German attack was repulsed along most of the British line, apart from in the centre of the 1st Division. Here the 1st battalion of the Cameron Highlanders held a semi-circular position north of the Kortekeer Cabaret. The line here was made up of a series of unconnected trenches, and late in the afternoon the Germans penetrated the north west portion of the line. Once inside the semi-circle they were then in a position to attack the remaining British positions from behind. At 6.00 pm the Camerons were forced to retreat a quarter of a mile, leaving a potential gap in the British lines.
Haig responded to this crisis with a certain amount of flexibility, creating a reserve force from a variety of sources. On the morning of 23rd October that scratch force recaptured the cabaret. At the same time a major German attack against Langemarck was defeated. Both battles were over by 1 p.m.
The same day also saw a French counterattack, launched by the 17th Division of IX Corps. The attack was launched from the front held by the 2nd division.
Foch had hoped for British support during his offensive, but his request didn’t reach General Haig until 2 a.m. on 23 October, only seven hours before the attack was expected to begin. The French attack itself failed, but the French division replaced the British 2nd division in the front line. The next day the 1st division was also relieved, this time by two French territorial brigades.
After 24 October the focus of the fighting at Ypres moved south. The British position on the Menin road would come under fierce attack on 25-26 October, and temporarily collapse late on the 26th, before the crisis of the battle came at Gheluvelt (29-31 October).
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