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Second Battle of Ypres

22nd April - 25th May

 

The Second Battle of Ypres was a First World War battle fought for control of the strategic Flemish town of Ypres in western Belgium in the spring of 1915, following the First Battle of Ypres the previous autumn. It marked the first time that Germany used poison gas on a large scale on the Western Front. Additionally, the battle was the first time that a former colonial force (the 1st Canadian Division) defeated a major European power (the German Empire) on European soil, in the Battle of St. Julien-Kitcheners' Wood.

Overview

The Second Battle of Ypres consisted of Six engagements:

 

The Battle of Gravenstafel: Thursday 22 April – Friday 23 April 1915.

The Battle of Saint Julien: Saturday 24 April – 4 May 1915.

The Battle of Frezenberg: 8–13 May 1915.

The First Battle of Bellewaarde: 24–25 May 1915.

The Battle of Hooge 30th and 31st July 1915 -(First use of German Liquid Fire Attack-Flamethrowers).

The Second Attack on Bellewaarde 25th September 1915.

 

The scene of the battles was the Ypres salient on the Western Front, where the Allied line which followed the canal bulged eastward around the town of Ypres, Belgium. North of the salient were the Belgians; covering the northern part of the salient itself were two French divisions (one Metropolitan and one Algerian) The eastern part of the salient was defended by one Canadian division and two UK divisions.

In total during the battles, the British Commonwealth forces were the II and V Corps of the Second Army made up of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Cavalry divisions, and the 4th, 27th, 28th, 50th, Lahore and 1st Canadian Divisions.

 Battle of Gravenstafel (22–23 April 1915)

WikiMiniAtlas

At around 5:00 pm on 22 April 1915, the German Army released one hundred and sixty-eight tons of chlorine gas over a 6.5 km (4.0 mi) front on the part of the line held by French Territorial and colonial Moroccan and Algerian troops of the French 45th and 78th divisions. While this is often recognized as the first use of chemical warfare, poison gases were used at several earlier battles, including the Battle of Bolimov three months earlier.

The attack involved a massive logistical effort, as German troops hauled 5,730 cylinders of chlorine gas, weighing 90 pounds (41 kg) each, to the front by hand. The German soldiers also opened the cylinders by hand, relying on the prevailing winds to carry the gas towards enemy lines. Because of this method of dispersal, a large number of German soldiers were injured or killed in the process of carrying out the attack.

Approximately 6,000 French and colonial troops died within ten minutes at Ypres, primarily from asphyxiation and subsequent tissue damage in the lungs. Many more were blinded. Chlorine gas forms Hypochlorous acid when combined with water, destroying moist tissues such as lungs and eyes. The chlorine gas, being denser than air, quickly filled the trenches, forcing the troops to climb out into heavy enemy fire.

With the survivors abandoning their positions en masse, a 4-mile (6.4 km) gap was left in the front line. However, the German High Command had not foreseen the effectiveness of their new weapon, and so had not put any reserves ready in the area. German troops started to enter the gap at 5:00 pm in some numbers, but with the coming of darkness and the lack of follow up troops the German forces did not exploit the gap, and Canadian troops were able to put in a hasty defence by urinating into cloths and putting them to their faces to counter the effects of the gas. Canadians held that part of the line against further attacks until 3 May 1915 at a cost of 6,000 wounded or dead. Casualties were especially heavy for the 13th Battalion of the CEF, which was enveloped on three sides and over-extended by the demands of securing its left flank once the Algerian Division had broken.

One thousand of these "original" troops were killed and 4,975 were wounded from an initial strength of 10,000.

At Kitcheners' Wood, the 10th Battalion of the 2nd Canadian Brigade was ordered to counter-attack into the gap created by the gas attack. They formed up after 11:00 pm on the night of 22 April with the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) of the 3rd Brigade arriving as they were forming, tasked to support the advance. Both battalions stepped off with over 800 men, formed up in waves of two companies each, at 11:46 pm. Without prior reconnaissance, the battalions ran into obstacles half way to the objective and drew heavy automatic weapons fire from the Wood, prompting an impromptu bayonet charge. Their attack cleared the former oak plantation of Germans at the cost of 75 percent casualties.

The Germans set fire to a chemical product of sulphur chloride which they had placed in front of their own trenches, causing a thick yellow cloud to be blown towards the trenches of the French and Belgians.

The cloud of smoke advanced like a yellow low wall, overcoming all those who breathed in poisonous fumes. The French were unable to see what they were doing or what was happening. The Germans then charged, driving the bewildered French back past their own trenches. Those who were enveloped by the fumes were not able to see each other half a yard apart.

I have seen some of the wounded who were overcome by the sulphur fumes, and they were progressing favourably. The effect of the sulphur appears to be only temporary. The after-effects seem to be a bad swelling of the eyes, but the sight is not damaged.

—The Daily Mail (26th April, 1915)
Dusk was falling when from the German trenches in front of the French line rose that strange green cloud of death. The light north-easterly breeze wafted it toward them, and in a moment death had them by the throat. One cannot blame them that they broke and fled. In the gathering dark of that awful night they fought with the terror, running blindly in the gas-cloud, and dropping with breasts heaving in agony and the slow poison of suffocation mantling their dark faces. Hundreds of them fell and died; others lay helpless, froth upon their agonized lips and their racked bodies powerfully sick, with tearing nausea at short intervals. They too would die later – a slow and lingering death of agony unspeakable. The whole air was tainted with the acrid smell of chlorine that caught at the back of men's throats and filled their mouths with its metallic taste.
—Captain Hugh Pollard, The Memoirs of a VC (1932)

The Canadian actions during the Battle of Gravenstafel are commemorated with the Saint Julien Memorial in the village of Saint Julien.

 

Canadian Memorial at St. Julien

 Battle of St Julien (24 April – 5 May)

WikiMiniAtla

The village of St. Julien had been comfortably in the rear of the 1st Canadian Division until the poison gas attack of 22 April, whereupon it became the front line. Some of the first fighting in the village involved a hasty stop, which included the stand of Lance Corporal Frederick Fisher of the 13th Battalion CEF's machine-gun detachment; who twice went out with a handful of men and a Colt Machine-gun and prevented advancing German troops from passing through St. Julien into the rear of the Canadian front line. Fisher was awarded the VC for his actions on the 22nd, but was killed when he attempted to repeat his actions on the 23; this was the first of 70 Canadian VCs awarded in the First World War.

On the morning of 24 April 1915 the Germans released another cloud of chlorine gas, this time directly towards the re-formed Canadian lines just west of the village of St. Julien. On seeing the approach of the greenish-grey gas cloud, word was passed among the Canadian troops to urinate on their handkerchiefs and place these over their noses and mouths.

However, the countermeasures were ineffective and the Canadian lines broke as a result of the attack, allowing German troops to take the village.

The following day the York and Durham Brigade units of the Northumberland Division counterattacked failing to secure their objectives but establishing a new line close to the village. The third day the Northumberland Brigade attacked again, briefly taking part of the village but forced back with the loss of more than 1,900 men and 40 officers – two thirds of its strength.

The 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers Battalion suffered heavily, incurring hundreds of casualties and with no respite took part in the next two subsidiary battles at Frezenberg and Bellewaarde. On 24 May the battalion was subject to a German chlorine gas attack near Saint Julien and effectively disintegrated as a fighting unit.

The German Army first used chlorine gas cylinders in April 1915 against the French Army at Ypres. French soldiers reported seeing yellow-green clouds drifting slowly towards the Allied trenches. They also noticed its distinctive smell which was like a mixture of pineapple and pepper. At first the French officers assumed that the German infantry were advancing behind a smoke screen and orders were given to prepare for an armed attack. When the gas arrived at the Allied front-trenches soldiers began to complain about pains in the chests and a burning sensation in their throats.

Most soldiers now realised they were being gassed and many ran as fast as they could away from the scene. An hour after the attack had started there was a four-mile gap in the Allied line. As the German soldiers were concerned about what the chlorine gas would do to them, they hesitated about moving forward in large numbers. This delayed attack enabled Canadian and British troops to retake the position before the Germans burst through the gap that the chlorine gas had created.

Chlorine gas destroyed the respiratory organs of its victims and this led to a slow death by asphyxiation. One nurse described the death of one soldier who had been in the trenches during a chlorine gas attack. “He was sitting on the bed, fighting for breath, his lips plum coloured. He was a magnificent young Canadian past all hope in the asphyxia of chlorine. I shall never forget the look in his eyes as he turned to me and gasped: I can’t die! Is it possible that nothing can be done for me?” It was a horrible death, but as hard as they tried, doctors were unable to find a way of successfully treating chlorine gas poisoning.

It was important to have the right weather conditions before a gas attack could be made. When the British Army launched a gas attack at the Battle of Loos on 25 September in 1915, the wind blew it back into the faces of the advancing troops. This problem was solved in 1916 when gas shells were produced for use with heavy artillery. This increased the army's range of attack and helped to protect their own troops when weather conditions were not completely ideal.

After the first German chlorine gas attacks, Allied troops were supplied with masks of cotton pads that had been soaked in urine. It was found that the ammonia in the pad neutralized the chlorine. These pads were held over the face until the soldiers could escape from the poisonous fumes. Other soldiers preferred to use handkerchiefs, a sock, a flannel body-belt, dampened with a solution of bicarbonate of soda, and tied across the mouth and nose until the gas passed over. Soldiers found it difficult to fight like this and attempts were made to develop a better means of protecting men against gas attacks. By July 1915 soldiers were given efficient gas masks and anti-asphyxiation respirators.

One disadvantage for the side that launched chlorine gas attacks was that it made the victim cough and therefore limited his intake of the poison. Both sides found that phosgene was more effective than chlorine. Only a small amount was needed to make it impossible for the soldier to keep fighting. It also killed its victim within 48 hours of the attack. Advancing armies also used a mixture of chlorine and phosgene called 'white star'.

Private W. Hay of the Royal Scots arrived in Ypres just after the chlorine gas attack on 22 April 1915.

We knew there was something was wrong. We started to march towards Ypres but we couldn't get past on the road with refugees coming down the road. We went along the railway line to Ypres and there were people, civilians and soldiers, lying along the roadside in a terrible state. We heard them say it was gas. We didn't know what the Hell gas was. When we got to Ypres we found a lot of Canadians lying there dead from gas the day before, poor devils, and it was quite a horrible sight for us young men. I was only twenty so it was quite traumatic and I've never forgotten nor ever will forget it.
—Private W. Hay of the Royal Scots
The French soldiers were naturally taken by surprise. Some got away in time, but many, alas! not understanding the new danger, were not so fortunate, and were overcome by the fumes and died poisoned. Among those who escaped nearly all cough and spit blood, the chlorine-attacking the mucous membrane. The dead were turned black at once. About 15 minutes after letting the gas escape the Germans got out of their trenches. Some of them were sent on in advance, with masks over their heads, to ascertain if the air had become breathable. Having discovered that they could advance, they arrived in large numbers in the area on which the gas had spread itself some minutes before, and took possession of the arms of the dead men. They made no prisoners. Whenever they saw a soldier whom the fumes had not quite killed they snatched away his rifle and advised him to lie down "to die better."
—The Daily Chronicle (26th April, 1915)

Hop Store Cemetery

 

Battle of Frezenberg (8–13 May)

 

The Germans had moved their artillery forward and put three Army corps opposite the 27th and 28th divisions on the Frezenberg ridge. The battle began on 8 May with a bombardment that disrupted the 83rd Brigade holding trenches on the forward side of the ridge but the first and second assaults by German infantry were repelled by the survivors. The third German assault of the morning pushed the defenders back. While the neighbouring 80th Brigade stopped the advance, the 84th Brigade was broken giving a two mile gap in the line. Further advance was stopped through counterattacks and a night move by the 10th Brigade.

After the chlorine gas attack at Ypres in 1915, Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, explained what happened.

The effect of the gas was so overwhelming that the whole of the positions occupied by the French divisions were rendered incapable of resistance. It was impossible at first to realise what had actually happened. Fumes and smoke were thrown into a stupor and after an hour the whole position had to be abandoned, together with 50 guns.

Battle of Bellewaarde (24–25 May)

 

On 24 May the Germans released a gas attack on a 4.5-mile (7.2 km) front. British troops were able to defend against initial German attacks but eventually they were forced to retreat to the north and south. Failed British counterattacks forced a British retreat 1000 yards northwards. Upon the end of the battle  the Ypres salient was 3 miles (4.8 km) deep.

 

 Aftermath

By the end of the battle the size of the Ypres Salient had been reduced such that Ypres itself was closer to the line. In time it would be reduced by shelling until virtually nothing would remain standing.

The surprise use of poison gas was not a historical first (poison gas had already been used on the Eastern Front) but did come as a tactical surprise to the Allies. After Second Ypres, both sides developed more sophisticated gas weapons, and countermeasures, and never again was the use of gas either a surprise, nor especially effective. The British quickly developed their own gas attacks using them for the first time at the Battle of Loos in late September. Development of gas protection was instituted and the first examples of the PH helmet issued in July 1915.

The Canadian Division was forced to absorb several thousand replacements shortly afterwards, but presented a most favourable image to their allies and the world. Another Canadian division joined the British Expeditionary Force in late 1915, joined eventually by two more in 1916. The battle also blooded many commanders, singling out some for praise, such as brigade commander Arthur Currie, and others for criticism, such as Garnet Hughes.

The inadequacies of training and doctrine in the early CEF was made obvious by the antique tactics used at Kitcheners' Wood and St. Julien, though tactics in the British Colonial armies would be slow to evolve. At Second Ypres, the smallest tactical unit in the infantry was a company; by 1917 it would be the section. The Canadians were employed offensively later in 1915, but not successfully.

A Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele was fought in the autumn of 1917. The battle was marked by Canadian tactical successes as a result of many innovations in organization, training and tactics in both the infantry and artillery.

 

Dochy Farm New British Cemetery

Canadian honour

It was during the Second Battle of Ypres that Lieutenant Colonel John Alexander McCrae M.D. of Guelph, Ontario, Canada wrote the memorable poem In Flanders Fields in the voice of those who perished in the war. Published in Punch Magazine 8 December 1915, it is still recited today, especially on Remembrance Day and Memorial Day.

Lance Sergeant Elmer Cotton, described the effects of chlorine gas in 1915.

It produces a flooding of the lungs – it is an equivalent death to drowning only on dry land. The effects are these – a splitting headache and terrific thirst (to drink water is instant death), a knife edge of pain in the lungs and the coughing up of a greenish froth off the stomach and the lungs, ending finally in insensibility and death. The colour of the skin from white turns a greenish black and yellow, the colour protrudes and the eyes assume a glassy stare. It is a fiendish death to die.

 

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