Second Battle of Ypres
The Second Battle of Ypres was a battle of the First World War fought from 21 April – 25 May 1915 for control of the strategic Flemish town of Ypres in western Belgium, following the First Battle of Ypres the previous autumn. It marked the first mass use by Germany of poison gas on the Western Front. For the first time a former colonial force (the 1st Canadian Division) defeated a European power (the German Empire) on European soil, in the Battle of St. Julien and the Battle of Kitcheners' Wood.
- 1 Background
- 2 Battle
- 3 Aftermath
- 4 Commemoration
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 Footnotes
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
The Second Battle of Ypres consisted of six engagements:
- The Battle of Gravenstafel: Thursday 22 April – Friday 23 April 1915
- The Battle of St. Julien: Saturday 24 April – 4 May
- The Battle of Frezenberg: 8–13 May
- The Battle of Bellewaarde: 24–25 May
- The Battle of Hooge 30–31 July 1915 (first German use of flamethrowers)
- The Second Attack on Bellewaarde 25 September
The Ypres salient followed the canal and then bulged eastward around the town of Ypres, Belgium. North of the salient the Belgian army held the line of the Yser and the north end of the salient was held by two French divisions. The eastern part of the salient was defended by one Canadian division and two British divisions. The II Corps and V Corps of the Second Army comprised the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Cavalry divisions and the 4th Division, 27th Division, 28th Division, 50th Division, Lahore Division and 1st Canadian Division.
Battle of Gravenstafel (22–23 April 1915)
The hamlet is named s'Graventafel.
At around 5:00 p.m. on 22 April, the German Army released 168 long tons (171 t) 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. Poison gas had been used before at the Battle of Bolimov three months earlier but the gas liquified in the cold and became inert.
German troops carried 5,730 gas cylinders, weighing 90 pounds (41 kg) each, to the front by hand. The cylinders were opened 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.
The French troops in the path of the gas cloud had c. 6,000 casualties, many of whom died within ten minutes, primarily from asphyxiation and 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.
Many French troops ran for their lives, while others stood their ground and waited for the cloud to pass by. Field Marshal Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, wrote:
...I wish particularly to repudiate any idea of attaching the least blame to the French Division for this unfortunate incident. After all the examples our gallant Allies have shown of dogged and tenacious courage in the many trying situations in which they have been placed throughout the course of this campaign it is quite superfluous for me to dwell on this aspect of the incident, and I would only express my firm conviction that, if any troops in the world had been able to hold their trenches in the face of such a treacherous and altogether unexpected onslaught, the French Division would have stood firm.
Anthony R. Hossack, of the Queen Victoria's Rifles described the chaos as the French Colonial Corps troops fled from the gas,
Plainly something terrible was happening. What was it? Officers, and Staff officers too, stood gazing at the scene, awestruck and dumbfounded; for in the northerly breeze there came a pungent nauseating smell that tickled the throat and made our eyes smart. The horses and men were still pouring down the road. two or three men on a horse, I saw, while over the fields streamed mobs of infantry, the dusky warriors of French Africa; away went their rifles, equipment, even their tunics that they might run the faster. One man came stumbling through our lines. An officer of ours held him up with levelled revolver, "What's the matter, you bloody lot of cowards?" says he. The Zouave was frothing at the mouth, his eyes started from their sockets, and he fell writhing at the officer's feet.
A 4-mile (6.4 km) gap was left in the front line. The German High Command had not foreseen the effectiveness of the new weapon and all available troops had been transferred to Russia, leaving few reserves in the west. General von Falkenhayn, Chief of German General Staff had ordered the attack as a limited effort by the German 4th Army. German troops advanced at 5:00 p.m. but dusk, apprehension about the effect of the gas and lack of reserves prevented the Germans from exploiting the gap. Canadian troops were able to defend the flank of the break-in by urinating into cloths and putting them to their faces, to counter the effects of the gas. Casualties were especially heavy for the 13th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), which was enveloped on three sides and over-extended by the demands of securing its left flank once the Algerian Division had broken.
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 p.m. on the night of 22 April, with the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) of the 3rd Brigade arriving as they were forming to support the advance. Both battalions attacked with over 800 men, formed up in waves of two companies each at 11:46 p.m. Without reconnaissance, the battalions ran into obstacles halfway to the objective and were engaged with small-arms fire from the wood, initiating an impromptu bayonet charge. The attack cleared the former oak plantation of Germans, at the cost of 75% 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.
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.
Battle of St. Julien (24 April – 5 May)
(now Saint Juliaan)
The village of St. Julien had been comfortably in the rear of the 1st Canadian Division until the poison gas attack of 22 April, when 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 killed the next day using the same tactics.
On the morning of 24 April the Germans released another cloud of chlorine, towards the re-formed Canadian line just west of St. Julien. Word was passed among the Canadian troops to urinate on their handkerchiefs and place these over their noses and mouths.[Note 1] The countermeasures were insufficient and German troops took the village. Next day the York and Durham Brigade units of the Northumberland Division counter-attacked, failed to secure their objectives but established a new line closer to the village. On 26 April the Northumberland Brigade attacked again and gained a foothold in the village but were forced back with the loss of more than 1,940 casualties. The 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers had hundreds of casualties and with no respite took part in the battles at Frezenberg and Bellewaarde. On 24 May the battalion was subject to a German chlorine gas attack near St. Julien and was nearly annihilated.
The German Army first used chlorine gas cylinders in April 1915 against the French Army at Ypres.[Note 2] Yellow-green clouds drifted towards the Allied trenches. The gas had a distinctive smell, like pineapple and pepper. At first the French officers assumed that the German infantry were advancing behind a smoke screen and the troops were alerted. When the gas arrived at the Allied front-trenches soldiers began to complain about pains in the chest and a burning sensation in their throats.
Capt. Scrimger, with the 2nd Canadian Field Ambulance, may have passed the order to use urine to counteract the gas (see note 10). Soldiers realised they were being gassed and many ran as fast as they could. An hour after the attack had started there was a 1,500 yards (1,400 m) gap in the Allied line. As the German soldiers were apprehensive of the chlorine, few moved forward and the delay enabled Canadian and British troops to retake the position before the Germans could exploit the gap.
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 gas dispersed. Other soldiers preferred to use handkerchiefs, a sock, a flannel body-belt, dampened with a solution of bicarbonate of soda, 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. 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.
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."
Battle of Frezenberg (8–13 May)
The Germans moved field artillery forward and put three Army corps opposite the 27th and 28th divisions on Frezenberg ridge. The German attack began on 8 May, with a bombardment on the 83rd Brigade in trenches on the forward slope 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. The neighbouring 80th Brigade repulsed the attack but the 84th Brigade was pushed back, leaving a 2-mile (3.2 km) gap in the line. The Germans were prevented from advancing further by the amazing bravery of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI)'s counter-attacks and a night move by the 10th Brigade. The PPCLI held up the line, but at a terrible cost. A fighting force of 700 soldiers had been whittled down to 150 who were left in any shape to fight. Their unofficial motto later became the phrase "holding up the whole damn line" and is still used today.[Note 3]
Battle of Bellewaarde (24–25 May)
On 24 May the Germans released a gas attack on a 7-kilometre (4.3 mi) front. British troops were able to defend against initial German attacks but were eventually forced to retreat to the north and south. Failed British counterattacks forced a British retreat 1-kilometre (0.62 mi) northwards. Upon the end of the battle the Ypres salient was 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) deep.
By the end of the battle the Ypres Salient had been compressed and Ypres itself was closer to the line. The city was bombarded with observed artillery-fire and gradually demolished. Poison gas had been used on the Eastern Front but surprised the Allies and c. 7,000 gas casualties were admitted to field ambulances and casualty clearing stations; from May–June, 350 British deaths were recorded from gas poisoning. Both sides developed gas weapons and counter-measures which changed gas warfare to part of the structure of tactical attrition; the Franco-British used gas at the Battle of Loos in late September. Development of gas protection was instituted with the issue of improvised respirators made from a cotton-waste pad impregnated with sodium hyposulphite, sodium bicarbonate and glycerin. The respirator made little difference due to lack of training, the use of local contraptions and items imported from Britain which were poorly made. The "P helmet" (or "Tube Helmet") soaked in sodium phenate, had been issued by December 1915 and the PH helmet, which was effective against phosgene was issued in early 1916.
Canadian troops had achieved a defensive success but the division lost 5,975 men by the time it was withdrawn on 3 May. The division had been unprepared for the form of warfare prevailing on the Western Front, where linear tactics were insufficient against attackers armed with magazine-rifles and machine-guns; Canadian field artillery had been highly effective but the deficiencies of the Ross rifle made Canadian tactical difficulties worse. The Canadian Division received several thousand replacements shortly afterwards but presented a most favourable image to their allies and the world.[Note 4]
German casualties from 21 April – 30 May were recorded as 34,933 by the Official Historians of the Reichsarchv. British casualties recorded in the British Official History were 59,275 men and the French had c. 18,000 casualties on 22 April and another 3,973 casualties from 26–29 April. Canadian casualties from 22 April – 3 May were 5,975 of whom c. 1,000 men were killed, the worst day being 24 April when 3,058 casualties were suffered during infantry attacks, artillery bombardments, and gas discharges.
An operation known as the First Attack on Bellewaarde was conducted by the 3rd Division of V Corps on 16 June 1915 and a larger operation, the Second Attack on Bellewaarde, by the 3rd Division and the 14th Division of VI Corps took place from 25–26 September 1915. The Battle of Mont Sorrel to the south of Ypres, with the 20th Division of XIV Corps and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian divisions of the Canadian Corps took place from 2–13 June 1916. A Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele was fought in the autumn of 1917.
The Canadian actions during the Battle of Gravenstafel are commemorated with the Saint Julien Memorial in the village of Saint Julien. 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.
- Lance Sergeant D. W. Belcher, London Rifle Brigade (TF), 11th Brigade, 4th Division.
- Captain E. D. Bellew, 7th Battalion, British Columbia Regiment, 2nd Canadian Brigade, 1st Canadian Division.
- Jemadar Mir Dast, 55th Rifles (att. 57th Rifles), Ferozepore Brigade, Lahore Division.
- Lance Corporal F. Fisher, 13th Battalion Royal Highlanders of Canada, 3rd Canadian Brigade, 1st Canadian Division.
- Company Sergeant-Major F. W. Hall, 8th Battalion, Winnipeg Rifles, 2nd Canadian Brigade.
- Private J. Lynn, 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, 12th Brigade, 4th Division.
- 2nd Lieutenant W. B. Rhodes-Moorhouse, 2 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps.
- Captain F. A. C. Scrimger, (Canadian Army Medical Service), 14th Battalion, Royal Montreal Regiment.
- Corporal I. Smith, 1st Manchesters, Jullundur Brigade, Lahore Division.
- Private E. Warner, 1st Bedfordshires, 15th Brigade, 5th Division.
- First Battle of Ypres
- Use of poison gas in World War I
- Saint Julien Memorial
- Third Battle of Ypres
- List of Canadian battles during World War I
- Langford Wellman Colley-Priest
- The order is attributed to a Medical Officer, Capt. F.A.C. Scrimger. Memoirs of two individuals at the battle do not recount this episode (see Nasmith, 1917 and Scott, 1922) Urea in urine would react with chlorine, neutralising it by forming dichlorourea. See Chattaway (1908).
- 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?" Chlorine made the victim cough and therefore limited his intake of the poison. Both sides found that phosgene was more effective, since 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.
- The picture in the top right of this article depicts Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry as they fought to halt the German attack on Frezenberg. The original mural hangs in the Senate of the main Parliament Building in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. In the battle, 2/3 of the regiment were either killed or wounded and all but two two officers were killed or wounded in the battle. By the end of the battle, the regiment was commanded by a lieutenant.
- 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. The battle was the beginning of a long period of analysis and experiment to improve the effectiveness of Canadian infantry weapons, artillery and liaison between infantry and artillery.
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