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The Second Battle of Ypres, April 22nd, 1915


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Battles - The Second Battle of Ypres, 1915

The Second Battle of Ypres comprised the only major attack launched by the German forces on the Western Front in 1915, Eric von Falkenhayn preferring to concentrate German efforts against the Russians on the Eastern Front.

Begun in April and used primarily as a means of diverting Allied attention from the Eastern Front, and as a means of testing the use of chlorine gas, it eventually concluded in failure in May.  As a consequence of the failure of this attack the German army gave up its attempts to take the town, choosing instead to demolish it through constant bombardment.  By the end of the war Ypres had been largely reduced to piles of rubble, the town's magnificent Cloth Hall a wreck (although rebuilt to the original designs in the 1950's).

Second Ypres is generally remembered today as marking the first use of gas on the Western Front.  Although introduced with minimal effect on the Russian Eastern Front at Bolimov by the Germans earlier in the war (where it was so cold the gas had frozen), and in conflict with the Hague Convention which outlawed gas warfare, its impact during Second Ypres was startlingly effective.

5,700 canisters containing 168 tons of chlorine gas were released at sunrise on 22 April against French Algerian and territorial division troops following a brief preliminary bombardment by 17-inch howitzers.  A veil of greenish-yellow mist could be clearly seen rolling across from the German front lines to the French positions.
The effectiveness of the gas attack was so complete that it surprised the German infantry who followed up the release of the chlorine gas.  The stunned Allied troops fled in panic towards Ypres, the heavy gas settling and clogging the trenches where it gathered.  (Click here to read the official German statement issued in the aftermath of the attack.)

Covering four miles of trench lines, the gas affected some 10,000 troops, half of whom died within ten minutes of the gas reaching the front line.  Death was caused by asphyxiation.  Those who lived were temporarily blinded and stumbled in confusion, coughing heavily.  2,000 of these troops were captured as prisoners of war.
The two advancing Germans corps wearing primitive respirators paced warily through a clear seven kilometre gap in the Allied lines, wary of traps.  In planning the attack no reserves had been thought necessary, the German command considering it inconceivable that a major breakthrough could be achieved.

In consequence the actual breakthrough was not exploited to the full.  After advancing three kilometres into Allied lines the Germans halted under the hail of a scrambled British General Smith-Dorrien's Second Army counter-offensive.  Even so, the loss of high ground to the north significantly weakened the Allied position.
The Germans released a second batch of chlorine gas two days later, on 24 April, this time directed against Canadian troops situated north-east of Ypres and again prefaced by a sharp artillery bombardment.

Again the German forces gained ground against the unprotected Canadian troops, although fighting was fierce, spreading far south to Hill 60.  The novelty of gas warfare was wearing off, and the advancing German infantry sustained heavy losses from the defending Canadians, who were relieved by arriving British troops on 3 May.  During this time the Canadians had suffered heavily, with 5,975 casualties, including 1,000 fatalities.

General Smith-Dorrien proposed a two and a half mile withdrawal closer to Ypres.  He felt that nothing short of a large-scale counter-offensive was likely to push the German forces back to their original positions.  The idea was met coolly by the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), Sir John French, who effectively dismissed Smith-Dorrien by sending him home to England.  (Click here to read Sir John French's reaction to the German use of poison gas.)

Ironically Smith-Dorrien's replacement, General Herbert Plumer (later famed for his successful Messines Offensive), also recommended a general withdrawal to French.  The suggestion was this time accepted, taking place following a failed Allied counter-attack by two divisions presided over by French General Ferdinand Foch on 29 April.  French executed the planned withdrawal on 1-3 May 1915.

Fighting renewed around Ypres on 8 May and continued until 13 May, and then again from 24-25 May, with repeated use of gas attacks.  Still the Allied lines held, although German forces secured additional high ground to the east of the town from 8-12 May.

On 24 May a heavy German assault forced a further Allied withdrawal, although little extra ground was ceded.  A want of supplies and manpower obliged the Germans to call off the offensive; all that they could do was to bombard the town.  Even so, the German attacks had considerably reduced the size of the Allied salient.  The highest ground had been lost and it was no more than three miles across and five miles deep.
Losses during the Second Battle of Ypres are estimated at 69,000 Allied troops (59,000 British, 10,000 French), against 35,000 German, the difference in numbers explained by the use of chlorine gas.  The Germans' innovative use of gas set the trend for the rest of the war.

Although roundly condemned by the Allies as barbaric and reprehensible, sentiments echoed by many neutral nations, the Allies quickly developed their own form of gas warfare, with the British releasing gas canisters at Loos at the end of September 1915 (although the prevailing wind turned and wafted the gas back into the British trenches).  All the allied countries had made extensive use of poison gas by the close of the war.


10th Bn CEF at St Julien Wood (16th Bn was there as well)

The Second Battle of Ypres

A hurried order from Brigade H.Q. was received at 5.20p.m. notifying Colonel Boyle to have his battalion ready to move to the trenches at 6 p.m. The battalion paraded at the junction of the Ypres-St. Jean Road, but was at once swallowed up in the terrible confusion of men and transport which prevailed. Masses of wildly fleeing French Colonial troops surged on the roads and over the fields making towards Ypres and Vlamertinghe, many of them exhausted and gasping for breath, their faces twisted and distorted with pain. Asphyxiating gas of great intensity had been projected into their trenches, and thousands had been overcome before they abandoned the line. To add to the terror and confusion, the German guns had the range of the Cross Roads outside Ypres, and their thickly falling shells were snatching numerous victims from among the horror stricken refugees.

In order to extricate his battalion, Colonel Boyle had to split it up into small parties, and these proceeded independently to Wieltje.

At this time the position on the battle front was as follows: Three infantry brigades of the Canadian Division were holding about 5,000 yards of front line trenches, extending from the Ypres-Roulers Railway to the Ypres-Polecappelle Road. The French were on the left flank in touch with the 3rd Brigade, the 2rid Brigade was on the right, the 1st Brigade being held in reserve.

The enforced withdrawal of the French Colonial troops, which left a gap of nearly 1,000 yards in the line, gravely exposed the Canadians' left, making it possible for the Huns to break through and cut off the entire division. The situation was desperate.

The General Officer Commanding the Canadians. decided upon a bold stroke. He withdrew his left flank southwards, protecting his rear and establishing a new front, and prepared to counter-attack upon St. Julien Wood, which the Huns had captured, two miles in rear of the original French position.

Reinforcements had arrived - not a moment too soon. Two battalions of the 1st Brigade and one from the 2nd Brigade had been switched to the trenches in support of the 3rd Brigade. The “Tenth,” also of the 2nd Brigade, which we left on the way to Wieltje, was intercepted and diverted to the same ground. A counter-attack - a forlorn hope - was to be carried out immediately.

Darkness had fallen. A waning moon was faintly illumining the murderous melee of the battlefield. The stabbing flashes of bursting German shells marked the Canadian position. German guns were trying to blast a pathway through for their infantry. Machine gun and rifle flashes flickered like a million fireflys in the gloom, and the swishing bullets flew literally in sheets over the broken ground and battered trenches where the 3rd Brigade was hanging on indomitably.

The forlorn hope, consisting of the 10th and the 16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalions, moved up rapidly to the attacking point, from which St. Julien Wood could be seen, looming up darkly in the faint moonlight, five hundred yards away.

The "Tenth " Attack

The order to advance was given at 11.45 p.m. The "Tenth" led the way, the 16th following almost immediately behind; both battalions were moving forward in waves, each wave two companies strong. Although the ground was much cut up from shell fire, little noise was made by the marching men, upon whom the necessity for strict silence had been impressed.

More than two-thirds of the distance had been covered, and as yet they had not been discovered. Fifty yards from the fringe of the wood a hedge was unexpectedly encountered. There was nothing for it but to smash a way through. The snapping branches aroused the enemy's sentries, and a murderous fire from rifles and machine guns was opened upon the "Tenth."

Colonel Boyle, who was following behind the second wave, urged on his men. They were falling in two's and three's under the storm of lead, but they never wavered. Working frantically with rifle butts they burst through the hedge cleared the intervening open space at a bound, and reached the first German trench at the wood's edge. This was bayoneted clear in five minutes. Without hesitation the 10th and the 16th clambered out of the trench and charged into the wood. Every tree-trunk sheltered a Hun rifleman, while machine guns enfiladed the approaches and open spaces with a withering fire. It seemed impossible that anything could live in that maelstrom of flying lead. But the Canadians, now thoroughly aroused, were not to be denied, and, fighting grimly with the bayonet every foot of the way, gradually drove their more numerous adversaries backward. Hundreds of Germans were eager to surrender. Their dead lay in heaps.

In the advance a party of the “Tenth” came upon the four naval guns which the Germans captured in their first irresistible rush. They had been rendered useless by the hastily retreating enemy.

Now the battalions were fighting side by side. Death had taken frightful toll of the 10th, and the men of the 16th had filled up the gaps in the first attacking lines. The Germans rallied their broken infantry and brought up more machine guns. The Canadians lost their formation. They fought singly and in small groups, pressing ever onwards. They advanced wherever the Germans were in numbers.

Unconsciously they had swerved somewhat to the right and were moving north-east through the wood, instead of swinging around by the south-west front as intended. Here, exhausted and caught by new blasts of enfilade rifle and machine gun fire, they were forced to dig themselves in. The position was untenable. Masses of artillery concentrated its fire upon the wood. Shrapnel and high explosive rattled and smashed through the trees, creating indescribable chaos. Machine guns, concentrated in groups, chattered death at every moving thing. Withdrawal was inevitable - otherwise annihilation.

These Canadians had now been fighting a hand-to- hand death-struggle against unbelievable odds in men and guns for nearly three hours. They were badly stricken, but unbeaten. They would have gone for- ward to annihilation if ordered to do so; but fortunately the complete sacrifice was unnecessary, for their charge had accomplished its object.

The withdrawal was successfully carried out at 12.30 p.m. and a new line was constructed running along by the hedge which had impeded them in the original advance.

Here is a look at Fred Fisher VC in this battle ---- the lead up to the battle starts on page 8