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The Second Battle of Ypres was the first time Germanymarker used poison gas on a large scale on the Western Front in World War I and the first time a former colonial force (Canadiansmarker) pushed back a major European power (Germans) on European soil, which occurred in the battle of St. Julien-Kitcheners' Wood.

The Second Battle of Ypresmarker consisted of four separate engagements:

The scene of the battles was the Ypres salient where the Allied line which followed the canal bulged eastward around the town of Ypresmarker, Belgium. North of the salient were the Belgiansmarker; covering the northern part of the salient itself were two French divisions (one Metropolitan and one Algerianmarker) 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)

Today this tiny hamlet is named Gravenstafel.

Gas attack on Gravenstafel

At around 17:00 (5:00 pm) on April 22 1915, the German Army released one hundred and sixty eight tons of chlorine gas over a 6.5 km (4 mile) front on the part of the line held by Frenchmarker 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 5730 cylinders of chlorine gas, weighing ninety pounds 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. for reaction of chlorine with water. 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,Few blamed the French survivors for abandoning their trenches, though many did lay blame on the French African troops who broke as indicative of their "unreliability, lack of discipline, and ineffectualness." 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. J.D.P. French, "To the Secretary of State for War," Supplement to the London Gazette No. 29225, 10 May 1915, 6787-96, 6788-89, http://www.london-gazette.co.uk/issues/29225/supplements/6787 (accessed May 6 2009). a gap was left in the front line. However, the Germanmarker High Command had not foreseen the effectiveness of their new weapon, and so had not put any reserves ready in the area.General von Falkenhayn, Chief of German General Staff, apparently classified the attack as localised, and ordered the German 4th Army not to take distant objectives. (From the German Army Official History of the War (Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918: Sommer und Herbst 1915, 8. Band, p. 41), as cited here. German troops started to enter the gap at 5:00PM 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 British and Canadian troops were able to put in a hasty defence that held that part of the line against further attacks until 3 May 1915 at a cost of 6000 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 security 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 11:00pm 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 Canadian actions during the Battle of Gravenstafel are commemorated with the Saint Julien Memorialmarker in the village of Sint Juliaan.

Battle of St Julien (24 April - 5 May)

 Today this is known as 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, whereupon it became the front line. Some of the first fighting in the village involved a hasty defence, which included the stand of Lance Corporal Fred 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.

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 May 8 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.On the 9th the German attack was across the Menin road against the 27 Division.

On 10 May the Germans released another gas cloud but made little progress.The battle ended after six days of fighting with a German advance of 2000 yards.

Battle of Bellewaarde (24 - 25 May)

On 24 May the Germans released a gas attack on a 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 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.

Ruins of Ypres market square.
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 Ypresmarker, more commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaelemarker 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.

Canadian honour

It was during the Second Battle of Ypres that Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae M.D. of Guelphmarker, Ontariomarker, Canada wrote the memorable poem In Flanders Fieldsmarker in the voice of those who perished in the war. Published in Punch Magazine December 8, 1918, it is still recited today, especially on Remembrance Day and Memorial Day.

See also



Notes

  1. Order of battle
  2. Love, 1996.
  3. Chlorine gas forms hydrochloric acid when combined with water, destroying moist tissues such as lungs and eyes. [1]
  4. It remains unclear who passed the order to urinate on the handkerchiefs. The order is attributed to [Capt. F.A.C. Scrimger], a medical officer by one modern source, Legion Magazine published by the Royal Canadian Legion. However, memoirs of two individuals at the battle do not recount this episode (see Nasmith, 1917, and Scott, 1922)
  5. Whoever passed the order, the chemistry was valid. The urea in urine would react with chlorine, forming dichlorourea and effectively neutralizing it. See Chattaway (1908).
  6. Howell, 1938, p. 280.
  7. (Legion Magazine online)
  8. 4th Territorial Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers
  9. CWGC history of Ypres salient Frezenberg Ridge
  10. John McCrae (from Historica)
  11. John McCrae (from the Canadian Encyclopedia)


References

  • Chattaway, F.D. (1908). The Action of Chlorine upon Urea Whereby a Dichloro Urea is Produced. Proc. Roy. Soc. London. Ser. A, 81:381-388.[61180]




  • Howell, W.B. (1938). Colonel F.A.C. Scrimger, V.C. Can. Med. Assoc. J. 38': 279–281.[61182]




  • Love, D. (1996). The Second Battle of Ypres, April 1915. Sabretasche (Vol 26, No 4).[61184]


  • Nasmith, G.G. (1917). On the Fringe of the Great Fight. McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, Toronto.[61185]


  • Scott, F.G. (1922). The Great War as I Saw It. Goodchild Publishers, Toronto.[61186]


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