: BRITISH POLITICAL HISTORY
The Second Battle of Ypres
22nd April – 25th May 1915
The German Chief of General Staff General Erich von Falkenhayn planned to launch an offensive in the Ypres Salient. It was to be a limited offensive that would divert Allied attention away from the German troops who were being redeployed to fight against Russia on the Eastern Front.
To try and break the deadlock of trench warfare the Germans were also about to trial a new weapon. The Second Battle of Ypres saw the first use of chlorine gas by the Germans on the Western Front.
Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge 22-23 April
Ypres had been under a sustained bombardment for several days by German artillery including the 17inch ‘Big Bertha’. Units of the German Fourth Army, commanded by Duke Albrecht, were waiting to launch their offensive against the Allied forces holding the Ypres Salient.
Along the German line north of Ypres several thousand cylinders of chlorine gas had been dug into the front of their forward trenches but they needed the right weather conditions to launch the attack. Late in the afternoon on the 22 April the wind changed direction and began to blow steadily towards the south west. At 5pm the Germans opened the gas cylinders.
The yellow-green cloud of chlorine gas was blown towards the north of Ypres on an area held by the French 45th (Algerian) Division and 87th Territorial Division. The gas caused burning in the eyes and throat, pains in the chest, coughing and choking. Most of the men in the front line trenches died from asphyxiation within minutes of the gas cloud’s arrival. Others tried to stagger back suffering from the effects of the gas. In panic and confusion the colonial troops fled the battlefield. The fleeing troops and the approaching gas cloud caused the panic to spread to the soldiers in reserve and the civilian population.
A four mile gap in the Allied front line opened up between Steenstraat on the Yser canal to the north and Poelcapelle to the south.
Fifteen minutes after the chlorine gas had been released, German infantry wearing gas masks left the trenches. Supported by their artillery, the infantry advanced through the gap in the Allied front line almost unopposed.
The 1st Battalion Tirailleurs of the French 45th Division, on the extreme right of the French section of the line, had not been badly gassed. Next to them were the Canadian 1st Division who were holding the north of the British line. To prevent the German forces outflanking them, the Canadian and remaining French colonial troops turned their line towards Ypres and took up positions along the St. Julien-Poelcapelle road. The Canadians spread their men out along their new line and held on, slowing the German advance.
As night fell the German infantry halted and began to dig in, while their artillery shelled Ypres and the surrounding area. The Allies moved up reserves to try and close the gap in their front line, but it was thinly held. Within a few hours the Germans had captured a large part of the northern section of the Ypres Salient including the strategically important high ground on the Pilckem Ridge.
At the insistence of General Foch, Sir John French the British Commander in Chief agreed to help the French try and recapture this lost territory. The task would fall to the British Second Army commanded by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. The French forces, under the command of General Putz, were understrength and had limited reserves. General Joseph Joffre the French Commander in Chief was planning to launch a major offensive against the Germans further to the south at Artois and was reluctant to spare any men for the defence of Ypres.
During the night the Canadian 10th and 16th Battalions had made a valiant attempt to re-take Kitchener’s Wood, which was situated on a ridge behind Mouse Trap Farm (also known as Shell Trap Farm). Although an initial success, they incurred many casualties and were later forced to withdraw.
The counter attack which eventually took place late in the afternoon on the 23 April was a disaster. It was hampered by poor communications, an ineffective preliminary artillery bombardment and lack of French support. There were heavy casualties, half the men were lost, and little ground was re-captured.
Throughout the day the Germans had continued their artillery bombardment of the Ypres Salient. Although the gas attack had opened a wide gap in the Allied front line the Germans did not have sufficient reserves to fully exploit that success.
Battle of St Julien 24 April – 4 May
On the 24 April the Germans renewed their offensive on the northern section of the Ypres Salient. An artillery bombardment was followed by a gas attack at 4am on the Canadian forces which were holding the left of the British line. The German infantry launched their attack shortly after, advancing behind the gas cloud. Despite being gassed and outnumbered the Canadians fought back against repeated infantry assaults. Reserves were ordered in to strengthen their position, but the Canadian and British troops were finally forced to withdraw and the Germans captured St Julien. The following morning, the 25 April, two thousand men of 10th Brigade were lost trying to recapture St Julien from the Germans.
The Ypres Salient was now smaller and difficult to defend. It was under almost constant bombardment from German artillery. The Germans had moved their gun batteries forward and were able to shell the area from the north, east and south. The shelling disrupted supply lines, hampered communications and caused many casualties.
The British were running short of artillery shells. Successive Allied counter attacks were largely failures, resulting in heavy casualties for very little gain. In a disastrous counter attack on the 26 April, the 149th (Northumberland) Brigade lost almost 2,000 men without getting near the German positions. The Lahore Division lost over 1,800 men in the same counter attack. Jemadar Mir Dast of the 55th Coke’s Rifles and Corporal Issy Smith of the 1st Manchester Regiment were both awarded Victoria Crosses for bringing in wounded men under heavy fire.
General Smith-Dorrien wrote to Sir John French explaining the futility of these counter attacks and how the involvement of their French allies could not be relied upon. Smith-Dorrien recommended a strategic withdrawal to a better defensive position. Sir John French removed Smith-Dorrien from the command of Second Army. General Sir Herbert Plummer was appointed commander of the British forces in the Ypres Salient. Smith-Dorrien received this news in an un-coded message.
General Plummer also recommended withdrawing. After another failed counter attack, on the 1 May the British began to withdraw to a new defensive line, the GHQ line, nearer to Ypres.
There was another German gas attack on the 2 May. Private John Lynn of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers was awarded the Victoria Cross for keeping his machine gun in action “…although almost overcome by the deadly the fumes…”and slowing the advance of the German infantry who were moving up behind the gas cloud. He died soon after from gas poisoning.
During a gas attack the men had to improvise ways of trying to stop the inhalation of the gas, one of which was to cover the nose and mouth with a handkerchief soaked in water or urine. The first respirators were arriving from England. These were basic gas masks made of pads of cotton wool and gauze soaked in a solution of bicarbonate of soda and held in place with elastic. Goggles were worn to protect the eyes.
Battle of Frezenberg Ridge 8 – 13 May
After the British withdrawal to the GHQ Line, Duke Albrecht relocated his artillery and three Army Corps in preparation for an assault on the Frezenberg Ridge.
Early in the morning on the 8 May a fierce bombardment by German artillery caused widespread destruction along the British front line. Casualties were high, particularly among those units of the 28th Division who were holding trenches on the exposed, forward slopes of the Frezenberg Ridge.
The first waves of German infantry were driven back, but by the middle of the afternoon a two mile gap in the line had opened up between Mouse Trap Farm to the north and the Bellewaarde Ridge to the south.
On the right of the line, near the Bellewaarde Ridge, 80th Brigade had managed to hold their positions. Although under heavy fire, the men of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry clung on to their battered trenches and prevented the gap from widening. Near Mouse Trap Farm the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers, of 84th Brigade, repelled several assaults protecting the northern flank.
Reserve forces were moved up and after a series of determined counter attacks and advances the gap in the British line was finally closed during the night.
The day’s fighting had been costly. 84th Brigade had only 1,400 men left out of 6,000. The 1st Suffolk Regiment who had been positioned on the Frezenberg Ridge had only 1 officer and 29 men left. The Princess Patricia’s were down to 4 officers and 150 men.
On the 9 May the Germans renewed their assault. This time the attack came on the 27th Division who were holding the area around the Menin Road. Over the next three days the Germans repeatedly shelled the British lines and launched waves of infantry assaults, but the line held and the Germans were unable to make any significant gains.
The 13 May was a day of torrential rain and almost incessant shelling by German heavy artillery. There was a successful German infantry assault on a small section of the British front line. However a counter attack later in the day restored the situation.
Battle of Bellewaarde Ridge 24 – 25 May
At 2.45am on the 24 May the Germans began a violent bombardment of the British front line, held by V Corps. At the same time they launched the largest gas attack of Second Ypres, releasing chlorine gas along a four and half mile front. This was swiftly followed by an infantry assault.
The centre of the British front line held. Mouse Trap Farm to the north was overrun and captured in the first assault. Throughout the day valiant attempts were made to retake it, but with insufficient troops available to launch a successful counter attack, it was eventually decided to withdraw to a better defensive position.
By mid-morning the German infantry had made some gains to the south near Hooge and Bellewaarde Lake, where they began to dig in and consolidate their position.
The reserve units were slow to arrive and it was early evening before the 84th Brigade launched a counter attack. Witte Poort Farm was retaken, but overall the gains were small. A disastrous night attack by the 80th and 84th Brigades resulted in severe casualties for very little extra ground, the full moon allowing the Germans to clearly see their advance.
The Germans continued their artillery bombardment the following day, but with less intensity. Having expended vast quantities of ammunition and lost an estimated 35,000 men the Germans brought their offensive to an end.
Ypres remained in Allied hands but the front line was now only three miles to the east of the town. It had been a hard fought battle with over 59,000 British casualties.
The use of Chlorine Gas
The Second Battle of Ypres was the first time chlorine gas was used on the Western Front. However the Germans had already launched a gas attack on the Eastern Front at Bolimov, which is now in Poland, in January 1915. On this occasion several thousand shells filled with xylyl bromide, a form of tear gas, were fired at the Russian troops. There were some casualties but the gas was largely ineffective due to the extreme cold. The use of gas was prohibited by the Hague Convention.