33: Second Battle of Ypres


The Germans introduce a new weapon on the Western Front in the form of poison gas.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 34. You don’t know this, but I am recording this episode on April the 25th or ANZAC Day. At 2:30AM I rolled out of bed to make the 3 hour trip up to Kansas City to attend the centenial celebrations at the National World War 1 Museum of the United States. There were representatives there from several nations, Australia, New Zealand, and Turkey among them. It was a solemn dawn ceremony to commemorate all of the Troops that took part in the landing at Gallipoli and all of the service men and women from Australia and New Zealand since that date. You can check out some photos and a bit more information, including the story of how I made a complete fool of myself, and managed to spill a boiling hot cup of coffee on my foot, in front of a Major from the Australian army in the link in the show notes or in the social media posts accompanying this episode on Facebook at facebook.com/historyofthegreatwar or Twitter at Twitter.com/historygreatwar or on Medium, where the story is posted, at medium.com/@historygreatwar. Since I have been gone for a few weeks I would like to thank Mark for his donation to the show and for his words of encouragement, you have no idea how much those mean and I would also like to throw a thank you out to everybody who has left the show a review on iTunes, it is the best way to get more people to notice the show and I thank you for it.

This episode is something of a special one for this year because it involves the Germans making a large attack on the western front. As we have discussed the Germans were, for the most part, holding to the defensive in the West so that they could move troops east. But there was one large attack that they launched in Belgium during 1915 and it would come to be called the Second Battle of Ypres. It is most notable as the first occurrence of poison gas being used on the Western front. If you remember the Germans had used gas before, in the east against the russians. In that instance it was just concentrated tear gas. It was not particularly effective at least partially due to the cold which had prevented it from properly becoming an aerosol so it didn’t properly spread over the lines. They had new gas and new delivery techniques to use at Ypres, and cold wouldn’t be a problem. What would follow is some of the most horrifying moments for any soldiers at any point during the war. Gas would become one of the legacies of the war, both in the form of battlefield accounts and men affected for the rest of their lives. Second Ypres was really the beginning of that story.

Before we continue, I guess we have to have a conversation about how to pronounce Ypres again. This is really the topic that won’t go away, but this time I have input from a listener in Belgium. This is good information all around so I thought I would share it, so I have been pronouncing the name as Ypres, but that is the French name for the city, but the city is actually located in the Flemish region of Belgium, and I am told they pronounce it Ieper, and it is spelled very differently. Apparently this is a rather sensitive subject in the region so from here on out I am pronouncing it Ieper, so don’t be confused Ypres = Ieper.

The attack at Ieper had it roots in the process of the Germans moving troops from the west to the east. After Neuve Chapelle Joffre wanted the British to launch more attacks on their area of the front to pull more German resources toward them so that the French had an easier time. There were continuing reports of the Germans moving troops to the east, which they had been doing for months now. So, the French and British knew that the Germans were moving troops, but the Germans knew that they knew. This put Falkenhayn into a position where he decided to launch and attack in April just to make it clear that the Germans weren’t pulling everybody out of the line and they were still dangerous. It was actually pretty smart, the Allies 100% did not expect the Germans to launch an attack on the Western front in spring 1915. There was a drawback though, the Germans couldn’t reroute too many resources for the effort, there was a reason they were moving troops east afterall. So to make up for the lack of men and resources it was decided that the Germans would bring out a great equalizer that they had been testing. Ypres would be the testing ground for a new form of gas that the Germans had been developing in secret for several years. Gas was of course expressly forbidden by the Hague convention, which the Germans had signed, but really that was just a piece of paper after all. Now I am simplifying that a bit too much there, really the Germans justified their action by pointing out the violations of the treaty by the Allies, specifically the blockade of German ports from receiving non-military goods like food which was also forbidden by the Convention. We will talk a lot more about the blockade and its ramifications in later episodes, but using it as a justification for the use of poison gas is something that is often forgotten.

Falkenhayn evaluated places along the front that the attack could be launched before deciding on Ieper . It had several benefits the first of which was that it was in an area where the French and British lines intermingled. This could hinder communication of troops that were side by side. The time for the attack would be late April. A new gas would be used as well, chlorine gas, which would be far more potent than the gas used in the east during the winter. Instead of incapacitating the troops the gas could kill them with extended exposure. The gas casued overproduction of fluid in the lungs. This overproduction would result in a sort of internal drowning. The men would be able to feel themselves losing the ability to breathe, without any way to stop it, a truly horrible way to die. The gas was a byproduct of the German dye making process which was controlled by the IG Farben firm in the Ruhr region of Germany and the German chemical industry produced something like 85% of the global supply of chlorine gas in 1915. The gas would be delivered from large tanks setup along the front with valves and pipes connecting them that would be opened before the attack. There were 6,000 tanks of the gas, which equated to something like 160 tons of it in total, so a lot of gas. The release method required the wind to be, first of all, blowing in the right direction, so it wouldn’t blow back into German lines. Second, it required it to be blowing reasonably quickly so that the gas would get carried across no man’s land and wouldn’t just sit in it, something that would also get in the German’s way. Finally, the wind couldn’t be too strong or the gas would be quickly blown off of the battlefield before having the necessary effect. This obviously made planning the attack difficult since all of the conditions would have to be absolutely pristine to maximize the effect of the chlorine. The Germans of course knew all of these problems so they didn’t really pinpoint the moment of attack until just a few days beforehand.

The battle would begin late in the afternoon on April 22nd and the allied commanders weren’t completely surprised by the attack or the gas. They knew that something was up, and they knew that it would probably be a gas attack of some kind. They knew these things because they had intercepted German messages about bringing gas masks up to the front. The preparations by the Germans also hadn’t went unnoticed, after all that was a ton of gas cylinders, pipes, and valves to get to the front without the allies noticing the completely out of place activity. The french had even captured a German soldier who told them about the preparations and the chlorine gas weeks before the attack would take place. So the obvious question would be why were all of these warnings unheeded by the French and British high command? That is a great question. And right now I am going to greatly disappoint you by saying, I don’t have a great answer. It seems that for the most part the French and British didn’t believe the reports they were hearing, or attributed the activity to something else. This meant that at 5 o’clock in the afternoon the Germans opened the valves on the gas tanks and the gas started moving across the battlefield. It took the form of a greyish-greenish cloud that drifted on the wind. Directly in its path were two French divisions, the 87th and the 45th. The 45th was a colonial division with troops from all over the French African colonies. They saw the gas moving toward them, but they didn’t really know what it was or what to do about it. Most of them just thought it was smoke or some other benign substance. The use of smoke screens wasn’t prevalent at this point in the war, but it wasn’t completely unheard of. When the cloud began to move over the trenches, the troops quickly found out they were wrong. Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Currie would describe the experience of being gassed like this “When it is first breathed it is not unpleasant, smelling not unlike choloroform, but very soon it stings the mucous membrane of the mouth, the eyes, and the nose. The lungs feel as if they were filled with rheumatism. The tissues of the lungs are scalded and broken down, and it takes a man a long time to recover.” As the troops began to experience the gas along the line, panic set in and the line completely broke. There are many times during the war when you could find fault in troops breaking and retreating, this instance definitely doesn’t fall into that category. The retreat quickly began and a gap of some 8,000 yards wide was opened in the front. Next to the French troops was the 1st Canadian division which was the first of the Canadian divisions to find themselves on the western front. The first warning that they had was the sight of the broken French units moving toward the rear. Anthony R. Hossack was among them “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.” While Hossack speaks of cowardice in the excerpt above, and this was echo’d in many accounts of the moment that the Canadians saw the retreating French, as soon as the Canadian troops began to realize what exactly was happening such accusations were swept away. Sir John French would directly address this fact after the battle in his official account “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.” The Canadians tried to cover as much of the gap that had developed in the line as possible and they also began to experience the gas. A Canadian sergeant would say “The chaps were all gasping and couldn’t breathe and it was ghastly, especially for chaps that were wounded–terrible for a wounded man to lie there! the gasping, the gasping!” Behind the gas the German troops who were supposed to advance quickly after the gas were advancing far from what somebody would describe as quickly. First of all they weren’t exactly confident in the new gas masks they had been issued before the attack and also, when they got to the first line of trenches and began to see the effects of the gas they were in no hurry to catch up to the cloud. What they found were men laying in the trenches struggling for breath, gasping, suffocating, not helped by the fact that the gas stuck in the bottom of the trenches where they were laying, making the effects even worse. So while the German soldiers weren’t advancing as fast as they should have, at the higher levels of German command they didn’t realize how much of an opportunity they had. They knew that there was a gap in the lines, they knew that they could push men though, but they didn’t realize that, quite literally, the road all the way to Ypres was clear. By the time they realized their opportunity the Allies were already moving in troops to fill the gap. The bravery and accomplishments of the Candians cannot be understated at this time. They were not as heavily effected by the gas as the French were but they were under constant German pressure from the moment the attack started. Even while under this pressure they were able to hang onto their positions to prevent the breach in the lines from widening, something that could have started a chain reaction to roll up the lines all around the salient. It isn’t inconceivable that the Allies would have been completely pushed out of the Ypres salient if the Canadians were unable to hold their lines. A very good showing for their first time in a large action on the front. The 1st Canadian division would end up being known as one of the very best in the entire Allied line by the end of the war, and that reputation started at Ypres.

It wasn’t long after the attack on April the 22nd that the gas was idenfitied as chlorine gas by the allies. Word was quickly spread through the ranks that the gas was water soluable. The men could take a rag and soak it in water and cover their mouths and nose with it, while not a perfect solution it would take most of the bite out of the gas and would make it far less lethal. Lieutenant Colonel Ferguson of the 28th Division is credited with the discovery both of the type of gas and the partial countermeasures. The attacks would continue on April the 24th, after the Germans had taken a bit of a break to regroup for another attack, this time they focused on the Canadians. With the warning that they had the gas was less effective and the attack would be stopped before the British and Canadians began to counter attack. One of the divisions used in the attacks was the 50th Division, one of the first appearences of the Territorial divisions at the front. One of the men in the 50th was Private William Quinton who would have this to say about his first experience with gas “No words of mine can ever describe my feelings as we inhaled the first mouthful. We choked, spit, and coughed, my lungs felt as though they were being burnt out, and were going to burst. Red hot needles were being thrust into my eyes.” The counter attacks, while launched all across the line, would have little success, although they would prevent further German attacks which I guess is a success in and of itself. On the evening of April the 24th General Smith-Dorrien, commander of the troops around Ypres, requested to Sir John French that the attacks be stopped, this request was denied. As a consequence on the 25th another attack was launched, this time with newly arrived divisions from India and another territorial division, both of which were nearly annihilated. Again Smith-Dorrien requested a halt to the attacks, again he was denied. The crux of this problem was that Sir John French had been promised, by the French, that French troops would arrive soon to assist him in the attacks, he was also told that the British had to maintain pressure on the Germans while the French troops were moved in. Therefore, day after day, the attacks went forward. It wouldn’t be until the 1st of May that the French finally admitted that there were no troops on their way. On the 1st of May the Germans also unleashed another gas assisted attack which almost broke through on the souther end of the salient. The British line in that area was pushed back several miles toward the city. The enter salient was then withdrawn 3 miles toward the city in response. The attacks would continue from both sides for another few weeks but they would be much smaller than before and would have much less to show for it. Oh, and Smith-Dorrien, who had tried time and again to get the attacks halted was dismissed on May the 6th, with Sir John French citing his pessimism during the battle as the cause. Smith-Dorrien’s war, with the exception of some home duties and a trip to Africa that was cut short by sickness, was done. To my money he was one of the best British generals of the first 2 years of the war.

After the fighting died down the Germans were left with around 40,000 casualties and the Allies something like 65,000. The Ypres salient was pushed back further toward the city, which was a success, but it did still exist in spite of the best efforts of the Germans. The lasting history of this battle was definitely the gas attack and the Germans had, honestly, wasted their great instrument of war. Their test of the gas was far more successful than they ever could have dreamed but now the Allies would be ready for it and it would never have such a great effect again. There are many examples of experiments not going well during the war and costly a lot of men their lives but this is an example of an experiment going better than hoped and it couldn’t be taken advantage of. It is sort of similar with what would happen with the introduction of the tank later in the war. Gas warfare would become pretty much commonplace on the front over the next 3 years, the only changes were that the method of delivery would be improved and the types of gas used would become far more lethal. Chlorine would soon be replaced by phosgene which was destined to be replaced by mustard gas. However even as the gas got more and more potent, with the armies ready for it and with gas masks for every man, it would never again produce such results as it did late in the day on April 22nd against those poor souls of the two French divisions in its path.

I hope you will join me again next week as we take a look at the as we dive into some of the economic consequences of the war, for those paying attention I said last episode that this episode would cover economic information, but I just had my episodes out of order. Anyway, have a good week and hopefully talk to you next week.