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First Battle of Ypres

First Battle of Ypres

On October 19, 1914, near the Belgian city of Ypres, Allied and German forces begin the first of what would be three battles to control the city and its advantageous positions on the north coast of Belgium during the First World War.

After the German advance through Belgium and eastern France was curtailed by a decisive Allied victory in the Battle of the Marne in late September 1914, the so-called “Race to the Sea” began, as each army attempted to outflank the other on their way northwards, hastily constructing trench fortifications as they went. The race ended in mid-October at Ypres, the ancient Flemish city with its fortifications guarding the ports of the English Channel and access to the North Sea beyond.

After the Germans captured the Belgian city of Antwerp early in October, Antwerp’s remaining Belgian forces along with troops of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), commanded by Sir John French, withdrew to Ypres, arriving at the city between October 8 and 19 to reinforce the Belgian and French defenses there. Meanwhile, the Germans prepared to launch the first phase of an offensive aimed at breaking the Allied lines and capturing Ypres and other channel ports, thus controlling the outlets to the North Sea.

On October 19, a protracted period of fierce combat began, as the Germans opened their Flanders offensive and the Allies steadfastly resisted, while seeking their own chances to go on the attack wherever possible. Fighting continued, with heavy losses on both sides, until November 22, when the arrival of winter weather forced the battle to a halt. The area between the positions established by both sides during this period—from Ypres on the British side to Menin and Roulers on the German side—became known as the Ypres Salient, a region that over the course of the next several years would see some of the war’s bitterest and most brutal struggles.

The first forces to arrive at Ypres were a German cavalry patrol on October 13, 1914. The next day, the British 7 th Division and 3 rd Cavalry Division arrived. They took the ridge east of Ypres, which featured the Menin Road. The 2 nd Cavalry Division moved onto the Messines Ridge to the south.

The British intention was to keep advancing and liberate Belgian from the Germans. For short term protection, they started digging in.

Diagram showing the positions of Allied and German armies in Flanders on 19 October 1914.


French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre regarded the area around the Belgian city of Ypres as the gateway through which Allied forces would advance to liberate northern France and Belgium from German occupation. To German Chief of the General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, it was the route by which his forces could seize the English Channel ports of Dunkirk, Calais, and Boulogne - Britain's links to the battlefields. Falkenhayn succeeded in assembling superior forces to the Allies, partly through calling on corps of enthusiastic young volunteers, many of them still students, who had joined up in the early days of the war. These reservists - whose numbers included the young Adolf Hitler, an Austrian enrolled in the Bavarian forces - had received only two months of military training.

By this stage in the war, the British were able to field seven infantry divisions plus three cavalry divisions, which fought dismounted, alongside the foot soldiers. After some initial fighting, the main German offensive was launched on 20 October. Because of Allied inferiority, the battle turned into a desperate Anglo-French defense of a salient around Ypres, with British troops holding positions in front of the town and the French defending the flanks.

Heavy losses on both sides

The British and French improvised defensive positions, digging shallow trenches and exploiting the protection of stone walls, ditches, and village houses. The British were chronically short of heavy artillery and machine guns, but their rapid rifle fire, which the Germans persistently mistook for the fire of machine guns, imposed heavy losses on the massed German infantry.

The slaughter og German troops marching into gunfire while singing patriotic songs at Langemarck, near Ypres, on 22 October became one of the best-known German stories of the war. In fact, this was a half-truth, since the troops were singing only to identify themselves in the morning mist.

By late October, the Allies had ceded ground, but the initial German offensive had stalled. Falkenhayn then launched a fresh attack toward Ypres along the Menin Road. His expectations of success were high, for the British forces had been severely depleted. When Kaiser Wilhelm came to forward headquarters on 31 October, it was in the hope of celebrating a major victory. In fact, the Germans did achieve a potentially important breakthrough at the village of Gheluvelt on the outskirts of Ypres. Their heavy guns hit a British divisional headquarters at Hooge Chateau, just east of the village, unusually adding staff officers to the lengthening list of casualties.

The Allies lost the vital high ground dominating Ypres, but remnants of half-broken British battalions were assembled to mount a counterattack and, with the help of just a handful of French reinforcements, a line was held. The British were desperately short of soldiers and ammunition. The arrival of forces from India helped alleviate the problem, and a number of Territorial battalions were sent across the Channel for the first time. Nonetheless, the German renewal of the offensive in the second week of November came perilously close to overwhelming the British line.

British counterattack

At the climax of the battle, on 11 November, elite Prussian Foot Guards were at one point resisted only by hastily armed British cooks and officers' servants. By the end of that day, however, a counterattack by British light infantry at Nonnebosschen succeeded in driving the Guards back, and Falkenhayn knew the Ypres offensive had ended in failure. Although some fighting continued around Ypres until 22 November, the official date of the end of the battle, the German armies no longer threatened a breakthrough.

For the British, First Ypres was the graveyard of the prewar army - the "Old Contemptibls", so named because of an alleged derisive reference by the Kaiser to their puny fighting strength. The original BEF troops that landed in France in August 1914 had suffered around 90% casualties, with a large proportion of the losses at Ypres.

German setback

Strategically, the failed offensive at Ypres was a serious setback for Germany. Falkenhayn informed the Kaiser that there was no further chance of achieving an early victory on the Western Front. The German high command eventually concluded that it was best to create a strong defensive trench system on the Western Front while taking the offensive against the Russians in the east. Irrepressible in his pursuit of the offensive, General Joffre continued to order his troops to attack in Champagne and Artois in December, but elsewhere on the Western Front the fighting subsided. Soldiers had dug themselves into trenches as best they could wherever the fighting had come to a halt. As time passed, these trench lines were gradually reinforced, joined together, and extended. Troops on both sides settled in.

As the final weeks of 1914 approached, it was apparent that there would not be a swift victory for the Allies or the Germans. War would certainly not be over by Christmas.

Battles - The First Battle of Ypres, 1914

With the failure of the German offensive against France at the Battle of the Marne, and the allied counter-offensive, the so-called 'race to the sea' began, a movement towards the North Sea coast as each army attempted to out-flank the other by moving progressively north and west. As they went, each army constructed a series of trench lines, starting on 15 September, that came to characterise war on the Western Front until 1918.

Meanwhile French Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre undertook an intensive combined allied attack on 14 September against the German forces on the high ground just north of the Aisne river. With the German defences too strong, the attack was called off on 18 September. Stalemate had set in.

By October the Allies had reached the North Sea at Niuwpoort in Belgium. German forces forced the Belgian army out of Antwerp, ultimately ending up in Ypres. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), under Sir John French, took over the line from Ypres south to La Bassee in France, from which point the French army continued the line down to the Swiss border.

Such was the background to the First Battle of Ypres, which commenced on 14 October when Eric von Falkenhayn, the German Chief of Staff, sent his Fourth and Sixth armies into Ypres.

The battle began with a nine-day German offensive that was only halted with the arrival of French reinforcements and the deliberate flooding of the Belgian front. Belgian troops opened the sluice gates of the dykes holding back the sea from the low countries.

The flood encompassed the final ten miles of trenches in the far north, and which later proved a hindrance to the movement of allied troops and equipment.

During the attack British riflemen held their positions, suffering heavy casualties, as did French forces guarding the north of the town.

The second phase of the battle saw a counter-offensive launched by General Foch on 20 October, ultimately without success. It was ended on 28 October.

Next, von Falkenhayn renewed his offensive on 29 October, attacking most heavily in the south and east - once again without decisive success. Duke Albrecht's German Fourth Army had taken the Messines Ridge and Wytschaete by 1 November.

It also took Gheluvelt and managed to break the British line along the Menin Road on 31 October. Defeat was imminent, and the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, was shortly to arrive to personally witness the taking of the town. However the arrival of French reinforcements saved the town, the British counter-attacking and recapturing Gheluvelt.

The author John Buchan (of The 39 Steps fame) later wrote in his history of the war:

Between two and three o'clock on Saturday, the 31st, was the most critical hour in the whole battle. The 1st Division had fallen back from Gheluvelt to a line resting on the junction of the Frezenberg road with the Ypres-Menin highway. It had suffered terribly, and its general had be en sorely wounded. On its right the 7th Division had been bent back to the Klein Zillebeke ridge, while Bulfin's two brigades were just holding on, as was Moussy on their right. Allenby's cavalry were fighting an apparently hopeless battle on a long line, and it seemed as if the slightest forward pressure would crumble the Ypres defense. The enemy was beginning to pour through the Gheluvelt gap, and at the same time pressed hard on the whole arc of the salient.

There were no reserves except an odd battalion or two and some regiments of cavalry, all of which had already been sorely tried during the past days. French sent an urgent message to Foch for re-enforcements, and was refused. At the end of the battle he learned the reason. Foch had none to send, and his own losses had been greater than ours. Between 2 and 2.30 Haig was on the Menin road, grappling with the crisis. It seemed impossible to stop the gap, though on its northern side some South Wales Borderers were gallantly holding a sunken road and galling the flank of the German advance. He gave orders to retire to a line a little west of Hooge and stand there, though he well knew that no stand, however heroic, could save the town. He foresaw a retirement west of Ypres, and French, who had joined him, agreed.

And then suddenly out of the void came a strange story. A white-faced staff officer reported that something odd was happening north of the Menin road. The enemy advance had halted! Then came the word that the 1st Division was reforming. The anxious generals could scarcely believe their ears, for it sounded a sheer miracle. But presently came the proof, though it was not for months that the full tale was known. Brigadier-General Fitz-Clarence, commanding the 1st (Guards) Brigade in the 1st Division, had sent in his last reserves and failed to stop the gap. He then rode off to the headquarters of the division to explain how desperate was the position. But on the way, at the southwest corner of the Polygon Wood, he stumbled upon a battalion waiting in support.

It was the 2nd Worcesters, who were part of the right brigade of the 2nd Division. Fitz-Clarence saw in them his last chance. They belonged to another division, but it was no time to stand on ceremony, and the officer in command at once put them at his disposal. The Worcesters, under very heavy artillery fire, advanced in a series of rushes for about a thousand yards between the right of the South Wales Borderers and the northern edge of Gheluvelt. Like Cole's fusiliers at Albuera, they came suddenly and unexpectedly upon the foe. There they dug themselves in, broke up the German advance into bunches, enfiladed it heavily, and brought it to a standstill. This allowed the 7th Division to get back to its old line, and the 6th Cavalry Brigade to fill the gap between the 7th and the 1st Divisions. Before night fell the German advance west of Gheluvelt was stayed, and the British front was out of immediate danger.

The German offensive continued for the following ten days, the fate of Ypres still in the balance. A further injection of French reinforcements arrived on 4 November. Even so, evacuation of the town seemed likely on 9 November as the German forces pressed home their attack, taking St Eloi on 10 November and pouring everything into an attempt to re-capture Gheluvelt on 11-12 November, without success.

A final major German assault was launched on 15 November still Ypres was held by the British and French. By this time the Belgian autumn had set in with the arrival of heavy rain followed by snow. Von Falkenhayn called off the attack.

It was becoming evident that the nature of trench warfare favoured the defender rather than the attacker. In short, the technology of defensive warfare was better advanced that that of offensive warfare, the latter proving hugely costly in terms of manpower.

The BEF had held Ypres, as they continued to do until the end of the war despite repeated German assault the Allies also held a salient extending 6 miles into German lines.

The cost had been huge on both sides. British casualties were reported at 58,155, mostly pre-war professional soldiers, a loss the British could ill-afford. French casualties were set at around 50,000, and German losses at 130,000 men.

Click here to view a map of the German retreat following the Marne battle and the subsequent race to the sea.

Battle begins

The initial German attack, a wall of advancing men wearing the famous Pickelhaube helmets, gained ground, taking the village of Passchendaele amongst other positions. The British soldiers were desperately ordered to dig in in order to survive the onslaught, but many had discarded the digging tools with which they had been supplied – and had to rely on features of the local landscape, particularly its quaint hedgerows, for cover. However, they held the line magnificently through German attacks which carried on through day and night over the next few days.

Both sides took very heavy casualties as the fighting’s intensity failed to drop, and there were some reports of German soldiers overwhelming British positions where the men were literally too tired to resist or even wake up. As a result, reinforcements who had arrived by train through pristine countryside were sent straight to the front line.

On 24 October a German assault exploited a gap in the British lines and created a potentially decisive bridgehead. The only battalion able to face them now were the 2nd Worcesters, who had just been pulled out of the line on the grounds that they were too exhausted to continue. Seeing this threat emerging through the trees, the Worcester’s commander Major Edward Hankey led them in an almost suicidal brave bayonet charge, which, astonishingly, cleared the wood of the Germans and restored the British line.

First Battle of Ypres, 1914

Ypres was strategically located along the roads leading to the Channel ports in Belgian Flanders. This Belgian city had been the scene of numerous battles since the sixteenth century. With the German failure at the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, and the subsequent Allied counter attacks, the ‘Race to the Sea’ began. Each army outflanked the other moving north and west. This so called race ended at the North Sea coast. This area of Flanders contained the last gap through which either side could launch a decisive thrust.

By October 1914, the Allies had reached Nieuport on the North Sea coast. The Germans, as a prelude to General Erich von Falkenhayn’s Flanders Offensive, captured Antwerp and forced its Belgian defenders back to Nieuport, near Ypres.

After the fall of Antwerp, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) under the command of Field Marshall Sir John French (pictured right) retreated to Ypres. They arrived there between 8 and 19 October and began to bolster the Belgian and French defence. The Allied defensive position around Ypres took the shape of a salient because it could best be defended from the low ridge of higher ground to the east. However, it was vulnerable to superior German artillery. A thirty-five mile long line in the centre of the bulge was held by the BEF while the French Army in the area, commanded by General Ferdinand Foch (pictured below left), manned the flanks to the south of the city.

The two Allied Commanders, Sir John French and General Foch both retained the hope of launching an offensive believing a coordinated attack would enable the Allies to recapture the industrial city of Lille followed swiftly by Brussels. But, the German Army Chief of Staff, Falkenhayn soon quelled their optimistic beliefs.

The First Battle of Ypres began on 18 October when Falkenhayn ordered an advance to break through the Allied line and capture the ports of Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne by first striking the Belgian defences on the Yser River between Dixmude and Nieuport.

Despite fighting valiantly the weakened Belgian Army began to fall back and the Belgium King, Albert, opened the sluices that held back the sea on 27 October flooding the land along the twenty-mile strip of land between Dixmude and Nieuport and thus creating a two-mile wide water barrier that forced Falkenhayn to halt and reconsider his plans.

The newly assembled German Fourth Army under the command of the Duke of Wurttemberg and the cavalry corps of the Bavarian Sixth Army commanded by Prince Rupprecht now began to assault the city of Ypres (pictured right). These forces gave the Germans a considerable numerical advantage over the BEF’s seven infantry divisions (one being held in reserve) and three cavalry divisions. Sir John French could only count on a few divisions of Indian troops already en route as reinforcements. These Indian units would prove to be outstanding fighters in both offence and defence.

German forces engaged General Douglas Haig’s First Corps at the northern end of the salient at Bixschote and Langmark. A ferocious British counterattack repelled the Germans and thanks to superior British rifle fire, they were able to hold this sector. The British rifles were so fast and deadly that once again the Germans mistakenly believed they were facing British machine guns.

Further attacks took place around the salient pushing the British off and down the eastern ridges. On a narrow front on 30 and 31 October the Germans drove a smaller dismounted cavalry unit from its position at Zandvoorde on southern end of the salient and then threatened the town of Gheluvelt.

The small hamlet and chateau of Gheluvelt was defended by a force of around 2,000 men from assorted battalions. Repelling the first German attack after a large artillery bombardment eventually the Germans superior man power began to tell. Breaking the line at the ‘angle’ held by two company’s of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and the Queens they Germans advanced into the town and the chateau only to be repelled by a bayonet charge conducted by the Worcesters and thus re-establishing the line.

Fighting continued around the salient. On 11 November, two premier German divisions containing the elite Prussian Guard attempted to break the British lines just north of the Menin Road in the Non Bochen (Nuns’ Woods) only four miles from Ypres itself. Supremely confident, the Germans marched into the waiting guns of the British. Members of the Black Watch, firing into their flanks caused them to break and run into the woods where they were flushed out by another bayonet charge by the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry aided by a motley collection of soldiers (cooks, officer’s servants, medical orderlies, clerks, and engineers). As they exited the woods again the rifle fire of the Black Watch took a further toll. This effectively ended the First Battle of Ypres.

Fighting around Ypres would linger on until 22 November when the onset of winter weather forced a break in hostilities. The combat during this engagement was extremely confusing and unrelenting. After the fight, British survivors were content to say that they had been at “First Ypres” no more information was necessary to explain what they endured.

One soldier, Private Donald Fraser, explained it this way: ‘one [a man] was not a soldier unless he had served on the Ypres front’. Less than half of the 160,000 men the BEF sent to France came out of the encounter unscathed. After November 1914, the British would remain as Ypres’ guardians for the rest of the war.

World War One, first successful gas attack, Second Battle of Ypres

In April 1915 the allied lines at the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres ran from the cross-roads at Broodseinde, east of Zonnebeke on the Ypres-Moorslede Road to the cross-roads half a mile north of St. Julien, on the Ypres-Poelkapelle Road, roughly following the crest of what is known as the Grafenstafel Ridge.

On 22 April the Germans attacked between the canal and the Ypres-Poelkapelle Road. At first there seemed nothing unusual about the attack since movements of troops and transport behind their front line had been monitored for some days. However there was a nasty sting in the tail to this action for the Germans had secretly brought up apparatus which emitted an asphyxiating vapor or gas, and this had been distributed along their front to the west of Langemarck.

That Thursday the wind blew steadily from the north, and by afternoon, all being ready, the Germans put their plan into execution. At some time between 4 and 5 p.m. the Germans started operations by releasing around 150 tons of poisonous vapor which rolled swiftly before the wind from their trenches toward those of the French west of Langemarck and held by a portion of the French Colonial Division. After allowing sufficient time for the fumes to take their full effect the Germans charged forward over the practically unresisting enemy and penetrating through the gap pressed on silently and swiftly to the south and west.

Gas attack photographed from the air. Kadel and Herbert, from Collier’s New Photographic History of the World’s War, New York, 1918

The first intimation that all was not well was conveyed to the British troops between 5 and 6 p.m. as they saw the French Martinique troops retreating in front of a wall of vapor. Behind the wall of vapor, which had swept across fields, through woods, and over hedgerows, came the German firing line, the men’s mouths and noses, it is stated, protected by pads soaked in a solution of bicarbonate of soda. The Germans used gas on a number of occasions after this including: Ypres on 26 April, on 2 May near Mouse Trap Farm and on 5 May against the British at Hill 60.

The gas used in this engagement was the result of earlier experiments done with Bromine, a halogen that has seven electrons in its outer energy level and shreds weaker elements such as carbon to get its eighth. As early as August 1914 the French had fired shells loaded with Bromine at the Germans but the wind had blown it away before the Germans were even aware of any attack.

But it was the German’s chemical weapons program under Friz Haber, the creator of chemical fertilizer, that really propelled gas warfare into the limelight. By late 1915 Haber and the German industrial and scientific war machine had developed a shell which would maintain its trajectory even when filled with xyxlyl bromine – they called it ‘weisskreuz’ or ‘white cross’.

On 31 January 1915, at the Battle of Bollimov, 18,000 of these shells were launched at the Russians, but the temperature was so low the gas froze and the attack was a failure. Haber then decided to switch to bromine’s chemical cousin, Chlorine, which is even more aggressive when it comes to acquiring that extra electron. Chlorine turns victims’ skin yellow, green and black and glasses over their eyes with cataracts. Death is usually the result of drowning from the fluid buildup inside the lungs. These blue, green and yellow, chlorine based gasses which floated across the war zone were the ones which finally caused the mayhem and destruction like that in the French trenches at Ypres.

Ironically Haber in 1919 received the vacant 1918 Nobel Peace Prize for his process which converts nitrogen into fertiliser, and in the 1930s his Jewish roots saw him exiled from Germany by the Nazi’s.

Geoff Barker, Research and Collection Services Coordinator, Parramatta City Council heritage Centre, 2014

Messines Ridge

At the same time, fierce fighting was taking place at Messines Ridge. Here, British Territorial Army troops – reservists rather than professional soldiers – saw their first action. They clung on through a bloody moonlit night of jammed weapons and fighting shadows in a landscape of cratered ground and splintered trees.

The British were forced off the ridge, but the French 32 nd Division stepped in to stop the German advance. Within days the Allies held the high ground once again.

Ypres, Battles of

Ypres, Battles of Several battles of World War I fought around the Belgian town of Ypres. The first (October–November 1914) stopped the German ‘race to the sea’ to capture the Channel ports, but resulted in the near destruction of the British Expeditionary Force. The second (April–May 1915), the first battle in which poison gas was used, resulted in even greater casualties, without victory to either side. The third (summer 1917) was a predominantly British offensive. It culminated in the Passchendaele campaign, the costliest campaign in British military history, which continued until November.

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The Battle of Ypres: Canada's Crazy Entry Into WWI

It had been a bloody four-day baptism of fire for the Canadian 1st Division. Half its men, some 6,036, were casualties. Nevertheless, in its first battle the untested division had helped stave off a major Allied disaster.

Here's What You Need To Remember: The Canadians fought tooth-and-nail for control of the Ypres Salient, one of the most dangerous places on the entire Western Front. After four days, the held it - barely.

Despite the incessant German shelling that had been hammering away at the French lines to their immediate left near the rubble-strewn city of Ypres in northwestern Belgium, the largely untested soldiers of the Canadian 1st Division found the early spring day of April 22, 1915, surprisingly warm and pleasant. Worn out from a long night of stringing barbed wire and repairing trenches in the infamous Ypres Salient of the Allied front, the men lounged at ease in their forward positions. Behind the lines, reserve troops played casual games of soccer, while their officers enjoyed a gentlemanly round of polo. Even when the shelling shifted to the Canadian position in the late afternoon, the troops were not unduly alarmed. Eventually, the bombardment petered out and German planes that had been circling over the front lines abruptly disappeared.

Suddenly, around 5 pm, heavy rifle fire and renewed shelling broke out in the French sector of the salient. Then an ominous yellow-green cloud began to drift toward the French lines, pushed along by a warm westerly breeze. What had been a beautiful day was about to turn very ugly indeed.

The Canadians comprising the 1st Division were all starry-eyed volunteers, eager young men who had flocked to recruiting offices across the nation after word reached the various provinces on August 4, 1914, that Great Britain was at war with Germany. Although a self-governing dominion that looked after its own domestic affairs, Canada was still part of the British empire and when Great Britain was at war, Canada was at war. Plans were quickly made to raise a division of 25,000 men to rush to Britain’s aid. By September 8, almost 33,000 men had joined up to fight. Another 2,000 would arrive shortly at Quebec’s newly constructed Camp Valcartier.

Within a month, the volunteers were organized into three infantry brigades—12 battalions in all—and other troops went into cavalry, artillery, engineering, signal, and medical units. On October 3, some 31,000 Canadian troops filed onto 30 transport ships for passage to England. Eleven days later the convoy, accompanied by a Royal Navy battleship and cruiser, docked at Plymouth to a warm welcome from cheering crowds. Awaiting the 1st Division was their new commander, Lt. Gen. Edwin Alderson, a veteran of 36 years in the military. A kindly, gentle man, Alderson had commanded Canadian troops in the Boer War. He would prove popular with the men in his new command as well.

Entering the Flanders Front

The newly arrived Canadians were sent to Salisbury Plains, 100 miles northeast of Plymouth, where they began four months of intensive training near the famous Druid shrine at Stonehenge. It rained for 89 of the next 123 days, and many of the recruits came down with the flu, sore throats, and meningitis. Twenty eight men would eventually die of the latter disease. Finally, in February 1915, the much-awaited order came for the 1st Division to sail to France. Before they left, Alderson replaced the men’s uncomfortable boots and scratchy tunics with better quality British goods. Much to their chagrin, however, the men retained the widely despised .303-caliber Ross Rifle, which had an unfortunate tendency to jam when fired rapidly or loaded with British ammunition.

Once in France, the 1st Division was sent to a quiet sector of the Flanders front and paired with a veteran British unit for advanced training. Officers and men rotated into the front-line British trenches for 48 hours at a time to gain a little first-hand experience. The division then moved on to Fleurbaix, where it enjoyed a front-row seat at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle on March 10-13. There, the British 1st Army under General Douglas Haig nearly achieved a startling breakthrough of the German lines, only to falter from faulty communications and lack of support. The Canadians’ sole contribution to the fighting was to provide some diversionary fire while British and Indian troops unavailingly attacked the enemy trenches.

Despite their comparative uninvolvement at Neuve Chapelle, the Canadians found their first taste of trench warfare a good learning experience. They were praised by their superiors for being “magnificent men … very quick to pick up new conditions and to learn the tricks of the trade.” It was good that the Canadians were quick learners, for they were soon transferred to General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien’s 2nd Army, stationed in the center of the 17-mile-deep Ypres Salient held by Allied troops in northwest Belgium. In mid-April the Canadians moved into line to take over from the French 11th Division. The position they were entrusted with holding was 4,250 yards wide. The 2nd Brigade held the right half of the sector, the 3rd Brigade the left, and the 1st Brigade was held in reserve.

The Dreaded Ypres Salient

To their dismay, the Canadians found the French trenches an absolute mess. Not only were they widely scattered and unconnected, but they had little in the way of barbed-wire defenses, and the existing parapets were not thick enough to stop an enemy bullet. The newly arrived defenders did not see how the sector could possibly be held if a determined effort was made to take it by a strong force. The trenches also stank since the French had been using them as latrines. Adding to the overall foulness were hundreds of dead German bodies lying between the lines in no-man’s-land. More rotting corpses were discovered when the Canadians began improving their own positions. In one part of their trench the men in the 10th Battalion found a human hand sticking out of the mud. The men took to shaking it wryly as they passed.

By the spring of 1915, the Ypres Salient was considered one of the most dangerous places on the Western Front. It had already seen more than its share of fighting and death. In October and November 1914, a thin line of British regulars repeatedly beat back massive German assaults. By the time the fighting stopped for the winter, almost a quarter of a million men had been killed or wounded. Tactically speaking, the Ypres Salient held no particular military significance for the Allies. The ground, located on the Flanders flood plain, was low and flat, broken here and there by a handful of long, shallow ridges. What terrain advantage there was around Ypres was held by the Germans, who manned the higher ridges overlooking the salient. With excellent observation posts and clear lines of sight, German artillerists were able to rain down torrents of accurately placed shells on the exposed Allied position. The real reason for holding the salient was symbolic, as it was the last remaining piece of contested Belgian real estate still lying in Allied hands. As such it represented their unyielding determination to win the war.

Although the Germans had been stopped in 1914 from taking the salient, they had by no means given up on closing the bulge. General Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of the German General Staff, planned another limited offensive against Ypres in April 1915. Falkenhayn believed the coming attack would act as a diversion from the Germans’ main push against the Russians on the eastern front. It would also give them a better strategic position along the English Channel. Last but not least, it would provide them with a golden opportunity to try out a new and terrible offensive weapon: lung-destroying chlorine gas.

The Debut of Chlorine Gas

The Germans had already experimented with less deadly forms of gas warfare at the first battle of Neuve Chapelle in October 1914, and at Bolymov on the Eastern Front in January 1915. Those attempts, sneezing powder at Neuve Chapelle and tear gas at Bolymov, had been ludicrous failures. In both cases, the chemical agents had failed to disperse, and the Allied troops had not even noticed they were under attack. Later that winter, Nobel Prize-winning German chemist Fritz Haber, then serving in the army reserve, suggested that the German high command consider using chlorine gas, which Haber said could be delivered through a relatively simple system of compressed-air cylinders discharged through exhaust pipes dug into the ground. Such a delivery system, besides being more efficient than gas pellets packed into traditional artillery shells, had the added advantage of not expressly violating the Hague Convention prohibiting the use of gas-loaded projectiles.

With typical Teutonic industry, the Germans began installing Haber’s chlorine-gas cylinders in their trenches along the south side of the Ypres Salient in early March. The cylinders, each five feet tall and weighing 190 pounds, were grouped in banks of 10. They were joined through a manifold to a single discharge pipe controlled by a chemically trained pioneer. By March 10, some 6,000 cylinders were in place. Interestingly enough, the first casualties were three German soldiers who were killed when Allied shells struck some of the cylinders, releasing the gas behind German lines. After two frustrating weeks of waiting for the weather to cooperate and the wind to blow in the right direction, Duke Albrecht of Wurttemberg, commander of the German 4th Army at Ypres, changed the battle plan.

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Watch the video: First Battle of Ypres in the Great War (January 2022).