The Second Battle of Ypres
22 April – 25 May 1915
At the time of the First Battle of Ypres, fought in the autumn of 1914, the bulk of the soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force were training on England’s Salisbury Plain. They spent several months under cold drizzle and sleet in the shadow, when there was sun to cast one, of Stonehenge.
However the conditions were nothing compared to the horrors experienced by the armies of the United Kingdom, France and German Empire fighting at Ypres. Casualties in the First Battle Ypres reached 238,000, the majority of whom were Germans. This battle marked the conclusion of the German movement towards the North Sea. In its wake, the Race to the Sea left more than 800 km of trenches, bringing an end to mobile warfare on the Western Front.
As a result, in February 1915, when the 1st Canadian Division arrived on continental Europe, they received training in trench warfare from experienced British soldiers. But, like their allies, they were not equipped to counter the Germans’ use of chlorine gas.
After two months holding a line in the relatively quiet Armentieres sector in French Flanders, the Canadians joined the Allied forces at the Ypres Salient. Its northernmost portion was held by two French divisions. The Canadians took position at the centre, with two divisions from the United Kingdom to their right.
In the late afternoon of 22 April, the Germans released about 150 tonnes of chlorine gas over a 6-km stretch of the salient held by the French troops (they had deployed poison gas three months earlier during the Battle of Bolimov on the Eastern Front, but that time, the gas employed – xylyl bromide – proved greatly ineffective).
The use of chlorine at the Ypres caught the allies entirely unprepared. Within ten minutes, 6,000 French, Algerian and Moroccan troops lay dead from asphyxiation. Those who survived did so by abandoning their positions, thus opening a large gap in the front line.
The effectiveness of the gas exceeded expectations and the Germans, wearing primitive respirators, advanced with caution.
As dusk descended, the Canadians moved in to re-establish a continuous, if fragile, line. Then, as midnight approached, members of the Calgary Highlanders and the Canadian Scottish Regiment launched a counter-attack in which they managed to drive the Germans from the neighbouring dense wood of Bois-de-Cuisinieres. Two other Canadian assaults managed to purchase time.
On the morning of 24 April, the Canadian positions to the west of the village of Saint-Julien came under violent bombardment, followed by another chlorine gas attack, accompanied by machine-gun fire.
Despite the approaching green-yellow cloud, the Canadians were able to fight on through the use of handkerchiefs they soaked in their own urine. A quick-thinking soldier recognized that when placed over the nose and mouth, the urea within the urine reacted with the chlorine, effectively neutralizing it. But St-Julien was lost to the Germans after 48 hours of fighting. In this combat casualties among the Canadians amounted to one in three of their number – more than 2,000 lay dead with a further 4,000 wounded.
Between 1 and 3 May, the planned withdrawal was executed. On 8 May, the Germans attempted to break Allied lines and fighting was renewed.
On 10 May, chlorine gas was again used, but to lesser effect than previously. The Germans used it again on 24 May, but they finally ended their offensive on 25 May. Although territory had been lost, the Allies had frustrated German attempts at breaking their line. The cost had been great and casualties on the Allied side amounted to nearly 70,000, twice that suffered by the Germans.
Following the Second Battle of Ypres, both sides worked unceasingly towards more sophisticated chemical weapons and protective-wear.
After the Second Battle of Ypres, the surgeon and poet Major John McCrae wrote a poem In Flanders Fields.