Second Battle of Ypres
Germans fight for control of the Flemish town of Ypres
22 April - 25 May 1915
author Paul Boșcu, February 2018
During the Second Battle of Ypres the German Army launched a series of attacks against the Entente forces in and around the Belgian town of Ypres. The battle marked the first time the German army used poison gas on the Western Front. In the end, the Entente forces managed to resist the German attacks.
The Second Battle of Ypres was fought between the Entente forces and the German Empire on the Western Front of World War One. The battle was fought for the control of the strategically important Belgian town of Ypres, located in Flanders. It marked the first time the German Army used poison gas as a weapon on the Western Front. Although the Germans achieved an initial breakthrough, the British managed to hold the line.

Having bowed to a combination of pressure and circumstance in diverting resources to the Eastern Front, General Erich von Falkenhayn now attempted to maintain some degree of strategic surprise by covering the departure of his divisions from the Western Front. As he did not have the men or ammunition to launch a more conventional offensive, he sought to test the stalemate at Ypres by using the new German secret weapon of poisonous gas.

The very secrecy demanded by the presence of so many vulnerable gas cylinders in the front line, coupled with a lack of confidence in their own crude respirators, militated against any forceful follow-up by the German Fourth Army.

Gradually the British troops received gas masks which at first were all but useless, but later became far more effective. Gas became just another weapon in the huge arsenal of war. The British, for all their initial moral objections, would be using gas themselves before the year was out.

Before the Entente could launch their next offensive operations, the Germans – employing poison gas for the first time on the Western Front – attacked the northern flank of the Ypres Salient. This blow reflected all the confusion of strategic purpose that characterized Falkenhayn's term as Chief of the German General Staff. The Salient was important to both sides, but because Falkenhayn still accorded priority to the Eastern Front, the use of gas at Ypres was largely experimental.

General Falkenhayn had decided to renew pressure on the Ypres salient, partly in order to disguise the transfer of troops to the Eastern Front for the forthcoming offensive at Gorlice-Tarnow, and partly to experiment with the new gas weapon. The attack was to be a limited offensive, since Falkenhayn knew that his hopes of achieving decision in the west had to be postponed as long as Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff could effectively divert the movement of strategic reserves to the Eastern Front. Nevertheless, he hoped to gain ground and secure a more commanding position on the Channel coast.

Gas had already been used by the Germans, on the Eastern Front, at Bolimov, when gas-filled shells were fired into the Russian positions on the River Rawka west of Warsaw. The chemical agent, known to the Germans as T-Stoff (xylyl bromide), was tear-producing, not lethal. It appears not to have troubled the Russians at all; prevailing temperatures were so low that the chemical froze instead of vaporizing.

By the time of the Ypres attack the Germans had a killing agent available in quantity, in the form of chlorine. A ‘vesicant’, which causes death by stimulating overproduction of fluid in the lungs, leading to drowning, the material was a by-product of the German dye-stuff industry, controlled by IG Farben. The company commanded a virtual world monopoly in those products.

Carl Duisberg, head of IG Farben, had already rescued the German war effort from collapse by his successful drive to synthesise nitrates, an essential component of high-explosives obtainable organically only from sources under Entente control.

Simultaneously Duisberg was cooperating with Germany's leading industrial chemist, Fritz Haber, head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, to devise a means of discharging chlorine in quantity against enemy trenches. Experiments with gas-filled shells had failed - though, with a different filling, gas shells would later be widely employed. The direct release of chlorine, from pressurised cylinders, down a favorable wind, promised better.

The German Fourth Army launched an attack at Ypres employing some 168 tons of chlorine released from thousands of steel bottles in cloud form. The German troops were equipped with simple respirators. In consequence, the men of the French units holding the northern sector of the salient were caught completely unawares with no protective masks. The chlorine invaded their bodies, burning and choking them and destroying their lungs. In the end the German attack was stopped by Canadian troops stationed in the area.

Colonel Henri Mordacq, a staff officer with the 45th Division, witnessed the chaos of the gas attack first hand: ‘The scene was more than sad; it was tragic. Everywhere were fugitives: Territorials, joyeux,12 tirailleurs, Zouaves, artillerymen – without weapons, haggard, greatcoats thrown away or wide open, running around like madmen, begging for water in loud cries, spitting blood, some even rolling on the ground making desperate efforts to breathe. I shall see for a long time, in particular, a staggering joyeux who with loud cries demanded water and noticing me, called, “Colonel, those bastards have poisoned us!” No effort was made to stop the bewildered fugitives. We soon gave that up. It was no longer soldiers who were escaping but poor souls who had become suddenly insane. All along the canal was the same scene: without noticing bullets or shells, a crowd of unfortunate sufferers on both banks had come to beg for water to relieve their horrible sufferings.’

As the French broke and ran, the 1st Canadian Division of the recently arrived Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was next in line to the south. They immediately bent back and shuffled across to try to block the gap that threatened the security of the whole salient. Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Currie was caught up in the drama: ‘We had stayed a trifle too long in the village of St Julien while the streets were filled with this deadly gas. Some of our orderlies could hardly escape and several of the headquarters staff had to be sent to the hospital. I had taken on a pretty stiff cargo of it myself. When it is first breathed it is not unpleasant, smelling not unlike chloroform, 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, if he ever does fully recover after having some of the “upholstering” of his lungs destroyed. We did not then quite realise the horror of this new form of cowardly and inhuman warfare, but we should have known that the Germans consider war a game without an umpire or a referee.’ This was the prevailing reaction to the German use of gas: that it was unsporting and inhuman. It is ironic than that later in the war the Entente would also use poison gas.

The Canadian front line troops largely escaped the worst of the gas, but reserve units moving forward suffered a great deal. In the end they held on by dint of their own courage, coupled with a scarcity of German reserves near the Ypres front to take advantage of their success.

With no protection against the gas, the French divisions retreated in panic, opening a five-mile gap to the left of the 1st Canadian Division's positions. Langemarck and Pilckem fell and at dusk the Germans were only two miles from Ypres. The German troops were unwilling to pursue the gas too closely and, lacking reserves, failed to grasp their sole opportunity to effect a breakthrough in the west that year. During the night a new defensive line was patched together by the British and Canadian troops.

On the Entente side, there were hasty improvisations. The gas was quickly identified for what it was and, as chlorine is soluble, Lieutenant Colonel Ferguson, of the 28th Division, proposed that cloths soaked in water be tied round the mouth as protection.

The British moved up reserves to bolster General Horace Smith-Dorrien’s Second Army, which had overall responsibility for most of the Ypres Salient. Among these reserves were a significant number of battalions of the Territorial Army. These units were part of a long-standing British tradition of part-time soldiers, originally in various forms of militia, but reorganized in 1908 to create volunteer battalions within the county regiments. Many of the British counterattacks ordered by Sir John French had little chance of success. But when the Germans resumed the offensive they found that the British lines generally held firm.

Originally intended for home service, but soon offered the chance to serve overseas, the best regarded Territorial Army units had begun to reach the Western Front in 1914. Nicknamed the ‘Saturday night soldiers’, these men’s training fell below the old ‘regular’ standards, but they were often remarkably keen to learn. By 1915, the process of reinforcement was accelerating but there were still questions as to whether they were adequately prepared for action. For the 50th Division, a Northumbrian formation, Ypres would be a harsh induction to war for raw troops with inexperienced officers.

‘We found that the only way to advance was for a few men, under an officer or an NCO, to make a short rush forward, and then to lie down flat and regain their breath. It was a case of every man using his own intelligence with courage. We made a good deal of progress, and took up a strong line with a hedge in front of it, which afforded some shelter. In front of this position was a large open field, and at the other end of it, a few hundred yards distant, lay the village of St Julien and the Germans. To cross this field, without adequate artillery support, was impossible, and yet we had been ordered to advance. Our present position by the farm, however, was being shelled to such an extent that, as far as our safety went, it did not much matter where we were. We began our last advance, and made two or three short rushes. I had just finished the last of these, and was going to lie down, when I received a staggering blow on the back, and fell forward. I suffered an agonising pain, and soon felt another blow on the back, also extremely violent. I began to find difficulty in breathing and wondered if I would ever leave this spot.’

At what cost the German attack was stopped can be indicated by this account from Private William Quinton, who was in the support line on Hill 60 when his battalion fell victim to a gas attack on the evening of 1 May: ‘Suddenly over the top of our front line we saw what looked like clouds of thin grey smoke, rolling slowly along with the slight wind. It hung to the ground reaching to the height of 8 or 9 feet, and approached so slowly that a man walking could have kept ahead of it. “GAS!” The word quickly passed round. Even now it held no terror for us, for we had not yet tasted it. From our haversacks we hastily drew the flannel belts, soaked them in water and tied them round our mouths and noses. Suddenly, through the communication trench came rushing a few khaki-clad figures. Their eyes glaring out of their heads, their hands tearing at their throats, they came on. Some stumbled and fell, and lay writhing in the bottom of the trench, choking and gasping, whilst those following trampled over them. If ever men were raving mad with terror, these men were. What was left of our section still crouched at the support end of the communication trench. Our front line, judging from the number of men who had just come from it, had been abandoned, and we now waited for the first rush of the Germans. But they did not come. Our biggest enemy was now within a few yards of us, in the form of clouds of gas. We caught our first whiff of it: 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 first impulse was to run. We had just seen men running to certain death, and knew it, rather than stay and be choked into a slow and agonising death. It was one of those occasions when you do not know what you are doing. The man who stayed was no braver than the man who ran away. We crouched there, terrified, stupefied. A large shell burst on the parapet just where we were sheltered. We were almost buried beneath the falling earth. Young Addington, a chap about my own age, was screaming at the top of his voice and trying to free his buried legs. He got free and before we could stop him he rushed off – God knows where! We then saw the reason for his screams. His left arm was blown off above the elbow. He left a trail of blood over my tunic as he climbed over me in his mad rush to get away.’

When a second gas attack came at St Julien, the Canadians – using towels, bandages and handkerchiefs soaked in urine or water as improvised respirators – courageously prevented further erosion of the front. There was another gas attack in the jumble of broken ground known to the British as Hill 60, the Dump and the Caterpillar, south of Ypres, where a railway line runs through the spoil heaps of the cutting near Zillebeke. Today the pockmarks and tumuli of this tiny battlezone still exude an atmosphere of morbidity sinister even among the relics of the Western Front.

General Ferdinand Foch, coordinating Entente operations in Flanders, did not enjoy his finest hour at Ypres. However, with unshaken faith in the infallibility of the offensive, and ignoring the loss of guns during the German advance, he ordered the local French commander to undertake counterattacks which were plainly impractical. Various assaults by the BEF made with inadequate artillery support and negligible French assistance failed to regain the lost ground.

Aware that German gunners could now shell the Salient from the left rear, Smith-Dorrien urged withdrawal to a more defensible 'GHQ Line' to the east of Potijze and Wieltje and within 2,000 yards of Ypres. The suggestion was rejected by Sir John French, who was in an optimistic mood following a promise of extra divisions from Foch. With his doubts about Smith-Dorrien re-awakened, French immediately transferred responsibility for all British troops around Ypres to the V Corps commander, Herbert Plumer. This incident precipitated Smith-Dorrien's resignation and he was succeeded in command of Second Army by Plumer.

The loss of Smith-Dorrien did not ultimately prove as calamitous to the BEF as it might have done, since Plumer displayed an almost unrivalled understanding and mastery of the new tactical conditions on the Western Front, particularly at Ypres.

It is ironic that when the demands of the imminent Artois offensive ended hopes of French reserves being sent to Ypres, Plumer was permitted to draw back his forces, much as Smith-Dorrien had proposed. Partly to allow room for possible future movements, Plumer's line was slightly further east, about three miles from Ypres.

The Germans carried out four more gas attacks, seizing additional ground on the Frezenberg and Bellewaarde ridges. When the battle ended, the Ypres Salient – now less than three miles deep – had assumed the basic form it would keep for the next two years.

For the second time in seven months the BEF had halted a German drive on Ypres. Furthermore, with the Germans positioned on three sides and holding the key ridges to the east and south, there was no relief from the enemy guns and no foreseeable end to the suffering of BEF units occupying the Salient.

The fighting stirred up at Ypres did not die down for months, during which time British casualties were 60,000, their ill-considered counterattacks swelling the numbers, while the Germans were estimated to have lost 35,000 dead, wounded and missing. In the end the British had no choice but to withdraw from the extremities of the salient exposed by the initial German breakthrough. At great cost a new line was carved out which, although tested time and time again by the Germans, did hold.

There was some bitterness at British High Command that the French did not send in reinforcements to replace their two shattered divisions, but this sidestepped the prior British not-yet-honored commitment to take over the defence of the Ypres Salient.

Perhaps the BEF should have abandoned the dangerous Ypres Salient entirely and fallen back to a straighter, more easily defensible line. Yet there was very little room for maneuver and the emotional investment in holding the last corner of Belgium not under German control was difficult to ignore. So the Ypres Salient became a place of dread for British troops.

Gas in a variety of forms – the more deadly asphyxiant phosgene, and the blistering ‘mustard’ gas – would continue to be used throughout the war. Chlorine would kill thousands of Russian troops in German offensives west of Warsaw in May. Its intrinsic limitations as a weapon, dependent as it was on wind direction, and the rapid development of effective respirators ensured, however, that it would never prove decisive, as it might have done if large reserves had been at hand to exploit the initial surprise achieved by the Germans in the Second Battle of Ypres.