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Germany’s chemical weapons killed thousands at Ypres in 1915

Posted in Famous battles, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Weapons, World War 1 on Wednesday, 30 October 2013

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This edited article about World War One originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 444 published on 18 July 1970.

Battle of Ypres, picture, image, illustration

The Canadians stood their ground with only wet handkerchiefs to protect them from poison gas; (top) Ypres was reduced to ruin in the notorious battle, by Frank Bellamy

Fifty-six years have gone past. There are not many men alive today who marched with the first hundred thousand of the British Expeditionary Force that went to France in 1914. To have been a boy-soldier – a bugler or a drummer, perhaps – and to have survived the holocausts of the first six months of that war, and to have lived to this day, a man would be in his mid-seventies.

But they are still around: a handful of ex-regular soldiers of the pre-World War I British army. They are to be found in cities, towns and villages all over these islands or as pensioners in the Royal Military Hospital at Chelsea – brave in their scarlet tunics, and wearing the Mons Star medal that shows them to be proud members of that gallant company of “Old Contemptibles”.

Ask one of these old campaigners to tell of the days in 1915, when the Western Front had become frozen in two lines of opposing trenches that were to scar the face of Europe for four nightmare years. One of the first words that will spring to his lips will be – “Wipers”.

Wipers – or Ypres, to give it its correct spelling – was an undistinguished Belgian town which, but for the ill-fortune of war, might have stayed as peaceful, unmarked and unsung as Scunthorpe and Basingstoke.

In the Spring of 1915, it was rapidly on its way to being no more than a place on a map: a place of jagged ruins rising among torn tree stumps, in a quagmire of shell-pitted mud that was soon to be drenched in the blood of thousands.

Ypres was destined for a dark and sombre immortality!

By April, the chestnuts were in blossom, and Europe lay under a Spring heatwave. After the carnage of the previous month, the Western Front was quiet.

On the morning of the 22nd, the Germans opened up heavy artillery fire on Ypres and its surrounding areas, which all lay behind the British lines. The fire slackened towards the afternoon, but shortly after 5 p.m., greenish-yellow clouds were seen creeping towards the French sector, north of Ypres.

The Canadian Division, newly arrived at the front, were adjacent to the French, but were not in telephonic communication with them. Farther downwind, men began to complain of curious sensations in the nose, eyes, throat and chest. As time passed, it was noticed that the French artillery has stopped firing. Clearly, something was badly amiss.

It was not till French infantrymen came pouring out of the lines towards the rear areas – choking for breath, with their faces blue – that the truth was apparent in all its horror.

The Germans were employing poison gas!

Gas attacks came as a shattering surprise to the men in the Allied front line; not so to the generals in the rear. They had had, one would have thought, ample warning.

There are documents still in existence which tell of German prisoners divulging the information – very precise information – about iron cylinders 1.4 metres long, used to store gas which could render a man unconscious or dead. Furthermore, the German troops working with these cylinders were provided with cotton waste mouth masks soaked in some solution as protection from the gas. These facts were known to both the British and French commanders before April 22nd.

Some senior officers were gravely concerned by the information, but at the highest level of command the notion of using gas as an offensive weapon was dismissed as “absurd”. General Sir Douglas Haig put his finger on what he believed to be the fundamental fallacy: how do you arrange to have a favourable wind to carry the gas towards your enemy?

The Germans settled that problem easily enough. They waited for the right wind, and released their gas. And on April 22nd, they breached the French line. If they could have foreseen the scope of their success, and provided more troops, they could have circled the B.E.F. from the rear – and that would possibly have ended the war.

As it was, shortage of reserve troops forced the Germans to halt and dig-in along a stretch of rising ground which became known as Mauser Ridge, with their flank protected by a thick copse named Kitchener’s Wood. They had broken through to a depth of about two and a half miles.

In the days that followed, several counter-attacks were launched against them. The first was a night assault by the 3rd Canadian Brigade. The Canadians charged Kitchener’s Wood at bayonet point and cleared it of the enemy, though themselves suffering nearly fifty per cent casualties. The following dawn, a force of 4,000 men, comprising battalions of the 2nd Buffs, 3rd Middlesex, 1st York and Lancaster, and 5th King’s Own attacked the hillcrest. Caught in machine gun crossfire, they never had a chance. A few survivors managed to get near the enemy wire, where they had to remain under constant fire, till nightfall gave them the opportunity to crawl back to their own lines.

Under pressure from the French, the British Commander-in-Chief then agreed to throw the full weight of his available forces against Mauser Ridge.

The attack began at 4.25 p.m., in broad daylight, over open ground, with inadequate artillery support. It was doomed from the start.

The first waves were mown down like standing corn. The very smoke of battle protected those that followed – for a while; they reached the edge of the enemy wire, but could get no farther.

At dusk, the survivors began streaming back. Without coming within bayonet length of the Germans, over 3,000 men had fallen on that sunny, spring afternoon. This was the 13th Brigade. Not one single soldier of that formation who had fought at Mons in the previous August now survived! The concern of the allied generals – and Sir John French was particularly sensitive in this respect – was to be shown in the maps published in the home newspapers to have lost no ground to the enemy.

Because of this, the principle of flexibility in defence – of deliberately letting the enemy gain some ground at disastrous cost to himself – was ignored. In the battles of Ypres, massed troops were hurled into the attack in order to regain ground – regardless of casualties. It was a principle which was to haunt the Western Front for a long time to come.

The Ypres struggle dragged on till May 31st. Its account is an unrelieved saga of tragic gallantry and waste.

At dawn on April 24th, the Germans launched a gas attack upon the Canadians. With no protection but wet handkerchiefs to press against their mouths and noses, the Canadians stood their ground and kept the line intact.

The 10th Brigade advanced against Kitchener’s Wood in what was described as “faultless order” – and was almost completely wiped out. 73 officers and 2,346 other ranks fell in less than two hours.

The Northumberland Brigade also attempted Kitchener’s Wood, with their commander, Brigadier-General Riddell, himself leading. Riddell was killed, after seeing more than half of his men fall within a hundred yards of their starting point. The Northumbrians lost nearly three quarters of their strength. They never got within shouting distance of the Germans.

Finally, when the worst of the battle smoke faded over the Ypres salient, it was announced that 2,150 officers and 57,125 other ranks had become casualties.

Over 59,000 men died in 40 days – for the possession of a few hundred yards of shell-torn mud. And it was all in vain; the Germans kept the little area they had so mercilessly gained with the use of poison gas, after all.

That was “Wipers”!

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