Tag Archives: Ypres

Great War Wednesday: A Fresh Hell at Ypres

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https://i2.wp.com/sod-a.rsc-cdn.org/www.rsc.org/periodic-table/content/Images/Elements/Chlorine-L.jpgThe colonial soldiers of the French 45th and 87th divisions — mostly Moroccans and Algerians — must have been longing for home as dusk fell around 5:00 PM on April 22, 1915. The damp, muddy French and Belgian fields of the Western Front were a far cry from the hot desert sands of North Africa where most of the soldiers dwelt when not in service to their French colonial masters. At least this day was better than most; a light breeze blew into their faces from across No-Man’s Land. This was a change from the ordinary since the prevailing winds in this part of the world tend to blow west to east.

Then something strange occurred. A faint acrid smell began slowly overpowering the overpowering stench of blood soaked mud and the cloying odor of the decaying corpses of their comrades who lay dead amidst the barbed wire and shell craters between the two lines. The smell grew stronger. Men’s eyes began to water. Suddenly someone in the first line of trenches raised the alarm and all eyes turned to No Man’s Land where a sickly greenish-yellow miasma rolled slowly, inexorably towards them borne upon the breeze. Men watched with fascination turning quickly to horror as the cloud enveloped the first trench and the screams began in earnest.

All along a four mile section of the Ypres Salient, soldiers — those who could — boiled out of their trenches like so many ants whose mound has been kicked over by a roguish schoolboy. With no thought of order or duty but gripped by a primal terror and driven with the instinctual urge to survive the men abandoned the lines and sprinted for the rear as fast as their horrified legs could carry them. A British soldier described the mounting chaos he witnessed

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.

The officers’ first inclination was to invoke the traditional somewhat racist view of the colonial troops as generally unreliable cowards apt to flee at the least provocation . . . until the cloud’s nauseating odor reached them and they too felt compelled to flee.

The entire four mile stretch stood abandoned by all but a few of the hardiest or most fearless soldiers. Had the Germans so desired and so prepared, they could have launched a massive attack and streamed en masse through the gap in the heretofore impermeable line, but such was not to be. The Germans had never foreseen their little experiment could have such amazing success and no reserve troops capable of carrying such an offensive stood ready to exploit the opening both sides had sought so tirelessly and at such cost of life for the past nine months.

The “little experiment” in question was the first use of what was to become the Great War’s signature weapon — poison gas. In this instance, it involved the release of over 150 tons of industrial chlorine gas from hundreds of cylinders carried up to the front line by hand over a period of several days. The Germans then waited for a day when the wind was favorable and when the conditions materialized on April 22, 1915, combat engineers opened the valves on each of the cylinders and released the green devil to do his evil work.

The Battle of Second Ypres wasn’t the first use of any gas in the war. Both sides had deployed tear gas at various times in the previous months and the Germans had even attempted to use the chlorine attack before on the Russian Front, but there, at the indecisive Battle of Bolimov, extreme cold rendered the gas inert. Strangely, by using cylinders, Germany aimed to abide by the “rules of war” laid down by the 1899 Hague Convention which banned the use of “shells or explosives designed to deliver poisonous or asphyxiating gasses.” Since the convention mentioned nothing about regular gas cylinders, German military leaders figured they were in the clear . . . legally anyway.

The first attack used chlorine gas, which had an easily recognizable smell and color. While chlorine was quite deadly if inhaled or if one was submerged in it, this gas was actually much easier to avoid than later agents. Since chlorine is heavier than air, a soldier who could gain higher ground would be relatively safe from its deleterious effects. Those in greatest danger were the invalids and immobile wounded lying in the trenches. For them, trapped as they were at the bottom of the trenches, the green cloud was their death shroud.

While the gas attack was a theoretical success, it provided very little tactical and ultimately no strategic advantage to the Germans. As stated earlier, the high command didn’t attach much importance to the experiment so the line commanders had no reserves to press the attack, but more telling, the German troops were themselves loathe to attack across a field they had just flooded with a deadly fog of chlorine. Having witnessed the panic and chaos effected by their gas attack, the German soldiers realized they were one wind shift away from the same fate and had to be threatened with punishments by their officers to get them to move forward.

The final tally of casualties in the attack numbered around 6000 French and colonial troops killed. Hundreds more were blinded by the chlorine which attacked any moist tissue such as eyes, mouths, and mucous membranes. Others suffered lifelong damage to their lungs as the chlorine mixed with the moisture in the lungs to form hypochlorous acid, literally eating the lungs from the inside out.

In the end, Canadian troops halted the German advance. The Canucks were able to stand against the gas because some bright egg figured out that urinating on a bandanna or other cloth, then tying said cloth around the face would blunt the effect of the chlorine by causing the gas to react with the urea in the pee and become inert. Personally, I’d love to know the thought process this unknown Canadian used to arrive at the conclusion he should piss into a cloth and wrap it around his face and head. What’s more, he must have been one incredibly charismatic and persuasive individual to get the rest of the company to follow his example. Definitely an outside the box . . . or pants . . . thinker.

In coming installments about the Great War, I’ll discuss the origins of ANZAC day which is coming up quickly, as well as the development of gas warfare during the First World War. Until then, love y’all and keep those feet clean.

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Great War Wednesday: 1915 — Year Two

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1915The Christmas Truce was long past as were the balmy days of autumn 1914 when the cream of Europe’s youth marched off to war singing “It’s A Long Way to Tipperary,” “Les Marseilles,” and “Deutschland Uber Alles” all safe in the knowledge that the war would be over by winter just as their generals promised. Mons, the Marne, and First Ypres had given the lie to that overly optimist tradition. With the cold of January 1915 came the beginning in earnest of the trench warfare so iconicly associated with our notions of the First World War. Movement along the front ceased and what followed were months of bloody, muddy, and fruitless carnage.

1915 is a bit of the redheaded stepchild of the Great War. It doesn’t have the claims to newness of 1914 or the major meatgrinding battles of 1916 that followed. Truthfully, the year gets short shrift often in works on the war. However, it would be a mistake to think nothing happened in the twelve months between 1914 and 1916. This was the year of the failed French offensives in Artois and Champagne. It was the year the Canadians arrived in Flanders near where a lonely mound of mud called Vimy Ridge waited.

This was the first year of the submarine. Immediately after the war began, Great Britain flung a blockade around the German ports and slowly began cutting off supplies from the Kaiser and his army. While the German High Seas Fleet remained bottled up in port, the unterseebooten were able to slip past the great grey warships of Britain’s Grand Fleet and begin unleashing havoc in the north Atlantic. At first, the u-boats practiced unrestricted warfare and sank anything in sight; unfortunately for the Kriegsmarine, U-20 sank a great prize on May 1, 1915 . . . The RMS Lusitania. The deaths of nearly 100 American passengers aboard the liner woke the sleeping giant and though swift and obsequious German diplomacy soothed the great beast for awhile, she would doze but fitfully for just a few more years before striding across the Pond to defend the country which birthed her.

Belgian troops with early, crude gas masks.

1915 also marked the first use of arguably the most infamous weapon of the war when the Germans opened cylinders of poison gas which then drifted languidly and deadly across the fields of the Ypres salient to begin the Second Battle of Ypres. Before long, all the combatants rushed in a headlong sprint to develop newer and more effective gasses to kill one another as well and better gas masks to keep their own casualties to a minimum.

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Artist David Collin’s beautiful rendering of the Red Baron’s Albatros D.V

The men in the trenches during the early months of 1915 began hearing a strange new sound far above their heads as the first aircraft designed specifically for warfare and aerial combat took to the skies. All throughout the beginning of the hostilities, both sides were using the newly developed airplane for scouting and artillery spotting, but somewhere along the line, some enterprising jake carried a rifle aloft with him and started taking potshots at spotters from other countries. Then someone else took a few grenades up on a mission and began chucking them over the side once they reached the enemy trenches. Before long, both sides had developed planes with forward mounted machine guns and the world of fighter combat opened and in that world, no citizen was a greater star than Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen aka “The Red Baron” who would begin his storied career in 1915.

As a result of the actions taken by the so-called “young Turks” of the Ottoman Empire, 1915 would see the introduction of a new word into the lexicon of warfare and international law — genocide. For the first time in modern history — depending greatly on when one begins counting “modern” — a government actually turned its military and full resources on its own people, not to quell some rebellion or restore order following a natural disaster, but to exterminate a hated minority, in this case the Armenian Christian population. The “forgotten fire” of the Armenian Genocide would later fuel another madman’s idea to exterminate another hated minority population and lead to yet another word — Holocaust.

Finally, 1915 would see the emergence of a future master of puppets arise in Great Britain. First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill would mark his entry onto the world stage with a brilliant idea to end the war. With trench warfare so entrenched along the Western Front, he proposed moving the area of attack somewhere else. His strategy involved redirecting massive numbers of troops from Great Britain and the other Commonwealth nations such as Australia and New Zealand from France and Belgium southward across the Mediterranean to the Dardanelles in order to attack what he referred to as, “The soft underbelly of Europe.” The place the troops landed would give its name to the ensuing campaign and the campaign would give Lord Churchill his walking papers from the Admiralty and very nearly political life in general. The name of the chosen landing zone?

Gallipoli.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean!

Great War Wednesday: First Battle of Ypres — The Carnage Properly Begins

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The beautifully rebuilt Cloth Hall in the Ieper city center.

The little Belgian town of Ieper, more famously known as Ypres, is no stranger to bloodletting. The Germanic tribal ancestors of the town fought Roman raids. The stubborn Flemish bled in a massacre by French troops in the fourteenth century Battle of the Golden Spurs. The War of Spanish Succession and the War of the First Coalition both raged outside the city’s walls.

All the bloodshed of the previous centuries paled however when compared with the series of battles fought here during the First World War. The first of these encounters, called aptly enough The First Battle of Ypres, began on 19 October 1914 and lasted over a month until 22 November 1914. The battle is most notable for being the first of the trench battles which came to symbolize the next three and a half years on the Western Front during the Great War.

Up until First Ypres, battles had been fluid. The German invasion through Belgium into France slowed somewhat at Mons and then halted altogether at The Miracle on the Marne early in September 1914. What followed is now called the “Race to the Sea” where each combatant tried desperately to outflank the other in what was quite literally a race northwest to get to the English Channel, turn the opponent’s flank, and secure a victory. Unfortunately, the race was a tie and the result was The First Battle of Ypres.

In many ways, Ypres became the training ground for the rest of the war and both sides paid in hogsheads of blood for the lessons. First, no one brought enough of anything. The Germans famously claimed the men would be home for Christmas and the French and British had similar overly optimistic assessments of the coming conflict. As a result, men ended up at the front without enough supplies. On the German side, captured Russian and Belgian small arms had to be pressed into service while on the Allied side, the artillery batteries were woefully under armed. Before this battle, doctrine of the day figured a few hundred shells would be expended in the course of a battle. By the time Ypres ended, the generals realized a few hundred shells wouldn’t last an hour. By the end of the war, individual guns were allotted a thousand shells EACH.

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The end of the line of trenches on the Western Front. The top barbed wire is German while the lower strands are Allied. The wire literally runs right into the sea.

As with most of the months long “battles” of the First World War, a detailed analysis is far beyond the scope of my little blog. Thousand page books litter libraries across the land devoted only to this one battle. I would like to note two major outcomes of the First Battle of Ypres, however. First, the battle introduced the trench system to the Western Front. After neither side managed to gain the other’s flank, no one could figure out what to do. Situations like this were somewhat unusual and given the flatness of the coastal terrain and the deadliness of the new machine guns and heavy artillery, both the German and the Allies figured nearly simultaneously the best thing to do would be “dig in.”

Now armies had dug in before. Trenches in warfare were nothing new, per se, but what was new was the scale of trenches developed up and down the front during and after this battle. By the beginning of 1915, an unbroken line of trenches and associated fortifications stretched all the way from the beaches of the English Channel roughly southeast to the border of neutral Switzerland. The saddest commentary of the Great War is probably the best known — those trenches would STAY more or less in a static position for three years during which time hundreds of thousands of men would hurl themselves across No Man’s Land under withering fire with the goal of taking the other side’s trenches. Massive carnage and miniscule territorial gains were the inevitable result each time.

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Cloth Hall circa 1918

The second development of the First Battle of Ypres is the area which became known as the Ypres Salient. This area directly around the ancient town was a “bulge” into the German lines. Vicissitudes of war in the early stages of the battle resulted in the Entente forces holding this one bulge several hundred yards into German territory. While that may seem like a good thing — being far out in the enemy’s lands — it was actually horrible. Because of the bulge of the Salient, the mostly British and Commonwealth troops stationed at the Salient came under fire from THREE sides simultaneously instead of just one. This Ypres Salient endured for the length of the war down to the final German “Hundred Days” offensive in 1918 and it ate men as a hungry cow eats grass.

During the six-week long battle, the British forces lost 58,155 men including the last of the professional army that arrived in August, the French lost 86,237 men and Germany suffered losing 134,315 men. The Belgian army — never large — ceased to exist altogether. Those seem like staggering numbers of dead and wounded and truthfully they are, but despite the ferocity of the First Battle of Ypres, the casualties were quite light when considered beside later battles such as the Somme and Verdun when it became de rigueur to have 50,000 men die in a DAY, not a six-week stretch. Still, it was a small taste of things to come.

That’s all for this episode of Great War Wednesday. Love y’all and keep those feet clean.