The Year 1915 Illustrated/The Second Battle of Ypres
THE Second Battle of Ypres was fought from April 22nd to May 13th, and was the principal subject of the Seventh Dispatch of Sir John French issued from general headquarters on June 15th. In summarising the general results, Sir John French said:
“In the north the town and district of Ypres have once more in this campaign been successfully defended against vigorous and sustained attacks made by large forces of the enemy, and supported by a mass of heavy and field artillery, which, not only in number, but also in weight and calibre, is superior to any concentration of guns which has previously assailed that part of the line. In the south a vigorous offensive has again been taken by troops of the First Army, in the course of which a large area of entrenched and fortified ground has been captured from the enemy, whilst valuable support has been afforded to the attacks which our Allies have carried on with such marked success against the enemy's positions to the east of Arras and Lens.”
The actual battle was preceded on April 17th by mining and capture by the British of Hill 60, an eminence which afforded excellent artillery observation towards the west and north-west from the German positions. This hill remained in the hands of the British until May 1st, when an attempt on the part of the Germans to recapture it was “supported by great volumes of asphyxiating gas, which caused nearly all our men along a front of about 400 yards to be immediately struck down by its fumes. The splendid courage with which the leaders rallied their men, and subdued the natural tendency to panic (which is inevitable on such occasions), combined with the prompt intervention of supports, once more drove the enemy back.” A second and more severe gas attack, under much more favourable weather conditions, enabled the enemy to recapture the position on May 5th.
It was at the commencement of the Second Battle of Ypres, on the evening of the 22nd April, that the enemy first made use of the asphyxiating gas, which Sir John French described as "a cynical and barbarous disregard of the well-known usages of civilised war, and a flagrant defiance of the Hague Convention."
The coming of the gas
Following a heavy bombardment on the 22nd, the enemy attacked the French Division, holding the line from Steenstraate to the East of Langemarck, as far as the Poelcapelle Road. At about 5 p.m., thick yellow smoke had been seen issuing from the German trenches between Langemarck and Bixschoote. The French reported that two simultaneous attacks had been made east of the Ypres-Staden Railway, in which asphyxiating gases had been employed. What followed is best described in the words of Sir John French:
“The effect of these poisonous gases was so virulent as to render the whole of the line held by the French Division mentioned above practically incapable of any action at all. It was at first impossible for anyone to realise what had actually happened. The smoke and fumes hid everything from sight, and hundreds of men were thrown into a comatose or dying condition, and within an hour the whole position had to be abandoned, together with about fifty guns.”
The stand of the Canadians
The left flank of the Canadian Division was left dangerously exposed to serious attack in flank by the crumbling of the French Division, and there appeared to be a prospect of them being overwhelmed and of a successful attempt of the Germans to cut off the British troops occupying the salient to the east. In spite of the danger to which they were exposed, the Canadians held their ground with a magnificent display of tenacity and courage; and it is not too much to say that the bearing and conduct of these splendid troops averted a disaster which might have been attended with the most serious consequences. In the confusion of the gas and smoke the Germans succeeded in capturing the bridge at Steenstraet and some works south of Lizerne, all of which were in occupation by the French.
The loss of the guns and the reinforcements of the Germans with heavy artillery rendered the situation east of Ypres on the 23rd very critical and difficult to deal with. On the 24th the enemy succeeded in breaking through the line at St. Julien. A powerful counter-attack was organised, and although this did not result in the retaking of St. Julien, it effectually checked the enemy's further advance. By April 27th, the French had succeeded in retaking Lizerne, and had made some progress at Steenstraet and Het Sas; but up to the evening of the 28th no further progress had been made towards the recapture of the original line.
From May 1st to 4th, operations were carried out whereby the British front was shortened by the retirement to a new line closer to Ypres. This enabled the Germans to advance their guns to new positions and to bombard the town to such effect that it soon became a place of utter desolation and ruin. The loss of the Frezenberg Ridge on May 8th caused the British front to be further drawn in, and by May 12th the line had been reformed to a point north-east of Verlorenhoek to the Bellewaarde lake and woods. Fierce bombardments continued throughout the following days; as an instance of the expenditure of ammunition by the Germans, over 800 shells are stated to have fallen in a short space of time over a line of front of about a mile. The fighting after May 25th gradually petered out.
Throughout the whole of their terrible experience in the Second Battle of Ypres the British troops remained unconquerable, although they had had to meet a new weapon of warfare in poisonous gas, and their foes had been supported by a superior military machine. When at last the intensity of the bombardment subsided they were still holding the Ypres salient with splendid steadfastness of purpose, and the Germans were no nearer attaining their object of breaking through to the coast. The British losses at the Second Battle of Ypres were very heavy and many brave and brilliant officers fell upon the stricken field. The incident of the death of Colonel Birchall of the 4th Canadians is referred to on page 125 [shown above]. Another serious loss was that of Captain Francis Grenfell, of the 9th Lancers. He was a most popular officer, beloved by all who knew him. He had gained distinction earlier in the war, being awarded the Victoria Cross for saving a battery of guns at Doubon on August 24th last year.
The Battle of Festubert
The Battle of Festubert was fought from May 9th to 25th. It resulted in the enemy being driven from a position he had strongly entrenched and fortified north of Givenchy and ground was won on a front of four miles to an average depth of 600 yards. This was the most conspicuous success of the Allies in this region during the whole of the spring and summer. The long-hoped-for offensive did not mature, for the Germans were still in advance of both the French and British in stores of shells as well as in heavy artillery. Not until September was there made any serious breach in the German entrenchments and fortresses in northern France. It was shortly after the Battle of Ypres that Mr. Asquith accepted an invitation from Sir John French to visit the Army in France; an incident of this visit is illustrated below.
- The image depicts the actual scene of the fight. The nearer line of trenches and wire entanglement is that of our [British] troops, while a little beyond is that of the enemy.
- For one moment it wavered. Its most gallant commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Birchall, carrying a light cane, coolly and cheerfully rallied his men, and at the very moment when his example infected them, fell dead at the head of his battalion. The astonishing attack which followed, pushed home in the face of direct frontal fire, made in broad daylight, was carried to the first line of German trenches, which was won.
- Mr. Asquith arrived at the British Headquarters, as the guest of Sir John French, on the afternoon of Sunday, May 30, and left at 3 p.m. on Thursday, June 3. During his visit the Prime Minister had a conference, which lasted for about half an hour, with General Joffre, General Foch, and Alexandre Millerand, the French Minister of War. In the photograph Mr. Asquith is seen standing bareheaded in the doorway on the right: General Joffre (facing the camera) is on the left near the car, with Alexandre Millerand just to the right walking towards it. Mr. Asquith inspected various departments at Headquarters, and spent much time touring round the district occupied and seeing as much as possible of the troops.