Second Battle of Ypres
Canadian Forces, 30,000 First Brigade, Gen. Mercer Second Brigade, Gen. Currie Third Brigade, Gen. Turner Artillery, Gen. Burstall British Cavalry, Gen. Allenby, Gen.
British Battalions (5), Col. Geddes
French Colonial Division, 20,000
German Force, 150,000
Duke of Wurttemberg's army
From the close of the first battle of Ypres, in November, 1914, until the spring of 1915, the Ypres salient had remained comparatively quiet. About the middle of April, the Duke of Wurttember's army, 150,000 strong, made a partially successful attempt to squeeze out the salient east of Ypres.
In retaliation, the British assaulted the German position on April 17, 1915, capturing Hill 70, an eminence commanding the city on the southeast. Repeated counter attacks by the Germans failed to dislodge them. The general positions of the combatant armies, however, remained practically unchanged, the Germans still holding the Wytschaete and Messines hills.
Early in April, the defenses of the Ypres salient had been somewhat weakened by the transfer south of the best French troops, together with most of the British artillery, to assist in the great spring offensive, which Gen. Foch was about to launch. The breach in the Allied line was filled by three brigades of raw Canadian troops, newly arrived in Belgium, and a division of colored French Colonial troops, mostly Turcos and Zouaves. The watchful Germans thought the conditions most favorable for an attack on the northern face of the salient with a chance of breaking through to the coast.
The First Chlorine Gas Attack
About the middle of April, a deserter from the Gennan lines had warned the Allied commander that the Germans were planning to annihilate the defenders of Ypres with poison gas, but the story was dismissed as a visionary tale.
On the afternoon of April 22, 1915, without further warning, a cloud of greenish-yellow chlorine gas, five miles long, was observed to emit from the German trenches, being slowly wafted by the north wind toward the point where the French and Canadian lines met, in the Northern section of the Ypres salient between Bixschoote and Langemarck. As the poison cloud advanced, the vapor seemed to cling to the earth, seeking out every hole and hollow, and filling the trenches and shell holes as it crept along.
Troops Overcome by Gas
The division of troops, French Colonials, being in the main path of the cloud, were first enveloped in the deadly fumes, which left them choking and agonized in the fight for breath. Thousands in the first support trenches and in the reserve lines either suffered violent suffocation, vomited blood, or fell in contortions, many dying later in the field ambulances, and casualty clearing stations.
Some were blinded or stupified; others saved themselves by burying their faces in the earth, wrapping mufflers about their faces, or stuffing their handkerchiefs into their mouths. The majority of those in the front line perished.
Throughout this terrible ordeal, the German artillery kept up its deadly work, the high explosive shells bursting among the helpless victims of the infernal gas. The remainder of the black troops fled, in wild panic, toward Ypres, leaving a gap four miles wide in the line between Langemarck and the Ypres-Commines Canal. The effect of their withdrawal was to leave the Canadian left wing exposed to attack by 150,000 German troops and the massed German artillery.
The main path of the poison cloud also struck the left wing of the Third Canadian Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-General Turner. Though almost suffocated, and their line torn by the fearful cannonading, the brave Canadians held firm.
One detachment with handkerchiefs or mufflers tied over their mouths, actually charged back through the deadly gas cloud in the endeavor to reach the barbarous authors of the gas attack. What became of these heroic Canadians is not definitely known.
Penetrating this cloud of death, the German soldiers, all wearing respirators, poured through the four-mile gap in the Allied line caused by the flight of the French colored troops. Quickly drawing back his left flank, which had been exposed by the rout of the colored troops, Gen. Turner reformed his Canadian brigade in a semi-circle and stoutly engaged the enemy.
Still dazed and nauseated by the poisonous fumes, and pounded by the fire of the Hun artillery, the brave Canadian troops held the enemy at bay, though the odds were four to one. Thousands fell gloriously in that unequal struggle. Meanwhile, all the available British and Canadian reserves were brought up.
The day was saved by the timely arrival of five British battalions, under Col. Geddes, which filled the gap in the line. In the confusion of the first attack, the Canadians had lost several field guns in the St. Julian Wood. These were retaken at the point of the bayonet by the Scottish Canadians after a most gallant assault on the wooded position.
All through the night the main battle continued, the German machine guns playing upon the Canadian Scots "like watering pots." But the line never wavered. As soon as one man fell, another took his place. Finally, the Germans ceased firing and the Canadians were able to intrench in the coveted position. Just before daylight, however, the German artillery fire swept the woods like a hurricane and the Canadians were forced to evacuate.
Within Three Miles of Ypres
At break of day, the Germans on the left flank forced the crossing of the Yser Canal, seized Lizerne and advanced to within three miles of Ypres. A counter attack on April 26, 1915 by the Canadian 1st Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-Gen. Mercer, was set in motion. Against a fusillade of shot and shell from the German guns, the brigade pressed resolutely forward and at the point of the bayonet forced the Huns out of their front line trenches, retaking Lizerne. Had the Canadian line broken, the whole Western line of the salient must have gone and Ypres would have been lost.
Ypres Destroyed by Shell Fire
Day after day, for nearly a month, the desperate battle continued without cessation. The Germans were gradually forced back across the canal. British and Belgian reinforcements appeared and closed the gap in the Canadian line.
The terrific German artillery was now directed on the city of Ypres and many of its historic buildings were destroyed by incendiary bombs. The British troops had neither artillery nor ammunition with which to reply to this bombardment. Seeing that the salient was untenable, the British on May 13th withdrew from Pilken Ridge to a new line about a mile east of Ypres.
By the use of gas, and by their superiority in men and artillery, the Germans had won a limited victory. But the heroism of the Canadian troops who defended Ypres will be the theme of song and story so long as the world endures.
The British losses in this battle were 60,000 ; the German losses, 40,000. The Germans took several thousand French Colonials prisoners.
Hitler served in France and Belgium in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment (called Regiment List after its first commander), ending the war as a Gefreiter (equivalent at the time to a lance corporal in the British and private first class in the American armies). He was a runner, one of the most dangerous jobs on the Western Front, and was often exposed to enemy fire. He participated in a number of major battles on the Western Front, including the First Battle of Ypres, the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Arras and the Second Battle of Ypres (also known as the Battle of Passchendaele). The Battle of Ypres (October 1914), which became known in Germany as the Kindermord bei Ypern (Massacre of the Innocents) saw approximately 40,000 men (between a third and a half) of the nine infantry divisions present killed in 20 days, and Hitler's own company of 250 reduced to 42 by December. Biographer John Keegan has said that this experience drove Hitler to become aloof and withdrawn for the remaining years of war.