‘Cor, look at the lyddite shells bursting along Jerry’s trench,’ a look-out in the trenches east of St Julien called down from the parapet to his pals below on the afternoon of 22 April. Lyddite was a novelty, a British-patented high explosive based on picric acid that emitted puffs of yellow smoke on impact, and it was good to see ‘our guns’ pounding the enemy lines. But, as he watched, the look-out was puzzled: there was something strange about those puffs. A few seconds later he gave a louder yell: ‘Blimey, it’s not lyddite, it’s gas!’, he warned; the 2nd battalion, Lancashire Regiment, discovered they were facing a new and terrible weapon. The Germans had released 168 tons of chlorine from batteries of 6,000 cylinders along more than 4 miles of front from the Yperlee canal at Steenstraat eastwards to the Ypres–St Julien–Poelcapelle road.
To those who lived through that first experience of gas warfare, the evening of 22 April was unforgettable. Lieutenant Louis Strange of No. 6 Squadron, RFC, had a unique view: ‘I was cruising up and down over the Salient . . . watching out for gun flashes in the fading light when suddenly my attention was attracted by what appeared to be streams of yellowish-green smoke coming from the German front-line trenches. This was such a strange phenomenon that we dropped to 2,000 feet to have a good look at it. At first I was completely puzzled but finally my brain connected it with rumours about poison gas,’ he wrote in his memoirs, adding: ‘We raced back full throttle to Poperinghe.’ From there he and his observer were taken straight to V Corps headquarters to make their report to General Plumer in person.
Down in the trenches south of Langemarck a Canadian officer watched with awed fascination as two ‘greenish-yellow clouds’ filled out and, carried westward by a light wind, became a ‘bluish-white mist, such as seen over water-meadows on a frosty night’. Another Canadian, Private Underwood, was to recall how ‘It was the first gas anyone had seen or heard of’; Sergeant Dorgan of the 7th Northumberland Fusiliers explained, ‘We’d no training for gas prevention, never heard of the gas business.’ Within minutes of the first alarm Lieutenant-Colonel Beckles Willson was appalled to see, sweeping down the road to Ypres, ‘a panic stricken rabble of Turcos and Zouaves with grey faces and protruding eyeballs, clutching their throats and choking as they ran’. The gas had enveloped the French colonial troops’ trenches, and all discipline was gone. Further west, a regiment of French Territorials was in little better shape, with those who had fled the toxic smoke staggering wearily on towards the Yserlee canal without guns or equipment.
The terror weapon created a gap of some four and a half miles in the allied line, achieving in little more than five minutes the decisive breakthrough that had eluded Falkenhayn throughout First Ypres. It swept down not only on the French and the Canadians but also on the British 28th Division and on the Belgian Grenadiers and Carabiniers defending the line of the Yperlee around Boesinghe. Behind the gas cloud the 45th, 46th, 51st and 52nd Reserve Divisions of the Duke of Württemberg’s Fourth Army advanced with impregnated gauze pads protecting their mouths and noses. The 45th Division soon took Steenstraat; the 40th crossed the canal at Het Sas; the 51st entered Langemarck and, half an hour after the gas’s release, the 52nd were in Pilckem, only two and a half miles from Ypres’s Menin Gate. Before nightfall these four advancing divisions – some 50,000 men – had captured 51 guns, mainly French 75-mms, and rounded up 2,000 dazed or wounded prisoners. Then to the relief of their adversaries the Germans began to dig in rather than continue to press forward on Ypres itself. Their orders stipulated that the immediate objective was the seizure of Pilckem Ridge, and this task was soon accomplished. The Duke of Württemberg was without reserves on hand to back up what Falkenhayn had regarded in the first place as essentially a strategic diversion embodying an experiment in weaponry.
Although the allied troops in the trenches were taken by surprise, the possibility of resort to chemical warfare had long been recognized by governments and by humanitarians seeking to limit the horrors of war. The Hague Convention of 1907 condemned the development of weapons capable of spreading poison among combatants or civilians; Britain, France and Germany were among the signatories. Nevertheless individual scientists continued research into chemical warfare. Among them was the 12th Earl of Dundonald, a retired cavalry general and friend of Sir John French, who revised proposals put forward by his great-grandfather during the Crimean War for the emission of sulphurous fumes to prise the enemy out of prepared fortifications. In 1854 the great Michael Faraday authenticated the feasibility of the Dundonald project, though it was never tested. Sixty years later the revised version aroused little interest. At French’s request, Haig received Dundonald on 12 March, at the height of the battle of Neuve Chapelle but was dismissive. ‘I asked him how he arranged to have a favourable wind,’ Haig commented contemptuously in his diary.
The Germans treated science with respect and took inventors more seriously. Research scientists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin worked closely with IG Farben’s chemical experts, and the Prussian Ministry of War showed interest. Soon after the start of war, Pioneer Regiment No. 36 was established to develop weapons capable of discharging chlorine. Field howitzers fired shells containing lachrymatory gas against the Russians at Bolomow, near Warsaw, on 3 January 1915 but with no effect. As an alternative way of discharging gas, orders were given for the manufacture of cylindrical tubes, of small diameter and some 5 feet long. Training was then given to selected ‘gas pioneers’, serving soldiers who possessed some knowledge of science. The pioneers were to place the cylinders in position under cover of darkness, sited on their objective but concealed from prying eyes or cameras. Before the start of an infantry attack a pioneer wearing a primitive respirator would remove the cap on the cylinder, enabling the gas to be forced out of the tube by its own pressure and wafted into enemy lines by the prevailing wind. No explosive charge was required: all that was needed was a steady wind, fresh but not gusty and blowing from the right quarter.
Generals proud of the superior fire-power of Krupps big guns had no confidence in this bombardment by drain-pipe. Some 17 years later the Reichsarchiv history of the Ypres campaign recalled that officers and men ‘almost without exception mistrusted the still untried weapon, if they were not totally against it’.
But despite these doubts, the first cylinders arrived in Flanders in mid-March. Soon afterwards prisoners taken by the French blabbered carelessly about the new weapon, enabling General d’Urbal of France’s Tenth Army to circulate an intelligence assessment on 30 March that described the cylinders with remarkable accuracy. By then, however, d’Urbal and his Tenth Army had left the Salient and were 100 miles away, fighting in Artois. General Smith-Dorrien does not appear to have heard of the Tenth Army’s discovery until the second week of April, the news being followed by reports of a German captured in the Yserlee canal sector of the Salient who was carrying a protective gas pad. No. 6 Squadron, RFC, was ordered to search from the skies, but the gas-release batteries were so effectively concealed that neither pilots nor observers saw any signs of the cylinders. On 15 April, Smith-Dorrien noted in his diary that he had received information about ‘enormous tubes of asphyxiating gas’, adding the comment: ‘In case there is any truth in it, I have let all commentators know.’ General Plumer passed the report on to his divisional commanders ‘for what it is worth’, and Sir John French, who had also heard tales of a gas weapon, was no less scornful. When rumours of a German attack for the night of 15–16 April proved unfounded, this widespread scepticism seemed justified. Through the following week the fate of Hill 60 held the generals’ attention.
Falkenhayn originally contemplated no more than a limited offensive along the Menin Road, where he had been thwarted five months earlier, and the gas cylinders were stored near Gheluvelt. It was not a good site: Passchendaele Ridge acted as a wind shield, and promising north-easterlies – rare anyhow in western Belgium – tended to veer round unpredictably, threatening to blow back a gas cloud towards the attackers. In mid-April the cylinders were moved to the northeast sector, where the ridges were lower and ran for the most part parallel to the line of attack.
Poelcapelle, the pivotal village for the German assault, faced what was at that moment the most vulnerable defensive position in the Salient, for the Poelcapelle–St Julien road marked the northern boundary of the British Second Army’s sector. West of the road the line was held by the 87th French Territorial Division and the 45th Algerian Division, both under the command of General Putz. They had only recently moved up to the Front and were assigned some four and a half miles of trenches, reaching out to the Belgian Army’s southern posts along the Yserlee canal, slightly north of Steenstraat. The Territorials included elderly Breton reservists, les pépères (‘grandads’), while the 45th Division comprised Zouaves and a far from reliable ‘white’ punishment battalion as well as the so-called ‘Turcos’, native Algerian riflemen.
To the east and south of the road was the 1st Canadian Division, who had already seen action at Neuve Chapelle. Like Putz’s motley force, the Canadians were newcomers to the Salient, though they were troops of very different mettle. Their three infantry brigades formed part of General Plumer’s V Corps together with (from north to south) the 28th, 27th and 5th British divisions. The most experienced Canadian regiment, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry – the veterans who had landed in France shortly before Christmas – remained attached to the 27th Division until November 1915, and on 22 April they were too far south to be caught under the asphyxiating yellow cloud. But within a fortnight ‘Princess Pat’s’, too, were to be caught up in Second Ypres, fighting desperately around Frezenberg and Wieltje as the battle moved into its final phase.
The initial success of the German attack carried them forward almost 3 miles in less than five hours. Fortunately the Canadians, on the left of the allied centre, held firm throughout the night of 22–23 April. Smith-Dorrien realized that the Front could only be stabilized if the French found substitutes for the two divisions that had fled in panic. But Foch was slow to respond: GQG was engrossed with preparations for their own offensive in Artois, and Joffre could not spare more troops for Flanders. The best Foch could offer was General Putz’s reorganized Territorials, augmented by some ‘loose’ battalions from his 10th Division. There was, however, no prospect of effective French aid plugging the gap earlier than the evening of 23 April, and it was left to Plumer and to Brigadier-General Turner VC of the 3rd Canadian Brigade to douse the German dragon’s fire and fury throughout St George’s Day.
Plumer ordered the consolidation of a line already improvised south of the Bois de Cuisiniers, an extensive copse off the Menin Road near Hooge, soon anglicized as Kitchener’s Wood (but no longer extant). At a quarter past four in the afternoon the 6th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and the East Yorkshires pressed a counter-attack forward towards Pilckem. The Germans, however, had placed machine-gun nests on the slopes of the ridge, with tragic consequences. As soon as the attackers broke cover, they were mown down by machine-guns and suffered appalling losses. After three hours of heavy fighting the East Yorkshires, who had a nominal strength of 2,000 men at the start of the day, were left with only seven officers and 280 men alive and unwounded. Everywhere around the edge of the ground lost on the previous day Württemberg’s artillery rained down what was in effect a protective screen.
Next morning (Saturday, 24 April) the Germans turned their attention to the exposed apex of the Canadian trenches, releasing gas cylinders well before dawn. The artificial cloud on this occasion was some 15 feet deep and, caught by a strong wind, soon swept down on the Canadians. They had no respirators, but they gained some protection by taking advantage of the soluble character of chlorine and covering their mouths and noses with wet towels or handkerchiefs, sometimes kept damp with urine. Remarkably three-quarters of the defenders were fit enough to continue the fight after the gas dispersed, and the Canadian field guns gave the infantry steady support.
By nine o’clock the battle had become an artillery duel, in which the Germans possessed heavier howitzers, capable of shelling support roads and destroying signal wires. It was hard for Smith-Dorrien, and even Plumer, who was much nearer the fighting, to keep in touch with the balance of a battle that was constantly changing: it was harder still for Sir John French, studying the map out at headquarters in Hazebrouck, to appreciate the problems in the forward trenches. Yet, despite the difficulties of communication, GHQ accepted that a general directive was needed for commanders in the field. It came soon after four o’clock on that Saturday afternoon: Plumer received from French the laconic order, ‘Every effort must be made at once to restore and hold the line at St Julien.’
But St Julien was not, like Gheluvert and St Eloi, a village at a strategic crossroads. It was little more than a hamlet, 2 miles south of Langemarck and straggling along a road beside the Hannebeek, one of several small streams coming down from Passchendaele Ridge. A single day’s fighting had already reduced the line of cottages to ruin. When the 10th Brigade sought to fulfil French’s orders, in heavy rain early next morning, the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and 1st Warwickshires were exposed to enfilade fire across the fields and shelling from the adjoining slopes, while also checked by machine-gun nests set among the rubble. Almost 2,500 of the brigade’s 4,000 officers and men were lost during the attack and to little purpose. The Germans remained firmly in control of the charred stones that had been St Julien, though the 10th Brigade succeeded in blunting the impetus of their assault. Later on that Sunday and 2 miles further east, a composite Landwehr division struck at the flank of the battle-weary Canadians and captured the village of Gravenstafel.
In the early evening most units of the 1st Canadian Division were pulled back from the forward trenches into reserve. The division, numbering some 10,000 men at the start of the battle, had lost 1,700 killed in the 72 hours that followed the first release of gas, with more than 2,500 wounded. But the Canadian casualties were not limited to the 1st Division. Today, Chapman Clemesha’s magnificent 35-foot high Brooding Soldier statue stands at Vancouver Corner, where the N313 to Poelcapelle meets the Zonnebeke–Langemarck road. The statue carries an awesome tribute as unadorned in its proud simplicity as the monument itself: ‘This column marks the battlefield where 18,000 Canadians on the British left withstood the first German gas attacks, the 22–24 April 1915; 2,000 fell and lie buried nearby.’
Individual acts of valour during the ordeal of the Canadians were subsequently recognized by the award of two Victoria Crosses, both posthumously. Lance-Corporal Frederick Fisher braved heavy artillery fire to cover troops in a support trench with his machine-gun; Sergeant-Major William Hall twice left his trench to bring back wounded men under heavy fire. The shelling persisted even as the division pulled back, adding more names to the long casualty list. On 25 April, Captain Francis Scimager, a doctor serving at an advanced dressing station in a farm, won a third Canadian VC for saving his wounded patients when the farm buildings became a target for the German guns.
A week later, in a neighbouring dressing station, the death of a Canadian officer inspired an enduring tribute to those who took ‘up our quarrel with the foe’. At Essex Farm, Colonel John McCrae was saddened by the fate of his friend, Lieutenant Helmer, who was receiving treatment when he was hit by a German shell. After the fighting died away McCrae mourned Helmer in an elegy for the thousands killed in the springtime of their lives and buried close to where they fell. Punch published ‘In Flanders Fields’ on 8 December 1915, to rekindle emotions aroused earlier in the year by the war sonnets of Rupert Brooke. McCrae immortalized the image of the blood-red poppies that ‘blow between the crosses row by row’. His deeply moving sincerity has survived changes of attitude towards war through four generations.
After less than three days of battle it seemed as if Württemberg’s troops had secured a potential victory of far greater value than Falkenhayn ever anticipated. They were across the Yserlee canal at Lizerne, though the Belgian Carabiniers continued to offer stiff resistance. Their field artillery maintained a steady bombardment of forward positions from three sides, and their heavy guns pounded the congested roads along which relief columns were making their way to the Front. There was, it appeared, no answer to the improved Maxim machine-guns, and the constant fighting exacted a heavy toll of the best troops. It was a harsh week for George V’s armies. Across Europe, the first landings had been made at Gallipoli on 25 April; the British at Cape Helles suffered 1,700 casualties on that morning, and further up the peninsula 1,252 Australians and New Zealanders (Anzacs) were killed over the next six days, one-in-four of those who landed.
Yet although the Germans in Flanders had prised the latch off the gate barring access to the Channel ports, they failed to press forward into the open country beyond. The unexpected always caught Falkenhayn off balance: he hesitated, and time overtook him. The French recovered Lizerne on 27 April and supported the Belgians in clearing the western bank of the canal by mid-May; though the British continued to suffer heavy losses in counter-attacks, their line was never broken.
On 1 May the 15th Brigade of the 5th Division thwarted a gas attack for the first time, made on Hill 60. The 1st battalion Dorset Regiment were among forward troops issued with gauze and flannel pads to be hung around the neck, ready to be wetted by means unspecified when a gas alarm sounded. The attack, launched at 7.15 in the evening, took the Dorsets by surprise, but a young subaltern, Second Lieutenant Kestell-Cornish had the enterprise to seize a rifle and, with the only four men in his platoon still able to stand, fired rapidly into the yellow cloud from the trench parapet checking the advancing Germans, who could reasonably assume a machine-gun post had remained unaffected by the gas. Reserves from the 1st Devons and 1st Bedfords brought support to the Dorsets, but for three hours there was close fighting in the trenches at the foot of the hill. Ninety men were fatally gassed in the trenches that evening. Of 207 wounded brought back to the dressing station, ‘46 died almost immediately and 12 after long suffering’. Kestell-Cornish spent two days in hospital, recovering from the effects of the gas, but he was back in the trenches within a week.
Sadly the Dorsets’ resolute defence was to no avail; a second German attack four days later could not be repulsed. The 1st Cheshires were brought up hurriedly from their billets in Ypres to bolster the Dorsets, 1st Norfolk and 2nd Duke of Wellingtons after the Germans discharged thicker gas from flank positions that ran the length of their trenches, causing heavy casualties. At one point the Cheshires were engaged for half an hour in a deadly exchange of hand grenades, their ‘jam tin variety’ bombs less effective than ‘those horrid little black grenades that the Germans fling so accurately’, complained Second Lieutenant Arthur Greg, a Rugbeian who cut short his studies at New College, Oxford, to enlist in the previous September. ‘An officer of the Dorsetshire Regiment had his head blown off just as he was handing me a new box of grenades,’ Greg wrote. ‘I felt very upset.’ For 48 hours the British tried to hold the hill or recover it by counter–attacks, but they could not dislodge their enemy. Hill 60 remained in German hands for the next two years.
By 27 April, Smith-Dorrien had become seriously alarmed at the exposed position of V Corps and angered by the commander-in-chief’s insistence on pressing ahead with inter-allied counter-attacks. It seemed evident that GHQ at distant Hazebrouck did not realize the Second Army was short of troops and that French support had proved limited in numbers and reluctantly given. Without consulting Sir John, Smith-Dorrien ordered all offensive operations to cease ‘forthwith’, and he sent an urgent 900-word letter to General Robertson, who had become the chief of French’s general staff in January. Smith-Dorrien respected Robertson, known as Wully, the Lincolnshire lad who 38 years back in time ran away from home to enlist as a private and rose to high command through natural intelligence. Over strategic issues Wully seemed a sensible realist, and the letter put forward a sound case for pulling back to the so-called ‘GHQ line’, a defensive semicircle 2 miles east of Ypres prepared by the French in January. But Robertson’s realism was compounded of ruthlessness and ambition; he expressed neither agreement nor doubt. In the early afternoon he telephoned Smith-Dorrien to say that ‘the Chief does not regard situation nearly so unfavourable as your letter represents’. Smith-Dorrien was told to co-operate with the French in a simultaneous combined attack with ‘due regard to previous instructions’. A letter would ‘follow’, brought by a staff officer.
No letter came. Instead, Smith-Dorrien received that evening a telegram sent en clair by a staff major ordering him to hand over to General Plumer ‘the command of all troops engaged in present operations about Ypres’. Smith-Dorrien remained in the Salient another ten days, still technically responsible for II Corps, out on Messines Ridge. On 6 May, Smith-Dorrien received by telephone the news he had anticipated: ‘’Orace, you’re for ’ome,’ Robertson allegedly told him. On this occasion formal, written instructions did ‘follow’ the call: he was to return to England; Plumer would succeed him in command of the Second Army. Thus was the most senior general serving in the British army dismissed at the height of a critical battle; no explanation was given. Ironically, Plumer had by then already retreated to the GHQ line or, more precisely, to forward trenches hurriedly dug ahead of it. Sir John French would accept proposals from the tactful Plumer that from his predecessor would have been anathema. A feud between choleric generals fighting the same battle was potentially disastrous, as the Russians had found at Tannenberg in August 1914.
The slaughter of Second Ypres dragged on into May, irrespective of the retirement to the GHQ line. During the second week of the month the German 53rd Reserve Division attacked the 27th and 28th Divisions in great strength along a ridge that runs west of Frezenberg southwards from Wieltje to merge imperceptibly into a higher ridge, covering the woods and lake at Bellewaarde, to the east of Hooge chateau on the Menin Road. Heavy bombardment and persistent infantry assaults killed nine officers and 382 men in Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry on 8 May, leaving the regiment only 154 survivors. At nightfall the 12th London Regiment, nominally 1,000-men strong, could muster a mere 53 other ranks and no officers. The German bombardment was so deep that one company (250 men), marching through darkened streets on the eve of the battle, suffered 80 casualties from falling masonry. Several eye-witnesses comment on the agonies of horses hit by shell splinters or by breaking their legs in potholes. A pitiful neighing backed the stench of rotting carcasses along the roads.
Four days later (12 May) the ‘Cavalry Force’, fighting as dismounted infantry, relieved the 27th Division. They had hardly reached the lines facing Frezenberg on that Thursday when the full fury of bombardment fell on them. The shellfire continued for eleven and a half hours, inflicting heavy casualties, particularly on the 1st Life Guards, whose trenches were destroyed. The Leicestershire Yeomanry lost 96 of the 282 men who set out from their billets on the previous day; of those killed, 83 had no known grave; their names are inscribed on the Menin Gate. Yet somehow the North Somerset Yeomanry’s trenches continued to offer some cover despite the bombardment, enabling a counter-attack with bayonets to be made later in the day. Renewed shellfire checked two other counter-attacks by the regrouped cavalry during the afternoon.
Personal tragedies abounded on that ghastly Thursday: one robbed England of yet another poet of budding talent. Julian Grenfell, a captain in the 1st Royal Dragoons, was gravely wounded in the trenches on the edge of the wood north of Hooge by a shell splinter that penetrated his skull. His ‘Into Battle’, completed a fortnight earlier, conveys the alternating emotions of fear and elation he had experienced five months previously during First Ypres, the contrast between the soldier’s ‘dreary, doubtful, waiting hours, before the brazen frenzy starts’ and that ‘burning moment’ when ‘only joy of battle takes him by the throat, and makes him blind’ to all things else. Premonition darkens his later stanzas: ‘In the air death moans and sings’; calmly the poet–soldier resigns himself to ‘Destined Will’. The wound proved fatal; Grenfell was taken fully conscious to a military hospital in Boulogne. There he lingered for 12 days until night could finally ‘fold him in soft wings’.
Officially Second Ypres ended on 24 May, when four German divisions made a final attempt to push forward from a line north of Bellewaarde Ridge along the Menin Road. More gas was released than in any earlier attack, but counter-measures were improving day by day; East Enders working overtime at Allen and Hanbury’s, the pharmaceutists of Bethnal Green, enabled primitive respirators fitted with eye-shields to be rushed out from London. But only strong shields for the body could have given protection from the thrust and counter-thrust with bayonet that followed when the infantry clashed once the gas cloud lifted. The fighting continued all day, until around eight o’clock in the evening the British 4th Division pulled back from Wieltje to newly dug trenches extending GHQ line to the northwest.
After 34 days of battle the Germans had trimmed the Salient drastically, though most of the territory was gained in the first two days. The British suffered almost 60,000 casualties, the French about 10,000 and the Belgians slightly more than 1500, a total of 71,500 allied dead, missing or seriously wounded. By contrast the Germans sustained 35,000 casualties, less than half their enemy’s number. On war maps printed in the newspapers the ground won seemed of little importance. Although Falkenhayn’s troops were in some places only 2 miles from the Grand Place, they had made little progress towards those elusive Channel ports: Dunkirk was still 30 miles ahead of them, Calais some 50. But the crests of the arc of ridges around Ypres were in enemy hands. From Bellewaarde and from Hill 60 the Germans enjoyed clear views extending well behind the British trenches. The roads to the French border had long come under haphazard shellfire. Now observers could sight the artillery on targets out at Poperinghe, Dickebusch and Vlamertinghe with ominous accuracy.