|The chilling sight of a wind assisted poison gas cloud|
As junior partner on the Western Front, Britain faced continuous pressure to follow French strategies for ejecting the German invaders from their country. Neuve-Chapelle was one of these actions, and another British offensive, known as the Battle of Hill 60 (17-22 April) turned out to be the prelude for Ypres 2. Although the hill involved was some way to the south and east of the salient, and in truth was more of an earth mound than a hill, it was positionally important because it overlooked many of the German forces in the central and southern parts of the salient, as well as the main railway line to Lille. This was the first operation carried out by the British Army to lay large mines underneath the enemy position in order to blow up their defences. The fighting was fierce but the British successfully captured the hill and held it against desperate German counter-attacks. It was recaptured by the Germans in the later stages of the main battle in May, but in the first instance part of the German retaliation was a massive artillery bombardment of Ypres itself, presaging a German assault further north from Hill 60, nearer to the Menin Road and the Ypres canal on the north east sector of the salient, and this turned out to be the area for the main battles.
|Early victims of the gas attacks|
Buchan describes the scene for Phase 1 at Gravenstafel Ridge: “The evening of Thursday 22nd was calm and pleasant, with a light steady wind blowing from the north east. About 6.30 our artillery observers reported that a strange green vapour was moving over the French trenches…. Strange scenes between the canal and Pilkem Road. Back through the dusk came a stream of French soldiers, blinded and coughing, and wild with terror… in the early darkness they came upon the Canadian reserve battalions. With amazement the Canadians saw the wild dark faces, the heaving chests, and the lips speechless with agony. Then they too sniffed something in the breeze, something which caught at their throats and affected them with a deadly nausea.”
The immediate result was a four mile hole in the defences of the salient and a desperate rearguard action by allied forces to prevent a complete German breakthrough.Over the following three weeks a number of counter attacks by allied troops tried to regain the ground lost to the Germans.
|The shaded area was lost from the Salient|
during Ypres 2
Phase 2 was the battle for St Julien. Initially this small village east of Ypres was some way from the front line, but with the large breakthrough made by the post-gas attack surge of the Germans, it became the epicentre of the main phase of the battle. For nearly three weeks fierce attacks by the Germans and counter-attacks by the Allies continued (in which the Canadian forces in particular distinguished themselves) to prevent a complete overrunning of the Ypres salient. The British reserves hurried in to support the Canadians and hold the line. Buchan again: "If the salient of Ypres will be for all time the classic battleground of Britain, that bloodstained segment between the Poelcappelle and Zonnebeke roads will remain the Thermopylae of Canadian arms". The insistent German pressure meant that the line of the Salient had to be shortened defensively, and a further gas attack against the French at the northern end of this line on 2nd May made this inevitable, although by now the Allies were better prepared for the gas.
The shortened Allied line was subject two more major actions. The first was Frezenberg Ridge (Phase 3), where the British line was pushed back to the west of the shallow ridge, and suffered heavy losses from the pulverising heavy artillery of the Germans. By means of another gas attack, the Germans recaptured Hill 60 during this phase. Phase 4 was around the Bellewaarde Lake on 24th -25th May, when again the British were forced to shorten their line in the face of another gas attack that produced high and distressing casualties.
Rather than ending with a crescendo action, Ypres 2 rather ebbed away, and action further south at Festubert necessitated a move of much German heavy artillery away from Ypres, and they were unable to capitalise on the reduction of the Salient that they had achieved.
The outcome of the various actions of Ypres 2 for the Allies was a much shortened defensive line. The Germans were now so close to the town that in the ensuing months they were able to pound it to rubble. Significant changes were now taking place in the high command of the BEF.
Smith-Dorrien, whose brilliance at Le Cateau and beyond had made him a star of 1914 was removed as Commander of the 2nd Army. Both French and Haig disliked Smith-Dorrien (or were envious of him), and this was influential in his replacement by Plumer. Whenever I see John Singer Sergeant's great portrait of the leading generals of WW1 in the National Portrait Gallery in London, I feel sad at the omission of Smith-Dorrien - a fine, if capricious, leader.
For the public in Britain, the ghastly nature and the extent of the casualties at Ypres 2 really brought home the enormity of the challenge they faced, and were influential in the pressure to change government that we have seen.