Most of the villages have taken on a Flemish spelling and as these are the names you will find on a modern map I have stuck with them. The differences from the war time versions are easily deciphered.
On a glorious spring day life continued much as usual in the area. A few bombardments here and there but nothing out of the ordinary, apart from the fact that over the previous 24 hours a 420mm siege gun had begun firing 900kg shells into Ieper. An act which had begun the town’s total destruction.
Due to major shortages in ammunition, the British artillery along their sector of the front line was limited to approximately three rounds a day for each piece. What they had, needed to be conserved.
In command of the French 90e Brigade of the 45e DI (45th Division d’Infanterie — regular army), was Colonel Mordacq and afterwards he wrote of his experiences during the forthcoming battle. This particular day was spent surveying the section of front that he was taking over from the 91e Brigade.
He rode out with an escort of Spahis (African cavalry) from Elverdinge towards Boezinge coming across villages that were continuing life as though the war was a long way off. Many of the local villagers had returned to their homes once the front had settled down and were now cultivating the fields and repairing their homes.
The general terrain is so flat that a slight rise to 25 metres such as at Pilkem gives it a commanding view. From the ridge it would have been possible for him to see back to Boezinge and the French and Belgian positions along the canal bank. To the north was the forest of Houthulst and what he could not see behind and within it were the gathering units of the German Army coming up to the front.
Having crossed the canal to the east bank the colonel was swiftly advised by the local commander to leave his own horse and escort behind. The front line was open to view and it was impossible to operate in daylight. The slightest movement drawing fire from the Germans.
At least, the Colonel thought, the weather was fine and if the relief was going to be difficult it would be good to get to know this new countryside in clear weather.
The 45e DI was made up of regiments from Algeria – both native and French nationals. Their uniforms and titles spoke more of exotic tribal clashes in the desert rather than trench warfare in the Flanders mud. Tirailleurs, Zouaves, Spahis and African Light Infantry.
Thus during the night of the 21st-22nd Mordacq’s soldiers relieved the 3e bis Zouaves (a regiment of three battalions).
French regiments (like the German ones) had a number of battalions and these with few exceptions always served together. In their War Diaries (JMO) the individual battalions are often known by the name of their commander, I have stuck to using the format I/120e, II/120e etc.
Immediately to the left of the 13th Bn Canadian Infantry was the I/1er Tirailleurs who took over the forward trenches from the Poelkapelle Road as far as the Poelkapelle-Schreiboom Road.
On their left and extending as far as Langemark-Koekuit Road was their sister battalion II/1er Tirailleurs. The third unit in the front line was the 1er Bn d’Infanterie Legère d’Afrique, who were alternating this sector with the 3e Bn ILA. They continued the 45e DI front to the Langemark Bikschote Road where the 87e DIT (Division d’Infanterie Territoriale) took over the remainder of the line as far as Steenstraat and the Belgian Army.
The Territorials had two regiments on their sector: the 73e RIT and the 74e RIT. Each had 9 companies in the front line with the remaining 3 of each grouped in front of Boezinge.
These Territorial Regiments were made up of men approaching the end of their conscripted military service. Few would have had any serious training in years.
What the French lacked in heavy artillery was made up to some extent by their excellent 75mm field guns. Relying on these to support their front line they proved to be stationed far too close to the enemy.
In support of the 45e DI front line was the II/2e bis Zouaves. Their 1st and 2nd Companies stationed on the Steenbeek south of Langemark whilst their 3rd and 4th Companies were supposed to have been positioned 500m east of Pilkem on the road to Langemark.
Fortunately, the location was so ill defined that Commandant Gougne (The battalion commander) and his men couldn’t find it, and remained in the area of the Boezinge bridges. This error would pay dividends the following day when the Germans tried to force the bridges across the canal.
A second morning of clear blue skies allowed the Allied pilots to get up and about over the German lines. They could of course see the German troops at Houthulst but didn’t think a great deal of it. It was probably just a relief taking place.
At lunchtime Ieper and its approach roads were placed under a long range bombardment by the German 420mm siege guns. They did not appear to be doing much damage to the front line, it all seemed rather a waste of ammunition but if the Germans wanted to show off a bit of muscle now and again: let them.
As early evening arrived a slight breeze picked up blowing from the north-east and towards the French lines.
This was what the Germans had been waiting for.
At 1600 hours the German siege guns opened up once again on Ieper, this time though they were accompanied by a number of shells falling on all the villages in front of the town and along the French front line.
One highlight of the early evening was a French aircraft overflying the front at Langemark. As it approached the German positions it drew a disproportionate amount of rifle and machine gun fire from the trenches. The pilot took his machine higher and along the line but the bullets continued to follow him. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour he turned for home, the German rounds chasing him.
At 1700 hours on 22nd April 1915 a dense fog of yellow greenish vapour up to three metres high started to waft out from the German lines, carried on the wind towards the French.
The German bombardment ceased firing on the French forward trenches, but the cloud moved on with the wind.
Suddenly all along the French line soldiers started coughing and gasping for breath.
The cloud was the result of 180,000 kilos of chlorine gas being released into the wind in just five minutes along seven kilometres of the front. The bombardment had been temporarily halted so as not to disperse the gas.
Some of the French commanders thought that something had caught fire in the German lines, and by the time that they finally realised what was happening the German infantry appeared out of the gas wearing face protectors.
Chlorine is a severe irritant to the eyes, nose and throat. If exposed to enough of it death can occur.
The French officers found that they could hardly get orders out to try to control their men. If they stayed and tried to fight they were out fought by an enemy who was better equipped to deal with the debilitating atmosphere. In retreating however, the French soldiers were simply moving back with the gas cloud and increasing their exposure to its effects.
The French field artillery had been firing for all its worth (A shortage of ammunition would not seem to have been one of their problems) but the crews were soon affected by the gas themselves.
The German infantry’s advance was so swift that most of the French batteries were captured before their gallant crews could dismantle their pieces or remove them from the battlefield. This loss of so much of their Divisional Artillery was of paramount importance over the coming days.
The Germans held a large superiority in artillery, especially the heavier guns, and without their artillery it would be difficult for the French to mount any convincing counter attacks.