The Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Sir John French was by the 25th confronted with the very real possibility of having to give much more ground to the ever approaching Germans.
On his left Général Putz commanding the French forces was pulling in extra troops but unless some real progress was made by the French to regain lost ground Sir John viewed further costly counter attacks as unproductive.
However Général Foch in overall command of the French Northern Command stuck by his mantra of : we attack.
The future Maréchal and Supreme Commander of 1918 had famously signalled during the Battle of Saint-Gond in 1914:
Right under severe pressure. My centre giving way. Impossible to move. Situation Excellent — I attack.
The patchwork quilt of units that had been plugged into the open gap created by the gas attacks was being reorganised and misplaced soldiers returned to their regiments.
An attack was planned for the 26th across the battlefield from Lizerne to St Juliaan. The French 18e DI (Division d’Infanterie) would recapture Lizerne, Steenstraat and Het Sas (The lock on the canal). The 152e DI would advance on Pilkem, whilst the battered remains of the two gassed divisions (45e DI and 87 DIT) would act as support.
On the British front the attack northwards from Wieltje was alloted to the Lahore Division of the Indian Army which had marched up from Neuve Chapelle on the 25th. Each of its three brigades contained a British Regular, a British Territorial and three Indian battalions.
The attack, originally scheduled by the French for 1700 hours was advanced to 1400 hours giving the two Indian Brigades little time to view the ground and prepare themselves. Their objective was much the same as Geddes’ Detachment on the 23rd: the German positions on Mauser Ridge to the left of Kitchener’s Wood.
On the right, the 149th (Northumberland) Brigade would advance on St Juliaan, whilst Geddes’ Detachment remained in reserve.
The story of the attack was a repeat of the previous attempt to seize the German positions. As soon as they topped the ridge in front of the Germans they were devastated by artillery and machine gun fire. With their casualties increasing the British and Indian soldiers pushed on to within 50 and 80 metres of the German front line.
The Indians were now coming alongside the French units attacking on their left. What neither realised was that the Germans had been preparing their front line for another gas attack. As the French soldiers approached Turco’s Farm (near No Man’s Cot Cemetery) the Germans released their chlorine gas as a defensive weapon (another first for the history books).
This stopped the French in their tracks and the cloud slowly drifted over the men of the Ferozepore Brigade forcing them back in turn.
On the right the assault had been poorly coordinated with units and especially the artillery receiving their instructions at the last moment. The three battalions of Northumberland Fusiliers missed the artillery support and were mown down by machine gun fire. Their Brigade Commander, Brigadier General Riddell was amongst the mounting casualties. (He is buried at Tyne Cot)
Calls for assistance were not met because Geddes’ units had not yet received their orders. At 1930 hours the 149th Brigade were recalled having suffered 1200 casualties for no gain. (Colonel Geddes would be killed by a shell which hit his headquarters at Potijze on the 28th. He is buried in Ypres Reservoir Cemetery.)
On the left the French had made some gains against Lizerne but were being hampered by the limited number of crossing points over the canal all of which were easily visible to the German gunners on the slightly higher bank.
A renewed attack on the 27th met with much the same result. The French managing to capture Lizerne, Het Sas and the Canal towards Steenstraat. On the British front the German advantage in position and artillery stopped all advances.
General Smith-Dorrien in command of the Ypres Salient felt that it was time for some serious rethinking. In fact it was his own head that was about to roll