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Webmatters : The Second Battle of Ypres April 1915
Rough Map of Area

Ypres 1915

The French left collapses

The Territorials in the 87e DIT (Division d’Infanterie Territoriale) took the brunt of the gas cloud and were not able to stand and fight. Those that did would be captured whilst those who could flee poured back towards the canal.

Thankfully the canal formed a natural barrier to the Germans and the remainder of the Territorials rallied to man the front lines. However by 1845 hours the Germans had reached the canal banks and taken Het Sas (which means: the canal lock) and were menacing Boezinge. The bridge at Steenstraat had fallen and the Germans had crossed over into Lizerne.

On the left of the 45e DI (Division d’Infanterie) the 1er BILA were also badly caught by the gas and were swiftly overcome by the rapidly approaching German infantry.

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.

The II/1er Tirailleurs put up a stout resistance in the village of Langemark but were in turn eventually ejected. On their right, their 1st Bn were less affected by the gas and managed to hold on, rallying to the Canadians.

Within 15 minutes of launching their attack the Germans had made good progress and 30 minutes later were approaching the canal along the northern sector of their attack. All that stood in front of the all important bridges at Boezinge were the six companies of Territorials, the two lost companies of II/2e bis Zouaves and the duty Sapeurs from the bridges.

The Gas Memorial Cross at Steenstraat

The Gas Memorial Cross at Steenstraat

At Steenstraat fierce fighting was taking place between the Germans and the Belgian Grenadiers who held the right of their line.

The gas cloud had blown apart by the time it had reached the village and whilst the smell was still very much in the air and causing annoyance it was not sufficient to bowl the Grenadiers over.

By 1930 hours all contact with the French on the other side of the canal to their right had been lost. The French position deteriorated all the more when suddenly their supporting artillery stopped firing.

The gunners being in close proximity to the forward positions were soon swamped by German infantry arriving on the heels of the gas. Most of the gunners having only just enough time to disable their guns and flee themselves.

The I/7e Zouaves (91e Brigade, 45e DI) were entrenched near Mortalje Farm (Turco Farm to the British) with its other two battalions on the west bank of the canal at Boezinge. These latter units were soon placed under the command of the 90e Brigade and ordered back across the canal to the area around Lancashire Farm on the Ieper-Pilkem Road.

The Germans were under no circumstances to be allowed to get across the canal.

In summing up the day the 90e Brigade Diary states:

The elements of the Brigade which had been in the front line on the 22nd (1er Bn d’Afrique, 1er Tirailleurs) no longer existed. A few isolated men were mingled with other units along the canal or had retired onto the Canadians.

The 1er BILA’s war diary notes that the following morning only 297 men were left in the battalion (164 wounded and 417 killed or missing). For their part, by the 26th, the I/1er Tirailleurs could only muster enough men to form a company, the two battalions merging to form a single unit.

 

Ieper open for the taking

By the evening of the 22nd April the Allied front line to the north west of Ieper was in disarray. Between the 13th Bn Canadian Infantry behind Poelkapelle and the 7e Zouaves at Boezinge were a few companies of the 1er Tirailleurs and 2e bis Zouaves.

Gaps measurable in kilometres had been opened up, but the Germans having taken the Pilkem Ridge and reached the canal called a halt to their advance and consolidated their positions.

Their senior commanders had badly underestimated the effect that the gas would have on the enemy and further troops were not available to press home the advantage. In proposing this attack their leading industrial chemist, Fritz Haber had foreseen the rout of the enemy and the total disorder that would ensue. The German High Command had failed to listen.

The surprise had been complete. Oh! there had been rumours about gas, prisoners had given the French full details, but the information seemed to be so accurate and detailed and the idea so unsupportable that any civilised nation would use such a weapon that the intelligence had been disregarded.

The following day the German Army announced to the world that it had made substantial gains and never used the word gas once.

And so a moments pause now occurred as the Germans established machine gun posts and wired their positions and the Allies brought up every reserve that they could find. With the Ypres Salient dreadfully exposed the British pressed the French for action.

 

Dr Fritz Haber – Nobel Prize winner

In his play Einstein’s Gift the Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen deals with the subject of this first gas attack, and his research into the background of his characters leads him to believe that Fritz Haber whilst responsible for putting the gas into operation had reservations about its use.

He was only in agreement about releasing the gas, if, General von Deimling used sufficient reserves in his assault to truly carry through the attack and sweep away all opposition. A fatal blow to the allied forces.

As the days events were to show von Deimling almost certainly missed a huge opportunity. The weapon would never again have the same element of surprise and the hand ringing that had been done over its acceptability in war had been in vain.

As an aside to this story, Fritz Haber was a brilliant chemist whose discovery of how to create ammonia synthetically made him the father of modern day fertilisers and resulted in his award of the Nobel Prize. A firm patriot, his research into ammonia also allowed the German arms industry to produce nitric acid: essential to the production of explosives and the continuation of the war.

Haber was a Jewish convert to Christianity and his first wife, a capable chemist in her own right, would commit suicide two weeks after the news that he had released the gas.

Following the end of the war Haber was prohibited from continuing much of his research. Ever the patriot he looked at recovering gold from sea water and when that proved unprofitable he turned his attentions towards pesticides. One such was known as Zyklon-B and would later be used by the Nazi Regime in their gas chambers, killing not just Jewish co-workers of Haber but also members of his extended family.

 


The race was now on for the Allies to fill the gap that had been created.