Nothing is more dangerous than a cornered animal. Desperation kicks in and lends an aggression and ferocity it might not otherwise possess. Though humans are far more sophisticated, we are not immune to the effects of desperation; neither are nations.
In the spring of 1915, Germany was desperate. Their brilliant and audacious plan to quickly knock the French out of the war was an utter failure. On the Western Front they faced a deadlock with no discernable way to break it. In the east: the Russians had just captured the strategically important city of Przemyśl and defeated the Austro-Hungarians—theoretically Germany’s most reliable ally. Each day, the Chief of the German General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, received new messages from the Austro-Hungarians pleading for German military aid in the east, coupled with direct threats that failure to provide these reinforcements would leave the Austro-Hungarians with no alternative than to sue for peace.
Germany could ill-afford to peel troops off of the embattled Western Front to send them east, but the prospect of losing their biggest ally was unthinkable. Germany felt cornered, and like all cornered creatures, she did what might have otherwise been impossible. In an effort to cover the redeployment of thousands of troops to the Eastern front, the German Army was about to unleash a new weapon. The blow would fall on the allied soldiers surrounding the small Belgian town of Ypres.
The town itself, including its 500 year old “cloth hall” was partially demolished from the fighting in late 1914, and was encircled on three sides by German trenches. The allied line was held by British, Canadian, and French troops who faced their partial encirclement with the kind of dogged resignation that one can find in most militaries. Even so, many of the towns stubborn residents had decided to remain in their homes rather than submit to the uncertain life of a refugee. British War correspondent Philip Gibbs describes Ypres in early 1915 as a battered, but vibrant community. He wrote:
“On that first visit I found [Ypres] scarred by shell-fire, and its great Cloth Hall was roofless and licked out by the flame of burning timbers, but most of the buildings were still standing and the shops were busy with customers in khaki, and in the Grande Place were many small booths served by the women and girls who sold picture post-cards and Flemish lace and fancy cakes and soap to British soldiers sauntering about without a thought of what might happen here in this city, so close to the enemy’s lines, so close to his guns. I had tea in a bun-shop, crowded with young officers, who were served by two Flemish girls, buxom, smiling, glad of all the English money they were making.” (1)
The town would remain relatively quiet until April 22nd 1915. By all accounts it was a beautiful day. The sun shone brightly, banishing the last traces of winter from the spring air, and the German gunners seemed to be asleep—not a single shell landed in Ypres all morning and all afternoon. However, this tranquility was not to last. Anthony R. Hossack of the Queen Victoria Rifles recounts:
“As the sun was beginning to sink, this peaceful atmosphere was shattered by the noise of heavy shell-fire coming from the north-west, which increased every minute in volume, while a mile away on our right a 42-cm shell burst in the heart of the stricken city of Ypres.
“As we gazed in the direction of the bombardment, where our line joined the French, six miles away, we could see in the failing light the flash of shrapnel with here and there the light of a rocket. But more curious than anything was a low cloud of yellow-grey smoke or vapour, and, underlying everything, a dull confused murmuring,
“Suddenly down the road from the Yser Canal came a galloping team of horses, the riders goading on their mounts in a frenzied way; then another and another, till the road became a seething mass with a pall of dust over all.
“Plainly something terrible was happening. What was it? Officers, and Staff officers too, stood gazing at the scene, awestruck and dumbfounded; for in the northerly breeze there came a pungent nauseating smell that tickled the throat and made our eyes smart. The horses and men were still pouring down the road … while over the fields streamed mobs of infantry, the dusky warriors of French Africa; away went their rifles, equipment, even their tunics that they might run the faster. One man came stumbling through our lines. An officer of ours held him up with levelled revolver, ‘What’s the matter, you bloody lot of cowards?’ says he. The Zouave [French Light Infantryman] was frothing at the mouth, his eyes started from their sockets, and he fell writhing at the officer’s feet.” (2)
At approximately 5:00 pm, after a preliminary artillery barrage, the German army took the lids off of hundreds of cylinders of Chlorine gas, which had been carefully buried in front of their trenches over the course of weeks. The wind then wafted 160 tons of the deadly gas slowly and ominously towards the allied lines. It looked to those on the receiving end like a long greenish-yellow cloud moving just a bit slower than one could walk. At first the soldiers stared in confusion; they didn’t know what they were looking at.
The French-Algerian troops to the left of the Canadians got the worst of it. The cloud completely enveloped their lines, and threw them into a panic. Chlorine gas reacts with water, becoming hydrochloric acid whenever it contacts moisture in the eyes and lungs. Those caught in the toxic fume clawed desperately at their throats; coughing and struggling for breath, some fled into machine gun and artillery fire in a mad search for escape. Private William Quinton from the 1st Bedfordshire Regiment described the terror of the moment:
“Suddenly, through the communication trench came rushing a few khaki-clad figures. Their eyes glaring out of their heads, their hands tearing at their throats, they came on. Some stumbled and fell, and lay writhing in the bottom of the trench, choking and gasping, whilst those following trampled over them. If ever men were raving mad with terror, these men were… We caught our first whiff of [gas]: no words of mine can ever describe my feelings as we inhaled the first mouthful. We choked, spit, and coughed, my lungs felt as though they were being burnt out, and were going to burst. Red hot needles were being thrust into my eyes. The first impulse was to run. We had just seen men running to certain death, and knew it, rather than stay and be choked into a slow and agonizing death. It was one of those occasions when you do not know what you are doing. The man who stayed was no braver than the man who ran away. We crouched there, terrified, stupefied.” (3)
The German infantry, who had followed cautiously behind the wafting cloud, found the French trenches completely abandoned. They had managed to tear a 12 km gap in the allied line without losing a man. Startled by their success, the Germans poured troops into the gap in an effort to exploit the advantage they had won. The Canadians were completely exposed on their left flank, and were now in serious danger of being surrounded and destroyed. It was their turn to be desperate.
To be continued…
1. Philip Gibbs, Now It Can Be Told (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1920), 88.
2. Anthony R. Hossack, in The Mammoth Book of Eyewitness World War I, Jon E. Lewis, ed. (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003), 86.
3. William Quinton, in The Great War: 1914 – 1918, Peter Hart (London: Profile Book Ltd, 2013).
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