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2nd Battle of Ypres

On April 22, 1915, the German 4th Army mounted a surprise attack against the Allies on the Western Front in Ypres, beginning the 2nd Battle at Ypres. They were hoping to divert Allied attention away from the Eastern Front, where it would make it easier on the Germans to fight the Russians.

Not only that, but it is very likely that the Germans were just dying to try out their new secret weapon: Chlorine Gas.

But the battle began as many others do, with a bombardment – in this case, with 17-in howitzers. But as it cleared away, the Germans did not advance as one might expect. Instead, a cloud of chlorine gas wafted down into the trenches. 168 tons of chlorine gas, released from 5,700 canisters, to be exact. This is not what they were expecting.

The gas alone took out two divisions of troops or about 10,000 troops. “The stunned Allied troops fled in panic towards Ypres, the heavy gas settling and clogging the trenches where it gathered” (Source). But it gets worse, because half of those 10,000 men died with 10 minutes, the men dying of asphyxiation. Those who didn’t die almost immediately were temporarily blinded, many of them becoming POWs.

Turned out, the Germans must not have expected the gas attack to work quite as well as it did, because they were so shocked by its effect that they failed to take advantage of their success. As a result, the Allies managed to hold their positions. After a mere three kilometers, the Germans were stopped by the British 2nd Army, under the command of General Smith-Dorrien. The day’s battle was finished, but the Germans were not.

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Two days later, they Germans launched another gas attack, this time against a Canadian division. After further bombardments, the Germans pushed forward, all the way towards Hill 60.

This time, however, the Germans endured heavily losses. The Canadians were backed up by British forces, who arrived on May 3rd. Even with the extra help, though, the Allies were pushed all the way back to Ypres, hence the second battle of Ypres. Actually, General Smith-Dorrien had suggested the withdrawal to Ypres, only to be relieved of his command and sent back to England by Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, Sir John French. Unfortunately for French, Dorrien’s replacement, General Herbert Plumer, pushed through the retreat.

This plan allowed the fighting to temporarily halt. But by May 8th, it had picked up once again. It continued on this way, in an on-and-off fashion, up until May 25, when the Second Battle of Ypres finally drew to a close. This was due to one last major German assault that forced that Allies to cede. Meanwhile, on the German side a serious lack of supplies and men forced the Germans to call off any further offensives.

Losses were heavy at Ypres, especially on the Allied side, thanks to the chlorine gas attacks. The Allies suffered as many as 69,000 deaths (59,000 of which were British), while the Germans suffered the loss of some 35,000 men. What did result, though, was the Allies developing their own chemical weapons. These chemical weapons meant a new form of warfare.


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The Battle of Neuve-Chapelle

The first major battle of 1915, the battle of Neuve-Chapelle was fought from March 10-13 between the British (with the Canadians and Indians) and the Germans. The idea for the attack came from Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief of the BEF. Initially, the attack was meant to only be part of a wider offensive in the Artois. However, the British troops fighting in Ypres were late, making Neuve-Chapelle a major battle, by it’s own right.

At any rate, French’s plan was to capture Aubers, pressing the Germans into Lille. This would, he hoped, reduce the German salient in Neuve-Chapelle (while severing German rail communications) and allow the British the ease some of the pressure the Germans were putting on the Russians. This would make it the first major attack of the Great War that was launched by the British. And according to the French and Russians, it was about time for the British to start pulling their weight.

At 8:05 on March 10th, the British First Army under the command of Sir Douglas Haig with “342 guns barraged the trenches for 35 minutes, partially directed by 85 reconnaissance aircraft flying overhead. The total number of shells fired during this barrage exceeded the number fired in the whole of the Boer War” (Source).

Following this, they opened up to attack the German trench lines across a 4,000-yard-long front. This one lasting a mere 30 minutes. The Battle of Neuve-Chapelle was significant for another reason, though. “The British employed aerial photography on a large scale for the first time at Neuve-Chapelle, precisely mapping out the enemy trench system to guide the bombardment and infantry advance” (Source).

Lest one think that the British alone did the firing, during this second half hour, in some areas, entire British units were taken out by German fire. Further back, because not one single Brit managed to come back, commanders actually believed their men had been successful. When in fact, just the opposite was true.

The Germans were putting up quite the fight, particularly that of the 11th Jäger Battalion, but the British were persistent. They continued to barrage the Germans to such an extent that it made it nearly impossible for them to advance successfully.

Nearly, that is because after 5 hours of fighting, the British had actually managed a significant advance. However, with no direct order coming from the rear, they were forced to stall.

And that was their downfall.

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Because during their stall, the Germans were busy bringing in reserves. By the time the British were ready to advance, they found more German strong points than they had expected. And this was just the beginning. Because lines had moved, making their previous intelligence useless, the British spent a great deal of time wasting precious shells on empty fields. Worse yet, a thick fog was beginning to roll in. Their progress was, at the least, going to be much slower than the previous day. Information was being poorly communicated, making it even harder for them to advance as a unit.

Because of all this, the 11th was pretty much wasted. But the British planned to attack again the next day. Of course, little did they know that the Germans were planning the same thing. And they beat the British.

As early as 4:30 in the morning, they began with an artillery bombardment, advancing their infantry a half hour later. But their advance was not nearly as successful as the British advance had been two days earlier. The British troops were well dug in and putting up quite the resistance. And then the British responded with their own attack. Though, a fairly uncoordinated one.

In fact, “the 2nd Scots Guard, having taken a German position, had to withdraw after being shelled by their own side” (Source). Nevertheless, the Allied forces made surprising advances.

Although their shelling on the 13th lasted barely two hours, they managed to take some of the land they had lost back in October 1914, “but further progress towards Aubers – which had escaped artillery bombardment, and where the front line wire was thus undamaged – proved impossible; of some 1,000 troops who attacked Aubers, none survived” (Source). Nevertheless, they managed to take some 1,200 German prisoners. The Battle of Neuve-Chappelle was over.

Both Allies and the Germans suffered some 11,2000 casualties on each side.

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The Battle of Mons (1914)

On August 23, 1914, Europe saw its first battle of WWI. This was the “first confrontation on European soil since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815” (Source).

Four divisions of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), under the command of Sir John French – as confusing as that is – battled against the German 1st Army “over the 60-foot-wide Mons Canal in Belgium” (Source). This was the last in a series of four battles known as the “Battles of the Frontiers” that took place in the opening days of WWI. Under the command of Gen. Joseph Jeffre, the French fought the first three of these battles in Lorraine, Ardennes, and Charleroi. Initially, the BEF and the French 5th Army were meant to fight together at Charleroi, all under the command of Charles Lanrezac. However, thanks to a delayed start – not to mention poor “relations” between the French and Lanrezac – it ended up as two separate battles at Charleroi and Mons (Source).

The day before the battle, the BEF encountered the German First Army at Soignies. French made immediate plans to attack. His plan was to have his five divisions take defensive positions at Mons Canal.

Even more surprised than French, was German Gen von Kluck. Von Kluck and his 1st Army had just finished battle at Sambre against Lanrezac.

Now remember, The BEF at Soignies comprised of only two corps (each with two infantry divisions) and one cavalry. This totaled some 70,000 troops with a mere 300 guns.

But the Germans? They had four corps and 3 cavalry divisions, comprising of 160,000 men and some 550 guns. It’s quite clear the superiority the Germans held. However, they didn’t make use of this superiority.

Van Kluck had previously been warned not to outflank the BEF because they were meant to meet up with a second Army.

So what did he do?

“On Sunday August 23, as church bells called the faithful to mass, a German cavalry patrol approached the canal: The British opened fire at dim shadows in the dawn mist. The battle of Mons had begun” (Source). German guns returned fire, focusing their aim on the “northernmost point of a salient formed by a loop in a canal,” realizing that the British position by the loop left the vulnerable (Source).

French responded to this artillery attack by deploying his two infantry troops – I Corps commanded by Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien and II Corps commanded by Sir Douglas Haig – “east and west of Mons across a forty kilometer front” (Source). They almost reached reserve French Fifth Army, who were eight miles away. 

[Below: Royal Fusiliers]

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The British underwent six hours of this bombing. But, their precise machine gun fire did do much to, at least, annoy the Germans. The British had one thing on their side, these men were experts.

Then the German infantry began to advance, “as though on parade for the Kaiser in Berlin” (Source). Led by Captain Walter Bloem, the 12th Brandenburg Grenadiers marched out of the woods, only to encounter a set-up of little British fortresses. It was here that they discovered the distinctive sound of machine guns. They had just happened upon the 1st Battalion Queen’s Own Royal West Kents. Turns out, they were the ones responsible for the damage!

At noon, the Germans were joined by more units. On top of more manpower, they’d since learned how to smartly fight the British: they rained “shells from cannons and howitzers” on the heads of their enemies (Source).

Between this change of tactics and their added men, it became clear that the British did not have a fighting chance. They were clearly outnumbered. The Royal Fusiliers at Nimy Bridge had the worst of it. “For two hours Private Sidney Godley single-handedly manned the machine-gun, despite shrapnel in his back and a bullet wound to his head. Both Dease and Godley were awarded the Victoria Cross, the supreme award for valor: the first VCs of the war” (Source).

Eventually, though, the Germans forced their way across the canal. The British were pushed further and further back, digging shallow trenches or firing through “loopholes” in walls; they stared up their fire again.

Then, to their great surprise, at 8 pm, the Germans called for a cease-fire.

Meanwhile, French received news of General Lanrezac and the Fifth Army’s retreat at Charleroi. This left the British in complete danger of German envelopment. Thus, French had no choice but to call for the retreat of his own men.

But, that evening von Kluck resumed the offensive. Realizing the true strength of the German First Army, French called for further retreat of Smith-Dorrien and Haig.

Moral plummeted with their retreat. Food, water, and rest were all in short supply. Many soldiers slept as they marched. “More field guns were abandoned than at any time since the War of Independence in America” (Source). Worse yet, some units even lost all sense of  unity and reason. “One officer was so spooked, he started firing his revolver at imaginary Germans in the street” (Source). All of this, and more, was the fault of their commander, Sir John French, and man wholly unfit to command.

While the British may have retreated, they still managed to hold back the Germans for an entire day. Back home, the battle reached mythic proportions, painting the lost lives as heroes. Over time, their loss became more of a victory. The truth, though, was that the battle only gave the Germans more confidence as they carried on their advance through Belgium. Before long, they would hold control over the industrial control of both nations: coal, iron ore, factories, railroads, and rivers.

Losses: British 1,600 casualties

German anywhere from 2,000-5,000 casualties (depending on who is estimating).

[Below: British in trenches]

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Up Next: First Battle of the Marne

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