The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 179th installment in the series.
April 22, 1915: Gas Attack at Ypres
At 5pm on April 22, 1915, following a German artillery bombardment, French soldiers holding the northern face of the Ypres salient saw a greenish-yellow cloud drifting towards them from the enemy trenches along a roughly four-mile-long stretch of the front.
As the cloud reached their positions the soldiers — mostly middle-aged militia volunteers in the 87th Territorial Division and North African colonial troops in the Algerian 45th Division — began coughing violently and gasping for air, tears and mucus streaming down their faces, their lungs burning, accompanied by retching and dry heaving. Tearing at their own throats and coughing up blood, some sought refuge at the bottom of their trenches but merely hurried to their doom, as chlorine gas is heavier than air.
Unsurprisingly, after a few minutes of this the French soldiers fled their trenches in terror. Harold Peat, a Canadian private in reserve in the eastern part of the salient, witnessed the first moments of this new horror in war:
In the far distance we saw a cloud rise as though from the earth. It was a greeny-red color, and increased in volume as it rolled forward. It was like a mist rising, and yet it hugged the ground, rose five or six feet, and penetrated to every crevice and dip in the ground. We could not tell what it was. Suddenly from out the mist we men in reserves saw movement. Coming towards us, running as though Hell as it really was had been let loose behind them, were the black troops from Northern Africa. Poor devils, I do not blame them. It was enough to make any man run.
Another Canadian soldier in the front line, Reginald Grant, painted a similar picture:
The line trembled from one end to the other, as the Algerian troops immediately on our left, jumped out of their trenches, falling as they ran. The whole thing seemed absolutely incomprehensible until I got a whiff of the gas. They ran like men possessed, gasping, choking, blinded and dropping with suffocation. They could hardly be blamed... The buttons on our uniforms were tinged yellow and green from the gas, so virulent was the poison.
The gas attack marked the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres, which would last until May 25, 1915, and like the First Battle of Ypres include several distinct phases, each a battle in its own right: the Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge from April 22-23; the Battle of St. Julien from April 24-May 4; the Battle of Frezenberg Ridge from May 8-13; and the Battle of Bellewaarde Ridge from May 24-25. Over this period the Allies suffered around 70,000 killed, wounded, and missing in action, while the Germans lost about half that number.
Ypres is located at the bottom of a shallow basin, surrounded by plains gently rising to a semicircle of low hills to the north, east, and south, dotted with forests, lakes, and villages. As the names of the individual battles indicate, the Second Battle of Ypres was largely a struggle for control of some of these hills, as well as the village of St. Julien a few miles northeast of Ypres.
Short on shells and looking for a new way to soften up enemy defenses, on the advice of the chemist Fritz Haber the Germans brought up thousands of cylinders of chlorine gas, which was released over the top of the trenches by long tubes (image below), relying on the wind to carry it over the enemy lines. The Allies had received reports about these plans in early April but dismissed them as psychological warfare or rumors.
By the end of the first day the chlorine gas had killed around 6,000 French soldiers and sent the rest fleeing for safety, leaving a four-mile-wide gap in the Allied line, with no defenders standing between the Germans and Ypres. From here a concerted German push might have unraveled the whole Western Front, clearing the way to the French ports on the English Channel and thus cutting off British supplies the elusive goal of the First Battle of Ypres.
Unsure how effective the new weapon really was, as dusk approached the German 46th Reserve, 51st Reserve, and 52nd Reserve Divisions emerged from their trenches and cautiously advanced behind the deadly cloud — then were stunned to find the French trenches completely abandoned, or filled with dead and dying soldiers, the latter incapacitated by the gas. By nightfall the Germans had pushed forward about three miles, reaching the village of Gravenstafel and taking a nearby ridge. To the south they advanced within two miles of Ypres now transformed into an inferno by their bombardment.
Ypres in Flames
The burning city lit up the night sky for miles around, providing a spectacular backdrop to the brutal battle unfolding on its outskirts. William Robinson, an American volunteer driver with the British Expeditionary Force, described Ypres under shellfire: "It seemed as though the whole city was being torn from its very foundations, so terrible was the din. Wagons, horses, autos, bicycles, were piled up everywhere. Men, women, and children, soldiers and civilians, were lying dead and dying in every street." Peat recalled the scene as viewed from outside the city:
The night of April twenty-second is one that I can never forget. It was frightful, yes. Yet there was a grandeur in the appalling intensity of living, and the appalling intensity of death as it surrounded us. The German shells rose and burst behind us. They made the Yser Canal a stream of molten glory. Shells fell in the city, and split the darkness of the heavens in the early night hours. Later the moon rose in a splendor of spring-time. Straight behind the tower of the great cathedral it rose and shone down on a bloody earth. Suddenly the grand old Cloth Hall burst into flames. The spikes of fire rose and fell and rose again. Showers of sparks went upward. A pall of smoke would form and cloud the moon, waver, break and pass. There was the mutter and rumble and roar of great guns. There was the groan of wounded and the gasp of dying. It was glorious. It was terrible. It was inspiring. Through an inferno of destruction and death, of murder and horror, we lived because we must.
Canadians Save the Day
The poison gas had punched a huge hole in the Allied line but it wasn't totally abandoned: to the east the neighboring trenches were still held by the Canadian First Division, who saw the Germans advancing virtually unopposed on their left flank and sprang into action. Indeed these mostly untried soldiers made one of the most desperate and gallant defenses of the whole war, extending their line west to fill the gap and holding off an enemy force many times larger than themselves through sheer stubbornness and endurance.
The Canadians were aided by the quick thinking of a chemist, Lieutenant Colonel George Nasmith, and a medical officer, Captain Francis Alexander Scrimger, who deduced that the Germans were using chlorine gas and improvised a simple, if disgusting, countermeasure: they advised the men to hold handkerchiefs soaked in urine over their noses and mouths, because the ammonia in the urine would help neutralize the chlorine. On the other hand they also had to contend with the defective Ross rifle, notorious for jamming when it heated up from repeat firing.
Armed with these makeshift gasmasks and faulty rifles, the Canadians on the left end of the line hurled themselves at the advancing Germans at Gravenstafel. Because the phone lines had been cut by the German bombardment the officers on the scene had no idea where their French allies were or how many enemy troops they were facing, which may explain their decision to attack an enemy force of over 10,000 men with just 1,500 men supported by field artillery. Incredibly, it worked: at 11:45pm the battalion of Canadian Highlanders stormed the Germans hastily dug trenches in nearby Kitchener's Wood, a forest about two miles northeast of Ypres, and sent the surprised enemy reeling back. Predictably the Highlanders suffered huge numbers of casualties in this savage combat. One soldier recalled:
Pressing on in the wood the struggle became a dreadful hand-to-hand conflict; we fought in clumps and batches, and the living struggled over the bodies of the dead and dying. At the height of the conflict, while we were steadily driving the Germans before us, the moon burst out The clashing bayonets flashed like quicksilver, and faces were lit up as by limelight.
The Canadian Highlanders had lost about two thirds of their original force, but they halted the German advance long enough for more troops from the First Canadian Division to join the fight. At 5:45am the Canadian 1st and 4th Battalions attacked the German defenses on Mauser's Ridge west of Kitchener's Wood, once again crossing mostly open ground in front of vigilant enemy troops, now well entrenched. The result was a bloodbath, as the Germans opened up on the advancing Canadians with field artillery, machine guns and massed rifle fire. But the Canadians dug in and more British troops were arriving as the Allied commanders scrambled to close the gap in their lines. One Canadian officer, Frederic Curry, described the surreal scene as the reserves raced to take up their positions:
As we continued northward the throbbing of distant gunfire became plainer, and a strange flickering could be seen in the morning sky. This strange light, caused by the flash of the guns and the flares or illuminating fuzees shot up by the infantry, resembled nothing so much as our own Aurora Borealis, and we were not surprised to find, a little later, that our men had already nicknamed them the "Northern Lights."
The Canadians had succeeded in blunting the enemy offensive by sheer bluff, as their audacious counterattacks deceived the Germans into thinking they faced more Allied troops than they really did. By noon on April 23 the Allied defensive line was reforming but there were a mere ten Canadian battalions facing over 50 German battalions.
Nonetheless British Expeditionary Force commander Sir John French now ordered another attack on Mauser's Ridge north of Ypres on the afternoon of April 23. This turned out to be completely futile, as the British artillery bombardment alerted the Germans to the coming assault (before running out of ammunition at the critical moment), while promised support from neighboring French units failed to materialize. Once again the casualty list was huge. Peat recalled the huge losses inflicted by German machine guns and rifles as the Canadians advanced over open ground: "Out of the seven hundred and fifty of us who advanced, a little over two hundred and fifty gained the German trench; and of that number twenty-five or more fell dead as soon as they reached the enemy." After this attack failed, the exhausted British troops dug in, scrounged for food, and tried to get some sleep. But the battle was only beginning.
The British were about to get their own taste of gas. On April 24 around 4am the Germans unleashed another cloud of chlorine gas against the First Canadian Division and British 28th Division holding the line around the village of St. Julien. The Canadians and British tried to use handkerchiefs soaked in urine as before, but the chlorine gas was too concentrated this time.
Now Canadian and British soldiers could witness the effects of chlorine gas up close. Even before the gas reached their trenches its impact was all too clear, according to a Canadian officer, J.A. Currie, who observed "the deadly wall of chlorine gas which rolled slowly over the ground turning the budding leaves of the trees, the spring flowers and the grass a sickly white." When it hit the trenches it could drive men mad, according to a Scottish officer, Patrick McCoy, who left a vivid description of a gas attack around this time:
I saw one man near me turn a sickly greenish-yellow... His eyes began to bulge from his head; froth filled his mouth and hung from his lips. He began tearing at his throat. The air wouldn't go into his lungs. He fell and rolled over and over, gasping and crying out while with his nails he tore open his throat, even wrenched out his windpipe. Then his chest heaved a time or two, and he lay still. Death had brought its blessed relief.
Death wasn't always instantaneous, however. Curry later saw gas casualties slowly dying at a field hospital, beyond any medical care: "Reeking with chlorine, their faces a livid purple or an even ghastlier green, they lay there on the stretchers, each with a little bowl beside him, coughing his life away." Many observers remarked on the strange colors of gas victims skin. A British officer, Bruce Bairnsfather, remembered: "Poor fellows, their features were distorted and their faces livid. Blood-tainted froth clung to their lips. Their skins were mottled blue and white. They were a heartbreaking sight to behold." However some soldiers who received a mild dose of gas were able to recover (below, British troops who were gassed at Ypres).
The Allies were already learning strategies to deal with poison gas. At St. Julien, for example, some men managed to avoid the worst effects by standing up on top of the trench parapet, correctly assuming the Germans would hang back far behind the gas cloud, the distance making it harder to hit their targets; they then returned to the trench once the cloud had passed. So the gas failed to force the Canadians to retreat, and this time around the advancing Germans were surprised to encounter a hail of bullets from machine guns and rifles as they approached the enemy trenches (the Canadian troops had to form teams to load their maddeningly uncooperative Ross rifles). Currie described the carnage: "The men waited till the Germans emerged from their trenches three or four deep to charge. Then our whistles blew, and hundreds of them were cut down and piled on top of each other before they broke and ran back to their trenches. One machine gun got about 200 of them." However the Germans now resorted to huge artillery bombardments followed by a massive infantry attack and eventually forced the Canadians to withdraw, giving up St. Julien shortly after noon on April 24. With some Canadian brigades in danger of being surrounded, the German bombardment continued into the night, according to Currie:
As the night closed down the heavens were lit with the German flares and the lurid flashes from their guns. The German flares crossed each other in the heavens behind us. In our left rear, and all around to the right rear, I could see the angry red flashes of the thousands of guns they were directing against our devoted defenders. Almost every calibre of gun was being used against us, from the great seventeen inch Austrian siege mortars they were firing at Ypres and Poperinghe behind us, to the nine, seven, six, five, four and three-inch high explosive shells that were filling the air with their fiendish notes.
Over the next two days the Canadians formed a new defensive line and mounted a series of counterattacks aiming to drive the Germans out of St. Julien, briefly succeeding in capturing some German trenches, but suffered so many casualties that they were unable to hold the positions. A gap remained on the Canadian left, where the Germans had pushed past St. Julien, threatening a breakthrough. On April 24-25 massive German assaults around the village again forced the Canadians make strategic withdrawals while waiting for desperately needed British reinforcements. Bairnsfather, one of the reinforcements, remembered marching to their relief in miserable weather:
We were marching in pouring rain and darkness down a muddy, mangled road, shattered poplar trees sticking up in black streaks on either side. Crash after crash, shells were falling and exploding all around us, and behind the burning city. The road took a turn. We marched for a short time parallel to now distant Ypres. Through the charred skeleton wrecks of houses one caught glimpses of the yellow flames mounting to the sky. We passed over the Yser Canal, dirty, dark and stagnant, reflecting the yellow glow of the flames. On our left was a church and graveyard, both blown to a thousand pieces. Tombstones lying about and sticking up at odd angles all over the torn-up ground. I guided my section a little to one side to avoid a dead horse lying across the road. The noise of shrapnel bursting about us only ceased occasionally, making way for ghastly, ominous silences. And the rain kept pouring down.
When they arrived Bairnsfather's unit was plunged directly into battle:
Bullets were flying through the air in all directions. Ahead, in the semi-darkness, I could just see the forms of men running out into the fields on either side of the road in extended order, and beyond them a continuous heavy crackling of rifle-fire showed me the main direction of the attack. The German machine guns were now busy, and sent sprays of bullets flicking up the ground all round us. Lying behind a slight fold in the ground we saw them whisking through the grass, three or four inches over our heads.
By April 25 British troops had relieved the beleaguered Canadians, now down to a fraction of their original strength, and once again established a more or less coherent defensive line. But the Germans still held a huge chunk of formerly Allied territory in the salient, and continued pressing their attacks. On April 26-27 ambitious counterattacks by French troops and fresh troops from the Indian Lahore Division failed utterly because the French didn't commit enough men to the attack; the Indian troops charged bravely but the attack was shattered by German firepower. In a fit of pique, BEF commander Sir John French took out his frustration on General Horace Smith-Dorrien, who was in charge of the operation, by relieving him of command but the simple fact was two colonial divisions were practically destroyed, and the BEF had no choice but to withdraw to a new, shorter line outside Ypres.
Needless to say public opinion in Allied countries was outraged by Germanys use of poison gas, banned by the Hague conventions of the previous two decades. After massacres of Belgian civilians, the burning of Louvain and the Cathedral of Reims, the bombardment of British cities from the sea and air, and unrestricted U-boat warfare, the decision to employ poison gas seemed to be the final proof of German barbarism and frightfulness.
However there was also general recognition that now the Allies would have to employ the shocking new weapon as well, or risk defeat. The British, French, and Russian governments immediately put scientists to work researching chemical weapons of their own. On April 25, an anonymous British nurse wrote a sardonic entry in her diary: "The beasts of Germans laid out a whole trench full of Zouaves with chlorine gas. Of course every one is busy finding out how we can go one better now." A German officer made the same prediction: "Of course, the entire world will rage about it first and then imitate us."
By this time military and medical authorities were beginning to notice a troubling phenomenon, as seemingly fit young men without visible injuries were incapacitated by what appeared to be a paralyzing nervous disorder. As more and more cases were observed, it became known as shellshock. At first the general inclination was to brand soldiers suffering from shellshock as cowards and punish them with courts martial followed by prison or even execution. However these attitudes softened somewhat when it became clear the mental illness was profound and involuntary; it would later be clinically described as post-traumatic stress disorder. One German psychiatrist described a soldier who had been buried alive for two hours on May 3, 1915:
When admitted to hospital, B. was completely disorientated and confused and motorically very restless. B. is terrified by every noise, when brought to this ward, he started whining and screaming. Lying in his bed he was apparently still frightened, he crept under the duvet as if looking for cover against shells. During the night, B. was very restless and nervous, he was screaming and crying, pushing his way out of bed, hiding away and trying to leave the room. According to his wife's statement, B. has always been a quiet, sensible and industrious person without any psychotic attitudes whatsoever.
Two weeks later the same British nursing sister noted in her diary: "Just admitted a gunner suffering from shock alone — no wound —completely knocked out; he can't tell you his name, or stand, or even sit up, but just shivers and shudders." And around this time an Englishwoman, Helen Mackay, volunteering as a nurse in a French hospital, described several of her patients:
The number 18 is very bad. He does not know any one any more. He lies against a heap of cushions, his knees drawn up almost to his chin, his eyes wide open all the time, his hands picking at the covers... There is a boy who talks about riding over everything. He keeps saying, "We rode right over them, we rode right over them." There is another who keeps crying, "Oh, no, not that! Oh, no, not that!"
The mental illness was perhaps most perplexing and infuriating to the afflicted soldiers themselves. In January 1915 a German soldier, Franz Mller, wrote home from a military hospital:
Due to the huge exertions of the last three days in particular, when our trench was literally turned upside down by heavy enemy artillery, I have developed a mental disease. I am up for just a few hours a day, for this bloody illness has affected my innocent legs. The pain and paralysis in my legs and in my right arm make it very difficult to move. Just imagine the giant of 92 kg trudging along like a crab between beds, chairs, and tables. It is utter mockery!
Unfortunately shellshock could be triggered by loud sounds and especially explosions, which were of course inescapable on the Western Front, even at military hospitals miles behind the lines. Edward Casey, an Irish soldier in the British Army, recalled his own bout with shellshock:
... still the sound of guns firing [could be heard]. Off I went again. I was told that I jumped out of bed and tried to get out of the window, but I felt strong hands around my shoulders [and] I felt a prick in my arm, and [fell into a deep] sleep again. I was told by the Doctor that for some weeks I lay in a state of shock. I had lost my memory, did not know who I was [or] what Regiment I belonged to. I had nightmares, and one night I walked out of the ward door, went to the yard (it was freezing night) [and] I climbed the gutter pipe... I was very worried at the thought of being confined to a mad House.