The Second Battle of Ypres

What was the Second Battle of Ypres? Why was it important?

The Second Battle of Ypres is commonly mentioned in the historical chronicles as the first case of gas usage on the Western front line. The clash between the German Army and the French unit of the Allied Front Line began on April 22, 1915, with the heavy rifle fire and shelling from the German side. As a part of the British Empire, Canada went to war with almost 35,000 of volunteers rushing to Britain’s aid. The Ypres Salient, which has become one of the most dangerous sites on the Western Front after the massive German assaults in October and November 1914, was chosen as a target of the German attack. Although this territory did not have profound military significance for the Allies, it was symbolically held as the last piece of Belgian domain which still belonged to them. After the crushing defeat of the French divisions of the Allies, the German gas attack spread towards the Canadian lines. After the bloody four days of constant fire and gas attacks and the loss of half their men, the Canadians were ordered out of the line. In spite of being untested and consisting mostly of volunteers, the Canadian First Division had helped to avert the serious Allied disaster by thwarting the direct threat of a determinative German breakthrough. While the battle itself was not entirely successful for the Germans, their introduction of poisonous gas provoked the further development of chemical weapons in its opponents.

Who introduced gas warfare and why? How effective was the use of gas on the battlefield?

The first German experiments with gas warfare were made during the first Battle of Neuve Chapelle in October 1914, and at Bolymov on the Eastern Front in January 1915. However, these attempts were not successful due to the failure of the chemical agents’ dispersion. The use of chlorine gas was suggested by the German chemist Fritz Haber, who was serving in the Army reserve at that time. According to Phifer, the gas was planned to be delivered through a system of compressed-air cylinders with exhaust pipes dug into the ground. In spite of the simplicity and efficiency of this delivery system, it did not explicitly violate the Hague Convention’s prohibition of the use of gas-loaded projectiles. A cloud of gas was expected to allow the two German corps to capture a rifle and to provide covering fire for the rest of the troops. By April 11, 1915, nearly 5,730 of those cylinders were placed in the trenches facing the northern sector. Phifer states that on April 22 at 5 pm, nearly 149,000 kilograms of greenish-yellow chlorine gas were discharged toward the French line. The desperate attempts of the French to escape from the gas have led to the opening of a four-mile-wide gap in the French lines. In general, the gas affected thousands of troops, half of which were dead within ten minutes of the gas emission toward the front line.

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Why did Canadian soldiers hate the Ross rifle? How did it perform during the 2nd Ypres?

In addition to the British ammunition, the Canadian soldiers were armed with the Ross rifles, which have proven completely worthless on the battlefield. The rifles’ jamming only after a few rounds has made the soldiers pound the bolts open with entrenching tools or the heels of their boots. Such kind of malfunction was noticed long before the occurrence of the Second Battle of Ypres. Up to the late 1890s, Canadian troops were armed with the British-manufactured Lee-Enfield rifles. However, the failure of the Canadian government to get the permission to produce this weapon locally has led to the entering into a contract with a Scotsman named Sir Charles Ross for the manufacture of the rifles which he had developed and named after himself. Phifer states that in comparison with the Lee-Enfield rifle, the Ross rifle functioned quite well up to a stress test during which the overcharged cartridges have made the rifle to jam. An additional endurance test has proven the rifle’s jamming after 300 rounds, which was explained by its developer as the one caused exclusively by British cartridges. In contrast with his opinion, a lot of Canadian soldiers considered that sending the army against the enemy with such kind of weapon is equal to sending them to death. According to Phifer, in spite of all the protests and complaints, the Ross rifle was replaced by Lee-Enfield only in September 1916.

How did the 2nd Ypres turn out?

The Second Battle of Ypres was planned by the Germans as a sustained attack aimed at taking control of the Ypres Salient. Although the experimental gas attack has proven to be very successful, the Germans did not thoroughly plan their actions in case of a favorable outcome. As a result, the underestimation of the Canadian Division has led to their loss of Kitchener’s Wood. For the Canadians, this fight can be considered as their first contribution to the war on the British side. After facing the attack of the deadly gas cloud, they quickly identified that the gas was chlorine and started taking necessary measures to protect themselves from being affected. A Canadian medical officer Captain Scrimger has asked the soldiers in his unit urinate onto their handkerchiefs and tie them around their mouths to make the chlorine crystallize before it would be breathed in. In spite of the poor planning of their attacks, the Canadians have proven the whole world of its capability of fighting in the war and defending their nation and allies. After the introduction of gas warfare, the Allies became aware of this kind of German weapon and started developing protective measures to become more or less ready for it.

What can the archaeology sites around Ypres tell us about the fighting on the Western Front?

At present, the historians need to study an enormous number of military documents and to conducts a number of diggings to get a better sense of the nature of the battle and the location of artifacts and human remains. For this purpose, a team of archaeologists headed by De Wilde started their work in the area of the notorious battlefield in 2002. After the comparison of military records and modern topographical maps, they have selected nine areas for excavation on the basis of their findings. In a site previously identified as The High Command Redoubt, the archaeologists revealed a system of trenches and machine-gun positions connected with substantial wooden structures. At the site familiar during the war as Turco Farm, the discoveries included a network of narrow trenches with duckboards, digging tools and a skeleton of a British soldier. According to Silberman, the excavation at Crossroads Farm has uncovered a lot of structural details and artifacts, comprising duckboards, a deep bunker, a wooden dugout, and the remains of five soldiers within the shell craters. All these remains and the location of trenches give the archaeologists an opportunity to observe in detail the expansion of the British and their approaching towards the German frontlines. The discovery of human remains on the site of the battle has only stressed the historical importance of this area. The equipment, uniform buttons, or personal possessions discovered with the remains made it possible to link them to a particular army, unit, or even individual. Subsequently, the remains were given over to the particular combatant nation that could bury the soldiers of its army with full military honors in national cemeteries.

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