Gas! 22 April 1915

Thursday, 22 April, was a beautiful spring day: warm, sunny, with a faint breeze. German guns shelled French and Canadian trenches throughout the morning but fell silent in the afternoon. The brief period of peace suddenly ended at 4:00 p.m. when the Germans unleashed a violent bombardment, first on the salient and then gradually extending to nearby roads and Ypres, turning the town into a flaming inferno and causing its citizens to flee. An hour later an ominous greenish-yellow wall of fumes was seen drifting slowly across no-man’s-land toward the French line.

Cassar, G.H. (2014), Trial By Gas – The British Army at the Second Battle of Ypres; Potomac Press, University of Nebraska Press.

So began the Second Battle of Ypres, which saw the first use of poison gas and a month of bitter fighting to hold the line. Whilst not directly related to Salonika, I mention it because key in holding the British line – and I mean no disrespect to the Canadians who are much celebrated for their role in the battle – were the British 27th and 28th Divisions. A year later, after a bloody time in the autumn Battle of Loos, the two divisions would be defending the ‘Birdcage’ before moving up country to face the very different challenges of the Struma valley: mosquitoes and Johnny Bulgar!

I suppose 1915 is rather overlooked because of the momentous events in the previous and following years and being seen as a year in which not much happened. And Second Ypres tends to be overshadowed by events just three days later – yes, Gallipoli, I’m looking at you! But the battle and the sacrifices of the Allies, in particular the British Second Army deserve to be remembered. 28th Division suffered over 15,000 casualties – the most of any British or Canadian division – and 27th Division, over 7,000.

The book quoted from earlier contains this dedication by George H. Cassar:

To the memory of the men in the Second British Army who fought and laid down their lives in one of the most notorious and dreaded places in the Great War.

Ruins in the Square, Ypres, May 1915. © IWM Q 56699

Author: Robin B

Robin's interest in the campaign comes from his grandfather, Fred, who served as a cyclist with the BSF from 1915 to 1917, mainly in the Struma valley. Robin joined the SCS in 2003 and served on the committee for 18 years as journal and web editor. Opinions expressed in these posts are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Society.

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