22 April 1915 at 5pm: Gas!

From Before Endeavours Fade, by Rose E. B. Coombs, MBE (An After the Battle Publication).

[Steenstraat], lying amid the rich fields, was at the western end of the French line on April 22 1915. Their line ran eastwards to a point south of Poelcappelle where it joined the sector held by the Canadian Corps with the British 27th and 28th Divisions beyond them east of Zonnebeke and Polygon Wood.

April 22 had been a beautiful sunny day when, at about 5pm, a greenish-yellow cloud began to appear on either side of Langemark and slowly creep towards the French lines. Soon the whole four-mile length of the front held by the 87th and 45th (Algerian) Division was shrouded in the noxious cloud of chlorine gas. Within an hour the whole front had given way as the French and their colonial troops took the brunt of the unexpected horror which now hid their sector completely from view and they fell back to the canal [Ieperleekanaal]. The Canadians on their right were, at the outset, beyond the field of the gas, but as they went to fill in the gap they were drawn into it, falling back to St Julien.

This was the first day of over a month of bloody and confused fighting which became known as the Second Battle of Ypres, although it was a succession of battles in which the front lines ebbed and flowed. Fortunately, though, the Germans seem to have been as surprised by the success of the gas as the Allies, and didn’t exploit it to gain a major breakthrough.

Ruins in the Square, Ypres, May 1915. THE SECOND BATTLE OF YPRES, APRIL-MAY 1915 Ruins in the Square, Ypres, May 1915. THE SECOND BATTLE OF YPRES, APRIL-MAY 1915 (click on the image to see full size) © IWM (Q 56699)

This was a significant battle for the Canadian Army and nation and their role is justly celebrated, but this has rather the overshadowed the part played of the British regular 27th and 28th Divisions (not forgetting the other British divisions). Improvised from regular infantry battalions returned from distant imperial garrisons in late 1914 – such as 1/Suffolk from Khartoum – the 27th and 28th had only arrived on the Western Front in January and had suffered from the cold and wet. In the battle, 28th Division endured the highest casualty rate of any British or Dominion division: 15,533, of whom over 3,000 were killed. 27th Division suffered 7,263 casualties, nearly 2,000 more than the Canadian Division.

A British signaller in a dugout with the first issue of respirator at Ypres, May 1915. THE SECOND BATTLE OF YPRES, APRIL-MAY 1915 A British signaller in a dugout with the first issue of respirator at Ypres, May 1915. THE SECOND BATTLE OF YPRES, APRIL-MAY 1915 (click on the image to see full size) © IWM (Q 61600)

Brought up to strength after the battle, they endured heavy casualties again in the autumn’s ill-fated Battle of Loos. Then it was on to Salonika, via Egypt, and within a year they found themselves in the very different surroundings of the Struma valley, facing a very different enemy: the malarial mosquito.

The 3rd Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, from 85th Brigade, 28th Division marching past General Maurice Sarrail and other senior French and British officers during a divisional review near Salonika in April 1916. THE SALONIKA CAMPAIGN 1915-1918 The 3rd Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, from 85th Brigade, 28th Division marching past General Maurice Sarrail and other senior French and British officers during a divisional review near Salonika in April 1916. THE SALONIKA CAMPAIGN 1915-1918 (click on the image to see full size) © IWM (Q 31888)


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Author: SCS Web Editor

Robin Braysher joined the SCS in 2003 and soon after became editor of the Society's journal - 'The New Mosquito' - a role he held until 2008. He then became the Society's web editor, a role he seems unable to shake off. His 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. Opinions expressed in these posts are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Society.