Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Trial by Gas: The British Army at the Second Battle of Ypres
reviewed by David F. Beer


Trial by Gas: The British Army at the Second Battle of Ypres
by George H. Cassar
Potomac Books, 2014


Far, far from Ypre-es I long to be, 
Where German snipers can't get at me, 
Damp is my dug-out, cold are my feet, 
Waiting for whizz-bangs to send me to sleep.
(WWI soldiers' song)

If there was anywhere that resembled hell during WWI, the Ypres Salient surely would be it. Cassar's book makes this abundantly clear by its thorough description of the geographical nature of the Salient, the combatants' lives and deaths there, and what he labels as the "weapon of horror" — gas. He also looks closely at the military actions that took place in April and May of 1915 and thus gives us an unusually precise view of the Battle of St. Julien (1–4 May), the three movements of the Battle of Frezenberg Ridge (8–13 May), and the final Battle of Bellewaarde Ridge (24–25 May), which represented the last effort of the Germans to capture Ypres and throw the British out of the Salient.

Informational Kiosk at Langemarck
Cemetery Just South of the Gas
Release Point on 22 April 1915
Despite the German failure to gain control of the Salient, the successful British, Canadian, and French resistance might be considered little more than a Pyrrhic victory. The battles themselves, plus defending the highly vulnerable Salient from then on, cost at least 100,000 dead whose graves are marked by over 100 military cemeteries. Much of this cost might have been avoided if the British had early abandoned what was a rather useless projection into German lines and fallen back to a straighter and more easily defended front. Why didn't they? Both emotional and political factors came into play. Too much blood had soon been invested in the area, and, after all, Ypres was the sole town in Belgium that the Germans didn't control. Thus the Salient became a permanent and dreaded "open graveyard" for British troops.

Germany had experimented with liquid benzyl bromide, similar to tear gas, early in the war to no effect. Thus, despite the Hague treaties and considerable ethical revulsion, a much stronger agent, chlorine gas, was developed. This was lethal, but Dr. Fritz Haber, the scientist responsible for its development, justified its use with the argument that it would save lives by bringing the war to a faster end. This gas would initially cause breathing problems and burning in the eyes, nose, and throat, but longer exposure would destroy the lungs and cause a hideous death (graphically described in Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce et Decorum Est"). And this is what the Germans let loose on Thursday 22 April.

We learn much in this book about the development and delivery of gas as a terrifying weapon, plus a lot about the initially feeble methods used to counteract it. (Handkerchiefs soaked in urine didn't help much.) Frightening as it was, however, and ghastly as the wounds and deaths caused by it were, gas was never to become the decisive factor in the war that Haber had imagined. However, this book gives us a vivid account of the first use of gas and how its victims suffered, and these images hover threateningly in the air and in our minds as we then read Cassar's accounts of the fighting that ensued before the Second Battle of Ypres concluded a few weeks later.

A considerable amount of Cassar's text consists of minutely described actions during Second Ypres. For instance 34 pages are devoted to one day of the fighting at Frezenberg Ridge on 8 May. Thirty pages describe the actions involving the withdrawal and close of the Battle of St. Julien, 1–4 May. Divisions, brigades, regiments, battalions, and companies are all meticulously identified, and the part each played in the action is recounted. Names of officers and men frequently appear, and supporting excerpts from letters and diaries bring personal immediacy to events.

Site of Kitchener Wood Near St. Julien Where Canadian Forces 
Plugged the Gap the Night of 22–23 April

Much of what transpired during these few weeks was to be typical of the conduct of the war in general: the ill-advised charges into the face of overwhelming artillery, the prodigal waste of life in shocking numbers, the sacrificing of partially trained troops, the hardship of trench life, and the pain and cries emanating from no-man's-land-all haunted by the possibility of the death-dealing gas wafting in.


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Trial by Gas is an interesting and detailed read, well supported by a solid bibliography and notes. Only the quality of the maps lets the book down — they are too sketchy, much in them is too miniscule to read easily, and they are often lacking information one would like to have. Also, no scale for the maps is given — to an innocent beginner, the Salient could stretch across five, 50, or 500 miles. Nevertheless, by the end of the book we have come to a considerable understanding of the Second Battle of Ypres, which, as the author states,

. . .
was not a major engagement like the Somme or Passchendaele in terms of duration, losses, and units involved, but neither was it a minor affair…Second Ypres was, for its size, one of the most murderous battles of the war. Indeed no battle in 1915 was bloodier, fought under harsher conditions, or, for that matter, more pivotal
(p. 253).

David F. Beer

6 comments:

  1. Bravo. Reading about incompetence as well as savagery in this war is frustrating. No armchair quarter-backing on my part. The signs are obvious. I look forward to using this work as a reference. Cheers

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  2. Is there a German ORBAT?

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  3. Great review, David, for what sounds like a fine contribution to the Western Front literature.

    Too bad about the maps. Map quality is becoming increasingly important to me as I read and review.

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  4. An interesting review but not entirely accurate. Chlorine was not "developed" it was an easily available industrial gas, as were Phosgene and Di-Phosgene (The British discovered a moribund factory in France which produced both and promptly started 24/7 production). On the German side Haber had been and made head of the Chemistry Section in the Ministry of War soon after the war began, so had plenty of time to examine those gasses already in production for German industry which would be suitable for weaponisation. The allied failure during the battle after the French territorials and Turcos had broken, was one of poor command and control combined with criminal shortages of guns and ammunition to fire from them. Neither staffs or units were trained. The German failure was they simply did not believe Haber would succeed and had not brought up reserves to exploit any success.(See Gen D'Oyley Snow's recently published diaries for 1915).

    Remarks along the lines of 1915 setting a pattern as in "Much of what transpired during these few weeks was to be typical of the conduct of the war in general" simply do not stand up to scrutiny. Gas warfare is just one of many examples where both sides learned fast how to minimise fight better. That the Allies would learn quicker then the German army would become clear during the 2nd Battle of The Marn and subsequent destruction of the German Field Army on the Western Front in the last hundred days of the war.

    Casualties. 1915 was not a good year for the BEF. The official figures give casualties of 61,712 for Loos and 59,275 for 2nd Ypres, an almost insignificant difference, but losses at Loos were larger than those at 2nd Ypres. Overall BEF casualties for 1915 were 285,107. Untrained men and the necessity to undertake attritional operations made heavy casualties unavoidable.

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  5. Sorry, but what I got, I got from the book. Have you read the book? Cheers, David B.

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  6. This is another excellent review, David. The use of gas in the war has been one of my points of interest for several years, and I will have to read this book now. Can you imagine what that must have been like to be surrounded by toxic gas, especially before the development of the small box respirator?

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