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