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

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

100 Years Ago: Gas Attack at Ypres

The salient had been under fairly heavy shelling since 19 April, the German fire being directed mainly on roads and bridges north and east of Ypres. There was a lull during the afternoons, but soon after four o'clock the French front line on the north of the salient came under a violent bombardment, which gradually shifted to the Canadian sector. At five o'clock the Germans opened the valves of the gas cylinders for from six to eight minutes, releasing more than 160 tons of chlorine into a light northeast wind.
Canadian Official History

June 1915 Artist Conception of the Attack

Here is a  short description of  what followed in Ypres in 1915 by British reporter Philip Gibbs from his 1920 book Now It Can Be Told, which is a sort of memoir of his war years.

The city of Ypres was the capital of our battlefields in Flanders from the beginning to the end of the war, and the ground on which it stands, whether a new city rises there or its remnants of ruin stay as a memorial of dreadful things, will be forever haunted by the spirit of those men of ours who passed through its gates to fight in the fields beyond or to fall within its ramparts.

I went through Ypres so many times in early days and late days of the war that I think I could find my way about it blindfold, even now. I saw it first in March of 1915, before the battle when the Germans first used poison-gas and bombarded its choking people, and French and British soldiers, until the city fell into a chaos of masonry. On that first visit I found it scarred by shell--fire, and its great Cloth Hall was roofless and licked out by the flame of burning timbers, but most of the buildings were still standing and the shops were busy with customers in khaki, and in the Grande Place were many small booths served by the women and girls who sold picture post-cards and Flemish lace and fancy cakes and soap to British soldiers sauntering about without a thought of what might happen here in this city, so close to the enemy's lines, so close to his guns. I had tea in a bun-shop, crowded with young officers, who were served by two Flemish girls, buxom, smiling, glad of all the English money they were making.

Map Showing the Location of the Initial Gas Release

A few weeks later the devil came to Ypres. The first sign of his work was when a mass of French soldiers and colored troops, and English, Irish, Scottish, and Canadian soldiers came staggering through the Lille and Menin gates with panic in their look, and some foul spell upon them. They were gasping for breath, vomiting, falling into unconsciousness, and, as they lay, their lungs were struggling desperately against some stifling thing. A whitish cloud crept up to the gates of Ypres, with a sweet smell of violets, and women and girls smelled it and then gasped and lurched as they ran and fell. It was after that when shells came in hurricane flights over Ypres, smashing the houses and setting them on fire, until they toppled and fell inside themselves. Hundreds of civilians hid in their cellars, and many were buried there. Others crawled into a big drain-pipe--there were wounded women and children among them, and a young French interpreter, the Baron de Rosen, who tried to help them--and they stayed there three days and nights, in their vomit and excrement and blood, until the bombardment ceased. Ypres was a city of ruin, with a red fire in its heart where the Cloth Hall and cathedral smoldered below their broken arches and high ribs of masonry that had been their buttresses and towers.

When I went there two months later I saw Ypres as it stood through the years of the war that followed, changing only in the disintegration of its ruin as broken walls became more broken and fallen houses were raked into smaller fragments by new bombardments, for there was never a day for years in which Ypres was not shelled.

Sources:  Tony Langley Collection

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