Monday, March 23, 2020

“Gas! The Battle for Ypres 1915” by McWilliams and Steel

In 1914, Ypres was a small city in western Belgium, not far from the French border and the North Sea. It had a long history of at least two thousand years; the Romans raided it in the first century B.C. Surrounded by several small villages. The city was known for its production of cloth and especially linen; one of the most imposing structures in Ypres was the Cloth Hall. 

The came World War I. Ypres found itself the focal point of two battles, the first in the fall of 1914 and the second in April of 1915. Technically, the second battle extended into May with additional engagements, but the intense period was April 25-27. 

This second battle became famous for many things, including the first time a colonial army (the Canadian) ever stopped a European army (the German) on European soil. But it is best known for how it started – with the use of chlorine gas by the German army, attempting to break through the Allied lines of defense. Against almost overwhelming odds and chemical warfare (the Germans ignored the Geneva ban), the Canadian, French, and British troops first gave and then regained their ground. Like so many other battles on the Western Front during the war, it subsided into stalemate.

First published in 1985, Gas! The Battle for Ypres 1915 by J.L. McWilliams and R. James Steel tells the story of the Second Battle of Ypres. And it tells the story almost hour by hour, from the first plans by the Germans to the eventual end. 

It’s a thrilling, fascinating account.

  • The Germans would come close but never quite manage to capture the city of Ypres itself. They did do their best, however, to shell it into destruction. 
  • Both the British and the French had first-hand reports, from German deserters and spies, that the Germans were preparing to use gas. Disbelief and incompetence prevented the knowledge from being acted upon. 
  • German commanders had no reluctance to use the gas to force a breakthrough. They also had no reluctance to send their own troops too soon into the dissipating clouds. So eager and desperate they were to break their stalled plans to drive to the sea.
  • The top commands of the Allied armies were already demonstrating the prodigious incompetence they became known for. Located far to the rear of the fighting and in relative luxury, the generals and their staffs rarely grasped the reality of what was happening during the actual battle. 

Allied soldiers blinded by the chlorine gas
The use of gas would backfire on the Germans, and in two ways. First, the Germans had to wait for a countervailing wind; normally, the winds in the area blew west to east. Second, using the gas freed the Allies from any ethical constraints on their own use of poison gas, and they had the advantage of the prevailing wind direction. Over the course of the war, more German troops would be afflicted with poison gas than what was attempted on the Allies. The Germans had tipped their hand too early and in too an unfavorable position.

McWilliams and Steel are also the authors of The Suicide Battalion: One Remarkable Battalion’s Journey Through the First World War and Amiens 1918: The Last Great Battle.

Gas! The Battle for Ypres 1915 reads like a well-filmed documentary, placing the read right in the middle of all the key events. It’s also a story of the common soldier, who, despite the villainous use of gas by the Germans and the incompetence of their own top generals, stopped what could have easily been a German victory.

Top photograph: an aerial view of the gas attack at the Second Battle of Ypres.

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