Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Second Battle of Ypres

Gas mask on display at Tyne Cot Cemetery When I was on my WWI tour, the underlying theme was death and waste. This was the first modern war, fought with different tactics than in the past because of the advanced technology. At this point 100 years ago, both sides were in a long stalemate. There were skirmishes but nothing that resembled any sort of victory of one side or another. So to try to have a decisive victory the Germans decided to try something new. On April 22, 5,700 canisters containing 168 tons of chlorine were released. 10,000 French and Algerian troops were effected. Within the first 10 minutes, half of those men were dead. Unfortunately, the Germans failed to take advantage of their advantage and the Allies managed to hold most of their positions.

Two days later on April 24, a second gas attack against a Canadian division pushed the Allies further back. 5,975 troops were affected with 1,000 fatalities. The Second Battle of Ypres ended on May 25 with insignificant gains for the Germans. However this was the introduction of poison gas used as a military strategy, and this tactic would have great significance in WWI.

Last year when I took my WWI tour, I think a part of me forgot about the brutality and inhumanity of war. The theme of poison gas, and the sheer waste of human life quickly became apparent as the day wore on. Site after site featured rows and rows of headstones and walls filled with names illustrating the sheer volume of human death. Of this, the gas was probably the most shocking for me to experience.

In Ypres, which has since been rebuilt, there is a fabulous WWI museum that we were able to visit for a little over an hour. The whole day was very memorable, but one distinct memory that I have is from this museum, and it is regarding the use of the gas weapons for the first time. Using audio there were characters from both sides describing the situation, both leading up to and after the battle. During this account the death was described. Beyond human death, any living thing in the area was killed including insects and any rats living in the trenches.

Losses during the Second Battle of Ypres are estimated at around 69,000 Allied troops (59,000 British, 10,000 French), against 35,000 German, the difference in numbers explained by the use of chlorine gas.

Think about that account for a minute. Think about those numbers for a minute.

Gas was continuously used throughout the rest of WWI by both sides. While initially effective, by the end of the war sophisticated gas masks existed to protect troops and thus limited the effect the gas had for either side.

It’s hard for me to truly translate how astounded I was to learn what I did during that tour about the chemical gas. I think putting so much emotion into words is simply not possible. I keep coming back to the sheer waste of life that WWI was. In this way, the Second Battle of Ypres is important, if only so we can stop and think about those who lost their life during this battle.

Happy History
Canadian memorial dedicated to those servicemen who lost their lives during WWI.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Concord and Lexington

On the morning of April 19, 1775, the American Revolutionary War started. It started outside of Boston, Massachusetts.

When I was in middle school I went to visit my Aunt out in Massachusetts. It was one of those family vacations that was long enough ago that I can’t quite remember all the details. To this day I can’t remember when exactly we visited or if there was a reason for our trip out east. More importantly, I think it was this trip that really solidified my love of history. The whole region has so much.

While I was there we took a tour of Paul Revere’s house, walked the Freedom Trail in Boston, and more importantly visited Concord and Lexington. And from what I remember, the experiences were truly amazing. I think they helped open my eyes to the power of history, of truly being able to connect those dots between the past and present. I remember being in Lexington reading the plaques and realizing the impact that the past action of a few men had a profound impact on my current life.

We’ve all heard the story: On the night of April 18, the British Army marched from Boston to nearby Concord to seize their weapons stockpile. Seeing the movements, a beacon was placed in Old North Church, which helped sound the alarm. From there Paul Revere rode out to warm the Minute Men yelling “The British are coming!” When the two armies met in Lexington fighting broke out

(I just learned a fact that really made me laugh a bit; a fact that had me edit what I typed above to include this fun nugget of historical learning. This is the fact that Paul Revere probably never yelled out “The British are coming!” as he rode out to sound the alarm. First, many of the British were hiding in the countryside so the operation was meant to be discrete (even in terms of 1775 timelines a man shouting “The British are coming!” was not discreet). Secondly, the colonists still considered themselves British at the time, so that probably wasn’t the exact phrase Mr. Revere used.)

At dawn on April 19, the British army of 700 came upon 77 militiamen outside of Lexington. After being ordered to lay down their weapons a shot was fired. To this day, nobody knows which side fired first. Several British volleys were unleashed and eventually order was restored. Eight militiamen lay dead on the soon-to-be-American side with nine wounded, and one Redcoat was injured.

The British continued into Concord to search for the weapons being stockpiled there (which had been relocated by this time) and decided to burn what little they did find. Militiamen occupying the high ground outside of Concord moved to Concord’s North Bridge, which was being defended y a contingent of British soldiers. The British fired first, but their fire was returned.

After searching Concord for about four hours the British prepared to return to Boston. But by this time almost 2,000 militiamen had descended to the area. They followed the army and engaged them. When the British column reached Lexington, it ran into an entire brigade of fresh Redcoats, but this did not stop the colonists from continuing their fighting.

What does this event signify? Perhaps I’m overemphasizing the American Revolution because I myself am an American, but we were the first country to seize the ideals for the Enlightenment and fight for them. From nothing, the men and women of our country have created something wonderful. America is revered as one of the greatest countries in the world. While we may be far from perfect, we have withstood 240 from that first day of fighting. Let’s come full circle from where I started – the actions of the men that fought 240 years ago shaped the country we are today. Without their actions, the present may have been very different indeed.

Happy History!