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.

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