About this time, just over 100 years ago, Canadians saw their first major action at Ypres on April 22nd.
Ypres has been said to have occupied a “strategic position” during WWI as it stood in the path of Germany’s planned sweep across the rest of Belgium and into France from the north. The neutrality of Belgium was guaranteed by Britain; Germany’s invasion of Belgium brought the British Empire into the war. The German army surrounded the city on three sides, bombarding it throughout much of the war. To counterattack, British, French and allied forces made advances from the Ypres Salient into the German lines on the surrounding hills; these would prove to be costly.
On October 19th, 1914, near the Belgian city, Allied and German forces began the first of what would be three battles to control the city of Ypres and its advantageous positions on the north coast of Belgium.
The First Battle: This took place between October 19th and November 22nd, 1914. After the Germans captured Antwerp early in October, Antwerp’s remaining Belgian forces along with troops of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), withdrew to Ypres, arriving there between October 8th and 19th to strengthen the Belgian and French defences there. At the same time, the Germans were preparing to launch the first phase of an offensive; the goal was to break the Allied lines and to capture Ypres and other channel ports in order to control the outlets to the North Sea.
On October 19th, a period of fierce combat began; the Germans started their Flanders offensive; the Allies resisted and sought their own chances to go on the attack when possible. The offensive continued (with heavy losses on both sides) until November 22nd due to winter weather. The area between the positions established by both sides during this time (from Ypres on the British side to Menin and Roulers on the German side) became known as the Ypres Salient.
“The First Battle of Ypres ranks as one of the great Allied, principally British, victories of the war…” especially when one recognizes that Germany had 402 battalion compared with the Allies’ 267, and that the Germans were twice as strong in cavalry. “The consequences of the battle… were momentous. The Germans were denied the Channel ports, but the small victorious British army was almost destroyed… losses amounted to some 58,000 men.”
The Second Battle: This took place between April 22nd and May 25th, 1915. This was the first major battle fought by Canadian troops in the First World War. During the first week of April, Canadian troops were moved to the Allied line in front of the city of Ypres, referred to as ‘Ypres Salient’. The Germans at this time held the higher ground, able to fire into the Allied trenches from the north, the south and the east. On the Canadian right were two British divisions, and on the left a French division (45th Algerian). On April 22nd, the Germans introduced a new weapon, poison gas. Following intensive artillery bombardment, they released 160 tons of chlorine gas from cylinders dug into the forward edge of their trenches. An enormous green-yellow gas cloud drifted toward the French lines. When it rolled over their positions, French troops either suffocated or fled, their eyes and throats burning from the chlorine. This left a 6.5 kilometre gap in the Allied line. “German troops pressed forward, threatening to sweep behind the Canadian trenches and put 50,000 Canadian and British troops in deadly jeopardy. Fortunately the Germans had planned only a limited offensive and, without adequate reserves, were unable to exploit the gap the gas created. In any case, their own troops, themselves without any adequate protection against gas, were highly suspicious of the new weapon. After advancing only 3.25 kilometres they stopped and dug in.
All through the night the Canadian troops fought to close the gap. In addition they mounted a counter-attack to drive the enemy out of Kitcheners’ Wood, an oak plantation near St. Julien. In the morning two more disastrous attacks were made against enemy positions. Little ground was gained and casualties were extremely heavy, but these attacks bought some precious time to close the flank.
On April 24th, the Germans attacked in an effort to obliterate the Salient. Another violent bombardment was followed by another gas attack in the same pattern as before. This time the target was the Canadian line. Here, through terrible fighting, withered with shrapnel and machine-gun fire, hampered by their issued Ross rifles which jammed, violently sick and gasping for air through soaked and muddy handkerchiefs, they held on until reinforcements arrived.
Thus, in their first major appearance on a European battlefield, the Canadians established a reputation as a formidable fighting force… But the cost was high. In those 48 hours, 6,035 Canadians, one man in every three, became casualties of whom more than 2,000 died. They were heavy losses for Canada’s little force whose men had been civilians only several months before – a grim forerunner of what was still to come.”
In the midst of this second battle, John McCrae, a Canadian Army Medical Corps officer, wrote his famous poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’.
The Third Battle: (July 31st – November 6th, 1917) This was the largest, best-known, and most costly in terms of human suffering. Sometimes referred to as the Battle of Passchendaele, the Allies launched an assault on German lines on July 31st, 1917, in the Flanders region of Belgium, in the much-contested region near Ypres. Thus began more than three months of brutal fighting. This battle was spearheaded by the British commander in chief, Sir Douglas Haig, who insisted that the British should press ahead with another major offensive; it was an aggressive and detailed plan of offence, aimed at destroying German submarine bases located on the north coast of Belgium. However, it was Haig’s mistaken belief that the German army was on the verge of collapse and would be completely broken by an Allied victory.
“After an opening barrage of some 3,000 guns, Haig ordered nine British divisions, led by Sir Hubert Gough’s 5th Army, to advance on the German lines near the Belgian village of Passchendaele on July 31st; they were joined by six French divisions. In the first two days of the attacks, while suffering heavy casualties, the Allies made significant advances – in some sectors pushing the Germans back more than a mile and taking more than 5,000 German prisoners.. the offensive was renewed in mid-August, though heavy rains and thickening mud severely hampered the effectiveness of Allied infantry and artillery and prevented substantial gains over the majority of the summer and early fall…” Haig replaced Gough with Herbert Plummer and pushed the latter to “… continue attacks towards the Passchendaele ridge, some 10 kilometres from Ypres… into its third month, the Allied attackers had few gains; the Germans reinforced their positions with reserve troops released from the Eastern Front. Haig ordered a final three attacks in late October. The eventual capture of the village, by Canadian and British troops occurred on November 6th, allowing Haig to call off the offensive and to claim victory.” However, there were 310,000 British casualties, along with a failure to create any substantial breakthrough or change of momentum on the Western Front.
The Third Battle of Ypres arguably remains one of the most costly and controversial offensives of WWI, the height of the wasteful and futile nature of trench warfare. As for Ypres itself, it was all but obliterated by all the artillery fire.