The British Campaign in France (january 1917)
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
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The British Campaign in France. Chapter X. The Second Battle of Ypres (stage I) is the 10th article, published in january 1917, in a series of 21 articles written by Arthur Conan Doyle serialized in The Strand Magazine.
- 1 Editions
- 2 Illustrations
- 3 The British Campaign in France
- 3.1 Chapter X. The Second Battle of Ypres
- 3.1.1 The Coming of the Poison Gas
- 3.1.2 The Canadian Ordeal
- 3.1.3 The Crisis
- 3.1.4 Canadian Gallantry
- 3.1.5 The Arrival of Reinforcements
- 3.1.6 Days of Miracle
- 3.1.7 Glorious Advance of the Indians
- 3.1.8 The Northern Territorials
- 3.1.9 A Day of Hard Fighting
- 3.1.10 Results
- 3.1.11 Reorganization
- 3.1.12 Loss of Hill 60
- 3.1 Chapter X. The Second Battle of Ypres
- in The Strand Magazine (january 1917 [UK]) (1 map, 4 ill.)
- in The British Campaign in France and Flanders (1916-1920, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. [UK])
- in The British Campaign in France and Flanders (1916, George H. Doran Co. [US])
- in The British Campaign in Europe (1914-1918) (november 1928, Geoffrey Bles [UK])
The British Campaign in France
Chapter X. The Second Battle of Ypres
(Stage 1. — The Gas Attack, April 22nd-30th.)
Situation at Ypres — The Poison Gas — The Canadian Ordeal — The Fight in the Wood of St. Julien — The French Recovery — Miracle Days — The Glorious Indians — The Northern (Fiftieth Division) Territorials — Hard Fighting — The Net Result — Loss of Hill 60.
It will be remembered that the northern line of the Ypres position, extending from Steenstraate to Langemarck, with Pilken somewhat to the south of the centre, had been established and held by the British during the fighting of October 21st, 22nd, and 23rd. Later, when the pressure upon the British to the east and-south became excessive, the French took over this section. The general disposition of the Allies at the 22nd of April was as follows.
The Belgians still held the flooded Yser Canal up to the neighbourhood of Bixschoote. There the line was carried on by the French Eighth Army, now commanded by General Putz in the place of General d'Urbal. His troops seem to have been all either Colonial or Territorial, two classes which had frequently shown the utmost gallantry, but were less likely to meet an unexpected danger with steadiness than the regular infantry of the line. These formations held the trenches from Bixschoote on the canal to the Ypres-Poelcapelle road, two thousand yards east of Langemarck, on the right. At this point they joined on to Plumer's Fifth Corps in the following order, the Canadian Division, Twenty-eighth and Twenty-seventh British Divisions, forming a line which passed a mile north of Zonnebeke, curling round south outside the Polygon Wood to the point where the 'Fifth Division of the Second Corps kept their iron grip upon Hill 60. The average distance from Ypres to all these various lines would be about five miles. Smith-Dorrien, as commander of the Second Army, was general warden of all this district.
The Coming of the Poison Gas
Up to the third week of April the enemy opposite the French had consisted of the Twenty-sixth Corps, with the Fifteenth Corps on the right, all under the Duke of Würtemberg, whose headquarters were at Thielt. There were signs, however, of secret concentration which had not entirely escaped the observation of the Allied aviators, and on April 20th and 21st the German guns showered shells on Ypres. About 5 p.m. upon Thursday, April 22nd, a furious artillery bombardment from Bixschoote to Langemarck, including the left of the Canadians, began along the French lines, and it was reported that the Forty-fifth French Division was being heavily attacked. At the same time a phenomenon was observed which would seem to be more in place in the pages of a romance than in the record of an historian. From the base of the German trenches over a considerable length there appeared jets of whitish vapour, which gathered and swirled until they settled into a definite low cloud-bank, greenish-brown below and yellow above, where it reflected the rays of the sinking sun. This ominous bank of vapour, impelled by a northern breeze, drifted swiftly across the space which separated the two lines. The French troops, staring over the top of their parapet at this curious screen which ensured them a temporary relief from fire, were observed suddenly to throw up their hands, to clutch at their throats, and to fall to the ground in the agonies of asphyxiation. Many lay where they had fallen, while their comrades, absolutely helpless against this diabolical agency, rushed madly out of the mephitic mist and made for the rear, over-running the lines of trenches behind them. Many of them never halted until they had reached Ypres, while others rushed westwards and put the canal between themselves and the enemy. The Germans, meanwhile, advanced in the rear of their own characteristic vanguard, and took possession of the successive lines of trenches, tenanted only by the dead garrisons, whose blackened faces, contorted figures, and lips fringed with the blood and foam from their bursting lungs, showed the agonies in which they had died. Some thousands of stupefied prisoners, eight batteries of French field-guns, and four British 47's, which had been placed in a wood behind the French position, were the trophies won by this disgraceful victory. The British heavy guns belonged to the Second London Division, and were not deserted by their gunners until the enemy's infantry were close upon them, when the strikers were removed from the breech-blocks and the pieces abandoned.
By seven o'clock the French had left the Langemarck district, had passed over the higher ground about Pilken, and had crossed the canal towards Brielen. Under the shattering blow which they had received, a blow particularly demoralizing to African troops, with their fears of magic and the unknown, it was impossible to rally them effectually until the next day. It is to be remembered in explanation of this disorganization that it was the first experience of these poison tactics, and that the troops engaged received the gas in a very much more severe form than our own men on the right of Langemarck. For a time there was a gap five miles broad in the front of the position of the Allies, and there were many hours during which there was no substantial force between the Germans and Ypres. They wasted their time, however, in consolidating their ground, and the chance of a great coup passed for ever. They had sold their souls as soldiers, but the Devil's price was a poor one.
The Canadian Ordeal
A portion of the German force, which had passed through the gap left by the retirement of the French, moved eastwards in an endeavour to roll up the Canadian line, the flank of which they had turned. Had they succeeded in doing this the situation would have become most dangerous, as they would have been to the rear of the whole of the Fifth Army Corps. General Alderson, commanding the Canadians, took instant measures to hold his line. On the exposed flank were the 13th (Royal Highlanders) and 15th (48th Highlanders), both of the Third Brigade. To the right of these were the 8th Canadians and 5th Canadians in the order named. The attack developed along two-thirds of a front of five thousand yards, but was most severe upon the left, where it had become a flank as well as a frontal assault; but in spite of the sudden and severe nature ,of the action, the line held splendidly firm. Any doubt as to the quality of our Canadian troops — if any such doubt had existed — was set at rest for ever, for they met the danger with a joyous and disciplined alacrity. General Turner, who commanded the Third Brigade upon the left, extended his men to such an extent that, while covering his original front, he could still throw back a line several thousand yards long to the south-west and so prevent the Germans breaking through. By bending and thinning his line in this fashion he obviously formed a vulnerable salient which was furiously attacked by the Germans by shell and rifle fire, with occasional blasts of their hellish gas, which lost something of its effectiveness through the direction of the wind. The Canadian guns, swinging round from north to west, were pouring shrapnel into the advancing masses at a range of two hundred yards with fuses set at zero, while the infantry without trenches fired so rapidly and steadily that the attack recoiled from the severity of the punishment. The British 118th and 365th Batteries did good work in holding back this German advance.
Two reserve battalions had been brought up in hot haste from Ypres to strengthen the left of the line. These were the 16th (Canadian Scottish) and the 10th Canadians. Their advance was directed against the wood to the west of St. Julien, in which lay the four great guns which, as already described, had fallen into the hands of the Germans. Advancing about midnight by the light of the moon, these two brave regiments, under Colonels Leckie and Boyle, rushed at the wood (which the Germans had already entrenched) and carried it at the point of the bayonet after a furious hand-to-hand struggle. Following at the heels of the flying Germans, they drove them ever deeper into the recesses of the wood, where there loomed up under the trees the huge bulk of the captured guns. For a time they were once again in British hands, but there was no possible means of removing them, so that the Canadians had to be content with satisfying themselves that they were unserviceable. For some time the Canadians held the whole of the wood, but Colonel Leckie, who was in command, found that there were Germans on each side of him and no supports. It was clear, since he was already a thousand yards behind the German line, that he would be cut off in the morning. With quick decision he withdrew unmolested through the wood, and occupied the German trenches at the south end of it. Colonel Boyle lost his life in this very gallant advance, which may truly be said to have saved the situation, since it engaged the German attention and gave time for reinforcements to arrive.
With the dawn it became of most pressing importance to do something to lessen, if not to fill, the huge gap which yawned between the left of the Canadians and the canal, like a great open door five miles wide leading into Ypres. Troops were already streaming north at the call of Smith-Dorrien from all parts of the British lines, but the need was quick and pressing. The Canadian First Brigade, which had been in reserve, was thrown into the broad avenue down which the German army was pouring. The four battalions of General Mercer's Brigade — the 1st (Ontario), 4th, 2nd, and 3rd (Toronto) — advanced south of Pilken. Nearer still to St. Julien was the wood, which was still fringed by their comrades of the 10th and the 16th, while to the east of St. Julien the remaining six battalions of Canadians were facing north-eastwards to hold up the German advance from that quarter, with their flank turned north-west to prevent the force from being taken in the rear. Of these six battalions the most northern was the 13th Royal Canadian Highlanders, and it was on the unsupported left flank of this regiment that the pressure was most severe, as the Germans were in the French trenches alongside them, and raked them with their machine-guns without causing them to leave their position, which was the pivot of the whole line.
Gradually, out of the chaos and confusion, the facts of the situation began to emerge, and in the early morning of April 23rd Smith-Dorrien at Ypres and French in the south saw clearly how great an emergency they had to meet and what forces they had with which to meet it. The prospect at first sight was appalling if it were handled by men who allowed themselves to be appalled. It was known now that the Germans had not only broken a five-mile gap in the line and penetrated two miles into it, but that they had taken Steenstraate, had forced the canal, had taken Lizerne upon the farther side, and had descended the eastern side as far south as Boesinghe. At that time it became known, to the great relief of the British generals, that the left of the Canadian First Brigade, which had been thrown out, was in touch with six French battalions — much exhausted by their terrible experience — on the east bank of the canal, about a mile south-east of Boesinghe. From that moment the situation began to mend, for it had become clear where the reinforcements which were now coming to hand should be applied. A line had been drawn across the gap, and it only remained to stiffen and to hold it, while taking steps to modify and support the salient in the St. Julien direction, where a dangerous angle had been created by the new hasty rearrangement of the Canadian line.
At about the same hour most welcome reinforcements had arrived in the region of the gap. These consisted of three and a half battalions of the Twenty-eighth Division, the 2nd East Kent (Buffs), 3rd Middlesex, less two companies who were guarding a bridge on the canal, 2nd Royal Lancasters, and the 1st York- and Lancaster — all under Colonel Geddes, of the Buffs. These troops, together with the 2nd East Yorkshires, were placed under the Canadian commander. The Thirteenth Brigade, much reduced and wearied by its terrific exertions upon Hill 60, were held back at Brielen, one mile west of Ypres, in reserve, while three and a half battalions of the Twenty-seventh Division were in corps reserve near Potijze. These were the 4th Rifle Brigade, 2nd Cornwalls, 2nd Shropshires (half), and 9th Royal Scots. It is to be remembered that both the Twenty-seventh and Twenty-eighth Divisions were still holding their own extended lines of position, which might at any moment be swept by a devastating attack, and that in turning their reserves towards the north they were like a bank which transfers money to a neighbour at the moment when it has to face a run upon its own resources. But the times were recognized as being desperate, and any risk must be run to keep the Germans out of Ypres and to hold the line until further help could come from the south.
Among other expedients a single battalion — the 1st Royal Irish, under Colonel Gloster — was pushed forward in a gallant holding attack towards St. Julien, all by itself, losing one third of its numbers, but delaying the advance for some precious hours.
In the afternoon of the 23rd those of the French troops who had escaped the gas attack advanced gallantly to recover some of their ground, and their movement was shared by the Canadian troops on the British left wing and by Geddes' detachment. The advance was towards Pilken, the French being on the left of the Ypres-Pilken road, and the British on the right. Few troops would have come back to the battle as quickly as our allies, but these survivors of the Forty-fifth Division were still rather a collection of brave men than an organized force. The strain of this difficult advance upon a victorious enemy fell largely upon the 1st and 4th Battalions of Mercer's First Canadian Brigade. Burchall, of the latter regiment, with a light cane in his hand, led his men on in a debonair fashion, which was a reversion to more chivalrous days. He fell, but lived long enough to see his infantry in occupation of the front German line of trenches. No further progress could be made, but at least the advance had for the moment been stayed, and a few hours gained at a time when every hour was an hour of destiny.
A line had now been formed upon the left, and the Germans had been held off, But in the salient to the right in the St. Julien section the situation was becoming ever more serious. The gallant 13th Canadians (Royal Highlanders) were learning something of what their French comrades had endured the day before, for in the early dawn the horrible gases were drifting down upon their lines, while through the yellow mist of death there came the steady thresh of the German shells. The ordeal seemed mechanical and inhuman such an ordeal as flesh and blood can hardly he expected to bear. Yet with admirable constancy the 13th and their neighbours, the 15th, held on to their positions, though the trenches were filled with choking and gasping men. The German advance was blown back by rifle-fire, even if the fingers which pulled the triggers were already stiffening in death. No soldiers in the world could have done more finely than these volunteers, who combined the dashing American spirit with the cool endurance of the North. Little did Bernhardi think when he penned his famous paragraph about our Colonial Militia and their uselessness upon a European battlefield that a division of those very troops were destined at a supreme moment to hold up one of the most vital German movements in the Western campaign.
Whilst these Canadians had been trying hard to hold a line, the small British detachment under Colonel Geddes upon their left was thickening for a counter-attack. It had, as stated, been reinforced by two battalions from the Twenty-seventh Division — the 2nd Cornwalls and 9th Royal Scots — and was supported by the veteran Thirteenth Brigade, with the grime of Hill 60 still upon their faces. About five-thirty in the after-noon of April 23rd this body of troops, consisting of nine very weak battalions, bridged across the gap between the Canadians and the French, and endeavoured to make a counter-attack. They found that the enemy had heavily wired their new position. In spite of this the British made good progress, though at considerable expense. They finally dug themselves in at the farthest point that they could reach. The French upon the left were not yet in a position to render much help, so General Alderson, who was in command of this movement, threw back his left wing and held a line facing westwards with the 4th Rifle Brigade and a few Zouaves, so as to guard against a German advance between him and the canal, When the night of the 23rd fell it ended a day of hard desultory fighting, but the Allies could congratulate themselves that the general line held in the morning had been maintained, and even improved.
Reinforcements were urgently needed by the advanced line, so during the early hours of the morning of April 24th two battalions of the York and Durham Territorial Brigade — the 4th East Yorkshires and another — were sent from the west to Ypres to reinforce the weary Thirteenth Brigade, There was no fighting at this point during the night, but just about daybreak the Second Canadian Brigade upon the right of the British line, who were still holding their original trenches, were driven out of them by gas, and compelled to re-form a short distance behind them.
Though the British advance upon the left had gained touch with the Canadian Third Brigade, the latter still formed a salient which was so exposed that the flank of it, especially the 13th and 15th regiments, were assailed by infantry from the flank, and even from the rear. To them it seemed, during the long morning of April 24th, as if they were entirely isolated, and that nothing remained but to sell their lives dearly. They were circumstances under which less spirited troops might yell have surrendered, So close was the fighting that bayonets were crossed more than once, Major Norsworthy, of the 13th, among others, being stabbed in a fierce encounter. Very grim was the spirit of the Canadians "Fine men, wonderful fellows, absolutely calm, and I have never seen such courage," wrote a Victoria Rifle Territorial, who had himself come fresh from the heroic carnage of Hill 60.
It was clear on the morning of April 24th that the advanced angle, where the French and Canadians had been torn apart, could no longer be held in face of the tremendous shell-fire which was directed upon it and the continuous pressure of the infantry attacks. The Third Canadian Brigade fell slowly back upon the village of St. Julien. This they endeavoured to hold, but a concentrated fire rained upon it from several sides and the retreat continued. A detachment of the 13th and 14th Canadians were cut off before they could get clear, and surrounded in the village. Here they held out as long as their cartridges allowed, but were finally all killed, wounded, and taken. The prisoners are said to have amounted to seven hundred men. The remainder of the heroic and decimated Third Brigade rallied to the south of St. Julien, but their retirement had exposed the flank of the Second Canadian Brigade (Curry's), even as their own flank had been exposed by the retirement of the French Forty-fifth Division. This Second Brigade flung back its left flank in order to meet the situation, and successfully held its ground.
The Arrival of Reinforcements
In doing this they were greatly aided by supports which came from the rear. This welcome reinforcement consisted of three regiments of the Eighty-fourth Brigade, under Colonel Wallace. These three regiments were ordered to advance about four o'clock in the afternoon, their instructions being to make straight for Fortuin. Their assault was a desperate one, since there was inadequate artillery support, and they had to cross two miles of open ground under a dreadful fire. They went forward in the open British formation — the 1st Suffolks in the van, then the 12th London Rangers, and behind them the 1st Monmouths. Numerous gassed Canadians covered the ground over which they advanced. The losses were very heavy, several hundred in the Suffolks alone, but they reached a point within a few hundred yards of the enemy, where they joined hands with the few Canadians who were left alive in those trenches. They hailed their advent with cheers. The whole line lay down at this point, being unable to get farther, and they were joined at a later date by the 9th Durham% who came up on the right. This body, which may be called Wallace's detachment, remained in this position during the night, and were exposed to severe attack next day, as will be seen later. So perilous was their position at the time the 9th Durhams came up that preparations had been made for destroying all confidential records in view of the imminent danger of being overwhelmed.
In this and subsequent fighting the reader is likely to complain that he finds it difficult to follow the movements or order of the troops, but the same trouble was experienced by the generals at the time. So broken was the fighting that a regimental officer had units of nine battalions under him at one moment. The general situations both now and for the next three days may be taken to be this : that certain well-defined clumps of British troops — Twenty-eighth Division, Tenth Brigade, Canadians, and so forth — are holding back the Germans, and that odd regiments or even companies are continually pushed in, in order to fill the varying gaps between these ragged forces and to save their flanks, so far as possible, from being turned.
Days of Miracle
Every hour of this day was an hour of danger, and fresh ground had been abandoned and heavy losses incurred. None the less, it may be said that on the evening of Saturday, April 24th, the worst was over. From the British point of view it was a war of narrow escapes, and this surely was among the narrowest. The mystics who saw bands of bowmen and of knights between the lines during the retreat from Mons did but give definite shape to the undeniable fact that again and again the day had been saved when it would appear that the energy, the numbers, or the engines of the enemy must assure a defeat. On this occasion the whole front had, from an unforeseen cause, fallen suddenly out of the defence. Strong forces of the Germans had only five miles to go in order to cut the great nerve ganglion of Ypres out of the British system. They were provided with new and deadly devices of war. They were confronted by no one save a single division of what they looked upon as raw Colonial Militia, with such odds and ends of reinforcements as could be suddenly called upon. And yet of the five miles they could only accomplish two, and now after days of struggle the shattered tower of the old Cloth Hall in front of them was as inaccessible as ever. It needs no visions of overwrought men to see the doom of God in such episodes as that. The innocent blood of Belgium for ever clogged the hand of Germany.
Reinforcements were now assembling to the immediate south of St. Julien. By evening the Northumberland Brigade and the Durham Light Infantry Brigade — both of the Fiftieth Territorial Division — had reached Potijze. More experienced, but not more eager, was Hull's Tenth Regular Brigade, which had come swiftly from the Armentières region. All these troops, together with Geddes' detachment and two battalions of the York and Durham Territorials, were placed under the hand of General Alderson for the purpose of a strong counter-attack upon St. Julien. This attack was planned to take place on the morning of Sunday, April 25th. When night fell upon the 24th the front British line was formed as follows:—
The Twenty-seventh and Twenty-eighth Divisions held their original trenches facing eastwards. In touch with their left was the Second Canadian Brigade, with one battalion of the First Canadian Brigade. Then came Wallace's detachment with two battalions of the York and Durham Territorials joining with the remains of the Third Canadian Brigade. Thence Geddes' detachment and the Thirteenth Brigade prolonged the line, as already described, towards the canal. Behind this screen the reinforcements gathered for the attack.
The advance was made at six-thirty in the morning of April 25th, General Hull being in immediate control of the attack. It was made in the first instance by the Tenth Brigade (which included the 5th Royal Welsh Fusiliers) and the 1st Royal Irish from the Eighty-second Brigade. The remains of the indomitable Third Canadian Brigade kept pace with it upon the right. Little progress was made, however, and it became clear that there was not weight enough behind the advance to crush a way through the obstacles in front. Two flank regiments retired, and the 2nd Seaforths were exposed to a terrible cross-fire. "We shouted to our officers (what was left of them) to give the order to charge, knowing in our minds that it was hopeless, as the smoke was so thick from their gas shells that we could see nothing on either side of us." Some cavalry was seen, the first for many days, but was driven off by the machine-gun of the Highlanders. Finally a brigade of Northumberland Territorials came up to sustain the hard-pressed line, passing over some two miles of open country under heavy fire on their advance. It was then nearly mid-day. From that point onwards the attackers accepted the situation and dug themselves in at the farthest point which they could reach near the hamlet of Fortuin, about a mile south of St. Julien.
It will be remembered that Wallace's detachment had upon the day before already reached this point. They were in a position of considerable danger, forming a salient in front of the general line. Together with the 9th Durhams upon their right, they sustained several German assaults, which they drove back while thrusting wet rifle rags into their mouths to keep out the drifting gas. From their right trenches they had the curious experience of seeing clearly the detraining of the German reserves at Langemarck Station, and even of observing a speech made by a German general before his troops hurried from the train into the battle. This advanced line was held by these troops, not only during the 25th, but for three more days, until they were finally relieved after suffering very heavy losses, but having rendered most vital service.
Whilst the British were vainly endeavouring to advance to the north, a new German attack developed suddenly from the north-east in the region of Broodseinde, some five miles from St. Julien. This attack was on a front of eight hundred yards. The trenches attacked were those of the Eighty-fourth and Eighty-fifth Brigades of the Twenty-eighth Division, and no doubt the Germans held the theory that these would be found to be denuded or at least fatally weakened, their occupants having been drafted off to stiffen the Western line. Like so many other German theories, this particular one proved to be a fallacy. In spite of a constant shower of poison shells, which suffocated many of the soldiers, the enemy were vigorously repulsed, the 2nd East Surrey Regiment getting at one time to hand-to-hand fighting, the few who were able to reach the trenches remaining in them as prisoners. Great slaughter was caused by a machine-gun of the 3rd Royal Fusiliers under Lieutenant Hallandain. Still, the movement caused a further strain upon the resources of the British General, as it was necessary to send up three battalions to remain in reserve in this quarter in case of a renewal of the attack. On the other hand, the Eleventh Brigade (Hasler), less the 1st East Lancashires, came up from the south to join the loth, and Indian troops were known to be upon the way. The flank of the Eighty-fifth Brigade was in danger all day, and it was covered by the great devotion of the 8th Durham Light Infantry to the north of it. This regiment lost heavily both in killed, wounded, and prisoners, but it fought with remarkable valour in a very critical portion of the field. Early in the morning of the 26th the 1st Hants, on the right of the newly-arrived Eleventh Brigade, joined up with the 3rd Royal Fusiliers on the left of the Eighty-fifth Brigade, and so made the line complete.
Up to the evening of Sunday, April 25th, the Second Canadian Brigade had succeeded in holding its original line, which was along a slight eminence called the Gravenstravel Ridge. All the regiments had fought splendidly, but the greatest pressure had been borne by Colonel Lipsett's Eighth Battalion (90th Winnipeg Rifles), who had been gassed, enfiladed, and bombarded to the last pitch of human endurance. About five o'clock their trenches were obliterated by the fury of the German bombardment, and the weary soldiers, who had been fighting for the best part of four days, fell back towards Wieltje. That evening a large part of the Canadian Division, which had endured losses of nearly fifty per cent. and established a lasting reputation for steadfast valour, were moved into reserve, while the Lahore Indian Division (Keary) came into the fighting line. It is a remarkable illustration, if one were needed, of the unity of the British Empire that, as the weary men from Montreal or Manitoba moved from the field, their place was filled by eager soldiers from the Punjab and the slopes of the Himalayas.
Splendid work was done during these days by the motor ambulances, which on this one evening brought six hundred wounded men from under the very muzzles of the German rifles in front of St. Julien. Several of them were destroyed by direct hits, but no losses damped their splendid ardour.
Glorious Advance of the Indians
The Lahore Division having now arrived, it was directed to advance on the left of the British and on the right of the French, along the general line of the Ypres-Langemarck road. Encouraged by this reinforcement, and by the thickening line of the French, General Smith-Dorrien, who had spent several ,nightmare days, meeting one dire emergency after another with never-failing coolness and resource, ordered a general counter-attack for the early afternoon of April 26th. There was no sign yet of any lull in. the German activity which would encourage the hope that they had shot their bolt.
The Indians advanced to the right of the French, with the Jullundur Brigade upon the right and the Ferozepore Brigade upon the left, the Sirhind Brigade in reserve. This Indian advance was an extraordinarily fine one over fifteen hundred yards of open under a very heavy shell-fire. They had nearly reached the front line of German trenches and were making good progress when before them there rose once more the ominous green-yellow mist of the poisoners A steady north-east wind was blowing, and in a moment the Indians were encircled by the deadly fumes. It was impossible to get forward Many of the men died where they stood. The mephitic cloud passed slowly over, but the stupefied men were in no immediate condition to resume their advance. The whole line was brought to a halt, but the survivors dug themselves in, and were eventually supported and relieved by the Sirhind Brigade, who, with the help of the 3rd Sappers and Miners and the 34th Pioneers, consolidated the front line. General Smith-Dorrien tersely summed up the characteristics of this advance of the Lahore Division when he said that it was done "with insufficient artillery preparation, up an open slope in the face of overwhelming shell, rifle, and machine-gun fire and clouds of poison gas, but it prevented the German advance and ensured the safety of Ypres." In this war of great military deeds there have been few more heroic than this, but it was done at a terrible cost. Of the 129th Baluchis, only a hundred could be collected that night, and many regiments were in little better case. The 1st Manchesters and 1st Connaughts had fought magnificently, but it cannot be said that there was any difference of gallantry between Briton and Indian.
The Northern Territorials
Farther to the eastwards another fine advance had been made by the Northumberland Brigade of Territorials (Riddell) of the Fiftieth Division, who had just arrived from England. Some military historian has remarked that British soldiers never fight better than in their first battle, and this particular performance, carried out by men with the home dust still upon their boots, could not have been improved upon.
In this as in other attacks it was well understood that the object of the operations was rather to bluff the Germans into suspending their dangerous advance than to actually gain and permanently hold any of the lost ground. The brigade advanced in artillery formation which soon broke into open order. The fire, both from the German guns, which had matters all their own way, and from their riflemen, was incessant and murderous. The 6th Northumberland Fusiliers were on the left with the 7th upon the right, the other two battalions being nominally in second line but actually swarming up into the gaps. In spite of desperately heavy losses the gallant Geordies won their way across open fields, with an occasional easy behind a bank or hedge, until they were on the actual outbuildings of St. Julien. They held on to the edge of the village for a long time, but they had lost their Brigadier, the gallant Riddell, and a high proportion of their officers and men. Any support would have secured their gains, but the 151st Durham Light Infantry Brigade behind them had their own hard task to perform. The three battalions which had reached the village were compelled to fall back. Shortly after six in the evening the survivors had dropped back to their own trenches. Their military career had begun with a repulse, but it was one which was more glorious than many a facile success.
On their right the Twenty-eighth Division had been severely attacked, and the pressure was so great that two and a half battalions had to he sent to their help, thus weakening the British advance to that extent. Had these battalions been available to help the Northumbrians, it is possible that their success could have been made good. The strain upon our over-matched artillery may be indicated by the fact that on that one afternoon the 366th Battery of the Twenty-eighth Division fired one thousand seven hundred and forty rounds. The troops in this section of the battlefield had been flung into the fight in such stress that it had been very difficult to keep a line without gaps, and great danger arose from this cause on several occasions. Thus a gap formed upon the left of the Hampshire Regiment, the flank of the Eleventh Brigade, through which the Germans poured. Another gap formed on the right of the Hampshires between them and the 3rd Royal Fusiliers of the Eighty-fifth Brigade. One company of the 8th Middlesex was practically annihilated in filling this gap, but by the help of the 8th Durham Light Infantry and other Durham and Yorkshire Territorials the line was restored. The 2nd Shropshire Light Infantry also co-operated in this fierce piece of fighting, their Colonel Bridgeford directing the operation.
The Indians upon the left had suffered from the gas attack, but the French near the canal had been very badly poisoned. By three-thirty they had steadied themselves, however, and came forward once again, while the Indians kept pace with them. The whole net advance of the day upon this wing did not exceed three hundred yards, but it was effected in the face of the poison fumes, which might well have excused a retreat. In the night the front line was consolidated and the reserve brigade (Sirhind) brought up to occupy it. It was a day of heavy losses and uncertain gains, but the one vital fact remained that, with their artillery, their devil's gas, and their north-east wind, the Germans were not a yard nearer to that gaunt, tottering tower which marked the goal of their desire.
A Day of Hard Fighting
The night of the 26th was spent by the British in reorganizing their line, taking out the troops who were worn to the bone, and substituting such reserves as could be found. The French had been unable to get forward on the east of the canal, but on the west, where they were farther from the gas, they had made progress, taking trenches between Boesinghe and Lizerne, and partially occupying the latter village. In the early afternoon of the 27th our indomitable allies renewed their advance upon our left. They were held up by artillery fire, and finally, about 7 p.m., were driven back by gas fumes. The Sirhind and Ferozepore Indian Brigades kept pace with they French upon the right, but made little progress, for the fire was terrific. The losses of the Sirhind Brigade were very heavy, but they held their own manfully, The 1st and 4th Gurkhas had only two officers Left unwounded in each regiment. The 4th King's also made a very fine advance. Four battalions from corps reserve — the 2nd Cornwalls, 2nd West Ridings, 5th King's Own, and 1st York and Lancaster — were sent up at 3 p.m., under Colonel Tuson, to support the Indians, The whole of this comps site brigade was only one thousand three hundred rifles. The advance could not get forward, but when in the late evening the French recoiled before the deadly gas, the left of the Sirhind Brigade would have been in the air but for the deployment of part of Tuson's detachment to cover their flank. At 9 p.m. the Morocco Brigade of the French Division came forward once more and the line was reformed, Tuson's detachment falling back into support. Once again it was a day of hard fighting, considerable losses, and inconclusive results, but yet another day had gone and Ypres was still intact. On the right of the British the Tenth and Eleventh Brigades had more than held its own, and the line of the Gravenstrafel Ridge was in our hands. Across the canal also the French had come on, and the Germans were being slowly but surely pushed across to the farther side. By the evening of the 28th a continuation of this movement had entirely cleared the western side, and on the eastern had brought the French line up to the neighbourhood of Steenstraate.
At this point the first phase of the second battle of Ypres may be said to have come to an end, although for the next few days there was desultory fighting here and there along the French and British fronts. The net result of the five days' close combat had been that the Germans had advanced some two miles nearer to Ypres. They had also captured the four large guns of the London battery, eight batteries of French field-guns, a number of machine-guns, several thousand French, and about a thousand British prisoners. The losses of the Allies had been very heavy, for the troops had fought with the utmost devotion in the most difficult circumstances. The casualties up to the end of the month in this region came to nearly twenty thousand men, and at least twelve thousand French would have to be added to represent the total Allied loss. The single unit which suffered most was the British Tenth Brigade (Hull), consisting of the 1st Warwicks, 2nd Seaforths, 1st Irish Fusiliers, 2nd Dublin Fusiliers, 5th R. W. Fusiliers, and 7th Argyll and Sutherlands. These regiments lost among them no fewer than sixty-three officers and two thousand three hundred men, a very high proportion of their total numbers, Nearly as high were the losses of the three Canadian brigades, the first having sixty-four officers and one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two men down; the second seventy-one officers and one thousand seven hundred and seventy men; while the third had sixty-two officers and one thousand seven hundred and seventy-one men, The Northumbrian Division was also very hard hit, losing one hundred and two officers and two thousand four hundred and twenty-three men, just half of the casualties coming from the Northumberland Infantry Brigade. The Lahore Division had about the same losses as the Northern Territorials, while the Twenty-seventh and Twenty-eighth Divisions each lost about two thousand. General Hasler, of the Eleventh Brigade, General Riddell, of the Northumberlands, Colonel Geddes, of the Buffs, Colonels Burchall, McHaig, and Boyle, of the 4th, 7th, and 10th Canadians, and Colonel Masters, of the 1st King's Own Lancasters, with many senior regimental officers, were among the dead. No British or Canadian guns were lost save the four heavy pieces, which were exposed through the exceptional circumstance of the gas attack. The saving of all the Canadian guns was an especially fine achievement, as two-thirds of the horses were killed, and it was necessary to use the same teams again and again to get away pieces which were in close contact with the enemy.
The airmen, too, did great work during this engagement, bombarding Steenstraate, Langemarck, Poelcapelle, and Paschendaale. In so short an account of so huge an operation it is difficult to descend to the individual, but no finer deed could be chronicled in the whole war than that of Lieutenant Rhodes-Moorhouse, who, having been mortally wounded in the execution of his duty, none the less steered his machine home, delivered her at the hangar, and made his report before losing consciousness for ever.
As to the German losses, they were very considerable, The Twenty-sixth Corps returned a casualty list of 10,572, and the Twenty-seventh of 6,101. These are great figures when one considers that it was almost entirely to our rifles that we had to trust. There were many other units engaged, and the total could not have been less than 25,000 killed, wounded, or taken.
In this hard-fought battle the British, if one includes the whole area of contest, had seven divisions engaged— the Fourth, Fifth, Twenty-seventh, Twenty-eighth, Fiftieth, Canadian, and Lahore, Nearly half of these were immobile, however, being fixed to the bong line of eastern trenches. Forty thousand men would be a fair estimate of those available from first to last to stop the German advance. It would be absurd to deny that the advantage rested with the Germans, but still more absurd to talk of the honours of war in such a connection. By a foul trick they gained a trumpery advantage at the cost of an eternal slur upon their military reputation. It was recognized from this time onwards that there was absolutely nothing at which these people would stick, and that the idea of military and naval honour or the immemorial customs of warfare bad no meaning for them whatever. The result was to infuse an extraordinary bitterness into our soldiers, who had seen their comrades borne past them in the agonies of asphyxiation. The fighting became sterner and more relentless, whilst the same feeling was reflected in Great Britain, hardening the resolution with which the people faced those numerous problems of recruiting, food supply, and munitions which had to be faced and solved. Truly honesty is the better policy in war as in peace, for no means could have been contrived by the wit of man to bring out the full, slow, ponderous strength of the British Empire so effectively as the long series of German outrages, each adding a fresh stimulus before the effect of the last was outworn. Belgium, Louvain, Rheims, Zeppelin raids, Scarborough, poison-gas, the Lusitania, Edith Cavell, Captain Fryatt — these were the stages which led us on to victory. Had Germany never violated the Belgian frontier, and had she fought an honest, manly fight from first to last, the prospect would have been an appalling one for the Allies. There may have been more criminal wars in history, and there may have been more foolish policies, but the historian may search the past in vain for any such combination of crime and folly as the methods of "frightfulness" by which the Germans endeavoured to carry out the schemes of aggression which they had planned so long.
The gain of ground by the Germans from north to south in this engagement necessitated a drawing-in of the line from east to west over a front of nearly eight miles in order to avoid a dangerous projecting salient at Zonnebeke. It was hard in cold blood to give up ground which had been successfully held for so many months, and which was soaked with the blood of our bravest and best. On the other hand, if it were not done now, while the Germans were still stunned by the heavy losses which they had sustained and wearied out by their exertions, it might be exposed to an attack by fresh troops, and lead to an indefensible strategic position. It would have actually been done earlier had not General Foch, who commanded that section of the French line, begged that his men might be given time to try to regain their trenches. There were four days of comparative quiet, and then it was evident that the Germans still meant mischief.
Upon Sunday, May 2nd, they made a fresh attack on the north of Ypres along the front held by the French to the immediate south of Pilken and along the British left to the east of St. Julien, where the newly-arrived Twelfth Brigade (Anley) and the remains of the Tenth and Eleventh were stationed. The Twelfth Brigade, which came up on May 1st, consisted at that time of the 1st King's Own Lancasters, 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, 2nd Essex, 5th South Lancashires (T.F.), 2nd Monmouths (T.F.), and 1st Royal Irish. The attack was in the first instance carried out by means of a huge cloud of gas, which was ejected under high pressure from the comp sled cylinders in their trenches, and rapidly traversed the narrow space between the lines. As the troops fell back to avoid asphyxiation they were thickly sprayed br shrapnel from the German guns. The German infantry followed on the fringe of their poison cloud, but they brought themselves into the zone of the British guns, and suffered considerable losses. Many of the troops in the trenches drew to one side to avoid the gas, or even, in some cases, notably that of the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, waited for the gas to come, and then charged swiftly through it to reach the stormers upon the other side, falling upon them with all the concentrated fury that such murderous tactics could excite. The result was that neither on the French nor on the British front did the enemy gain any ground. Two regiments of the Twelfth Brigade — the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers and the 2nd Essex — suffered heavily, many of the men being poisoned, the Lancashire Fusiliers losing three hundred men from this cause, among them the heroic machine gunner, Private Lynn, who stood without a respirator in the thick of the fumes, and beat off a German attack almost single-handed, at the cost of a death of torture to himself.
It was found that even when the acute poisoning had been avoided, a great lassitude was produced for some time by the inhalation of the gas. In the case of Hull's Tenth Brigade, which had been practically living in the fumes for a fortnight, but had a special bad dose on May 2nd, it was found that out of two thousand five hundred survivors, only five hundred were really fit for duty. The sufferings of the troops were increased by the use of gas shells, which were of thin metal with highly-compressed gas inside. All these fiendish devices were speedily neutralized by means of respirators, but a full supply had not yet come to hand, nor had the most efficient type been discovered, so that many of the Allies were still murdered.
Upon May 3rd the enemy renewed his attack upon the Eleventh Brigade, now commanded by Brigadier-General Prowse, and the 1st Rifle Brigade, which was the right flank regiment, was badly mauled, their trenches being almost cleared of defenders. Part of the 1st York and Lancasters and of the 5th King's Own Lancasters were rushed up to the rescue from the supports of the Twenty-eighth Division. At the same time the German infantry tried to push in between the Eleventh Brigade on the left and the Eighty-fifth on the right, at the salient between the Fourth and Twenty-eighth Divisions, the extreme north-east corner of the British lines. The fight was a very desperate one, being strongly supported by field-guns at short ranges. Three more British regiments — the 2nd Buffs, 3rd Fusiliers, and 2nd East Yorks — were thrown into the fight, and the advance was stopped. That night the general retirement took place, effected in many cases from positions within a few yards of the enemy, and carried out without the loss of a man or a gun. The retirement was upon the right of the British line, and mainly affected the Twenty-seventh, and to a less degree the Twenty-eighth, Divisions. The Fourth Division upon the left (or north) did not retire, but was the hinge upon which the others swung. During the whole of these and subsequent operations the Fourth Division was splendidly supported by the French artillery, which continually played upon the attacking Germans.
Loss of Hill 60
Before closing this chapter, which deals with the gas attacks to the north of Ypres, and beginning the next one, which details the furious German assault upon the contracted lines of the Fifth Army Corps, it would be well to interpolate some account of the new development at Hill 60. This position was a typical one for the German use of gas, just as the Dardanelles lines would have been for the Allies, had they condescended to such an atrocity upon a foe who did not themselves use such a weapon. Where there is room for flexibility of manoeuvre, and when a temporary loss of ground is immaterial, the gas is at a discount; but where there is a fixed and limited position it was practically impossible to hold it against such an agency. Up to now the fighting at Hill 60 had furnished on both sides a fine epic of manliness, in which man breasted man in honest virile combat. Alas! that such a brave story should have so cowardly an ending. Upon the evening of May 1st the poisoners got to work, and the familiar greenish gas came stealing out from the German trenches, eddied and swirled round the base of the hill, and finally submerged the summit, where the brave men of the Dorsets in the trenches were strangled by the chlorine as they lay motionless and silent, examples of a discipline as stern as that of the Roman sentry at Herculaneum. So dense were the fumes that the Germans could not take possession, and it was a reinforcement of Devons and Bedfords of the Fifteenth Brigade who were the first to reach the trenches, where they found the bodies of their murdered comrades, either fixed already in death or writhing in the agonies of choking. It is said that the instructions of the relieving force were to carry up munitions and to carry down the Dorsets. One officer and fifty men had been killed at once, while four officers and one hundred and fifty men were badly injured, many of them being permanently incapacitated. The Fifty-ninth Company of Royal Engineers were also overwhelmed by the fumes, three officers and many men being poisoned.
The gas attack upon Hill 60 on May 1st may have been a mere experiment upon the part of the Germans to see how far they could submerge it, for it was not followed up by an infantry advance. A more sustained and more successful attack was made by the same foul means upon May 5th. Early in the morning the familiar cloud appeared once more, and within a few minutes the British position was covered by it. Not only the hill itself, but a long trench to the north of it was rendered untenable, and so was another trench two thousand yards north of Westhoek.
The 2nd West Ridings were holding the front trench at the time, and suffered horribly from the poison. Mr. Valentine Williams, in his admirable account of the episode, says: "There appeared staggering towards the dug-out of the commanding officer of the Duke's in the rear two figures, an officer and an orderly. The officer was as pale as death, and when he spoke his voice came hoarsely from his throat. Beside him his orderly, with unbuttoned coat, his rifle clasped in his hand, swayed as he stood. The officer said slowly, in his gasping voice, 'They have gassed the Duke's. I believe I was the last man to leave the hill. The men are all up there dead. They were splendid. I thought I ought to come and report.' That officer was Captain Robins... They took him and his faithful orderly to hospital, but the gallant officer died that night."
Such was the upshot of the fighting at Hill 60. What with the shells and what with the mines, very little of the original eminence was left. The British still held the trenches upon the side while the Germans held the summit, if such a name could be applied. The British losses, nearly all from poison, had been considerable in the affair, and amounted to the greater part of a thousand men, the Dorsets, Devons, Bedfords, and West Ridings being the regiments which suffered most heavily. When the historian of the future sums up the deeds of the war it is probable that he will find nothing more remarkable than the patient endurance with which the troops faced a death of torture from the murderous gas in the days when no protection had yet been afforded them.