The British Campaign in France (february 1917)
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The British Campaign in France. Chapter XI. The Second Battle of Ypres (stage II) is the 11th article, published in february 1917, in a series of 21 articles written by Arthur Conan Doyle serialized in The Strand Magazine.
- in The Strand Magazine (february 1917 [UK]) (3 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 XI. The Second Battle of Ypres
(Stage II. — The Bellewaarde Lines.)
The Second Phase — Attack on the Fourth Division — Great Stand of the Princess Pats — Breaking of the Line — Desperate Attacks — The Cavalry Save the Situation — The Ordeal of the Eleventh Brigade — The German Failure — Terrible Strain on the British — The Last Effort of May 24th — Result of the Battle — Sequence of Events.
It was upon the evening of May 4th that the difficult operations were finished by which the lines of the British Army on the north-east of Ypres were brought closer to the city. The trenches which faced north, including those which looked towards Pilken and St. Julien, were hardly affected at all by this rearrangement. The section which was chiefly modified was the long curved line which was held from Zonnebeke southwards by the Twenty-seventh and Twenty-eighth Divisions. Instead of averaging five miles from Ypres, these troops were now not more than three from that centre, and the curve of their line was from Wieltje (in the north) and Frezenberg to past the Bellewaarde wood and lake, and so through Hooge and on to Hill 60. This alteration had the effect of flattening out an awkward salient, but it brought with it some very grave disadvantages, for the area held in that part was now so limited that there was no sect-ion of it which was not open to the German fire from the east as well as from the north. The compression of the British forces caused them to be more vulnerable to artillery, while the restriction of the ground made it very difficult for them to secure good positions for their own guns. Ypres, too, could now be reached by even the more moderate German pieces, and all transport through the streets of the town was attended with very great risk. As an example, it may be mentioned that when the Lahore Division was coming up in reinforcement as already described, a single shell in the streets of Ypres killed or wounded twenty-five of the 40th Pathans.
The Second Phase
The second phase of this great battle, which began with the poisoning of Langemarck, is dated from the time that the British line was readjusted. The Germans were naturally much encouraged by so general a withdrawal, and it seemed to them that, with a further effort, they , would be able to burst their way through and take possession at last of this town which faced them, still inviolate, after nearly eight months of incessant attack. Their guns, aided by their aeroplanes, after wasting a day in bombarding the empty trenches, hastened to register upon the new line of defences.
During the 5th, 6th, and 7th the enemy were perfecting their new arrangements, but no peace or rest was given to that northern portion of the line which was still in its old trenches. The bombardment was turned on to this or that battalion in turn. On the evening of the 5th it was the 5th South Lancashires, on the right of the Twelfth Brigade, who were torn to pieces by lets of steel from the terrible hose. The battalion was relieved by the 2nd Monmouths, who beat off an attack next morning. All day upon the 7th the Germans were massing for an attack, but were held back by the steady fire of the French and British batteries. On the 8th, however, the new preparations were complete, and a terrible storm, destined to last for six unbroken days — days never to be forgotten by those who endured them—broke along the whole east, north-east, and north of the British line.
It has been shown in the last chapter that during the long and bitter fight which had raged from the 22nd to the 28th of April the two British divisions which together formed the Fifth Army Corps had not only been closely engaged in their own trenches, but had lent battalions freely to the Canadians, so that they had at one time only a single battalion in their own reserve. During the period of the readjustment of the line nearly all these troops returned, but they came back grievously weakened and wearied by the desperate struggle in which they had been involved. None the less, they got to work at once in forming and strengthening the new dyke which was to keep the German flood out of Ypres. Day and night they toiled at their lines, helped by working parties from the Fifth Division, the Northumbrian Division, and two field companies of sappers from the Fourth Division. All was ready when the German attack broke upon the line. The left of this attack was borne by the Fourth Division, the centre, in the Frezenberg sector, was held by the Twenty-eighth Division, and the right by the Twenty-seventh Division, who joined up with the Fifth Division in the south. This was at first almost entirely an artillery attack, and was of a most destructive character. Such an attack probably represents the fixed type of the future, where the guns will make an area of country impossible for human life, and the function of the infantry will simply be to move forward afterwards and to occupy. Along the whole line of the three divisions for hour after hour an inexhaustible rain of huge projectiles fell with relentless precision into the trenches, smashing them to pieces and burying the occupants in the graves which they had prepared for themselves. It was with joy that the wearied troops saw the occasional head of an infantry assault and blew it to pieces with their rifles. For the greater part it was not a contest between men and men, but rather one between men and metal, in which our battalions were faced by a deserted and motionless landscape, from which came the ceaseless downpour of shells and occasional drifting clouds of chlorine.
Attack on the Fourth Division
About seven o'clock the German infantry attack developed against that part of the line — the northern or left wing — which was held by the Fourth Division. The advance was pushed with great resolution and driven back with heavy losses, after getting within a hundred yards of the trenches. "Company after company came swinging forward steadily in one long, never-ending line," says an observer of the Eleventh Brigade, describing the attack as it appeared from the front of the 1st East Lancashires and of the 5th Rifle Brigade. "Here and there their attack slackened, but the check was only temporary. On they came again, and the sight was one that almost mesmerized us. They were near enough for us to hear the short, sharp cries of the officers, and the rain of bullets became more deadly than ever. It was simple murder." The barbed wire in front of the defences was choked and heaped with dead and wounded men. This desperate German attack had more success farther to the south.
At this part of the line the Germans had pushed through a gap and had seized the village of Wieltje, thus getting behind the right rear of the Twelfth Brigade. It was essential to regain the village, which was a vital point in the line. The 1st Royal Irish, which had been attached to this brigade, together with two companies of the 5th South Lancashire, were ordered to advance, while two reserve battalions of the 1st Irish Fusiliers and the 7th Argyll and Sutherlands, all under General Anley, supported the attack. It is no light matter with an inferior artillery to attack a village held by German troops, but the assault was brilliantly successful and the village was regained, while the dangerous gap was closed in the British line. That night there was some desperate fighting round Wieltje, which occasionally got down to bayonet work. The 1st Hants and 1st East Lancashire from the Eleventh Brigade had come up and helped in the fierce defence, which ended where it began. with the British line still intact.
Such was the fighting on May 8th in front of the Fourth Division. Farther down the line to the south the situation was more serious. A terrific bombardment had demolished the trenches of the Fifth Corps, and a very heavy infantry advance had followed which broke the line in several places.
The weight of this attack fell upon the Twenty-eighth Division in front of Frezenberg, and very particularly upon the Eighty-third Brigade, which formed the unit on the right flank. The German rush was stemmed for a time by the staunch North of England regiments which made up this brigade — the 1st Yorkshire
Light Infantry on the extreme right, and their neighbours of the 5th Royal Lancasters, the 2nd Royal Lancasters, and the 2nd East Yorkshires. Great drifts of gas came over and the gasping soldiers, with their hands to their throats and the tears running down their cheeks. were at the same time cut to pieces by every kind of shell beating upon them in an endless stream. Yet they made head against this accumulation of horrors. The East Yorkshires were particularly badly cut up, and the 1st Monmouths, who were in support, endured a terrible and glorious baptism of fire while advancing in splendid fashion to their support. But the losses from the shell-fire had been very heavy, and the line was too weak to hold. The brigade had to fall back. The left flank of the Eightieth Brigade of the Twenty-seventh Division upon the right was consequently exposed and in the air. A glance at the accompanying diagram will show the situation created by the retirement of any unit.
Great Stand of the Princess Pats
The flank trench was held by the Princess Patricia Canadians. and their grand defence of it showed once more the splendid stuff which the Dominion had sent us. Major Gault and all the other senior officers were killed or wounded, and the command devolved upon Lieutenant Nivea, who rose greatly to the occasion. Besides the heavy shelling and the gas, the trenches were raked by machine-guns in neighbouring buildings. So accurate was the German artillery that the machine-guns of the Canadians were buried again and again, but were dug up and spat out their defiance once more Corporal Dover worked one of these guns till both his leg and his arm had been shot away. When the trenches were absolutely obliterated the Canadians manned the communication trench and continued the desperate resistance. The 4th Rifle Brigade sent up a reinforcement and the fight went on. Later a party of the 2nd Shropshires pushed their way also into the fire-swept trenches, bringing with them a welcome supply of cartridges. It was at this hour that the Eighty-third Brigade upon the right of the Twenty-eighth Division had to fail back, increasing the difficulty of holding the position. The enemy charged once more and got possession of the trench at a point where all the defenders had been killed. There was a rush, however, by the survivors in the other sections, and the Germans were driven out again. From then until late at night the shell-fire continued, but there was no further infantry advance. Late that night, when relieved by the Rifles, the. Canadian regiment, which had numbered nearly seven hundred in the morning, could only muster one hundred and fifty men. Having read the service over their comrades, who had already been buried by the German shells, they were led back by Lieutenants Niven, Clark, Vandenburg, and Papineau after a day of great stress and loss, but of permanent glory. "No regiment could have fought with greater determination or endurance, said an experienced British general. "Many would have failed where they succeeded."
Breaking of the Line
It has already been described how the Eighty-third Brigade had been driven back by the extreme weight of the German advance. Their fellow brigade upon the left, the Eighty-fourth (Bowes), had a similar experience. They also held their line under heavy losses, and were finally, shortly after midday, compelled to retire. The flank regiment on the right, the 1st Suffolk. were cut off and destroyed even as their second battalion had been at Le Cateau.
At this time the 1st Suffolk was so reduced by its losses when it had formed part of Wallace's detachment, as described in the last chapter, that there were fewer than three hundred men with the Colours. When tie Germans broke through the left flank of the Eighty-third Brigade they got partly to the rear of the Suffolk trenches.
The survivors of the Suffolks were crowded down the trench and mixed up with the 2nd Cheshires, who were their immediate neighbours. The parapets were wrecked, the trenches full of debris, the air polluted with gas, and the Germans pushing forward on the flank, holding before them the prisoners that they had just taken from the Eighty-third Brigade, It is little wonder that in these circumstances this most gallant battalion was overwhelmed. Colonel Wallace and one hundred and thirty men were taken. The 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers and the 1st Monmouths sustained also very heavy losses, as did the 12th London Rangers. The shattered remains of the brigade were compelled to fall back in conformity with the Eighty-third upon the right, sustaining fresh losses as they were swept with artillery fire on emerging from the trenches. This was about eleven-thirty in the morning. The 1st Monmouths upon the left of the line seem, however, to have kept up their resistance till a considerably later hour, and to have behaved with extraordinary gallantry. Outflanked and attacked in the rear after the Germans had taken the trenches on the right. they still, under their gallant Colonel Robinson, persevered in what was really a hopeless resistance. The Germans trained a machine-gun upon them from a house which overlooked their trench, but nothing could shift the gallant miners who formed the greater part of the regiment. Colonel Robinson was shot dead while passing his men down the trench one by one in the hope of forming a new front. Half the officers and men were already on the ground. The German stormers were on the top of them with cries of "Surrender! Surrender!" "Surrender be damned!" shouted Captain Edwards, and died still firing his revolver into the grey of them. It was a fine feat of arms, but only one hundred and twenty men out of seven hundred and fifty reassembled that night.
After this severe blow battalions held back in reserve were formed up for a counter-attack, which was launched about half-past three. The attack advanced from the point where the Fourth and Twenty-eighth Divisions adjoined, and two regiments of the Fourth Division — the 1st Warwicks and the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers — together with the 2nd East Surreys, 1st York and Lancasters, and 3rd Middlesex, of the Eighty-fifth Brigade, took part in it, pushing forwards towards the hamlet of Frezenberg, which they succeeded in occupying. On their left the 12th London Regiment (the Rangers) won their way back to the line which their brigade. the Eighty-fourth, had held in the morning, but they lost very heavily in their gallant attack. Two other reserve regiments, the 1st East Lancashires, of the Eleventh Brigade, and the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, of the Tenth, fought their way up as already mentioned on the extreme left in the neighbourhood of Wieltje, and spliced the line at the weak point of the junction of divisions. All these attacks were made against incessant drifts of poison-gas, as well as heavy rifle and shell fire. It was a day of desperate and incessant fighting, where all General Plumer's skill and resolution were needed to restore and to hold his line. The Germans claimed to have taken five hundred prisoners, mostly of the Eighty-fourth Brigade.
The net result of the fighting upon May 8th was that the area held in the north-east of Ypres was further diminished. Early upon the 9th the Germans, encouraged by their partial success, continued their attack, stilt relying upon their massive artillery, which far exceeded anything which the British could put against it. The attack on this morning came down the Menin road, and the trenches on either side of it were heavily bombarded. At ten o'clock there was an infantry advance upon the line of the Eighty-first Brigade, which was driven back by the 2nd Cameron Highlanders and the 2nd Gloucesters. The shell-fire was continued upon the same line until 4 p.m., when the trench was obliterated, and a second advance of the German infantry got possession of it. A counter-attack of the Gloucesters was held up with considerable loss, the advance of the regiment through the wood being greatly impeded by the number of trees cut down by shells and forming abattis in every direction, like the windfalls of a Canadian forest. This trench was the only capture made by the Germans during the day, and it did not materially weaken the position.
These attacks along the Line of the Menin road and to the north of Lake Bellewaarde were an directed upon the Twenty-seventh Division, but the Twenty-eighth Division immediately to the north, which had been defending the sector which runs through Frezenberg and Wieltje, had also been most violently shelled, but had held its line, as had the Fourth Division to the north. All these divisions had considerable losses. The general result was a further slight contraction of the British line. It could not be broken, and it could not be driven in upon Ypres, but the desperate and (apart from the gas outrages) valorous onslaughts of the Germans, aided by their overpowering artillery, gained continually an angle here and a corner there, with the result that the British position was being gradually whittled away.
On the 10th the Germans again attacked upon the line of the Menin road, blasting a passage with their artillery. but meeting with a most determined resistance. The weight of their advance fell chiefly upon the Eightieth Brigade to the north of the road, the 4th Rifle Brigade and the 4th Rifles bearing the brunt of it and suffering very severely, though the 2nd Camerons and 9th Royal Scots, of the Eighty-first Brigade, were also hard hit. So savage had been the bombardment, and so thick the gas, that the German infantry thought that they could safely advance, but the regiments named, together with the 3rd Battalion of Rifles, drove them back with heavy loss. It was always a moment of joy for the British infantry when for a brief space they were faced by men rather than machines. The pitiless bombardment continued; the garrison of the trenches was mostly killed or buried, and the survivors fell back on to the support trenches west of the wood. This defence of the Riflemen was as desperate a business as that of the Canadians upon the 8th. Several of the platoons remained in the shattered trenches until the Germans had almost surrounded them, and finally shot and stabbed a path for themselves till they could rejoin their comrades, It was on this day that the 9th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders suffered heavy losses, including their splendid Colonel James Clark.
On May 11th the attack was still very vigorous. The Twenty-seventh Division was strongly pressed in the morning. The Eightieth Brigade was to the north and somewhat to the west of the Eighty-first, which caused the latter to form a salient. With their usual quickness in taking advantage of such things, the Germans instantly directed their fire upon this point. After several hours of heavy shelling, an infantry attack about 11 a.m. got into the trenches, but was driven out again by the rush of the 9th Royal Scots. The bombardment was then renewed, and the attack was more successful at 4 p.m. — an almost exact repetition of the events upon the day before, save that the stress fell upon the Eighty-first instead of the Eightieth Brigade, During the night the Leinsters of the Eighty-second Brigade drove the Germans out again, but found that the trench was untenable on account of the shell-fire. It was abandoned, therefore, and the line was drawn back into the better cover afforded by a wood.
The Cavalry Save the Situation
By this date many of the defending troops had been fighting with hardly a break from April 22nd. It was an ordeal which Lad lasted by day and by night, and had only been interrupted by the labour of completing the new lines. The losses had been very heavy, and reinforcements were most urgently needed. At the same time it was impossible to take any troops from the northern sector, which was already hardly strong enough to hold a violent German attack. In the south the Army had, as will be shown, become involved in the very serious and expensive operations which began at Richebourg on May 9th. In these difficult circumstances it was to the never-failing cavalry that General Plumer had to turn. It is sinful extravagance to expend these highly-trained horsemen, who cannot be afterwards improvised, on work that is not their own, but there have been many times in this war when it was absolutely necessary that the last man, be he who he might, should be put forward. So it was now, and the First and Third Cavalry Divisions, under General de Lisle, were put into the firing line to the north of Lake Bellewaarde, taking the place of the Twenty-eighth Division, which at that time had hardly a senior regimental officer left standing. The First Cavalry Division took the line from Wieltje to Verlorenhoek, while the Third carried it on to Hooge, where it touched the Twenty-seventh Division. Their presence in the front firing line was a sign of British weakness, but, on the other hand, it was certain that the Germans had lost enormously, that they were becoming exhausted, and that they were likely to wear out the rifling of their cavalry before they broke the line of the defence. A few more days would save the situation, and it was hoped that the inclusion of the cavalry would win them.
They took over the lines just in time to meet the brunt of what may have been the most severe attack of all. The shelling upon May 13th can only be described as terrific. The Germans appeared to have an inexhaustible supply of munitions, and from morning to night they blew to pieces the trenches in front and the shelters behind which might screen the supports.
It was a day of tempestuous weather, and the howling wind, the driving rain, and the pitiless fire made a Dantesque nightmare of the combat. The attack on the right fell, upon the Third Cavalry Division. This force had been reorganized since the days in October when it had done so splendidly with the Seventh Infantry Division in the fighting before Ypres. It consisted now of the Sixth Brigade (1st Royals, 3rd Dragoon Guards, North Somerset Yeomanry), the Seventh Brigade (1st and 2nd Life Guards and Leicestershire Yeomanry), and the Eighth Brigade (Blues, 10th Hussars, and Essex Yeomanry). This Division was exposed all morning to a perfectly hellish fire, which was especially murderous to the north of the Ypres-Roulers road. At this point the 1st Royals, 3rd Dragoon Guards, and Somerset Yeomanry were stationed, and were blown, with their trenches, into the air by a bombardment which continued for fourteen hours. A single sentence may be extracted from the report of the Commander-in-Chief which the Somersets should have printed in gold round the walls of their headquarters, "The North Somerset Yeomanry on the right of the brigade," says the General, "although also suffering severely, hung on to their trenches throughout the day and actually advanced and attacked the enemy with the bayonet." The Royals came up in support, but the brigade, after terrible losses, was compelled to fall back nearly half a mile, The Seventh Brigade upon the right was also driven back, but was rallied by the Eighth in support. On the right the flank of the Twenty-seventh Division had been exposed by the retirement of the cavalry, but the 2nd Irish Fusiliers were echeloned back so as to cover it. So with desperate devices a sagging line was still drawn between Ypres and the ever-pressing invaders. The strain was heavy, not only upon the cavalry, but upon the Twenty-seventh Division to the south of them. There was a time when the pressure upon the 4th Rifle Brigade, a regiment which had endured enormous losses, was so great that help was urgently needed. The Princess Patricia's had been taken out of the line, as only one hundred men remained effective, and the 4th Rifles were in hardly a better position, but the two maimed regiments were formed into one composite battalion, which pushed up with a good heart into the fighting line and took the place of the 3rd Rifles, who in turn relieved the exhausted Rifle Brigade.
On the left of the cavalry line, where the First Cavalry Division joined on to the Fourth Infantry Division, near Wieltje, the artillery storm had burst also with appalling violence. The 18th Hussars lost one hundred and fifty men out of their already scanty ranks, The Essex Regiment on their left helped them to fill the gap until the 4th Dragoon Guards came up in support. This fine regiment and their comrades of the 9th Lancers were heavily punished, but bore it with grim stoicism. To their right Briggs' First Brigade held splendidly, though all of them, and especially the Bays, were terribly knocked about. In the afternoon the 5th Dragoon Guards were momentarily driven in by the blasts of shell, but the 11th Hussars held the line firm.
The Ordeal of the Eleventh Brigade
The situation as the day wore on became somewhat more reassuring. The British line had been badly dented in the middle, where the cavalry had been driven back or annihilated, but it held firm at each end. South of the Menin road the Twenty-seventh Division, much exhausted, were still holding on, officers and men praying in their weary souls that the enemy might be more weary still. These buttressed the right of the line, while three miles to the north the Fourth Division, equally worn and ragged, was holding the left. The Tenth Brigade had sustained such losses in the gas battle that it was held, as far as possible, in reserve, but the Eleventh and Twelfth were hard pressed during the long, bitter day, during which they were choked by gas, lashed with artillery fire, and attacked time after time by columns of infantry. The Eleventh Brigade in that dark hour showed in a supreme degree the historic qualities of British infantry, their courage hardening as the times grew worse. The 1st East Lancashires bad their trenches destroyed, lost Major Rutter and many of their officers, but still, under their gallant Colonel Lawrence, held on to their shattered lines. Every point gained lay the stubborn Germans was wrenched from them again by men more stubborn still. They carried a farmhouse near Wieltje, but were turned out again by the indomitable East Lancashires after desperate fighting at close quarters. It is said to have been the fourth time that this battalion mended a broken line. Severe attacks were made upon the trenches of the 1st Hampshires and the 5th London Rifle Brigade, but in each case the defenders held their line, the latter Territorial battalion being left with fewer than two hundred men. It was in this action that Sergeant Belcher, of the London Rifle Brigade, with eight of his Territorials and two Hussars, held a vital position against the full force of a German infantry attack, losing half their little band, but saving the whole line from being enfiladed.
The Twelfth Brigade had been drawn back into reserve, but it was not a day for rest, and the 2nd Essex was hurried forward to the relief of the extreme left of the cavalry, where their line abutted upon the Fourth Division. The regiment made a very fine counter-attack under a hail of shells, recovering some trenches and clearing the Germans out of a farmhouse, which they subsequently held against all assailants. This attack was ordered on the instant, upon his own responsibility, by Colonel Jones, of the Essex, and was carried out so swiftly that the enemy had no time to consolidate his new position.
Whilst each buttress held firm a gallant attempt was made in the afternoon to straighten out the line in the centre where the Third Cavalry Division had been pushed back, The Eighth Brigade of Cavalry, under Bulkeley-Johnson, pushed forward on. foot and won their way to the original line of trenches, chasing the Germans out of them and making many prisoners, but they found it impossible to hold them without supports under the heavy shell-fire. They fell back, therefore, and formed an irregular line behind the trenches, partly in broken ground and partly in the craters of explosions. This they held for the rest of the day.
The German Failure
Thus ended a truly desperate conflict. The Germans had failed in this, which proved to be their final and supreme effort to break the line. On the other hand, the advance to the north of the Bellewaarde Lake necessitated a further spreading and weakening of the other forces, so that it may truly be said that the prospects never looked worse than at the very moment when the Germans had spent their strength and could do no more. From May 14th the fighting died down, and for some time the harassed and exhausted defenders were allowed to re-form and to recuperate. The Eightieth brigade, which had suffered very heavily, was drawn out upon the 17th, the Second Cavalry Division, under Kavanagh, taking its place. Next day the Eighty-first Brigade, and on the 22nd of May the Eighty-second, were also drawn back to the west of Ypres, their place being taken by fresh troops. The various units of the Twenty-eighth Division were also rested for a time. For the gunners and sappers there was no rest, however, but incessant labour against overmastering force.
The second phase of this new Battle of Ypres may be said to have lasted from May 4th to May 14th. It consisted of a violent German attack, pushed chiefly by poison and by artillery, against the Twenty-seventh and Twenty-eighth Divisions of the Fifth British Corps and the Fourth Division to the north of them. Its aim was, as ever, the capture of Ypres. In this aim it failed, nor did it from first to last occupy any village or post which gave it any return for its exertions. It inflicted upon the British a loss of from twelve thousand to fifteen thousand men, but endured itself at the very least an equal slaughter without any compensating advantage. The whole operation can only be described, there-fore, as being a costly failure. Throughout these operations the British infantry were provided with respirators soaked in alkalis, while many wore specially-constructed helmets to save them from being poisoned. To such grotesque expedients had Germany brought the warfare of the twentieth century.
Terrible Strain on the British
There is no doubt that the three British regular divisions and the cavalry were worn to a shadow at the end of these operations. Since the enemy ceased to attack. it is to be presumed that they were in no better case. The British infantry had been fighting almost day and night for three weeks, under the most desperate conditions. Their superiority to the infantry of the Germans was incontestable, but there was no comparison at all between the number of heavy guns available, which were at least six to one in favour of the enemy. Shells were poured down with a profusion, and also with an accuracy, never before seen in warfare, and though the British infantry continually regained trenches which had been occupied by the German infantry, it was only to be shelled out of them again by a fire against which they could make no adequate answer. An aerial observer has described that plain simply flaming and smoking from end to end with the incessant beat of the shells, and has expressed his wonder that human life should have been possible under such a fire. And yet the road to Ypres was ever barred.
All the infantry losses, heavy as they were, are eclipsed by those of the Third Cavalry Division, which bore the full blast of the final whirlwind, and was practically destroyed in holding it back from Ypres. This splendid division, to whom, from first to last, the country owes as much as to any body of troops in the field, was only engaged in the fighting for one clear day, and yet lost nearly as heavily in proportion as either of the infantry divisions which had been in the firing line for a week. Their casualties were ninety-one officers and one thousand and fifty men. This will give some idea of the concentrated force of the storm which broke upon them on May 13th. It was a most murderous affair, and they were only driven from their trenches when the trenches themselves had been blasted to pieces. It is doubtful whether any regiments have endured more in so short a time. These three brigades were formed of corps d'élites, and they showed that day that the blue blood of the land was not yet losing its iron. The casualty lists in this and the succeeding action of the 24th read like a society function. Colonel Ferguson, of the Blues, Colonel the Hon. Evans-Freke, Lord Chesham, the Hon. Captain Grenfell, Lord Leveson-Gower, Sir Robert Sutton, Lord Compton, the Hon. Major Mitford, the Hon. C. E. A. Phillips, Viscount Wendover — so runs the sombre and yet glorious list. The sternest of Radicals may well admit that the aristocrats of Britain have counted their lives cheap when the enemy was at the gate. Colonel Smith-Bingham, of the 3rd Dragoon Guards, Colonel Steele, of the 1st Royals, Colonel Freke, of the Leicestershire Yeomanry, and many other senior officers were among the dead. The Leicester Yeomanry suffered very severely, but their comrades of Essex and of Somerset, the Blues and the 1st Royals, were also hard hit. The losses of the First Cavalry Division were not so desperately heavy as those of the Third, but were none the less very serious, amounting to fifty-four officers and six hundred and fifty men.
It is possible that the German attack desisted because the infantry were exhausted, but more probable that the great head of shells accumulated had been brought down to a minimum level, and that the gas cylinders were empty. For ten days, while the British strengthened their battered line, there was a lull in the fighting.
The Last Effort of May 24th
There was no change, however, in the German plan of campaign, and the fight which broke out again upon May 24th may be taken as the continuation of the battle which had died down upon the 14th. Fresh reservoirs of poison had been accumulated, and early in the morning in the first light of dawn the infernal stuff was drifting down wind in a solid bank some three miles in length and forty feet in depth, bleaching the grass, blighting the trees, and leaving a broad scar of destruction behind it. A roaring torrent of shells came pouring into the trenches at the instant that the men, hastily aroused from sleep, were desperately fumbling in the darkness to find their respirators and shield their lungs from the strangling poison. The front of this attack was from a farm called "Shell-trap," between the Poelcapelle and Langemarck roads on the north, to Bellewaarde Lake on the south. The surprise of the poison in that weird hour was very effective, and it was immediately followed by a terrific and accurate bombardment, which brought showers of asphyxiating shells into the trenches. The main force of the chlorine seems to have struck the extreme right of the Fourth Division and the whole front of the Twenty-eighth Division, but the Twenty-seventh and the cavalry were also involved.
Anley's Twelfth Brigade was on the left of the British line, with Hull's Tenth Brigade upon its right, the Eleventh being in reserve. On the Twelfth and Tenth fell the full impact of the attack. The Twelfth, though badly mauled, stood like a rock and blew back the Germans as they tried to follow up the gas. "They doubled out of their trenches to follow it up half an hour after the emission," wrote an officer of the Essex. "They were simply shot back into them by a blaze of fire. They bolted back like rabbits." All day the left and centre of the Twelfth Brigade held firm. The Royal Irish upon the right were less fortunate. The pressure both of the gas and the shells fell very severely upon them, and the few survivors were at last driven from their trenches, some hundreds of yards being lost, including the Shell-trap Farm. The Dublin Fusiliers, in the exposed flank of the Tenth Brigade, were also very hard hit. Of these two gallant Irish regiments only a handful remained, and the Colonels of each, Moriarty and Loveband, fell with their men. Several of the regiments of the Tenth Brigade suffered severely, and the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were left with only a single officer, Captain Scott, standing.
This misfortune upon the right left the rest of the Twelfth Brigade in a most perilous position, attacked on the front, the flank, and the right rear. No soldiers could be subjected to a more desperate test. The flank battalion was the 1st Royal Lancasters (Colonel Jackson), who lived up to the very highest traditions of the British Army. Sick and giddy with the gas, and fired into from three sides, they still stuck doggedly to their trenches. The Essex battalion stood manfully beside them, and these two fine regiments, together with the East Lancashires and Rifle Brigade, held their places all day and even made occasional aggressive efforts to counter-attack. At eight in the evening they were ordered to form a new line with the Tenth Brigade, five hundred yards in the rear. They came back in perfect order, carrying their wounded with them. Up to this moment the Fourth Division had held exactly the same line which they had occupied from May 1st.
To return to the events of the morning. The next unit from the north was the Eighty-fifth Brigade (Chapman), which formed the left flank of the Twenty-eighth Division. Upon it also the gas descended with devastating effect. There was just enough breeze to drift it along and not enough to disperse it. The 2nd East Surrey, the flank battalion, held on heroically, poison-proof and heedless of the shells. Next to them, just south of the railway, the 3rd Royal Fusiliers were so heavily gassed that the great majority of the men were absolutely incapacitated. The few who could use a rifle held on with desperate valour while two companies of the Buffs were sent up to help them, and another company of the same regiment was dispatched to Hooge village, where the 9th Lancers and 18th Hussars of the Second Cavalry Brigade were very hard pressed. On the left of the cavalry, between Hooge and Bellewaarde, was the Durham Territorial Brigade, which was pushed forward and had its share of the gas and of the attack generally, though less hard pressed than the divisions of regular troops upon their left. The Durham Territorial Artillery did excellent work in supporting the cavalry, though they were handicapped by their weapons, which were the ancient fifteen-pounders of the South African type. These various movements were all in the early morning under the stress of the first attack. The pressure continued to be very severe on the line of the Royal Fusiliers and Buffs, who were covering the ground between the railway line on the north and Bellewaarde Lake on the south, so the remaining company of the Buffs was thrown into the fight. At the same time, the 3rd Middlesex, with part of the 6th and 8th Durham Light Infantry, advanced to the north of the railway line. The German pressure still increased, however, and at midday the Buffs and Fusiliers, having lost nearly all their officers and a large proportion of their ranks, fell back into the wood to the south of the railway.
A determined attempt was at once made to recapture the line of trenches from which they had been forced. The Eighty-fourth Brigade (Bowes), which had been in reserve, was ordered to move along the south of the line, while the whole artillery of the Fifth Corps supported the advance. Meanwhile, the Eightieth Brigade (Fortescue) was pushed forward on the right of the Eighty-fourth, with orders to advance upon Hooge and restore the situation there, It was evening before all arrangements were completed. About seven o'clock the Eighty-fourth advanced with the 2nd Cheshires upon the left and the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers upon the right, supported by the 1st Welsh, the Monmouths, and the feeble remains of the 1st Suffolks. Darkness had fallen before the lines came into contact, and a long and obstinate fight followed, which swayed back and forwards under the light of flares and the sudden red glare of bursting shells. So murderous was the engagement that the Eighty-fourth Brigade came out of it without a senior officer left standing out of six battalions, and with a loss of seventy-five per cent. of the numbers with which it began. The machine-gun fire of the Germans was extremely intense and was responsible for most of the heavy losses. At one time men of the Welsh, the Suffolk, and the Northumberland Fusiliers were actually in the German trenches, but at dawn they were compelled to retire. Late in the evening the Third and Fourth Brigades of Cavalry were pushed into the trenches on the extreme right of the British position, near Hooge, to relieve the First and Second Brigades, who had sustained heavy losses for the second time within ten days.
The general result of the attack of May 24th was that this, the most profuse emission of poison, had no more solid effect than the other recent ones, since the troops had learned how to meet it. The result seems to have convinced the Germans that this filthy ally which they had called in was not destined to serve them to any good purpose, for from this day onwards there was no further attempt to use it upon a large scale in this quarter. In this action, which may be known in history as the Battle of Bellewaarde, since it centred round the lake of that name, the British endured a loss of some thousands of men killed, wounded, or poisoned, but their line, though forced back at several points, was as firm as ever. The struggle ended in the usual futile stalemate of trenches, but it marked one more stage in that process of attrition which must in the Icing run leave an exhausted victor standing over a helpless enemy.
In all this fighting which forms the second half of this great battle one is so absorbed by the desperate efforts of regimental officers and men to hold on to their trenches that one is inclined to do less than justice to the leaders who bore the strain day after day of that uphill fight. Plumer, of the Second Army; Ferguson, of the Fifth. Army Corps; Wilson, Snow, and Bulfin, of the Fourth, Twenty-seventh, and Twenty-eighth Divisions — these were the men who held the line in those weeks of deadly danger.
On May 25th the line was consolidated and straightened out, joining the French at the same point as before and passing through Wieltje, and so past the west end of Lake Bellewaarde to Hooge. At this latter village there broke out between May 31st and June 3rd what may be regarded as an aftermath of the battle which has just been described. The chateau at this place, now a shattered ruin, was the same building tit which General Lomax was wounded and General Munro struck senseless in that desperate fight on October 31st. Such was the equilibrium of the two great forces that here in May the fight was still raging. Château and village were attacked very strongly by the German artillery, and later by the German infantry, between May 30th and June 3rd, but no impression was made. The post was held by the survivors of the 3rd Dragoon Guards, and the action, though a local one, was as fine an exhibition of tenacious courage as has been seen in the war. The building was destroyed, so to a large extent was the regiment, but the post remained with the British.
Result of the Battle
Such is a brief outline of the series of events which make up the second phase of that battle which, beginning in the north of the Allied lines upon April 22nd, was continued upon the north-eastern salient, and ended as shown at Hooge at the end of May. In this fighting at least one hundred thousand men of the three nations were killed or wounded. The advantage with which the Germans began was to some extent neutralized before the end, for our gallant Allies had never rested during this time, and had been gradually re-establishing their position, clearing the west of the canal, recapturing Steenstraate and Het Sas, and only stopping short of Pilkem. On the other hand, the British had been compelled to draw in for two miles, and Ypres had become more vulnerable to the guns of the enemy. If any advantage could be claimed the balance lay certainly with the Germans, but as part of a campaign of attrition nothing could be devised which would be more helpful to the Allies. The whole of these operations may be included under the general title of the second Battle of Ypres, but they can be divided into two clearly separated episodes, the first lasting from April 22nd to the end of the month, which may be called the Poisoning of Langemarck, and the second from May 4th to the 24th, with a long interval in the centre, which may be known as the Battle of Bellewaarde, since the Bellewaarde lines were the centre of the most severe fighting, In this hard-fought war it would be difficult to say that any action was more hard-fought than this, and it will remain for centuries to come in the glorious traditions of the Canadian Division, who first showed that a. brave heart may rise superior to bursting lungs. These were the greatest of all, but they had worthy comrades in the Indians, who at the end of an exhausting march hurled them-selves into so diabolical a battle ; the Northumberland Division, so lately civilians to a man, and now fighting like veterans ; the Thirteenth Brigade, staggering from their exertions at Hill 60, and yet called on for this new effort; the glorious cavalry, who saved the situation at the last moment : and the much-enduring Fourth. Twenty-seventh, and Twenty-Eighth Divisions of the line, who bore the buffetings of the ever-rising German tide.
Their dead lie at peace on Ypres plain, but shame on England if ever she forgets what she owes to those who lived, for they and their comrades of 1914 have made that name a symbol of glory for ever.
Sequence of Events
It may help the reader's comprehension of the sequence of events, and of the desperate nature of this second Battle of Ypres, if a short résumé be here given of the happenings upon the various dates. A single day of this contest would have appeared to be a considerable ordeal to any troops. It is difficult to realize the cumulative effect when such blows fell day after day and week after week upon the same body of men. The more one considers this action the more remarkable do the facts appear.
April 22nd. — Furious attack upon the French and Canadians. Germans gain several miles of ground, eight batteries of French guns, and four heavy British guns by the use of poison-gas. The Canadians stand firm.
April 23rd. — Canadians hold the line. Furious fighting. French begin to re-form. Reserves from the Twenty-seventh and Twenty-eighth British Divisions, Thirteenth Brigade, and cavalry buttress up the line.
April 24th. — Desperate fighting. Line pushed farther back and Germans took about a thousand prisoners. Line never broken.
April 25th. — Battle at its height. Northumberland Territorial Division come into the fight. Tenth Regular Brigade comes up. Canadians drawn out. The French advancing.
April 26th. — Eleventh Regular Brigade thrown into the fight. Also the Lahore Division of Indians. Trenches of Twenty-eighth Division attacked. The battle swings and sways.
April 27th. — The French make some advance on the left. There is equilibrium on the rest of the line. Hard fighting everywhere.
April 28th. — The enemy still held, and his attack exhausted for the moment. French making some progress.
May 1st. — British Twelfth Brigade comes into line.
May 2nd. — Renewed German assault on French and British, chiefly by gas. Advance was held back with difficulty by the Fourth Division.
May 3rd and 4th. — Contraction of the British position, effected without fighting, but involving the abandonment of two miles of ground at the north-eastern salient.
May 5th. — German attack upon Fourth Division.
May 6th. — Attack still continued.
May 7th. — Artillery preparation for general German attack.
May 8th. — Furious attack upon Fourth, Twenty-eighth, and Twenty-seventh British Divisions. Desperate fighting and heavy losses. The British repulse the attack on their left wing (Fourth Division), but sustain heavy loss on centre and right. Eighty-fourth Brigade broken.
May 9th. — Very severe battle continued. British left holds its ground, but right and centre tend to contract.
May 10th. — Fighting of a desperate character, falling especially upon the Twenty-seventh Division.
May 11th. — Again very severe fighting fell upon the Twenty-seventh Division on the right of the British line. Losses were heavy, and again there was a slight contraction.
May 12th. — Readjustment of British line. Two divisions of cavalry put in place of Twenty-eighth Division.
May 13th. — Furious artillery attack, followed by infantry advance. Cavalry and Twenty-seventh Division terribly punished. Very heavy losses, but the line held. Fourth Division fiercely engaged and holding its line.
May 14th. — The Germans exhausted. The attack ceases. Ten days of mutual recuperation.
May 24th. — Enormous gas attack. Fourth Division on left had full force of it, lost heavily, but could not be shifted. In the evening had to retire five hundred yards for the first time since the fighting began. General result of a long day of furious fighting was some contraction of the British line along its whole length, but no gap for the passage of the enemy. This may be looked upon as a last despairing effort of the Germans, as no serious attempt was afterwards made to force the road to Ypres.
Such, in a condensed form, was the record of the second Battle of Ypres, which for obstinacy in attack and inflexibility in defence can only be compared with the first battle in the same section six months before. Taking these two great battles together, their result may be summed up in the words that the Germans, with an enormous preponderance of men in the first and of guns in the second, had expended several hundred thousand of their men with absolutely no military advantage whatever.