The Second Battle of Ypres started on 22nd April 1915 and lasted until 25th May. It was fought for the control of the strategic town of Ypres after the First Battle of Ypres that had been fought in autumn 1914.
It marked the first use of poison gas by the Germans.
The German Army released 170 tons of chlorine gas at around 5pm on 22nd April at Gravenstafel a hamlet north-east of Ypres. Cylinders were opened by hand and the wind carried the gas towards a 4 mile section of the allied front, held mainly by French troops. There were 6,000 casualties most of whom died within ten minutes. Chlorine gas combines with water in the lungs and eyes to form hypochlorous acid. Most died of asphyxiation or were blinded.
The operation was more successful than the Germans had foreseen but they were unable to take proper advantage of the gap created in the front line, due to a lack of reserves. The British lines began to collapse but the flank was defended by Canadian troops. Soldiers urinated into their handkerchiefs and put them over their faces, to counter the effects of the gas.
Canadian troops successfully counter attacked later that night, but over the following days the allied front line was driven back, closer to Ypres.
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German casualties from 21 April – 30 May were recorded as 34,933.
British casualties were 59,275.
The French had around 18,000 casualties on 22 April and another 3,973 casualties from 26 – 29 April.
Canadian casualties from 22 April – 3 May were 5,975 of whom c. 1,000 men were killed, the worst day being 24 April when 3,058 casualties were suffered during infantry attacks, artillery bombardments, and gas discharges.
James Beard, from Rugby, who was serving in the Canadian army died on 24th April and several Rugby men from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment died on the following days.
Another Canadian who took part in the Second Battle of Ypres was John McCrae. He was a gunner and medical officer. On 2nd May he had to conduct the burial service of a close friend and noticed how quickly poppies grew around the graves. The next day, sitting in the back of an ambulance, he wrote the famous poem: “In Flanders Fields”
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.