The Second Battle of Ypres is historically significant for being the only major offensive initiated by the German military at the Western Front. But, most infamously, this battle also served as a test for releasing chlorine gas as a weapon of mass destruction.
In total, there were six major military engagements over the course of the Battle of Ypres. The first engagement took place on April 22, 1915 and the last would commence on September 25, 1915. The German army would face multiple allied nations during the battle with a collective of troops from Canada, Africa, France, Britain, India, Belgium, and Newfoundland.
Germany wished to gain an advantage over the Allied Forces at the Eastern front where defeating the Russians proved to be extremely difficult. Through launching an attack on a Belgian city, the attention of the Allied Forces could be diverted. The attack itself was not even considered successful, as the German army was never able to actually take the town.
The end result of the battle was a harsh one. The German army suffered roughly 35,000 casualties, while the Allied forces would lose over 70,000. The civilians of Ypres also suffered gravely. When the German army realised they could not take the town, they instead launched a bombardment onto it, during which the entire town was destroyed, and rebuilding it would continue for decades.
The Battle of Ypres was not the first instance of using chemical weapons in World War I. Prior uses and attempts occurred, but they were failures. In the Battle of Bolimov, for instance, cold weather turned the gas into liquid, turning it completely void.
|'Gassed', painted by John Singer Sargent, 1919|
The gas eventually covered around four miles of the Allied lines. The effects were devastating. Within ten minutes, 10,000 troops were killed as the gas suffocated them, and approximately 2,000 troops were sickened, blinded, or made incapable of fighting. They were all then captured as prisoners of war.
After this initial bombardment, the German infantry advanced, but military leaders were very wary of being overconfident. The orders were given not to continue forward, which made it clearly impossible to completely take the town. This is not to suggest in any way the attack did not deliver major results. The Allied front line in Belgium was extremely weakened as a result.
The surprise factor of the gas attacks was lost once the chlorine was released for the first time. Subsequent attacks were not as wholly successful due to since developed masks. The second major gas attack saw the follow up advancement by German forces face strong opposition from Canadian troops. Eventually, the Germans would suffer from similar gas attacks as the British would quickly unleash chemical weapons in future battles.
The Battle of Ypres, 100 years ago this year, had a huge effect on the First World War as a whole. Aside from being the first action for Canadian and Algerian troops, it became notorious for witnessing the first use of excruciating chlorine gas, and this advancement in warfare changed how both sides fought from then on, all the way through to World War Two and since.