"Here was the world's worst wound."
— Siegfried Sassoon, "On Passing the New Menin Gate" (1928)
In early October 1914 the British Expeditionary Force left its positions on the Aisne River in France, moved to the left of the Allied line, and joined the Race to the Sea. While advancing northeastward, into the Belgian province of West Flanders, they collided with strong German forces advancing westward toward the Channel coast. The British and their French allies dug in around the cathedral town of Ypres, and after a month of severe fighting, finally stopped the German offensive.
The results of this engagement in the autumn of 1914-the First Battle of Ypres-would haunt the British and Commonwealth forces in France for the next 3 years. When the battle was over, the Allied lines around Ypres formed a salient-that is to say, a bulge, surrounded on 3 sides by the Germans. To make matters worse, movement in and out of the Ypres Salient was hampered by the Yser Canal, which cut across the base of the bulge. Finally, the low-lying terrain was unsuitable for trench warfare. The water table was less than a meter below the surface and, as a result, the troops had to build up walls of sandbags known as breastworks to protect themselves from enemy fire.
From a purely military perspective, it would have been better to withdraw from the Salient and fall back to the Canal. But the Allies, and in particular the British, were not willing to withdraw. Ypres was the last significant Belgian town that remained free from German occupation, and the British refused to give up the positions for which they had fought so hard and suffered so much. Like Verdun (which also formed a salient), Ypres became an important symbol of Allied resolve.
In the middle of April 1915, the fresh but inexperienced Canadian Division took over part of the line on the north side of the Salient. Then, on the late afternoon of 22 April, the Second Battle of Ypres began when the Germans released a cloud of chlorine gas against the French positions on the left of the Canadians. Unprepared and unprotected, the French and North A frican troops broke and fled before the poisonous cloud. The German forces, however, were slow to exploit this breakthrough, and the Canadians, unaffected by the gas attack, were able to hold their ground and even launch counterattacks that evening and the following day.
On the morning of 24 April, the Germans attacked the Canadian positions, releasing a second cloud of poison gas. The Canadian soldiers protected themselves as best they could by wetting cotton bandoliers and tying them over their noses and mouths. Those who were not overcome by the gas kept fighting, but were hampered by their Canadian-made Ross rifles, which often jammed. Eventually, the 3rd Canadian Brigade, on the left, was forced to fall back but the 2nd Canadian Brigade, under Brigadier-General Arthur Currie, managed to hold on.
Finally, after four days of severe fighting, most of the Canadian forces were withdrawn on 26 April. About 6000 officers and men of the Canadian Division had been killed, wounded, captured, or had simply disappeared. By the end of May 1915, the Ypres Salient was less than half its former size, and was surrounded on all sides by German-occupied high ground. Still, the Allies would not withdraw. In the words of one British officer, the Salient was "holy ground."
The Third Battle of Ypres was fought in the summer and autumn of 1917. After a preliminary bombardment lasting ten days, during which more than 4000 British guns fired more than 4 million shells at the German defences, the British attacked on 31 July. Much like the Germans in 1914, the British were hoping to break through the enemy lines and advance to the seacoast beyond. And again, like the Germans in 1914, they were stopped far short of their goal by the enemy's tenacious defense. To make matters worse, the weather was against the British offensive from the start. Unseasonably heavy rains throughout the month of August hampered observation from the air while the constant shell fire destroyed the region's network of drainage ditches and turned the Salient into a muddy swamp.
|On the twenty-second of April 1915 near Ypres, Belgium, the Germans dispensed 180 tons of chlorine gas onto the French and Algerian line killing 5,000 soldiers and injuring another 1500 causing panic and eventually a major international outcry for the condemnation of poison gas (painting by Richard Jack, courtesy Canadian War Museum/8179).|
During the month of September, when the rain stopped and the ground dried, the British forces were able to make some progress, advancing step by step and retaking some of the high ground they had lost in 1915. But in October, the weather broke once again, and in the words of historians Robert Prior and Trevor Wilson, 5 days of rain in early October turned the battlefield into a "lake." Troops from Australia and New Zealand were forced to launch hastily prepared attacks under these impossible conditions, and suffered terrible casualties as a result.
Finally, it was Canada's turn. By the autumn of 1917, the single Canadian Division, which had fought in the Second Battle of Ypres had grown to a corps of 4 divisions. Currie insisted on being given at least 2 weeks to prepare for a new operation, with strictly limited objectives. Sobered by the disastrous results of their most recent attacks, the British High Command agreed. As a result, when the battle resumed on 26 October, the Canadian forces were able to claw their way forward as far as the ruined village of Passchendaele. Finally, on 10 November, after the Canadian Corps had suffered 12 000 casualties, the offensive was halted.
Not long after the battle ended, British General Sir Henry Rawlinson surveyed the situation and concluded that the new British line was indefensible. "We must therefore be prepared to withdraw from it," he wrote, "if the Germans show signs of a serious and sustained offensive on this front." And when the Germans did launch a "serious and sustained offensive" in the spring of 1918, the British finally withdrew from the Salient and fell back to Ypres and the Yser Canal. In the crisis of spring 1918, when it seemed like the Allied armies were on the verge of defeat, the Salient was a luxury that British and Commonwealth forces could no longer afford.