The Second Battle of Ypres

By Frank H. Simonds

[The New Republic; May 8, 1915]

Measured by the noise it has made in the press, the second battle of Ypres for the moment has rivalled the first. Estimated in terms of nineteenth century warfare, more men fought in it than in Waterloo or Gettysburg, and the casualty list probably exceeded either of these earlier conflicts. Compared with the French offensive about St. Mihiel, the British at Neuve Chapelle, it was more completely successful as a local triumph.

Yet while the press of the world was still forecasting another "dash to the Channel," one more advance to Calais, the German offensive had come to a halt and was defending itself, successfully to be sure, against counter attacks. But so clearly had the world grasped the issues of the month's battle between the Lys and the sea in November, that any German operation on these fields was bound to have a definite meaning for it. This, more than all else, explains the exaggeration which accompanied the German move in Flanders.

The true measure of the operation, however, must be sought in the extent of German effort, the duration of the conflict, the numbers actually engaged; and incomplete as are the reports as yet, it is already plain that the later engagement was insignificant compared with the earlier. In October Germany came within an ace of destroying the Anglo-Belgian armies in Flanders. Napoleon at Waterloo was no nearer to success at any moment than the Kaiser several times at Ypres. But in the second battle the Germans by a surprise attack carried several miles of Allied lines away in a powerful drive, and this drive was promptly beaten down as British reserves arrived. In this respect it was Neuve Chapelle over again.

What was Germany's purpose, then, if she was not aiming at the Channel ports? The answer is simple. For months her lines in France had been recoiling slightly or holding on with grim tenacity. She had been on the defensive, and the fact had made a profound impression upon her own people, upon her enemies, upon the whole neutral world. There was necessary to her some shining exploit, some success that would fill the press, hearten her soldiers, make answer to Allied guns at the Dardanelles, strengthen the hands of her ambassadors in Rome, Athens, Sofia and Bucharest. It was time to win something again.

In the East the weather precluded any considerable operation, while it permitted the temporary release of German troops on the East Prussian frontier. In Austria the nature of the Carpathian country prevented any quick success such as was needed for moral effect. But in Flanders, where Germany had suffered severe defeat in the autumn, a local success would impress a world familiar with the earlier conflict, arouse new hopes in German hearts, restore the confidence of the German soldier and civilian.

As the present war is being fought, a local success is practically assured to the contestant who is willing to pay for it in men and in ammunition. To concentrate an overwhelming force at a given point, to gather a tremendous amount of artillery and suddenly deluge a narrow front with artillery fire, then to follow with a rush of vastly superior numbers, this has been the secret of Allied operations in the west, and is the meaning of Joffre's "nibbling."

In all cases successful advances have been stopped within two or three miles. Lines of trenches one behind another now stretch across the country. In October and November the British about Ypres had no time to fortify, they were caught almost in the open fields, compelled to face largely superior numbers, almost overwhelmed. But they had held on. Since that time they had spent months in fortifying, in drawing second and third lines behind the first. That Germany could do in April what she had failed to do in November with every chance in her favor was not conceivable, probably never entered the minds of German commanders.

What was attempted was this: artillery was concentrated, some two or three corps transferred from the east, skilful and secret preparation made for an attack. The use of gas, the one wholly novel feature of the fight, was but an extension of the idea of the great British cannonade at Neuve Chapelle. It was a new detail in the war of "terribleness," but in keeping with the main principle of "nibbling" operations.

The point selected by the Germans for their attack was the part of the Allied line held by the French west of Ypres, between the British salient about Ypres and the Belgian position at the Yser. In the earlier battles this portion of the line had not been seriously attacked. But British success in taking Hill Number 60, on the eastern side of Ypres, had barred that approach effectively, while the flooded country north of the Yser still prevented a German advance in this quarter.

The attack was made on the afternoon of April twenty-second, and thanks to the use of gas and to the severity of the bombardment it was even more successful than that of the British at Neuve Chapelle. The French line collapsed, the survivors retreated for nearly three miles to the canal. By their retreat they uncovered the flank of the Canadians, who held the ground just to their right, and the German advance swirled round this exposed flank and at the same time beat upon the Canadian front. Momentarily the situation suggested that of the British at Le Cateau, of Rosecrans at Chickamauga.

Despite terrific losses and necessary retreat, the Canadian division preserved its front. Had it broken, the whole western side of the Ypres salient would have gone and Ypres would have been lost. For two days the Canadians, gradually reinforced, contested their ground, retreated a little, counterattacked and again withdrew. Meantime the French were reinforced, aided by the Belgians. Finally the German advance was stopped just south of the canal, and the French, taking the offensive, regained all but two bridge heads on their side of the canal As for the Canadians, they ultimately came back to a new line, conforming to the French, made contact with their allies, hung on until British reinforcements came up, and retired, giving their places to fresh troops.

By April twenty-fifth the German official statements were only claiming that their troops were holding conquered ground. The rush was over. They had gained some three miles on a front of five. They had thrust a wedge into the Allied lines. They had carried out with far greater skill and success a manoeuvre completely analogous to that of Sir John French at Neuve Chapelle. German tactical skill shone brilliantly by contrast, but the Germans had been checked, thrown back a little from the extreme point of their advance, were again on the defensive, and once more, to judge by actual operations, outnumbered.

Such, briefly, was the second battle of Ypres, incontestably a shining exploit, timed to weaken if not to destroy the belief in the world that Germany Was everywhere restricted to the defensive, that she had "shot her bolt." The point selected for the demonstration was excellently chosen with a view to the impression that would be made upon the world. Within necessary limitations it was one of the finest bits of actual fighting in the whole war, and it was planned with supreme skill, with a marvelous alertness to the moral as well as the military considerations involved.

By way of emphasizing this moral effect, a daring attack was made upon the French occupying Hartmannsweilerkopf, far off in Alsace, and the hill was taken temporarily. German bulletins gave the impression of a general offensive from Switzerland to the sea a complete change in the face of the war in the western field. But Hartmannsweilerkopf was speedily retaken, no other German success of note was chronicled, the great offensive, temporarily at least, flickered out. As a consequence of stupendous efforts and very great losses, Germany had actually taken a few miles of trenches in Flanders before she had been pulled down.

Given the enormous superiority of numbers possessed by the Germans in the first battle of Ypres, the opening advantage she had won in the second would probably have meant the ruin of Sir John French's little army. But this was lacking, now that she had only momentary and fortuitous advantage, quickly lost when British concentration to meet the attack began. Such advantage as Germany held in the opening hours disappeared when time had been allowed to bring up reserves. But in November there had been no reserves, no second lines of defenses. Thus in exposing a temporary weakness of her foe, Germany had actually disclosed his permanent strength and her growing weakness, temporarily obscured by the glamour of her exploit.

For the world the second battle of Ypres will perhaps be most memorable as it revealed Canadian courage, devotion, sacrifice. On the Canadians the storm broke with its full force, and Canadian militia repeated the glories of British regulars from Mons to the Marne. Nor was Canada alone among British colonies to stand with the Empire. On the Gallipoli peninsula, Australian and New Zealand troops were at the same moment landing fire. In South Africa, troops of the Union were sweeping over the German colony, from which had come the agents of sedition a few months earlier. About La Bassée, British Indian troops were winning new laurels. German professors had partitioned the British Empire and liberated British colonies, and the Canadian contingent at Ypres had now answered German professors and German soldiers alike. In British imperial history the second battle of the Ypres will be memorable.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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