Allied force casualties: 70,000 killed, wounded or missing
German casualties: 35,000 killed, wounded or missing
The Second Battle of Ypres could be considered as a resumption of the first battle, since weather conditions and the coming of winter had curtailed the continuation of fighting. Although sporadic fighting continued throughout the winter, neither side launched a major offensive.
The German Army was planning a major attack when the weather improved in April. This would be the only major German offensive on the Western Front in 1915. Some historians believe that the primary reason for this offensive was to distract the Allied army’s attention away from the Eastern Front.
Perhaps the Second Battle of Ypres is best remembered for the introduction of the German Army’s newest weapon, chlorine gas, than for any strategic achievements. Chlorine gas is heavier than air, so it flows along the ground following the contour of the land. Upon reaching a low area, such as a trench, it descends into the trench filling it with gas.
The gas was first used on the Eastern Front during the winter of 1915. It proved to be of limited success because the sub-zero temperatures impacted the dissipation of the gas. This problem didn’t exist with the warm April temperatures of the Western Front, making the results strikingly different.
Since The Hague Treaty of 1899 prohibited the use of projectiles containing poisonous gas, the Germans calculated that they were not in violation if they delivered the gas via cylinders. On April 22, 1915, the enemy soldiers strategically staged, then opened, the valves on fifty-seven hundred canisters of gas. The canisters were positioned so that the wind would carry the gas towards the Allied lines.
The enemy initiated the attack by launching a massive bombardment of the Allied trenches. During the shelling, the gas was released with the wind carrying it towards its intended target. Since it was common for an attack to be preceded by heavy shelling, the Allied forces were in their trenches waiting to repel the anticipated attack. The bombardment produced dark, heavy clouds of smoke that prevented the Allies from spotting the approaching gas until it was too late.
The Allied troops were expecting to see waves of enemy soldiers crossing the battlefield. Instead they saw a low, greenish-yellow mist rolling towards them. The gas cloud permeated four miles of trenches, affecting some ten thousand soldiers. It took only about ten minutes for half of the exposed troops to die.
The German Army hadn’t gauged the potential effectiveness of the gas. As a result, they neglected to have sufficient reserve troops in place to fully take advantage of the wide opening in the Allied line. Although they capture a significant quantity of land, they lost most of it when the allies launched a counterattack.
Attempting to capitalize on the successful, introductory release of the gas, the Germans repeated the process two days later. On April 24, chlorine gas was used against the unsuspecting Canadian troops. Fortunately, the quick-thinking Canadians used urine-soaked handkerchiefs to cover their mouths and noses, lessening the impact of the gas.
With the resulting success of the April 22nd gas release, the advancing Germans expected to witness the annihilation of extensive numbers of Canadian troops, instead they encountered a defiant Canadian force standing its ground. Fierce fighting ensued, causing heavy losses on both sides.
By the end of May, after staging several persistent attacks, the enemy had gained additional high ground. As a result, it forced the allied forces to consolidate their positions closer to the city of Ypres. After many attempts to capture the city had failed, the enemy retaliated with an unrelenting bombardment. By the end of the war, the entire city of Ypres was reduced to piles of rubble.
The Second Battle of Ypres cost the lives of sixty-nine thousand Allied soldiers and thirty-five thousand German troops. The significant contrast in the number of Allied deaths can be directly attributed to the Germans’ use of chlorine gas.