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Canada in the First World War - Ypres
Ypres was the largest city (population 16,000) in Belgium not captured by the Germans in 1914. It was the site of 4 major battles of World War One. The first battle was in October of 1914, part of the so-called “Race to the Sea”. The second battle occurred in April of 1915 in which the Canadians took part. The third battle was in 1917, the Canadians taking part in the final phase referred to as the Battle of Passchendaele. The fourth battle took place in April of 1918 and was one of the final German offensive operations of the war, it is also called the Battle of Lys.
As the friction of war began to slow the German advance into France, both sides realized the need to secure their flank to the sea. The German army attempted to capture all of Belgian territory but were stopped when the Belgians opened the sluice gates on the dikes. This created a lake that separated them from the Germans. The French and British had been advancing toward Ghent but were stopped by the Germans near Ypres.
The First Battle of Ypres lasted approximately from October 17 to November 22, 1914. First Ypres was a meeting engagement, both sides on the offensive with little in the way of prepared positions. It was the intention of the Germans to cross the Yser River south of Ypres while it was the aim of the British and French to press on to Ghent 40 miles north east of Ypres. The fierce fighting produced massive losses on both sides, 58,000 for the British, over 50,000 for the French, and over 100,000 for the Germans. When the Battle ended (the fighting would not stop till 1918) the French and British held a small salient north of the Yser River pointing into the German lines.
The Second Battle of Ypres began on April 22, 1915, it was the first use of poison gas in war (but not the first use of gas, that was the use of tear gas against the Russians in January). This attack by the Germans was intended as a diversion to prevent forces being withdrawn from the Ypres salient to reinforce other sectors that they intended to attack. This would be the first major battle for the Canadian Division, the first ever for a Canadian division.
That the Germans were going to attack was known, that they would use gas was also known. Two German soldiers had deserted and brought news of the gas attack to the French (one would be later tried and convicted of treason in a German court in 1932). The news had been passed to the British and the Canadians, but no-one knew what a gas attack would look like, no-one had any idea of what preparations needed to be made.
On the 20th of April the German shelling of the Ypres salient intensified. For two days the German artillery shelled fortifications, troop movements and the city of Ypres. The shelling of the city was intended to drive refugees on to the roads and hamper the movement of reinforcements. On the afternoon of the 22nd the wind shifted to the proper direction for gas release and 160 tons of chlorine gas was released against French positions. The French colonial and reserve troops quickly collapsed against the German onslaught and five mile wide hole was created between the Belgians on the left and the Canadians and British on the right.
The Germans quickly occupied the French part of the Ypres salient and pushed their assault into the Canadian flank. The Canadians in this early part of the battle not only held their ground but occupied some of the former French ground. Some of the French troops rallied next to the Canadians and the German assault was slowed. Over the next four days the Canadians stubbornly held their positions until driven out by artillery fire and overwhelming German numbers. They were not helped by their Ross rifles which always jammed when fired rapidly, one soldier noting that they would not have had to retreat if they had the British Lee Enfield.
One of the greatest difficulties of the battle was the “fog of war”, that condition in which commanders have inadequate information with which to fight their battles. Both Lieutenant General Alderson, the British general commanding the Canadian Division, and Brigadier General Turner, the Canadian general commanding the 3rd Brigade both issued orders that had little to do with the reality of the battle. For the most part it was the battalion commanders and junior officers who controlled the battle.
For four days Canadian and British troops held their lines against overwhelming German artillery and infantry assaults. They were driven back, counterattacked, and driven back again. With little food and ammunition, with almost no sleep in four days and having survived not one but two gas attacks, the Canadians were finally withdrawn from the front lines.
To the west the French launched their own counterattacks trying to drive the Germans back across the Yser Canal. They too suffered heavily for limited gains. On the 1st of May the French General Foch, the senior commander, agreed to a withdrawal to defensible lines around Ypres
The cost of 2nd Ypres was high, over 5,400 Canadian, over 59,000 British, 10,000 French and over 1,500 Belgian casualties. The Germans list slightly less than 15,000.
The stubborn Canadian defence prevented the encirclement of 50,000 British troops. It also prevented the Germans from capturing a key crossroads in Ypres.
The 3rd Battle of Ypres was to last slight longer than 3 months. Starting with a massive artillery barrage that lasted for two weeks and killed over 30,000 German troops before the offensive started, the infantry assault began on July 31, 1917. It was not until October that the advance reached the Valley of Passion, Passchendaele. The advance was then made by the Australians and New Zealanders.
On October 26, 1917 the Canadian Corps launched their first attack of the Battle of Passchendaele. It would not be until November 10th that the village of Passchendaele would be captured. Canadian casualties amounted to nearly 16,000 of the 250,000 British casualties suffered in the three months of the 3rd Battle of Ypres.
The 4th Battle of Ypres is also known as the Battle of Lys. It was part of the final German assault in the West. Beginning on April 9th the Germans launched an assault that was intended to cut off the British Expeditionary Force from its supply lines on the coast. Initially the Germans had amazing success creating a large hole in the British defences, but through dogged determination the British slowed them down and finally halted them short of their objectives. On April 29th the Battle of Lys, the 4th Battle of Ypres was over.
- Trenches on the Web - Special: The Second Battle of Ypres, Apr-1915
- First World War.com - Battles - The First Battle of Ypres, 1914
First World War.com - A multimedia history of world war one