Trial by Gas: The British Army at the Second Battle of Ypres

Trial by Gas: The British Army at the Second Battle of Ypres

Trial by Gas: The British Army at the Second Battle of Ypres

Trial by Gas: The British Army at the Second Battle of Ypres


World War I has long captured the macabre imagination for the seemingly willful manner in which nations sent their young men to die in droves while fighting over essentially the same patch of land for four long years. The vision of those senseless deaths becomes even harsher and more depraved when we consider how many soldiers were killed by poison gas.

In May 1915 the long and bloody Second Battle of Ypres gained notoriety for the participants' use of poison gas, the first time the weapon had been used in battle. With both sides realizing the importance of victory in Ypres, moral considerations were set aside. Although other, more costly battles of World War I have often overshadowed the Second Battle of Ypres despite the unprecedented use of gas in the latter, that battle now receives an examination commensurate with its significance.

In Trial by Gas, George H. Cassar focuses on the conflict's second half: the battles at Frezenberg Ridge and Bellewaarde Ridge, both of which were fought primarily by British units, taking the reader inside the trenches and behind the desks of those making the decisions. Cassar's intimate account offers an accurate, clear, and complete chronicle of a battle with a remarkably enduring impact despite its indecisive outcome.


The second battle of Ypres was the longest and bloodiest engagement on the western front in 1915. It started on the afternoon of 22 April when the Germans introduced poison gas, directed mainly against French troops—a division of Algerians and one territorial consisting of aged reservists—at the juncture of the Allied front. Taken by surprise and with no protection against the new horror, the two French divisions retreated in panic, opening a gap of over four miles in the Allied line. As the Germans advanced into the breach, they ran into the 1st Canadian Division manning the end of the British line where it joined the French.

The Canadians had only recently taken their place in the Ypres Salient and were fortunate in that they received a lighter dose of gas than the French. the division, composed mostly of raw volunteers, was all that lay between the Germans and an Allied rout. Possessing a courage born out of ignorance of war and perhaps sheer stubbornness, the vastly outnumbered Canadians stood their ground long enough for reinforcements to come up and form a frail line across the gap.

On 24 April, the Canadians themselves were in the direct line of another gas attack, which they faced with only rags or handkerchiefs soaked in urine or water as improvised respirators. Gasping, their eyes running, struggling to breathe and see, the Canadians fought and died amid the swirling gas cloud but, incredibly, managed to hold the line. What remained of the Canadian Divi-

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