23 April 2017


Far far from Wipers
Is where I long to be
Where the bloody German snipers
Won't go sniping at me.

Yesterday was the 102nd anniversary of the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres.
Months before the battle began, the Allies and the Germans had reached a stalemate on the Western Front. Both sides began looking for tactics and weapons that would allow them to breakthrough the deadlock and bring them victory. By April 1915, the Germans had decided to unleash their new terror weapon at the Ypres Salient- a slight bulge in the trench lines around the town of Ypres, the last part of Belgium still in Allied hands- chlorine gas.

Holding the Ypres (mispronouced 'Yipers' or 'Wipers' by the British troops) was a bloody affair. The crescent shaped bulge in the line meant the allies were essentially surrounded on three sides. The only place out of range of the German guns was in the town itself. The Ypres salient suffered thousands of casualties every week with no actual offensives occurring- just the bloody rent paid to hold the last symbolic piece of Belgium.

It was at the salient that the Germans determined to unleash their gas as soon as the weather conditions were favourable. They chose to launch the attack at the part of the line held by British and French colonial troops (in the case of the British, the colonials being the Canadians). There had bee warnings that the Germans may be planning on using gas, but High Command refused to believe it. On April 22nd, the unbelievable happened and gas was unleashed at the French side of the lines. Some of the troops held their ground, others fled. Many died. The Canadian First Division, seeing a whole opening up in their flank, formed up and moved to close the gap, counter attacking the advancing Germans through the night. Against the gas they urinated into their handkerchiefs and held them over their faces, the ammonia in the urine counteracting the chlorine gas.

They were not merely hampered by the gas, but also by their own rifles. The Canadians at that time used the Ross Rifle, which began its life as a hunting rifle. As a hunting rifle- and, as it turned out, a sniping rifle- it was quite effective. But in combat, where it was fired fast and often, it over heated and jammed. Its bayonet was also prone to falling off. The Canadians still managed to drive the Germans back and close the gap, marking the first time colonial troops defeated a European power on European soil.

The Germans launched another attack in the coming days, this time at the Canadians. They held their lines, but were forced to retreat back closer to the city of Ypres. There the line continued to hold for another two years, but now the city itself was within range of the German guns. The entire salient was now within the range of the German guns, and the bloody rent became even bloodier. In two years, the salient would again be the place of another offensive, this one launched by the British, which became one of the most horrific battles in the history of war. It is officially called the Third Battle of Ypres, but it is better known by the name of Passchendaele.

Returning to the Second battle of Ypres, it was then that a young doctor, exhausted from treating the casualties, stepped out of the operating tent to take a brief rest. He looked out on a nearby cemetery field, heard the distant roar of the guns, and saw the poppies beginning to grow. Inspired by the moment, he pulled out a notebook and a pencil and scribbled down a few lines of poetry. Those lines began; "In Flanders Fields the poppies blow..."

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