Thursday, 3 April 2014

The Second Battle of Ypres

Throughout April and May will be a series of posts about the Second Battle of Ypres and the role the Durham Light Infantry played in it.  In this first post is a summary of the battle as a whole.  The next five posts will look individually at the Durham Light Infantry territorial battalions involved before a final post looking at what was happening at home during this period.

During October and November 1914, British troops successfully resisted all German attempts to capture the small Belgian town of Ypres (Ieper) and march on to the Channel coast, but were unable to prevent the German Army from occupying a ring of higher ground that overlooked the town on the east and south. This higher ground allowed German artillery to fire down on the British trenches and to reduce Ypres and its neighbouring villages to ruins, and to make the Salient one of the most dangerous places on the Western Front.

Salient: A salient was a bulge in a trench line into enemy territory that enabled the enemy to attack from the sides or flanks.
Casualties: refers to dead and wounded.
Territorial Force:  Formed in 1908 of militia and volunteer units, these were part time soldiers trained for home defence, not obligated to serve abroad, they could choose to do so.

Sketch map captioned Situation at 9 a.m., showing Ypres, and environs, Belgium, 24 April 1915 from the war diary of Rev. J.A.G. Birch, 5th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (D/DLI 7/63/2(15))
D/DLI 7/63/2(15) Sketch map captioned Situation at 9 a.m., showing Ypres, and environs, Belgium, 24 April 1915 from the war diary of Rev. J.A.G. Birch, 5th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry
On 22 April 1915, German forces attacked the northern part of the Ypres Salient, held by the French, with poisonous chlorine gas, described in many accounts as a greenish-yellow cloud.  One of the first times a gas attack of this size had taken place, the French troops suffered casualties whilst others fled.  The resulting break in the line was 4 to 5 miles long, however, the Germans were slow to advance, perhaps in fear of the gas themselves or not realising the extent of the gap.  The result was that Canadian troops were able to reinforce the line before too much ground was lost.  

The Canadians continued to defend the line when, on 24 April, the Germans unleashed heavy artillery and another gas attack.  British territorial forces, including Durham Light Infantry battalions, were sent up to help.  The Canadian forces suffered very heavy losses during this two days of fighting.  Canadian and British troops continued to defend the line but were driven back and the Germans pushed past the village of St. Julien

The next few days saw a series of unsuccessful counterattacks before the decision was made on 1 May to fall back to a new defensive line.  The withdrawal was made over the first few days of May under a continued assault by the Germans including another gas attack on 2 May.

On 5 May the German forces recaptured Hill 60, a strategic observation point the British had taken control of on 17 April; on 8 May the Germans began an offensive on British lines at Frezenberg Ridge causing numerous casualties.  The first and second attacks were repelled but the third broke the line.  A night time counterattack restored this.  Attacks and counterattacks continued along the line in the Salient throughout May with a period of intense fighting on 13 May followed by a lull of about 10 days.

Illustration of a view of Ypres, Belgium, 23 May 1915, by Rev. J.A.G. Birch, 5th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (D/DLI 7/63/5(35))
D/DLI 7/63/5(35) Illustration captioned 'Distant view of Ypres from rough trenches dug to protect from shrapnel', 23 May 1915, by Rev. J.A.G. Birch, 5th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry
In the very early hours of 24 May, the German forces launched a vicious onslaught of artillery fire and more chlorine gas on the British.  The hour meant many soldiers were sleeping, and the close proximity of the two sides meant there was little forewarning of the gas, not giving soldiers much chance to don protection.  This was immediately followed up with an assault by the German Infantry.  The attack took place along the whole British line, the Germans broke through at the north and south ends but the British held strong in the centre. 

A counterattack gained back some ground but a further counterattack that night led to heavy casualties, a new line was formed and the German offensive ceased.  The Second Battle of Ypres is considered to have ended on 25 May 1915.

All five territorial battalions of the Durham Light Infantry were involved in some way in this battle.  By the end of it, they had suffered heavy losses, yet these battalions had only been in Europe for five weeks.

Faithful, The Story of The Durham Light Infantry – SGP Ward, 1968
The Fifth Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry 1914-1918 – Major AL Raimes, 1931

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.