first battle of ypres

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The Great War 100: Decisive Battles of the War

Battle of Verdun - February 21, 1916 - December 18, 1916
- An attritional battle instigated by Germany to destroy the French Army
-On the opening day of the battle, 1,220 German artillery pieces fired over 1,000,000 shells on Verdun and the surrounding areas in a 9 hour period.

Battle of the Somme - July 1, 1916 - November 18,1916
- Originally planned as a French offensive with minimal British support, intended to smash the German army and deplete their manpower.
- With the German attack at Verdun, the French instead asked the British to carry out a large diversionary attack to relieve pressure on the French army.
-The Battle of the Somme was one of the largest battles of the First World War, by the time fighting had petered out in late autumn 1916 the forces involved had suffered more than 1 million casualties, making it one of the bloodiest military operations ever recorded.

3rd Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele - July 31, 1917 - November 10, 1917
- Haig was convinced the fighting of 1916 (Somme and Verdun) had weakened the German Army and wanted to deliver the knockout blow in Flanders
- As well as being Haig’s preferred region for a large attack, the Royal Navy were worried about intense German submarine activity emanating from the Belgium ports and implored Haig to capture these areas.

Gallipoli - March 18, 1915 - January 9, 1916
- Originally a Naval operation, the main reason to attack this area was to open up more reliable trade routes with Russia, via the Black Sea.
- There was also a feeling among senior British leaders that due to a stalemate on the Western Front, a new front was needed to ensure progress in the war.

Kaiserschlacht, The German Spring Offensive of 1918 - March 21, 1918 - June 12, 1918
Germany knew that their only chance of winning the war was to knock out the Allies before the extra resources of men and material from the USA could be deployed. The main thrust of the attack was against the British towards the town of Amiens. It was thought that after the British were defeated the French would quickly look for peace.
- Amiens was a strategically important supply town with a large railway hub that supported both British and French armies. If this town was captured, it would severely impede Allied supply.

First Use of Mustard Gas

July 12 1917, Ypres–The Germans had been using gas warfare since early 1915, with its western debut at Ypres to great effect that April.  Effective countermeasures, largely in the form of gas masks, prevented future breakthroughs solely due to the use of poison gas, though it remained a deadly nuisance for both sides.  Embracing this aspect, the Germans developed and deployed a new weapon whose main purpose was to cause pain to and incapacitate enemy soldiers.

Mustard gas is a blistering agent that would cause few immediate symptoms, but several hours later would result in painful chemical blisters and burns all over the body, eye damage, and lung damage if inhaled.  Gas masks, if worn, would only prevent the latter two effects.  Technically a fine aerosol rather than a gas, it would also eventually fall to the ground and cover surfaces, potentially causing future exposure.  While this made it more difficult to attack areas exposed to mustard gas, this was little problem for a defending army.

On July 12, the Germans used mustard gas for the first time, firing 50,000 rounds of gas shells at the British lines near Ypres, where the Germans had observed a British buildup in progress.  Nearly 2500 British soldiers were gassed; of these, only 87 died, though many others suffered debilitating chemical burns.  The British first called this new weapon “Yellow Cross;” the French, “Yperite.”

Today in 1916: German Merchant Submarine Offloads Cargo in Baltimore
Today in 1915: British Celebrate Destruction of SMS Königsberg
Today in 1914: Final Assassin Apprehended in Montenegro

July 29, 1917 - British Tank Corps Established

Pictured - The Tank Corps cap badge.

Tanks never became a war-winning weapon in World War One, but they did become a staple of Allied offensives in mid-1917 and 1918. After their first use at the Battle of the Somme tanks were attached to the Machine Gun Corps as the Heavy Branch. But as more were pumped out of British factories, it was clear that armor should be consolidated into its own set of battalions.  The BEF did that by creating the Tank Corps on July 29, 1917.

The Tank Corps was to get its first taste of action at the Third Battle of Ypres the next month. The boggy Belgian ground, however, made terrible terrain for tanks, and added to the already considerable discomforts of being a primitive tanker.

Corporal A.E. Lee wrote about an attack on a German position:

“When we got to the furthest point of this little valley, one of our tracks broke through the soft ground and we went down into a deep hole. It was impossible to move the tank because she was lurched right over on to her side, one gun pointing to the earth and the other pointing to the sky. We were helpless.”

Private J.L. Addy’s description of the inside of a tank showed how the actual fighting was only part of what a tank crew (an officer, three drivers, and four gunners) experienced:

“When you’re enclosed in a tank and there’s so much racket, you don’t know whether it’s shells that’s hitting you or what you’re doing. The noise of the engine was tremendous, and we had to stand by with a pyrene fire-extinguisher and get ready to shoot it at the engine if it got too hot, because we had twenty gallons of petrol on either side of the tank and all round the sides were packs of ammunition.”

Passchendaele

New Zealand artillery in the mud on October 12.

October 12 1917, Passchendaele–Only three days after the disastrous attack on Poelcappelle, Haig and Plumer were determined to go forward with their next planned attack, towards the ridge around Passchendaele.  The atrocious conditions had not changed in the last three days, and had in fact grown worse, with hurricane-strength winds being recorded on the night of the 11th.  Major FJ Rice, an artillery officer in II ANZAC Corps, recalled:

Infantry officers told us more than once that they doubted if they could have dragged their way to their objectives even if there had been no enemy, the mud was so deep, and one heard stories of men, wounded and unwounded, being stuck in waterlogged shell holes for more than a day.

The British artillery was still crippled by mud, and was operating at half strength and with much-diminished effectiveness. B.O. Stokes, a gunner from New Zealand, recalled:

Every time we fired a shot the trail would dig deep into the mud, so with every shot we had to try to lift it back and re-lay the gun before we could fire again.  It was a nightmare.

The extremely muddy ground also meant the fired artillery shells were often just absorbed by the mud, not inflicting the damage it was supposed to, leaving belts of uncut wire.  This problem was most serious for the New Zealand Division, which had the critical task of capturing the Bellevue Ridge.  The night before, Private W. Smith recalled,

We dug in as best we could at the bottom of the Bellevue Ridge – but the idea of ‘digging in’ was ridiculous.  You can’t dig water!  My section managed to throw up a kind of ridge of slush, but the water from the shell-holes around just poured into it. You couldn’t squat down, we just stood there in the rain and wind waiting for our guns to open up with the barrage.

The New Zealanders, tasked with making an advance of 2500 yards in places (the plans having assumed that the attack on the 9th succeeded), were cut down.  Wire remained uncut, and German machine-gun fire was hardly affected by the mud and the artillery barrage.  The official report of the opposing Germans read in part:

The day was a particularly great day for the machine guns.  As sufficient ammunition was available, and delivered efficiently all day–during the course of this day alone, more than 130,000 rounds of machine gun ammunition were delivered – all targets that presented themselves could be taken under continuous machine gun fire….As the field of fire was often very wide, and as the English presented the most worthwhile mass targets all day long, the effect of the machine guns was truly devastating for the enemy.

The Australians on their right had slightly more success, in some cases reaching their second objective at a distance of over 1700 yards. However, they faced enfilade fire from the positions the New Zealanders were supposed to have taken, communications and reinforcements were impossible, and the British artillery did little to deter German counterattacks, most of the gains were lost by the end of the day.

Today in 1916: Prussian War Ministry Begins Jewish Census
Today in 1915: Edith Cavell and Philippe Baucq Executed
Today in 1914: Martial Law Declared in South Africa

Sources include: Lyn Macdonald, They Called it Passchendaele; Nick Lloyd, Passchendaele

New Zealanders pose reading “New Zealanders at the Front” on a captured anti-tank gun, near the Menin Road, 20 Nov 1917. Alexander Turnbull Library.

The Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, sometimes called Battle of the Menin Road, was the third British general attack of the Third Battle of Ypres in the First World War. The battle took place 20–25 September 1917, in the Ypres Salient in Flanders on the Western Front.

British stretcher bearers struggle in mud up to their knees to carry a wounded man to safety near Boesinghe on 1 August during the Battle of Pilckem Ridge. 

Pilckem Ridge was the first operation in the larger Third Battle of Ypres which became better known as the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. Passchendaele has now become synonymous with the awful muddy conditions of trench warfare on the Western Front. It would often take several hours to travel a mile in the conditions seen above.

On April 22, 1915, we saw our first major combat action, Canada’s baptism by fire.
We were undertrained.
We were outnumbered.
We were outgunned.
We fought, killed, and bled for days.
But we held the line.

On that fateful morning in Flanders, a massive gap in our lines developed when an entire french division was annihilated by a cloud of poisonous chlorine gas.
In a few short minutes, the risk of a German breakthrough had escalated into a veritable crisis for Entente forces on the western front.
For the next few days the weight of this impending disaster fell on the shoulders of the volunteers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

When the well-trained veteran German troops crossed no-man’s land, they expected to occupy a trench full of corpses unopposed.

The last thing they expected was a hail of bullets from a bunch of colonials.

Our rifles were garbage. Our training was brief. Our supplies were low.

But we kept fighting.

Canadian troops were miserable. Many succumbed to the gas. We kept fighting.

We were outnumbered and spread out, the Germans hammered us day and night. We kept fighting.

We died by the thousands. We kept fighting.

And that is what Canadian soldiers have done since - they keep on fighting. Our freedom was secured in the blood, sweat and tears of Canadians who, over the past hundred years, refused to give up and kept on fighting.

They lie under the soil somewhere on Vimy Ridge, never to be found. Their blood has since washed off the beaches of Normandy. Their tombstones stand row by row in Korea. Their flag-draped caskets were carried down the Highway of Heroes. They walk among us, ordinary citizens who did their civic duty and answered the call to arms, and those who will in the future.

We owe them all our thanks.

In memory of six thousand Canadian lives lost during the Second Battle of Ypres and of every Canadian who sacrificed for our country since that horrific battle, our baptism by fire that occurred in the infernal meat grinder of the First World War.

Lest we forget.

Continued Failed Attacks Around Ypres

Artillerymen attempting to move a 6-inch gun near Ypres on August 27.

August 27 1917, Ypres–Since Langemarck, the British had been continuing local attacks, with mixed results.  A few gains had been made when tanks were able to work properly; in other cases, ground had been captured but soon lost to determined German counterattacks.  On August 27, XVIII Corps attacked, but again was undone by the terrible weather and ground conditions.  The speed of the creeping barrage had been slowed by half to let the infantry keep up, but even that was not enough.  Attempts to lay down a smoke screen to conceal the advance also failed due to strong winds.  The official report noted:

It is clear that the state of the ground, cut up with shell-holes full of water, and all slippery with mud, made it impossible for our leading lines to keep in touch….The Boche…saw that our troops could not move…and took full advantage of the unequal contest, at the same time training every machine gun on our men as they struggled in the mud.

On the right flank, over a third of the attacking British infantry became casualties.  They could inflict little in return on the Germans, as weapons were often fouled with mud or water.  Many of the deaths were those who fell into shell-holes and drowned.

Even before this, Haig had realized that his troops were exhausted, and had decided two days earlier to hand over the responsibility for the offensive from Gough’s Fifth Army to Plumer’s Second Army.  He hoped that a new commander would boost morale and (relatively) fresh troops would reinvigorate the offensive.

In London, Lloyd George, a skeptic of the push around Ypres from the start, was trying to argue for a diversion of resources (at the very least, in heavy artillery) to the Italian front, where Cadorna at least seemed to be making progress.  His generals, however, warned that artillery could not reach them in time to make a difference, and that the only effect would be to make the Ypres operations impossible.  This was not an outcome that Lloyd George would have minded, but unsurprisingly he was unable to convince any generals to acquiesce.

Today in 1916: Romania Declares War on Austria-Hungary
Today in 1915: Last Allied Push on Hill 60 Falls Short
Today in 1914: Germans Outflank Russian Second Army’s Advance in East Prussia

Sources include: Nick Lloyd, Passchendaele

August 3, 1917 - Third Ypres: Rain and Poor Progress Compel Haig to Postpone Attack

Pictured - Of all the war’s battlefields, the endless mud of Passchendaele may have been the worst.

In a rare piece of wartime history, the newspapers in London, Paris, Washington D.C., Berlin, and Vienna all reported victory on August 1, 1917. That was the first day after the Third Battle of Ypres opened. One French and two British armies had attacked the Germans at Flanders, hoping to finally break out of the Ypres Salient. General Haig’s chief of intelligence, Glaswegian John Charteris, reported only good news back to the government: German armies “visibly cracking,” “Moderately good progress,” etc.

On the ground things looked different. The Germans had not yet even committed their reserves. Meanwhile a horrendous downpour, even by the standards of the Western Front, opened up on July 31 in the afternoon and would hardly relent for the rest of the battle. An English nurse near the front wrote in her diary about the “Soaking hopeless rain, the worst luck that could happen. Poor Sir Douglas Haig…”

Flanders clay turned into mud and bogged down tanks and trucks. Mules sank up to their heads. Bringing up ammo and bringing back the wounded became Herculean tasks. Rifle squads fought over German pillboxes in the quagmire, storming them with grenades and light machine guns. Hand-to-hand fights were frequent. But every time a German position fell, another one right behind it would open up on the conquerors, forcing an endless fight over places with names like Château Wood, which were uniformly just more patches of shell-holes and mud.

So I might have picked up Battlefield 1… I have to say, it’s everything I had hoped. My only complaint is that, like any multiplayer oriented fps (Halo and Gears aside), the single player lacks cohesion and a sense of continuity. However, the stories are engaging, fun, and at times, visceral. (oh an the multiplayer’s good too)

SO

It got me in the mood to paint a scene inspired by the first world war (namely the third battle of Ypres). In which, I wanted to illustrate the special type of hell that war was. A often forgotten fact that gets swept up in the romanticism of the conflict.

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Horse, Dog and Soldiers With Gas Masks

Though many filtering masks existed for both mining operations and chemical exposure before the First World War, they were not widely known, and many of their designs could not have stood up to the chemical attacks that were perpetrated on a scale never before seen by humanity.

The first mass use of poison gas (chlorine, specifically) at the Second Battle of Ypres was a massive failure - though many Canadian soldiers were exposed, the prevailing winds shifted, and the German troops that deployed the gas were overcome. Still, this battle showed the Allies that the Germans were serious about using chemical agents, and both sides began to develop gas masks not only for themselves, but for their combat animals.

Dogs and horses both had specially-fitted gas masks, and while the canines learned quickly to work with theirs, horses had the significant problem of mistaking their breathing-boxes for feed bags, since the shape and feel was so similar. This was overcome by training and lengthening the gas masks, so that the filter boxes did not touch their lips.

National Museum of Health on Flickr. USA Army Signal Corps, ca. 1915-1918.

Battle of Polygon Wood

Australian ambulance corpsmen in makeshift shelters in the newly-gained ground on September 28.

September 26 1917, Zonnebeke–After the success on the Menin Road Ridge, Haig and Plumer wanted to try another advance as soon as possible, while the weather held and the Germans (Haig hoped) were still reeling. They attacked again at 5:50AM on September 26, using much the same pattern as the previous attack.  A massive creeping barrage on a concentrated front (smaller than on the 20th, in fact), followed up by infantry making a limited advance who could dig in and prepare for counterattacks while still in range of British artillery.

For the most part, it succeeded just as it had on the 20th.  Lloyd George, observing progress from GHQ, could watch the progress unfold on a large-scale map.  At the front, however, the attack was far bloodier than such neat maps suggested.  Fighting was especially fierce on both flanks of the advance; on one, the British fell behind the creeping barrage due to a stream in their way, and suffered accordingly when the Germans returned to their machine guns.  On the other, the British and Australians had already been fighting German attacks throughout the night, and faced extremely determined resistance as they attempted to make their own.

Nevertheless, the British were again largely successful in taking their objectives and defending them against German counterattacks, although casualties were still quite high, especially from German artillery fire throughout the day on the relatively exposed British troops in fixed positions.  Having now lost substantial areas of ground twice in a week despite massive counterattacks, the German commanders were at somewhat of a loss as to how to combat these new British tactics.  A corps chief of staff, Albrecht von Thaer, wrote two days later:

I no longer have any idea of what should be undertaken against the English.  They set themselves a fairly limited objective for their attacks: to advance by only about 500 to 1,000 meters, albeit across quite a wide front.  In front of this area and deep into our zone, there is such devastating English fire that no being can survive in it.  Then, under the protection of this fire, and without sustaining many losses of their own, they simply move into the field of corpses and quickly install themselves there.  Our counter-attacks must first get through the rapid wave of fire, and then behind it they find a fixed phalanx with machine guns, and they collapse in ruins.  The last few days have given us the bitterest losses of life here.  Early [on the 26th], when one of our divisions was severely attacked, I immediately ordered a fresh new division from the rear to carry out a counter-strike and provide relief.  Even when advancing through the terrible fire, it lost a great number of men, and afterwards it could not go one step further forward.  Of course, the English have also suffered many losses, but probably not as many in this process.  This is primarily an artillery battle.  The English have three times as many guns and six times the quantity of ammunition.  So our dear soldiers die off.  One constantly keeps thinking: if we deploy more men at the front from the start, then these personnel will obviously also be annihilated; but having a thin front line and strong reserves coming from the rear – which is our current approach – will no longer do, either.

Today in 1916: British Take Thiepval
Today in 1915: Vain British Attacks at Loos
Today in 1914: South Africans Defeated at Sandfontein

Sources include: Nick Lloyd, Passchendaele; Lyn Macdonald, They Called it Passchendaele.

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Remembering

It’s Remembrance day so I thought I’d share some recent family history I’ve only just discovered as well as a sketch I’ve just done in Zbrush and Modo with all of this in mind :)

Both my Great Grandfather and Great Great Uncle served in the Army during the First World War.  Unfortunately up until about 4 months ago this was all the information I had regarding them. Recently though I’ve been able to acquire some new information from an older family member.  I’m still a bit fuzzy over my Great Grandfather, I know he was injured in action and ‘got a blighty one’ (slang for getting a non-fatal injury that would take you home) and spent the rest of the war fixing shoes with Prussian POW’s (he was a cobbler by trade).

I do have a lot of information regarding my Great Great Uncle, Maurice Bookham however, and it’s really interesting!  Maurice joined the British Army at the age of 16 and went to France with the first British contingent when WW1 first broke out.  He was in the retreat from Mons, the Battle of the Marne, the first and second Battles of Ypres and the Battle of Nueve Chappelle.  During the Battle of Festubert he received 17 wounds and was sent home to recover.  After 17 months he rejoined the reserves, teaching trainees ‘Musketry’. 

After the war Maurice joined the prison service, eventually becoming the Assistant Superintendent of Prisons in Trinidad, in charge of Carrera Convict prison.  During a pretty dire mutiny at the prison he was separated from his colleagues  and surrounded by prisoners that had armed themselves with various weapons including sledgehammers and crowbars.  He managed to quell the mutiny armed with a spade and I imagine a lot of guts!  For this act and his service he was awarded the M.B.E, which I now possess along with a written document signed by King George V.

For me, today is about remembering Maurice and Percy (my great Grandad), whom I never met, as part of a generation of people that made serious sacrifices for their country and people.