On April 15 1915, the Canadian Division get their orders to take over a piece of the line from the French on April 16. So begins the time in 1915 that will change everything.
The 2nd Battle of Ypres was very confusing for all involved, the "Fog of War" was extreme. So I am today going to try and give you a "Dummies" guide to 2nd Ypres.
First of all, let's get a sense for the terrain. Terrain shaped the battle.
As you can see from this topographical map, the Salient bulges out to the east where it is ringed by high ground.
By looking at the ground we can see what was at stake.
If the Germans could capture all the high ground, the Salient would become almost impossible to defend and certainly very difficult to attack from: everything could be seen.
If they could break through at either hinge, they might win the war. For then, they could roll up the allied line from the North all the way to Switzerland.
The high ground and the hinges are key.
In this map, that shows the various shifts of the line during the war, note the brown line. This is the front line when the Canadians come into the line on April 16/17. By the end of May, the Allies will be pushed back onto the red line.
Note the Yser canal. All the supplies for anyone in the Salient had to cross the canal. This was quite a barrier.
Note the roads and how exposed they are to artillery from the ridges. All supplies had to come up these roads too.
Note the label for Zillbeke Lake. Look above the label and you will see where the railway crosses the road. This is the infamous Hellfire Corner, the most dangerous place in the world. For the entire war, supplies and reinforcement had to move through Hellfire Corner. German artillery was zeroed into this point and it was a lottery if you were going to make it.
The terrain meant that keeping the men in the Salient supplied was exceptionally difficult. Water ammunition and food would all cost blood to deliver.
Terrain also meant that communications will be a telling issue in the weeks to come. In this context, General Turner's consistent inability to comprehend the battle space and his persistent misunderstanding of his orders were to create a situation where the Canadians nearly were wiped out.
Terrain is a major reason for this problem.
The distance between Division HQ, just west of Ypres, and the front was significant. Telephone lines were consistently knocked out and radio was in its infancy. Most orders depend on scraps of paper written in haste in pencil that were then carried by runner who was inevitably under observation and fire.
As a result, many orders were often late, did not arrive at all or were confusing. It was impossible for Division and Corps to know what was going on too. The Fog of War always is a factor. In 2nd Ypres it was almost overwhelming.
Now we come to the issue of deployment.
In war, no place is more vulnerable to attack than where two separate commands touch. No place is more vulnerable than when these different commands come from different nations. You can be in a company right next to another from a different command and you will have no way of working collaboratively with them. Each company reports only to their own HQ. Neither are connected to each other. So, there are, in effect, two bodies and two heads next to each other that cannot communicate or work with each other.
This was why the Germans chose their point of attack with exquisite care right between the French and the Canadians.
As we can see in the map, the Canadians were deployed just next to the French Algerian Division who are on their right to the north. The Canadians had just taken over their sector from another French division.
In itself, taking over from the French was a problem. The issue is doctrine. The British doctrine was to hold the front line at all costs. This meant a very strong front line.
On April 16th the Canadians arrived in what had been the French front line to find that there was no front line really but a only series of scrapes. Many of these had been used as latrines. So the order of the day for the Canadians was to get digging. No one slept much and the work was back breaking. This meant that when the attack came on the evening 22nd of April, the Canadians were not as well dug in as they had hoped to be.
The French doctrine was to hold the front line lightly but then defend further back in depth.
In the Salient in April 1915, this second line was called the GHQ line. It was not much of a line either. The map shows this line clearly marked running North South at the west end of the Salient. But it was only a series of ditches and some wire.
Now let's look at the map again and this time look at nature of the unit deployments on the front. For this too was affected by the unique terrain of the salient.
Note that the frontage of each British and Canadian division is quite short. The Canadian front is held by 2 brigades, the 3rd under General Turner on the left and the 2nd under General Currie on the right. The 1st brigade was being held west of Ypres in reserve with V Corps.
Just south of them is the British 28th division. Below the 28th is the 27th that includes the PPCLI.
So here is the terrain issue. The front facing the Germans for each division in the line is quite short but the distance back to the rear is very long. In particular, the Canadians have a very long left flank with the French.
Understanding this is the key to the Canadian part of this battle. What happens is that after the gas attack on April 22, is that the French leave this entire flank open.
The success of the gas attack means that the French, on the Canadian left, simply vanish leaving a huge new front on the the Canadian left flank. The Canadians still have to hold their front to the east but now also have to pivot to extend their coverage along their northern and eastern border.
Their flank has been turned.
This is the challenge and it is the Canadians' great achievement that in the crucial first two days that they hold. If they had not, the war might have been lost.
Later, reinforcements in the shape of the 1st brigade are pushed into the northern hinge and a pickup force under the command of Col Geddes, a British officer, are crucial. Later still, the Lahore Division is pushed into the northern hinge. For remember the hinges are the war ending points.
This next map shows this process as the 3rd brigade bends around and the Geddes Brigade pushes in from the west into the hinge.
Meanwhile at the southern hinge, south of the 28th division of the British army is the 27th division. Part of this is the PPCLI. Here the Germans attack in force on May 8th. The Pats are almost wiped out but they hold their part of the southern hinge.
The Canadians save the day on both hinges of the Salient.
But I get ahead of myself. In the next few days I will do my best to show you what happened to my grandfather and his battery so we can experience the chaos as he would have experienced it. We will also look in more detail and the PPCLI on the other side of the Salient.
On April 10, the PPLCI arrived at Polygon Wood. "Uncle Hammie", Hamilton Gault, is not with then on that day. He had been wounded at St Eloi on February 28th but he will arrive back to join the regiment on May 5th just in time to be part of the worst days for the regiment where he will be badly wounded and lose a leg. and the Pats will be almost wiped out holding the hinge on the south. Lieut. Niven was acting CO by May 18. All the senior officers had been killed or wounded.
My grandfather Alec, with the 5th battery 2nd Brigade CFA will move into position at the far eastern corner of the front in support of Currie's 2nd brigade. They will spend the next few days digging gun pits and bringing up ammunition. "The billets taken over were in a very unsanitary condition and filthy and dirty!" (War Diary).
We will follow my cousin Guy Drummond in the 13th Battalion as well.
Guy Drummond is in the reserve company of the 13th Battalion in the 3rd brigade on the left hand northern sector. This unit is commanded by his friend Major Edward Norsworthy. They are the firefighters of their battalion and are ready to intervene in a crisis.
And finally we will look at John McCrae, close friend of family friends. On April 15, he is setting up an aid post in a dugout, burrowed into the west bank of the Yser Canal at what will be called Essex Farm.
I leave you here with the starting position of April 21st.
Guy and Major Norsworthy are in the top left in the 13th Battalion. This location is to be called the Apex.
Grandfather Alec's battery is just the west of the small river that extends west to east behind the 5th Battalion. Look for the label for the 28th Div. Alec's battery is just north of the stream between the 2 and the 8.
Jack McCrae is a short distance north of Ypres on the west side of the Canal. The PPCLI and Uncle Hammy Gault will be moving to a position in the bottom centre of the map where the lines disappear off the map.
The French occupy all the salient from the 23h battalion west to the hinge. By April 22 the French will have been pushed right out of this sector and it will be filled with Germans.