The surprise German attack, exploiting for the first time on the Western Front the use of poison gas and based on a superiority of infantry, artillery support and commanding positions, represented perhaps the most effective offensive of the year in the west. The momentum of relentless German onslaughts repeatedly pushed Allied defenders back towards the city. But despite the dramatic contraction of the Salient (reduced to less than three miles deep) Ypres, at the conclusion of the fighting, remained in Allied hands. The heroic resolution displayed by its defenders mirrored the courageous sacrifices of the original BEF during October and November of the previous year. Conforming to repeated French requests to retake lost ground the British forces at Ypres in 1915 willingly undertook local counter-attacks which, without adequate preparations and artillery support, were doomed from the outset. Smith-Dorrien’s practical appreciation of the futility of such actions and recommendations for withdrawal led only to his swift and humiliating dismissal. Replaced by Plumer, the BEF grimly hung on against all odds until the enemy, lacking the necessary reserves to force the vital breakthrough, were compelled at last to abandon their assaults.
After over four and a half weeks of savage and near continuous fighting the Second Battle of Ypres, ‘for its size, one of the most murderous battles of the war’ (Cyril Falls), ground to a halt in late May 1915; Allied defenders and German attackers having become almost equally exhausted by their efforts. British Expeditionary Force casualties were over 59,000 (killed, wounded and missing), French 10,000; German losses were estimated at around 35,000. The outline of the Ypres Salient, now even more difficult to defend and a constant target for German guns, would remain relatively unchanged until the major British offensive operations of the summer of 1917
‘Second Ypres’ is forever associated with the German introduction of poison gas. But the limited tactical success of the gas cloud attacks resulted in widespread outrage at this escalation in the horrors of modern warfare. It was not long before the Allies felt justified in retaliating in kind and the British first used gas at the outset of the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915.
ON TO THE FLANDERS OFFENSIVE 1917
Campaign map Army structure Terminology