Ypres, a medieval town in Belgium, was taken by the German Army at the beginning of the war. However, by early October, 1914, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was able to recapture the town. The 1st Battle of Ypres took place between 15th October and 22nd November, 1914. It is estimated that about 135,000 Germans were killed or badly wounded during this offensive.
In April, 1915, the German launched another major offensive at Ypres. After a brief preliminary bombardment, the Germans used chlorine gas against the French and Algerian troops defending the area north of the town. The troops fled in terror and left a 7km gap in the Allied line. Wearing primitive gas-masks, the Germans advanced cautiously into the gap. The arrival of the British Second Army blocked the German advance but the Allied forces had been disadvantaged by the loss of the high ground north of Ypres.
Heavy fighting and frequent gas attacks continued around Ypres until 25th May. The Allied line held, but the German Fourth Army was able to use its new higher positions to bombard the town with heavy artillery. This inflicted heavy losses and Ypres was virtually demolished by the German shells during this period.
We knew there was something was wrong. We started to march towards Ypres but we couldn't get past on the road with refugees coming down the road. We went along the railway line to Ypres and there were people, civilians and soldiers, lying along the roadside in a terrible state. We heard them say it was gas. We didn't know what the Hell gas was. When we got to Ypres we found a lot of Canadians lying there dead from gas the day before, poor devils, and it was quite a horrible sight for us young men. I was only twenty so it was quite traumatic and I've never forgotten nor ever will forget it.
The effect of the gas was so overwhelming that the whole of the positions occupied by the French divisions were rendered incapable of resistance. It was impossible at first to realise what had actually happened. Fumes and smoke were thrown into a stupor and after an hour the whole position had to be abandoned, together with 50 guns.
The shells came over just above the parapet, in a flood, much more quickly than we could count them. After a quarter of an hour of this sort of thing, there was a sudden crash in the trench and ten feet of the parapet, just beyond me, was blown away and everyone around blinded by the dust. With my first glance I saw what looked like half a dozen bodies, mingled with sandbags, and then I smelt gas and realised that these were gas shells. I had my respirator on in a hurry and most of our own men were as quick. The others were slower and suffered for it. One man was sick all over the sandbag and another was coughing his heart up. We pulled four men out of the debris unharmed. One man was unconscious, and died of gas later. I started at once to build up the parapet again, for we had been laid open to the world in front, but the gas lingered about the hole for hours, and I had to give up as it made me feel very sick.
Now we were in it! Bullets were flying through the air in all directions. A few men had gone down already, and no wonder - the air was thick with bullets. In front of me an officer was hurrying along when I saw him throw up his hands and collapse on the ground. I hurried across to him, and lifted his head on to my knee. He couldn't speak and was rapidly turning a deathly pallor. I undid his equipment and the buttons of his tunic as fast as I could, to find out where he had been shot. Right through the chest. The left side of his shirt, near his heart, was stained deep with blood. He was a captain in the Canadians.
All movement in the attack had now ceased, but the rifle and shell fire was as strong as ever. I got hold of a subaltern and together we ran back with a stretcher to where I left the captain. We lifted him on the stretcher. He seemed a bit better, but his breathing was very difficult. How I managed to hold up that stretcher I don't know. I was just verging on complete exhaustion by this time. We got him in and put him down in an outbuilding which had been turned into a temporary dressing station.
I left him, and went across towards the farm. As I went I heard the enormous ponderous, gurgling, rotating sound of large shells coming. I looked to my left. Four columns of black smoke and earth shot up a hundred feet into the air, not eighty yards away. Then four mighty reverberating explosions that rent the air.
As I was on the sloping bank of the gully I heard a colossal rushing swish in the air, and then didn't hear the resultant crash. All seemed dull and foggy; a sort of silence, worse than all the shelling, surrounded me. I lay in a filthy stagnant ditch covered with mud and slime from head to foot. I suddenly started to tremble all over. I couldn't grasp where I was. I lay and trembled. I had been blown up by a shell.
I lay there some little time, I imagine, with a most peculiar sensation. All fear of shells and explosions had left me. I still heard them dropping about and exploding, but I listened to them and watched them as calmly as one would watch an apple fall off a tree. I could not make myself out. Was I right or wrong? I tried to get up, and then I knew. The spell was broken. I shook all over, and had to to lie still, with tears pouring down my face. I could see my part in the battle was over.
This Ypres is a terrible place still. There is no life when night comes on but tavern life. Those who live and work here have lost their sense of proportion. They are out of focus somehow. "You looking for dead soldiers," says a Flemish woman to you with a glaring stare, wondering if you are one of the exhumers. Death and the ruins completely outweigh the living. One is tilted out of time by the huge weight on the other side of the plank, and it would be easy to imagine someone who had no insoluble ties killing himself here, drawn by the lodestone of death. There is a pull from the other world, a drag on the heart and spirit. One is ashamed to be alive.
You try to sleep in a little bed in a cubicle with tiny doll's house window. You lie listless, sleepless, with Ypres on the heart, and then suddenly a grand tumult of explosion, a sound as of the tumbling of heavy masonry. You go to the little window, behold, the whole sky is crimson once more, and living streamers of flame ascend to the stars. An old dump has gone up at Langemark. Everyone in Ypres looks out and then returns to sleep - without excitement. The lurid glare dies down; stertorous night resumes her sway over the living and the dead. For a moment it was as if the old war had started again.