Today is the Centenary of the start of the Second Battle of Ypres and a hundred years since the first use of poison gas on the battlefields of the Great War. Poison gas was a weapon outlawed under the Hague Convention but by 1915 the Germans viewed the conflict as a ‘Total War’ and that every weapon was justifiable for victory; there was also belief that the Allies had gas weapons too and it was just a matter of time before they were implemented.
After much preparations and a trial use of the gas, the poison cloud was released at 5pm on 22nd April 1915. More than 170 tons of chlorine gas was released over a 6.5km front, on positions held by French Colonial and Territorial troops. More than 6,000 of them quickly became casualties, having no protection against the gas. Most died within ten minutes as the chlorine gas irritated their lungs causing a ‘drowning’ effect. German assault troops came flooding through the French positions, protected by their own gas masks, and gradually the whole front, including the British lines, began to collapse. In the fighting that followed troops of the Canadian Expeditionary Force played a prominent role in the defence of Ypres; the 1st Canadian Division losing more than 2,000 men killed in action in the first days of the battle.
The photograph above is grainy and unfocussed but shows German soldiers in a captured French trench in the opening phase of the battle. Two dead Poilus are on the trench floor, victims of the gas attack which took place a hundred years ago.
Many thanks to German historian Rob Schäfer for the use of these images.
On this day a hundred years ago Lord Kitchener, Secretary State for War, called for a 100,000 men to join what was officially ‘The New Army‘ and soon became known as Kitchener’s Army. This image shows new recruits for the Welsh Regiment having just been sworn in and still wearing their civilian clothes. The Welsh Regiment appears to have issued small card badges, all they had to issue at this stage, to show the men had enlisted despite the fact that they were not yet in uniform.
A century ago today Great Britain declared war on Germany. Units of the British Army immediately went onto War Stations and battalions like this one began to march out of camp or depot and towards pre-planned locations to gather in preparation for joining the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). The BEF was Britain’s pre-planned response to a European War and units began to land in France as early as 5th August 1914 with the bulk of the first infantry and cavalry in the following week. Britain was now at war: the hour was go.
In the summer of 1914 Britain’s armies were on the move. Not the regular forces but the men of the Territorial Force, Britain’s ‘Saturday Night Soldiers’ who were departing all over the country for their annual summer camp.
This image from a century ago shows men of the the 15th Battalion London Regiment (Civil Service Rifles) at their annual camp on Salisbury Plain. But this camp was not to last. As July moved into August the road to war now looked almost inevitable as the battalion returned to London and most convinced they would be moving to War Stations in only a matter of days; and they would indeed be proved right.
During the Great War the issue of cold weather gear for troops in the front line was limited. In the British Army soldiers had a leather jerkin and greatcoat but as the Northern French winters got colder – it dropped to more than -20 on the Somme during the winter of 1916/17 – a great deal of improvisation took place.
This photograph, dating from 1916, was taken in a French photographer’s studio in a back area on the Somme front. It shows a typical animal fur jacket worn by British troops; in this case with a separate over jacket and arm pieces. It was likely made from sheep or goat fur. While these were warm, they were also breeding grounds for body lice and while extensively used in the early war period, they were less common as the conflict progressed. The soldier also wears a British steel helmet, standard issue by this time, and the strap across his fur jacket is from the small haversack which contained his gas mask, likely to be a PH Helmet at this stage. His Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) Rifle has a cover over the main working parts to protect it from the elements. Images like this are rare, especially those taken in studios, and it gives as an insight into what British troops wore during some of the winter periods.