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.
As 2014 comes to an end, it has been a good year for Great War Photos with a huge number of visitors but I am also pleased to have been able to supply photographs for a number of WW1 Centenary projects, exhibitions and publications.
But this is only just the start of the centenary and next year on the site there will be photos relating to Neuve-Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, Festubert, Gallipli, Loos and Ypres among many other locations connected with events in 1915.
This Christmas Card was sent by a German soldier from Flanders in December 1914 – a hundred years ago this week.
Meanwhile have a Happy Christmas and wonderful New Year – see you all in 2015.
A century ago today the cities, towns and villages that would fall in the path of war and the destruction of the Western Front went about their business as usual. The 1st August 1914 was a Saturday and no doubt the market seen in Ypres above was its usual busy self. In the fields near Mont St Eloi, on what would become the battlefields of Arras, the crops were getting ready to be harvested.
In Albert the basilica (below), only two years old, would soon be ringing its bells to summon the ‘Ceux de 1914’ – the generation who went to war in France in 1914 – to uniform and the road to the front. Four years later all these places stood in ruins, now part of the ‘Zone Rouge’ – the Red Zone, that long swathe of Europe smashed to oblivion by the Great War.
Ninety-nine years ago today the British government declared war on Germany and for Britain the Great War began. A year from today the Centenary of the Great War starts with a joint reconciliation service of remembrance at Mons with British and German heads of state present.
Many of those with a long-held interest in the Great War view the upcoming Centenary with some trepidation. There is a fear the war will be trivialised into convenient media soundbites, a concern there will be too much focus on the dead of the war and not enough on those who survived, and among many academics disgust that achievements on the battlefield which lead to victory will be forgotten.
All of these are legitimate concerns but it is clear the Centenary is also a time to educate and share knowledge. That is why I set up Great War Photos some eighteen months ago; a platform like a blog is an easy and accessible way for me to share the thousands of largely unseen images I’ve collected to be seen by a wider audience; and all it costs is some time and a few dollars for a web address. That such a project is of interest to others is clear; the site has so far been seen by more than 200,000 unique visitors from all over the world. People have requested to use images for private research, community projects and publications; all of which has been granted as it is precisely what I had hoped for when I set the site up.
I mention all this not to blow my own trumpet but to demonstrate how easy it is to take an active part in the Centenary. Blogs are free; adding images, artwork and sound or video files is easy. Many of those with years of collecting or researching WW1 have some sort of story to tell and surely the Centenary is the time to do that? Others have family stories to add, or names on a local memorial which once researched can be shared with others. All you need is the will and the ability to type.
The Centenary should be a time for collaboration and co-operation, as well as a time to publish books, enhance profiles and churn our programmes. Let us hope more and more take on that challenge.
So what has Great War Photos got planned for 2014? In the lead-up to the Centenary I plan to publish a number of images showing places on what would become the Western Front, showing how they looked on the eve of war; sleepy villages and flourishing communities. From August 2014 onwards I aim to focus on images connected with 1914: the fighting overseas as well as events on the home front.
I am trying to think positively about the Great War Centenary and I hope others will do so as well; it is an important period that should not be wasted by anyone with an interest in the subject.
By the late 1920s the work on making the cemeteries along the old Western Front was in full swing and while a large number of cemeteries had been completed, many had not.
This image from the late 1920s shows White House Cemetery, close to Ypres and in the neighbouring village of St Jan, serves as a typical example. The cemetery wall has been built, the Stone of Remembrance and Cross of Sacrifice are in place, but the graves all have the original wooden crosses. The wide scope and variety of the crosses is evident as is the rural nature of the ground around Ypres, now in total contrast to what it looks like today.
In the years following the end of the Great War the civilian population that had once lived in the towns and villages on the former battlegrounds began to return. In the immediate area around Ypres the villages were uninhabitable for the first couple of years, so people lived in Ypres at night and went to work on their former homes during the day; clearing detritus and rubble in preparation for a rebuild.
This image shows one of the temporary communities for such people. The provisional wooden housing was put in place until permanent residences could be rebuilt, in most cases at least 3-4 years after the war was over.
During the Third Battle of Ypres tanks from the recently formed Tank Corps operated in Flanders, but usually with limited success. The nature of the ground meant that many bogged down and were either damaged or destroyed by artillery fire. Many infantry soldiers referred to them as ‘shell magnets’ on the open battlefields leading up to Passchendaele.
These tank wrecks were still very visible in the 1920s and many became tourist attractions, most notably close to the Menin Road at the so-called ‘Tank Cemetery’.
This particular Mark IV tank was lost ‘near Langemarck‘ according to the caption and appears to be a partner of another Langemarck Tank previously featured on the website. There are no distinguishing marks on this vehicle so it is impossible to speculate when and how it was lost. However, research indicates it may be a tank from B Battalion Tank Corps, who were action here in August 1917.