Visiting the St. Julien Memorial outside of Ypres to those who fought and died in The Second Battle of Ypres
28.03.2009 - 29.03.2009 13 °C
The first of three entries on my trip around the World War I battlefields of Flanders. This entry, The Brooding Soldier in Flanders' Fields looks at the start of the war and the Second Battle of Ypres. A Young Nation Mourns Her Dead published on April 8th, 92 years less a day from the battle, looks at the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the Canadian National monument that stands on the battlefield today. I died in hell - They called in Passchendaele looks at the Battle of Passchendaele and the end of the war.
In the late 1800s, European powers agreed to a number of pacts and alliances, all in an effect to maintain the balance of power, ensuring that no side had an upper hand. Whenever any one power would gain an upper hand, the result was a series of alliances and military build-ups to restore the balance of power. All this came to a head in 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austro-Hungary by a Serbian nationalist. This eventually caused the Austro-Hungarian empire to declare war on Serbia, triggering other powers to declare war, and like dominoes falling soon most of Europe was at war.
Germany started by invading neutral Belgium and Luxembourg and then marched into France. Germany made good progress until early September of 1914 and the Battle of Marne, with a combined French and British force stopped the advance. No side could push through the others lines, and so the armies dug in, building fortified trenches along a line that ran from the North Sea to the Swiss border.
“We think nothing of the shrapnel now, if we can get trenches – it is beastly in the open. Usually the men are lazy about digging at first, but after a little shelling they are all the other way, and it is most important that you prevent them digging the trench so deep that they can’t fire out of it.”
- Letter, Colwyn Phillips, Captain Royal Horse Guards, Klein-Zillebeke, November 1914.
For the rest of the war, this line barely moved, and those towns that were along this battlefront suffered serious damage. The battlefront passed through Flanders near Lille, France and almost directly through the nearby town of Ypres, Belgium.
Ypres had been captured by the Germans in the initial advance. In November of 1914 the allied forces recaptured the town in what would become known as the First Battle of Ypres.
The Germans sought to retake the town of Ypres, and in on the 22nd of April in 1915 started their offensive. The Germans had been advancing their military technology, and after an unsuccessful attempt three months earlier at the Battle of Bolimov on the Eastern Front, they unleashed the latest in military technology near Ypres at Gravenstafel Ridge. A yellow-green cloud released from 5730 canisters blew on the prevailing winds towards a line of French troops. The first use of chlorine gas on the Western front saw 6,000 French troops die within minutes. The heavier than air gas filled the trenches, forcing the French soldiers to climb out into the open and face the heavy enemy fire.
The attack left a six kilometre long line in the allied defences, but luckily for the Allies the Germans had underestimated the effectiveness of the attack, and didn’t have troops to take advantage. Throughout the night of the 22nd and the morning of the 23rd, British and Canadian troops backfilled the French positions, and the Germans were only able to gain 3 kilometres. The Canadians mounted an offensive out of Kitchener’s Wood.
A few days later the Germans tried the gas again, this time near St. Julien, where they released the gas on a line of Canadian troops. Aware of what the gas cloud was, the men wet their handkerchiefs, sometimes with urine, and covered their mouths. The Canadians were affected, and pushed back, allowing the Germans to briefly take the village of St. Julien, but the Germans were pushed back out again over the next few days.
In the 2 days, the Canadians lost a total of 6,035 troops. Today, Near St. Julien, stands a memorial to those that fought in this battle, inscribed with the message, “THIS COLUMN MARKS THE BATTLEFIELD WHERE 18,000 CANADIANS ON THE BRITISH LEFT WITHSTOOD THE FIRST GERMAN GAS ATTACKS THE 22ND-24TH OF APRIL 1915. 2,000 FELL AND HERE LIE BURIED.”
Rising almost 11 metres from a stone-flagged court, "The Brooding Soldier" surmounts a single shaft of granite - the bowed head and shoulders of a Canadian soldier with folded hands resting on arms reversed. The expression on the face beneath the steel helmet is resolute yet sympathetic, as though its owner meditates on the battle in which his comrades displayed such great valour. The statue is set in the middle of a garden surrounded by tall cedars, which are kept trimmed to perfect cones to match and complement the towering granite shaft.
- Veteran Affairs Canada Website
The fighting continued, and eventually the Germans got the upper hand, but it took over a month, and by the end Ypres was almost completely destroyed. The city had been evacuated of all civilians early in May, and during The Battle of Bellewaarde on May 24 and 25, the British finally retreated and ceded the city to the Germans.
“Monday 3 May 1915. At 4 o’clock, the lieutenant of the gendarmerie warned me that orders to evacuate the town had arrived, and the sector where we were living had to be evacuated by the following Thursday at the latest. We are all overtaken by deep despondency. After struggling for six months against every adversity, after having gone without comfortable everyday life for so long, with the one aim of being able to hang onto our houses, we have to resign ourselves to leaving all our things behind. What will we find when we come back?”
- Diary, Aime Van Nieuwenhove, secretary of the Comite Provisoire, Ieper
It was during the second battle of Ypres that a Canadian surgeon, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae M.D. of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, wrote a poem which he titled “In Flanders Fields.”
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.