Trial by Gas - the British Army at the Second Battle of Ypres, George H. Cassar

Trial by Gas - the British Army at the Second Battle of Ypres, George H. Cassar

The second battle of Ypres was notable in two ways - as the first use of poisoned gas on the Western Front and as the only major German offensive in the west in 1915. It is also seen as one of the great ‘missed chances’ of the war, with the Germans missing the chance for a major victory by not providing enough support for the attack (just as the British did at Cambrai in 1917).

One of the key themes of the book is how quickly the Allied troops adapted to the threat posed by poisoned gas, which on its first use punched a hole in the Allied lines, but became increasingly less effective as countermeasures were introduced (although still remained deadly in many circumstances).

The author is willing to be critical of the high command on both sides - the British for their repeated and often futile counterattacks, the French for failing provide the promised support for these attacks and the German for their unimaginative tactics (apart from the use of gas) and failure to support the attack properly.

The text is well supported by maps at a useful scale, showing the full salient at every stage of the battle and thus avoiding the common peril in First World War books of getting bogged down in too much detail, something made easier by the survival of so many official trench maps that show individual parts of the front line in almost irresistible detail, but that rarely provide much insight into the wider battle.

My one criticism of this book is that more was needed from the German side. The German attacks tend to appear only as they were seen from the British side - as a heavy bombardment followed by waves of infantry, with limited information on which German units were involved or what they were trying to achieve in individual attacks. This is repeated in the bibliography, where an impressive array of British primary and secondary sources are listed, and very few German.

1 - Ypres, the Salient and the Defending V Corps Divisions
2 - Weapon of Horror
3 - The Withdrawal and Close of the Battle of St. Julien, 1-4 May
4 - Interlude, 4-7 May
5 - The battle of Frezenberg Ridge, 8 May
6 - The battle of Frezenberg Ridge, 9-12 May
7 - The battle of Frezenberg Ridge, 13 May
8 - The battle of Bellewaarde Ridge, 24-25 May

Author: George H. Cassar
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 336
Publisher: Potomac
Year: 2015

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