Chapter 13

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Jock Macleod had spent a happy day pottering in the garden of the fine house they called ‘Goldfish Chateau’ on the western outskirts of Ypres where the officers of the 2nd Camerons were billeted while the Battalion was at rest. It was hardly damaged by shell-fire, the garden was a blaze of spring flowers and even japonica and early roses were in bloom. In two days they would be returning to the trenches. There, encouraged by the fine weather over the last few days, a luxuriant display of cowslips had blossomed, and to continue the springtime theme Jock had carefully dug up some daffodils from the chateau garden. He packed them in a flower-pot, purloined from the conservatory, and when the battalion returned to the trenches, he proposed to plant them on the covering of soil that camouflaged the headquarters dug-out. Gardening was still in his mind after dinner, when he wrote his regular letter home, and he was struck by a happy thought: Please send me some penny packets of summer seeds to sow round the trenches – although I fully expect that we shall be well on our way to Berlin before they flower. Jock had good reason to be optimistic, for the roar of the mines going up at Hill 60 had been heard for miles and, fired by rumours, dinner in the officers’ mess had passed in a buzz of speculation and euphoria. It was Saturday night.

It was true that, at first, the Germans had been completely unbalanced by the explosion. From the high ground at Zandvoorde their guns were firing anywhere and everywhere. It was hours before the situation was appreciated, before the guns settled down to shoot accurately and in earnest, before the shocked survivors rushing back from the hill had been rallied and incoherent reports were understood and evaluated at German Corps Headquarters. By midnight reserves had been hurried to the front and the first counter-attack was launched. It was the first of dozens.

The Germans attacked by night, they attacked by dawn, they attacked by day, making desperate efforts to recover the hill. The fighting and the line swayed back and forth. The shells of both sides pulverised the hill until it was hard to believe that this tortured mound of devastation had ever been a hill at all. Trees and dug-outs were swallowed up. Trenches were obliterated as fast as they were dug through the mangled bodies of British and German dead. The stench was overpowering. Once they had recovered from the first assault the Germans had the advantage, for the British advance had thrust a wedge into their line and machine-guns and snipers concealed on the high ground on either side could sweep their foothold on the hill with deadly accuracy. It was such a small foothold – only two hundred and fifty yards long, and two hundred yards deep – that the enemy hardly needed to take aim and even the most haphazard shots could not fail to find a target.*

The first British troops to be pushed back from the hill in the early stages of the assault had caused some disquiet. Although their position had been quickly recovered in a counter-attack it had had to be made by other troops, for the men who had been forced off were finished – choking and gasping, overcome by fumes, they were convinced that they had been gassed, and they were right. But it had been an accident. It was true that the Germans had been planning to attack with poison gas, but they were not yet ready, and the conditions had not been favourable. Nevertheless gas cylinders had been dug into the side of the hill and the Germans soldiers who panicked and ran when the British stormed it, shaken though they were by the explosions, had been less afraid of British troops than of British shells shattering the cylinders and releasing the poisonous gas on friend and foe alike. Only a few had been damaged and the cylinders cracked so that the gas escaped slowly and covered only a small area on the right of Hill 60. It should have been enough to alert the staff to the danger, but so few soldiers were affected, there were so many fumes from the mines and from exploding shells and, since the enemy was known to have fired tear gas shells in the past, the significance of the incident paled against the magnitude of the continuing battle for the hill.

But for those who were not immediately involved in the struggle there were other clues and hints that something unusual was afoot. Strange clanging noises had been heard near the enemy’s trenches and patrols were sent out to investigate.

Trpr. P. Mason, 1/1st Yorkshire Hussars Yeomanry.

There was Captain Foster, Lance Corporal Armond, Trooper Mason, Trooper Heslop and Trooper Hutton. There were five of us. Our object was to get a prisoner, if possible. It was very, very nervous work, I can tell you, crawling about No Man’s Land, you know. Captain Foster said, ‘If anybody has the slightest suspicion that he has a cough he’s not going.’ He had this rule and thank God he did. We would suffocate ourselves rather than give a cough. Well, sometimes when I felt I was going to cough I used to push my face into the ground to stop me. I daren’t, you know, because it would give the game away. We got a bit nervy, I don’t mind telling you. One night Captain Foster went out carelessly with a luminous wristwatch on his ruddy wrist and Tom Armond said, ‘For Christ’s sake, take it off.’ I remember him saying that. Well, that was dangerous, you know.

It was Captain Foster’s routine to call Brigade Headquarters, to see what was needed, any instructions and information. He came back and he said, ‘This will interest you. Some of the infantry sentries on forward observation say at night time, just as it was getting dusk, they could hear reports of these iron clangs, metallic clanging, and then the news went around that Jerry was setting up a blacksmith’s shop in the front line and would the Yorkshire Hussars find out.’ So out we went. Our password was ‘Yorkshire’, that was the call, and the answer was ‘Hussar’. Well, no German of the highest intelligence would ever expect to meet a cavalryman in No Man’s Land, would they? So that was the password. Well, we were told on this particular night, up at Ypres, to find out if there was any substance in this claim of the infantry about this metallic clanging.

Well, they must have known that there was a small English patrol along that particular sector and the buggers were waiting for us. I remember very well, Captain Foster drawing on an envelope and saying, ‘This is where we’re going to be, lads.’ He said, ‘It’s only a farm track across the Ypres to Poelcapelle Road.’ Captain Foster and Tommy Armond went over first. I’m in the middle on my own, with Arthur Hutton and big Heslop behind. I didn’t get across it because some bugger coughed! We knew it wouldn’t be an animal, it was a man, and we knew it was a German, and immediately one or two bombs went over from our lads. Well, when I heard this cough, I knew what to do straight away, because the arrangement was, if there’s anybody coughs, throw a bomb where that sound came from. That was my first occasion where I had to throw a bomb and kill people.

Captain Foster and Tommy Armond scurried back as quick as a flash to get away from it and when the Very light went up there were about thirty buggers there waiting for us!

It was the luckiest escape in the world. You know, when you’re in a position like that you lose all sense of direction. You’ve got to lie quiet for a bit and just wonder in what direction to turn – whether you should about turn, or go left, or go right – because you’re all confused. Anyway, we all finished up safe and sound back in our own trenches. We could easily have bloody walked into the German trenches!

As it was we were near enough to hear that clanging as plain as a pikestaff, and about four or five days after that they let the gas off.

And there had been other warnings. There was talk that the Germans had already used gas against the French on the Champagne front, but nothing had been heard of it through official channels. But there was other evidence which could not so easily be dismissed. As far back as the end of March the French Tenth Army in the sector north of Ypres reported that they had captured a German prisoner who had been unusually forthcoming under interrogation, pouring out details of preparations for a gas attack. The man had been nervous and eager to mollify his captors, and the French dismissed his ramblings out of hand and did not consider them worth passing on. Two weeks later another prisoner captured in the same sector had told the same story. He gave precise information, meticulous descriptions of the cylinders, fifty-three inches long and filled with chlorine gas. He described how the German soldiers had been trained in their use, showed exactly where the cylinders had been dug in and where the attacks would be launched. He was even carrying one of the respirators which had been issued to protect the German soldiers against the lethal fumes. His story was convincing. But, conferring together, British and French Intelligence Officers, weighing the matter up, concluded that it was a little too convincing. The German had been too easily captured. He had virtually walked into the French lines. Might he not have been sent on purpose?* It might easily be a devious Teutonic ruse to mislead the allies, to persuade them to withdraw troops from the ‘danger zone’ and allow the Germans to advance in a bloodless victory on Ypres. Or, conversely, if the Germans were preparing an assault elsewhere the ruse might have been designed to prevent the allies withdrawing troops from the salient. Who could tell? Even a reportfrom Belgian Army Intelligence, which also had evidence that German soldiers had been issued with gas-masks and were being instructed in the use of gas-cylinders, might easily be part of the same plot. War was war, but there were still certain rules to be observed. The use of poison gas was strictly proscribed by the Hague Convention and all civilised nations, including Germany, had signed it.

The Germans were not above employing devious tactics, particularly in the field of propaganda, which frequently backfired despite their best intentions and their desire to adopt a virtuous stance which would impress neutral nations with the justice of their cause. Two days after the capture of the second prisoner and on the very day of the British assault on Hill 60, the German newspapers carried a virulent story, dripping with righteous indignation, which categorically stated that the British had committed the unspeakable crime of using poison gas against defenceless German troops, thus contravening not only the laws of war but the unwritten laws of civilisation itself. It was a cover story, designed to justify the fact that the Germans themselves were planning to use the illegal weapon in an attack which they hoped would be seen at home and abroad as ‘retaliation’. It was reported by Reuter, noted in London and disregarded, if they ever heard of it, in France – although General Plumer had passed on the French report to his Divisional Commanders ‘for what it is worth’!

The Germans hoped that their new secret weapon would be worth a great deal. Their chemists had been working on it for a long time, and it was weeks since the first experimental cylinders had been dug into position. All that was lacking were the favourable winds that would carry the gas across to the British lines and the Ypres salient had been selected because, according to German meteorologists, the wind in springtime invariably blew in a south-westerly direction. A steady breeze was what was needed. If the wind were too strong the gas would be too quickly dissipated, if it blew in sudden gusts it would be just as ineffectual, and worse, if it suddenly changed direction there was no saying what the result might be.

As the weeks passed, and the wind disobligingly continued to blow from the wrong direction, the German Command began to be seriously worried. Too many people were in on the secret. Special troops, rudely referred to as ‘Stinkpionere’, had been instructed and trained to operate the gas cylinders, and, since it took eight men to carry one, hundreds of troops had slogged for many nights to carry the cylinders and the cumbersome ancillary apparatus to the line. Thousands of respirators had been manufactured locally in occupied Belgium where spies abounded, and now that they had been issued to soldiers in the Ypres sector, rumour was spreading like wildfire along the line and heavy hints that something interesting was in the offing were carried back to Germany by soldiers home on leave and also in optimistic letters from the front. Musketier Pieter Amlinger wrote home:

Within the next week we can expect to launch a large offensive between Bixschoote and Langemark. Follow the news bulletins closely. The great offensive about which you wrote is a fact and with some luck there may be peace at the end of May. We also have a ‘Dicke Bertha’ at our back whose loud voice – although not so beautiful – will be there to support us.

The ‘Big Bertha’, like the other heavy guns that would support the German attack, was all too necessary, for the German troops on the northern stretch of the western front were still vastly outnumbered by the allies. But the Germans had been heartened by the outcome of the battle of Neuve Chapelle and regarded the failure of the British to push home their initial success as a sign of weakness which could be turned to advantage. But success depended on surprise. As the weeks passed, as the gas attack was continually postponed, as more and more people were let into the secret, the German Commanders grew increasingly edgy. If the allies got wind of their plans, if they were able to take precautions against the gas, all would be lost.

The use of gas was essential to the Germans’ plan, for they were well aware that, against superior numbers, the front could not be broken by their infantry alone. They had studied the lessons of siege warfare and they planned a step-by-step advance. First the front-line troops would be overwhelmed by gas. Then the artillery would pound their lines and, pounding behind them simultaneously, would so reduce the salient and pulverise resistance that the Germans, advancing little by little, inexorably pressing on to the next limited objective, would gradually walk over the demoralised enemy and win the day. Pieter Amlinger was not the only German soldier shivering in the wind that so persistently blew from the north who genuinely believed that, when it turned, and before another month was out, he would be marching back to the Fatherland and that the war would be over and well and truly won. Hope was in the air.

Signals were arranged, code words decided on, guns and ammunition in undreamed of quantities brought up to the German front. This was to be an all-out effort. But the obdurate wind still blew from the north, and the German Command, champing on the bit as April dragged on, had to content themselves with ranging the heavy long-distance guns that were brought from the Belgian coast to swell the weight of the attack. They ranged them on Ypres.

The small city of Ypres was far from being the backwater it was to become in later years, when its importance relied largely on its notoriety as a focal point of the war. Tourists, in the modern sense, were few but its fame was widespread and it was a mecca for lovers of art and architecture. Fine buildings lined the streets, erected by a rich and cultured bourgeoisie, rare tapestries and paintings hung in the Cloth Hall. Pilgrims came too, for Ypres had become a noted religious centre in devout Catholic Flanders. There were two important monasteries not far away and several convents in the precincts of the town itself – the ‘Black’ sisters, the Poor Clares, and the convent of the Irish nuns who ran a private school for young ladies. But the school had closed down, the nuns had been evacuated, and the cubicles and dormitories where generations of virginal schoolgirls had slept and giggled were now inhabited by the heretical kilted soldiers of the 9th Royal Scots who, to their wry and lewd amusement, were billeted in the convent. Bill Hay was one of them, but it was an annoymous private of Β Company who recorded their impressions.

Our first tour of inspection degenerated into a hunt for souvenirs. We ransacked the bare attic rooms into which the Sisters had evidently gathered everything in great haste. One brought back in triumph a branching brass candlestick, another a crucifix and a small image of the Madonna – the most impossible things were secreted in packs to be quietly got rid of when we realised the folly of it. One or two lingered longer over the papers and ledgers strewn about the floor – the daily housekeeping of seventy or eighty years written in a clear, fine old-world hand touched us to the quick. What a peaceful, sequestered life, and what an awakening and an end! At first there was a sort of awed feeling at being in a convent, and we thought wonderingly of the schoolgirls and nuns who had lived their quiet life within these very walls. It showed us something of the convulsion into which Belgium had been thrown.

But how comfortable we were! A sacrilegious bunch of kilted heretics! The days we lay in the high-walled garden in the sun – the afternoon teas we gave when some of us struck it lucky with parcels. Even with fatigues – and we were out every night nearly – we had a slack time, for they were properly worked in two shifts, from eight to twelve and twelve to four, and we dug near the town. If anything we worked harder knowing relief was sure after four hours. And there were no bullets and no shells, only the far-off lights and crackle and grumble in the distance. Our unanimous decision was that fatigues at Ypres were a picnic.

We slept or lazed in the forenoon, and in the afternoon we strolled in the town. Walks by the canal, omelette and chip teas, shopping, patisserie-tasting, lace-buying, exploring the Cloth Hall ruins – all these we found time for in glorious weather, and very homely and pleasant it all was. We thought a lot of the gay little town where we had our happiest days since leaving home. For it was gay and full of people, the market square lined with booths on one side in front of the larger shops, although in the back streets there were shell-torn roofs and battered houses. And the Cloth Hall towering over it all, a gaunt and empty ruin, but every chipped and battered stone was eloquent, and its pinnacles still proudly cut into the sky.

In its symbolically battered state the Cloth Hall seemed to take on a grandeur it had not enjoyed since the days when Ypres was the centre of the rich Flanders wool trade, and since the wool trade had diminished lacemaking had taken its place. On fine summer days before the war, at open doors and windows all over the town, the ladies of Ypres, lace cushions on their laps, gossiped in the sun as their nimble fingers and flying bobbins worked the fine lace whose beauty rivalled even the coveted lace of Brussels. Their work was in demand all over the world and there were no fewer than twelve lace brokers in Ypres who bought up the lace, distributed it, and grew rich on the proceeds. One of them was Aimé van Nieuwenhove.

This gentleman was not a native of Ypres. He had started his career as a dashing young cavalry officer but fate had brought him to Ypres to its famous cavalry school and there he had met and married Clotilde Brunfaut, daughter of a prosperous lace merchant. Now he was a prosperous lace merchant himself, owner of a fine old house on the Rue de Lille which he had painstakingly renovated over the years, the father of two children, a prominent citizen of the town, a local politician, and one of the public-spirited men who had been co-opted on to the Comité Provisoire to safeguard the welfare of Ypres after the town council was evacuated. Long ago, when things had looked bad at the end of the previous October, he had sent his own wife and family to safety in Paris. But van Nieuwenhove himself stayed on and conscientiously recorded in his daily diary the trials that befell the little town he had come to love. On 20 April, the Germans began to range their heavy guns on Ypres.

Aimé van Nieuwenhove.

20 April Calm until 11 a.m. While I was at the post office counter a dozen shells fell all of a sudden. I took shelter right away in the cellars and went out at mid-day to see what had happened. When I got to the garden I ascertained that a shell had fallen in Lapierre’s shops and had destroyed part of the wall that separated them from my garden. A second and third had landed in the garden of M. Desaegher, one against the wall of Mlle Duval’s kitchen, the other beneath the carriage porch. When the first shell arrived Marie our washerwoman was in the wash house and dived into our cellar for shelter, where I found her very upset when I got back. The damaged wall belonged to Lapierre, but until it could be repaired, I was obliged myself to block up the hole with planks in order to prevent the English soldiers from getting into our premises.

At two o’clock in the afternoon I attended a meeting of the commission charged with paying the indemnity to support the refugees in the town. We met in the police headquarters building until 4.30, during which time eight huge shells fell on the town. When I came out of the meeting, our uncle, Auguste Liebaert, came to tell me that one of the shells that fell this morning hit the roof of his house and had destroyed one of the rooms. He was terribly upset and emotional. I advised him to go and spend the night in the post office cellars, then to go and find a temporary refuge at Poperinghe. Many more people are leaving the town again and it’s as deserted as it was in November. We have no more newspapers and are isolated from the rest of the world. Everywhere there is a feeling of discouragement and, for my part, I’m well aware that my nerves are no longer as strong as they proved to be during the first bombardments.

21 April I went to see the house of my uncle, who had spent a very bad night in the cellars, even though the night was quiet. Not being able to find a car anywhere to take him to Poperinghe, I advised him to take a porter and set off on the Vlamertinghe road, where, by offering a tip, he might be picked up by one or other of the ambulances. This he did.

At mid-day we learned that the eight big shells that arrived yesterday afternoon from the direction of Staden were 380 mm in diameter. This news threw consternation among my friends and it decided some of them to leave the town in case more of the same arrived. Seven civilians were killed on Monday and ten yesterday, besides that, more than a hundred English soldiers and many more wounded. Nevertheless today is reasonably calm. As for the bombardment, only a few shells were heard.

The Germans were ranging their big guns, still waiting impatiently for the wind to change and for the chance to launch their offensive.

The chance came next day on 22 April – but it was well into the afternoon before the wind shifted direction and began to blow gently towards the south-west. The timing was far from ideal. By the time the messages could be passed along the line, by the time the troops could be alerted and in position, there would not be many hours of daylight left. Ideally the gas should have been released in the morning leaving a long day for the German infantry to advance and press home the advantage and dig in by nightfall. But they had waited so long, they had postponed the attack so often, that when the wind turned in the afternoon of 22 April, the chance was too good to miss. The decision was taken. The codeword ‘Gott strafe Engelland’ was passed along the line. The assault troops were warned and moved into position, the special troops stood by the cylinders ready to open the cocks, the signal rockets were fired. 222 – ‘Everything is ready for the attack.’ 301 – ‘Fair Wind.’ 333 – ‘Get the troops ready to advance.’ There had been several false alarms, and these preliminary signals had been sent up before – always followed by the dispiriting 6666 – ‘Attack Cancelled.’ But this time the front-line German commanders, watching the flares and counting with bated breath, at last saw the signal they had been waiting for. 8888 – ‘Open the gas containers.’ The men of the ‘Stinkpionere’ pulled on their masks, bent over the cylinders, adjusted the long nozzles that would carry the gas into the wind, and wrenched open the cocks that would release it.

The attack came north of Ypres on the left of the salient and it fell in an awkward place, on the shoulder of the line where the Canadians joined hands with the French in front of Poelcapelle, and all across the French front to the Franco/Belgian boundary on the canal near Steenstraat. The Canadian Division had been holding the line for a matter of days, the French were in the process of changing over and their 45th Regiment had just moved into the line and had barely settled down. It was a regiment composed of French Colonials – native troops from North Africa – and it was on them that the full force of the gas cloud descended. At first, it looked as if it were going to envelop the Canadians. Two companies of the 48th Highlanders were in the front line and from his observation post in front of St julien Gunner Jim Sutton had a bird’s eye view.

It had been a quiet day, almost balmy for late April and, although a few shells had fallen in Ypres, away to the right behind them, only an occasional explosion or short burst of machine-gun fire had disturbed the monotonous routine of daytime in the trenches. It was almost five o’clock in the afternoon, the sun still shone, a pleasant light breeze had sprung up blowing, for once, towards the southwest, and as the soldiers, yawning and stretching, drummed up an early evening cup of tea, some of them were looking forward tonightfall and the prospect of being relieved at the end of their stint in the trenches. The guns of the 9th Canadian Battery were in action east of the village of St Julien on the edge of the Steenbeek stream, and the willow trees that bordered it provided perfect camouflage. Earlier in the day Gunner Jim Sutton had been sent forward to the observation post in front of Poelcapelle to take the place of Signaller-Corporal Lister who had been taken ill. The day had been not without incident for, earlier in the morning, a stray shell had broken the telephone line that connected the observation post with the guns and Sutton had spent most of the morning laboriously tracing the break. He found it eventually in the cemetery just north of St Julien and, squatting between the headstones of long-defunct villagers, mended it and made his way discreetly back to his post. For the rest of the day there had been so little doing that Major McDougall had sent the observing officer and another signaller back to the guns. Together Sutton and the Major whiled away the afternoon, looking out from time to time, from their position behind the Canadian trenches, towards the German front line but, as the pleasant afternoon drew on, with no real expectations that anything untoward was likely to happen. It was almost five o’clock and Jim Sutton was sweeping the German line through binoculars from the roof of a shell-battered farmhouse when he spotted the yellow cloud that rose from the German trenches and slowly drifted towards the British positions. He called to McDougall, ‘Take a look at this, sir. There’s something funny going on.’ The German artillery opened as he spoke and began to pound the line. Major McDougall yelled back above the noise and Sutton leapt to the telephone to warn the guns and pass on the Major’s orders to open fire on all targets right and left of the Poelcapelle road. He was only just in time. A moment later both telephone lines were cut but, as they anxiously watched, as the cloud drifted closer and closer to their own trenches, the British guns began to reply, the wind shifted and the cloud which had threatened to engulf the Canadians drifted north and rolled across the front of the Algerian Division, joining with others to form a high impenetrable wall of yellow-green smoke. The unfortunate Algerians had no chance. From their position above the gas cloud Sutton and his officer, staring aghast, could hardly have heard the screams, the gasping and choking as the gas cloud rolled across the troops – but they saw the panic – saw that the Algerians were running for their lives, throwing away rifles as they staggered and stumbled, dazed and terrified, away from the lethal fumes.

Jim Keddie, of the 48th Canadian Highlanders, saw it all from the trench a little way behind the front where Η Company was in support. It was his thirty-fourth birthday. He had no means of celebrating, but before they moved forward to take over the front line in the evening Jim was hopeful that the post corporal would deliver a birthday parcel from his mother in Jedburgh in Scotland. Although he had emigrated to Canada some fifteen years ago and was to all intents and purposes a Canadian, Mrs Keddie had never failed to remember his birthday. Now that he was serving with the Canadian Army in France and nearer home, the old lady was hoping at long last to have a sight of her eldest son when his turn came round for leave. Jim was equally keen to get home to his native Jedburgh and had spent much of his birthday in happy contemplation of a warm welcome. It was fortunate for the Canadians that the capricious wind had changed but, even so, the troops on the extreme left of the division on the right of the luckless French Colonials, got more than a whiff of it.

L/Cpl J. D. Keddie, Η Coy., 48th Royal Highlanders of Canada.

My company was in the reserve trenches and it was on the afternoon of my birthday that we noticed volumes of dense yellow smoke rising up and coming towards the British trenches. We did not get the full effect of it, but what we did was enough for me. It makes the eyes smart and run. I became violently sick, but this passed off fairly soon. By this time the din was something awful – we were under a crossfire of rifles and shells, and had to lie flat in the trenches. The next thing I noticed was a horde of Turcos (French colonial soldiers) making for our trenches behind the firing line; some were armed, some unarmed. The poor devils were absolutely paralysed with fear. They were holding a trench next to a section of the 48th, so the 48th had to move in to hold it also until some of their officers came and made the Turcos go back.

Here on the fringe of the attack the ‘Turcos’, as Keddie was pleased to call them, had not been badly affected. It was natural terror and fear of the unknown that had made them run and, when the temporary effects of the gas had worn off, it was natural discipline that sent them back. But they were the lucky ones, there were not many of them, and the plight of their comrades on their left was pitiable. In the front-line trenches where the gas was thicker they had no time to run, and not many survived. Rolling over the trenches the gas clouds overwhelmed them so swiftly that men collapsed at once. Lying retching, choking, gasping for breath at the foot of the deep ditch where the heavy gas settled and clung thickest of all, they suffocated to death in minutes. From the support lines fifty yards behind, the troops watched in horror and as the wall of smoke rolled forward to engulf them in their turn, as the wind brought the first wisps of the fumes that clutched the throat and stung the eyes, they panicked and ran.

Along four miles of its length, between Poelcapelle and Steen-straat, the line was empty. Fifteen minutes after the gas was first released the German infantry was ordered to don gas-masks and advance. They were prepared for a fight, but there was no one left to fight with. As their guns thundered ahead of them, the German soldiers simply walked forward through the allied line, over the bodies of the dead, lying sprawled out, faces discoloured and contorted in grimaces of agony. Within an hour the Germans had advanced more than a mile and they had hardly needed to fire a shot.

By nightfall the enemy had driven a deep wedge into the allied lines. Flushed with victory they started to dig in.

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