It all began with Walther Nernst, a German chemist. He was born in 1864 in Poland, which was part of Prussia at the time. Nernst was a smart boy, mechanically minded — the type who always wanted to know how things worked and was always trying to apply new methods to make things work better.
After high school, Nernst studied physics and mathematics at the universities of Zürich, Berlin, Graz and Würzburg. In 1887, he received his doctorate degree. When World War I broke out in 1914, Nernst volunteered for the German Army. He quickly saw how deadlocked trench warfare was and devised a way to clear the enemy trenches with a new weapon, toxic gas.
The German high command saw an opportunity to use this new weapon and chose to do so at Ypres, a town in the Flanders region of Belguim. Ypres was controlled by British, French, Moroccan, Algerian and Canadian troops. Opposite the Allies were German-held trenches.
At 5 p.m. on April 22, 1915, the Germans dumped 171 tons of chlorine gas along the downwind edge of their own trench and started it on fire. It created a thick, yellow smoke that floated on the wind toward the Allied trenches. The cloud of yellow smoke advanced like a thick, low yellow wall and overcame all of those who breathed it in. At first soldiers were awestruck, dumbfounded by what they saw. The smell of the gas was nauseating and as it enveloped them, their throats began to tickle and their eyes began to water.
The horses were the first to break and run, followed by mobs of infantry that climbed from the trenches, dropping weapons and even stripping their clothing in an attempt to outrun the gas. All of this they did under heavy machine gun fire. One man, an officer behind the lines, pointed his revolver at a retreating soldier and proclaimed “what’s the matter with you bloody lot of cowards.” The soldier, his mouth was frothing and his eyes were coming out of their sockets, died while writhing at the officer’s feet.
Within 10 minutes of the gas being released, 6,000 soldiers had died. Once the air was cleared, the Germans came out of their trenches and advanced almost leisurely. They took no prisoners of the men who lay on the ground writhing from the attack, and instead told them to lie still in order to die easier.
Fighting commenced for 17 days. It didn’t take long for the Allies to adapt to the gas attacks. On the morning of April 24, the Germans released yet another round of chlorine on the Canadian line, yet they Canadians were ready. They had found that by urinating on their handkerchiefs, then holding the handkerchiefs to their faces and breathing through them, they could neutralize the effects of the gas. In the days that followed, other units began doing the same and were able to lessen the effectiveness of the gas attacks.
Though the Germans were able to gain ground, it was insignificant to say the least. As with most battles of World War I, it was considered a stalemate. At the end, 138,000 Allied soldiers lost their lives while only 35,000 Germans died. The imbalance in numbers was due to the heavy casualties caused by the gas attacks. The gas deaths of the battle hold much historical significance, but what makes the battle famous today has to do with something else entirely.
A poet by the name of John McCrae fought in the Canadian trenches during the battle. A close friend of his was killed in the attack. McCrae held a burial service for his friend, one where he dug the grave himself. He noted how the poppies grew so thick on top of the graves of his fallen comrades, and how the field of the dead looked more like a meadow of poppies growing toward the sky. The following day, while sitting in the back of an ambulance, he wrote this poem:
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.
Since 1921, the red poppy has been a remembrance symbol of not only those who fought at Ypres, but of all fallen soldiers from all the world’s wars. We wear red poppies to honor their memories. Wear yours proudly.