Peterborough during the First World War 1914 - 1918.

Peterborough, Ontario during the First World War 1914 - 1918.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

First Gas Attack, 22 April 1915, Second Battle of Ypres

Credit: Canadian War Museum,
Second Battle of Ypres, 22nd  April to May 1915
 by Richard Jack
Public myth is strongly associated with the Second Battle of Ypres in Canada. Generations of school children have heard of the stories of how the plucky Canadians stood firm during the first use of deadly gas in warfare. When I mentioned that today (22 April) is the anniversary of the gas attack to my wife, she recalls hearing of soldiers running around with urine soaked cloth around their face during the battle. My aim of this article is not to “deconstruct” or ruin the myths and legends of the battle, there are plenty of books that already do that, but rather to tell factually what happened to the Canadians during          the first successful chlorine gas attack.                                                                                                                                                                     

Credit: Library and Archives Canada,
Soldier with Gas Mask, 1917
Before beginning, I want to touch base on the history of use of asphyxiating chemical agents in warfare in the modern age.  The Hague Convention of 1899 and 1907 restricted the use of “poison or poisoned weapons.” All major powers in Europe had agreed to the Hague Conventions including Germany. However, as the war progressed the use of non-lethal gas began to appear in the arsenals of armies on the Western Front.  In October 1914, German artillerymen started to fire teargas artillery shells on French soldiers. French armies replied in kind with smoke and teargas grenades. Eventually the German High Command approved the use of chlorine based on the rationale that the gas would only incapacitate the enemy rather than killing or poison them.

Credit: Library and Archives Canada, 92nd  Battalion,
 Gas Mask Drill, 15 August 1916
The 1914 German war plan called for the immediate capture of Belgium; yet the French and British had held the German army on the outskirts of Ypres. Over 90 percent of Belgium had been captured by Germany, but Britain would not let the last large city in Belgium fall, even if it cost thousands of British soldiers’ lives. In mid April 1915, the Canadians arrived in Ypres and took over the neglected French trenches north east of the city. One officer wrote of the condition of trenches: “trench bottom were just one mass of bodies that were covered over with a far too thin layer of earth, arms, legs, sticking out whenever a rainstorm occurred.” Army engineers wrote in a report, “the ground where the men stand in the firing position is paved with rotting bodies and human excreta.” The defence networks were without shell-proof dugouts, and the trenches were very shallow due to the low water table in the vicinity.  It is obvious that Canadian trenches in Belgian farm fields had much to be desired. 

Troop Dispositions, 22 April 1915.
Credit: Shoestring Soldiers
According to Canadian eye-witness reports, at 5pm (17:00 hours) the Germans began to heavily shell and fire upon the French and British trenches located to the left of the Canadians. The colonial French soldiers from Algeria faced the brunt of the initial gas cloud. Witnesses across the Yser Canal describe seeing a yellowish green cloud creep over the Belgian countryside and hear gun fire get closer. Simultaneously, the Germans opened up their long range heavy artillery, hitting targets around Ypres. French soldiers began to flee, running towards the city of Ypres and choking up the roads leading to the Canadian trenches. One Canadian soldier describes the scene as:

Gas Cloud, 22 April 1915. Credit: Shoestring Soldiers

“A steady tide of humanity – the most mixed and miserable lot of people I had ever seen moved by us in the direction of Ypres, leaving us barely room to squeeze through in the direction of the enemy . . . and of course there were the wounded – hundreds of them – and the main body of French colonial troops in retreat, some of whom had been gassed with yellow faces and gasping for breath.”

Painting Second Battle of Ypres.
 Credit: Canadian War Museum
The  Canadian soldiers that witnessed the destruction of Algerian 45th Division must have felt anxious knowing that they would have to confront the mysterious chlorine cloud. Canadian employed a number of rudimentary tactics to survive the gas attack. Some men simply left their fixed positions, others were told to hold their breath or cover their mouths with cloth. After a few hours of battle, the situation became critical for the Canadians. One battalion, the 13th faced complete encirclement and destruction because of the German breakthrough on their left flank.  The German assault was so rapid that units in reserve several kilometres behind the front line began to fire upon advancing enemy. The Germans had blasted such a large gap in the French line and had advanced so quickly that Canadian artillery guns were able to fire shrapnel shells at point blank range on German infantry that were within 300 metres of gun positions. By the end of the first day of the Battle of Second Ypres, the Canadians soldiers were on the ropes. Several Canadian companies from the 13th Battalion and 15th battalions were isolated, low on ammo, and facing compete destruction. The officers of the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigades were planning a counter attack to retake Kitchener Woods.

Photo of the location of 13th Battalion's
 trenches, now occupied by cattle.
Credit: Matt Ferguson, 2009

It would take two days before Canadians at home heard of the German attack. The initial press reports warned Canadians “to expect many casualties.” In the following weeks, cities and towns across Canada would receive the casualty list of 5,592 of the Canadians that died, went missing, captured or were wounded in the defence of Ypres. Canada would never be the same after Ypres. It was the first time that Canada had collectively lost so many sons. Never before was there so much collective grief and mourning.

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