Continued from “Choking on Desperation”:
Night was falling on the Ypres salient late on April 22nd, 1915. After the first large scale use of poison gas in war, the German army had completely overtaken the French trenches and put the allied line into disarray. The Canadians, who had not been in direct line with the initial gas attack, were still intact as a fighting force, but they were now in grave danger. German infantry had got around their left flank and held positions behind their lines. If the Germans held this ground when the sun came up the next morning, they would be in a position to launch a maelstrom of deadly fire onto the Canadian trench line.
One of these positions was in a copse of trees called Kitcheners’ Wood—so named because in months previous it had been used to house the French field kitchens. The Canadian Divisional commander, Edwin Alderson, could not allow the wood to remain in German hands. To do so might jeopardize the entirety of his defensive line. He ordered two battalions (the 10th from Alberta and 16th from British Columbia) to launch a night attack on the wood. It was madness. Attacking a prepared defensive position is a risky maneuver at the best of times. To do so at night, without proper reconnaissance, rehearsals, or even a clear idea of how many enemy occupy the ground was fool-hardy to the point of insanity. And yet, the situation seemed to demand it.
The men formed up in the darkness just before midnight. Canadians from Alberta and British Columbia stood shoulder to shoulder, massed in waves designed to cover ground quickly. This formation left them vulnerable to artillery and machine-gun fire, but it couldn’t be helped. They would have to rely on speed and surprise for protection. The men fixed bayonets in preparation for the assault.
At 10 minutes to midnight, the Canadians began their advance across the few hundred metres of open ground between them and Kitcheners Wood. The 10th Battalion war diary says, “… not a sound was audible … but the soft pad of feet and the knock of bayonet scabbards against thighs.” The approach to the wood went smoothly until the noise of the approaching Canadians alerted the German sentries. John Matheson, a soldier with the 10th Battalion, writes:
“When we got to 100 yards of the trench the ‘Huns’ opened fire on us. The wood seemed to be literally lined with machine guns, and they played upon us with terrible effect. Our men were dropping thick and fast. However those remaining sailed right ahead and cleared the wood with a vengeance.” (1)
The engagement was chaotic and brutal. In the dark, the fighting quickly devolved into a savage hand to hand contest with little quarter given on either side. Matheson added, “A few Huns’ were taken prisoners, but damn few.” An unnamed soldier from the 16th Battalion wrote:
“I vaguely saw some Germans, and rushed the nearest one. My bayonet must have hit his equipment and glanced off, but luckily for me, another chap running beside me bayoneted him before he got to me. By this time I was wildly excited and shouting and rushing into the wood up a path towards a big gun which was pointed away from us. Going through the wood we ran into several Germans, but I had now lost confidence in my bayonet and always fired.” (2)
By morning, the Canadians had driven the Germans off and taken control of the wood. Unfortunately, this victory had come at a high cost in lives, and the 10th and 16th Battalions were skeletons of what they were just hours before. Roughly half of the 1600 men who attacked the wood were killed, wounded, or missing after the sun rose. Despite a hard won victory, they were now undermanned and in an untenable position. They were ordered to withdraw back to a more defensible line—a bitter pill to swallow for men who had just paid such a heavy price.
But the battle was not over. On the 24th of April the Germans unleashed another gas-attack—this time it was aimed squarely at the Canadians, and was launched in conjunction with an artillery barrage. This attack could easily have had the same results that had occurred two days before when an entire French-Algerian Division had been routed, but the Canadians had an advantage. They had been able to identify the agent as Chlorine gas based on the distinct smell, and because several officers and men in the ranks had a background in chemistry, they knew how to counter it. A Canadian soldier from the 8th Battalion explained:
“Well, I knew that due to the fact that I’d served my apprenticeship as a plumber and had put [a wetted scarf] on previously, you know, in civil life whenever gas got strong. Now, whether there’s any neutralizing effect in the urine, I couldn’t tell you but we were run out of water.” (3)
As the gas rolled over their positions, many Canadians urinated on scarves or handkerchiefs and tied them around their noses and mouths creating a kind of crude respirator, and defeating, to a certain extent, the full effect of the chlorine gas. It wasn’t comfortable, nor was it entirely effective, but unlike the French-Algerian troops, the Canadians were able to hold on and survive the attack. When the Germans came across no-man’s land in massed files—expecting to find all the defenders dead or fleeing—they were surprised to encounter a stiff resistance coming from the gassed trenches. Canadian machine guns, artillery, and rifle-fire met the oncoming Germans and ripped their neat ranks into pieces.
And yet, the Germans came on. They used their superior numbers of troops and artillery to batter the Canadian defenders mercilessly. As the day wore one, the Germans smashed through several Canadian positions, cutting them off from one another and surrounding them—forcing them to fight not as a Division or Battalion, but as isolated groups of soldiers desperately clinging to their positions and fighting to the last man. Some units had to repel attacks coming from all sides. In this crucible, many Canadians displayed almost superhuman courage. None more so than Lieutenant Edward Bellew, a soldier of the 7th Battalion (British Columbia), who continuously raked the Germans with machine gun fire despite the fact that he was wounded, alone, and surrounded. After he ran out of ammunition, he disabled his machine gun and charged the oncoming Germans with his bayonet.
Finally, on the 25th of April, after a dogged resistance, British reinforcements entered the line and relieved the exhausted Canadians. Most of them hadn’t slept in 48 hours, and had been involved in combat almost continuously during that time. The Canadian Battalions had been forced to bend, but the heavy German attacks failed to break them. A combination of resourcefulness and stubborn ferocity had allowed the Canadians to check the German advance long enough to stave off the complete destruction of the Ypres salient.
Though the Canadians were mostly relieved on the 25th, the Second Battle of Ypres would rage on for a month. During that time, the Germans would squeeze the salient ever tighter, but would ultimately fail to destroy it completely. A large part of this was due to that fact that German Generals did not expect the gas-attack to be as successful as it was on the first day, and didn’t have the necessary reserves to exploit their advantage. However, another part of this failure was due to the unexpected and heroic defence put up by the volunteers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. This battle was the first of many that would begin to cement the reputation of the Canadian soldier.
In the aftermath of the fighting around Ypres, a Canadian Major named John McCrae would write one of the most famous poems of the war. In it he extolled the living to “take up our quarrel with the enemy”. His plea did not fall on deaf ears. By the end of the war, the Canadian Army would swell to over 600,000 men. For a fledgling nation with a pre-war military of only a few thousand, this growth was monumental—a symptom of the general intensification of the Great War.
The Canadians had survived their baptism by fire, but the war was far from over; and as the German use of poison gas illustrated, the gloves were going to come off before the end.
1. N.M. Christie, Gas Attack: The Canadians at Ypres, 1915 (Nepean, Ont: CEF Books, 1998), 15.
2. Christie, Gas Attack, 15-17.
3. “Oral Histories of the First World War: Veterans 1914 – 1918.” Library and Archives Canada, last modified August 27, 2010, www.collectionscanada.gc.ca.
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