Gas at Ypres

The first year of the Great War had been a see-saw affair between the Central Powers and Triple Entente. Military tactics had changed little since the battles of the 19th Century,

The conditions forced a stalemate by early September 1914, culminating in the “Race to the Sea” a series of maneuvers by both sides in an attempt to outflank each other’s armies. Neither the Allies nor the Central Powers succeeded, and with the lines remaining static, both armies began to dig in.

Very little changed on the Western Front between September 1914 and April 1915. A few small-scale offensives were launched by both sides, but the majority of the action was taking place on the Eastern Front.

In an effort to break the stalemate, German High Command turned to Germany’s expansive chemical industry. It was hoped that chemical warfare could inflict a devastating blow and break the lines on the Western Front.

The Duke of Württemberg, commander of the Fourth Army, agreed to utilize gas in his sector of the line, near the Ypres Salient.

In spite of ample warnings supplied by Allied spies and German deserters, French forces in the area did little to prepare for the suggested gas attack. Canadian artillery, commanded by Andrew McNaughton, fired off 90 rounds to probe German lines. They had little success, but remained wary.

With little German activity in the area (aside from constant artillery bombardments), the Canadians stationed near Ypres were relaxed. The morning of April 22nd was warm and sunny, and mid-afternoon saw the Canadians sunning themselves in the trenches, or playing football in the field.

This quiet ended at 4pm, as the Germans began another artillery bombardment. As the British and French forces manning the line waited out the barrage, a green-grey cloud 6 kilometres wide and half a kilometre deep began to seep from the enemy lines.

Chlorine gas.

160 tonnes of gas blew over the French lines. The 45th Algerian And 87th Territorial French Divisions were shattered, and their lines broken. Many passed through the Canadian lines, dying on the ground in front of the Corps.

With the French leaving their lines en masse, a 6 kilometre gap opened on the left of the Canadians. A subsequent German advance saw Allied forces engage the Germans in a series of “mini-battles”.

Near St. Julien, Lance Corporal Fred Fisher of the 13th Battalion won the first Canadian Victoria Cross of the First World War. In the face of overwhelming German forces, Fisher provided essential machine gun cover fire as Canadian artillery units were in retreat. Though he would escape this day, he would fall in battle on April 23rd.

Canadian Forces would continue to hold fast, though. A counter-attack on German positions in Kitchener’s Wood was successful, but later German counter-attacks rendered the position untenable.

The Canadian Brigades were cut off from each other. With communications nearly impossible, Brigadier Richard Turner ordered his 3rd Brigade to retreat. This left a near 3,000 metre gap in the lines, putting the Canadians in danger of being split in two. However, a late counter-attack by 5 British Battalions pushed the Germans back and plugged the hole.

By April 25th, British and French reinforcements began to arrive in droves. Canadian troops were systemically filtered out of the lines, and were afforded a well-deserved rest.

The casualties were enormous. With 6000 casualties spread amongst the three infantry brigades, the Canadians had lost nearly 50% of their front line strength.

By the end of April, the Canadians were being looked upon as much more than wild colonials. To say the Corps saved the 50,000 Entente troops stationed in the salient is no stretch at all. In fact, it could be debated that the Corps saved the Allies from an absolute defeat.

Regardless, Ypres stood as a trial by fire for the Canadians. Many of those involved in the battle would rise through the ranks, becoming effective leaders and pillars of the Canadian Corps through the First World War.