The Second Battle of Ypres

In April 1915 the Canadians were deployed for the first time at Ypres. Men of three continents defended the town. At precisely this intersection of linguistic confusion and cultural differences the Germans launched a deadly offensive.
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Hastily dug Canadian trenches during the Second Battle of Ypres, 1915.

Gas!

After days of bombardment, on 22 April 1915 a cloud of gas drifted in the direction of the French and Algerian lines. It was the first time poison gas had been deployed on a large scale. Hundreds suffocated in their trenches and the survivors took to their heels. The gas cloud created a breach in the lines six kilometres wide. The way to Ypres lay open.

In obedience to their orders, however, the Germans dug in at nightfall. Insufficient reserves were available for them to advance any further. In retrospect, the German army command had missed a great opportunity. In the hope of still being able to capitalize on their success, they brought up reinforcements the next day.

William Roberts The First German Gas Attack at Ypres© National Gallery of Canada
William Roberts - The First German Gas Attack at Ypres, 1918.

On the counterattack

To gain time, the Allies mounted a counterattack. For the Canadians it was the first major operation of the war.

15th Battalion on the Road to Ypres 1915

Kitchener’s Wood

Kitchener’s Wood, an oak wood on a rise at St. Julien, had to be taken back at all costs. Otherwise the Germans would be able to direct artillery fire on Allied positions from there. In the night of 22 to 23 April 1915, a motley collection of Canadians and French colonials advanced. Just short of the wood, a hedge with barbed-wire entanglements obstructed them. Equipment clattering, the forward rows clambered through the hedge. Their nervous rustling alerted the German sentries and a short time later the machine guns rattled. For the Canadians there was no way but forward. After a fierce and chaotic battle the oak wood was taken, at great cost.

Herbert Norman Klotz
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Herbert Norman Klotz

Herbert Norman Klotz

To compensate for the heavy losses, the Canadians sent reinforcements to Kitchener’s Wood before dawn. Thick fog initially hid them from sight, but the morning mist evaporated in the spring sunshine. Suddenly they found themselves within sight of the German machine guns. Within minutes the damage was done. Herbert Norman Klotz, a chemist of German extraction, was one of the many dead of the 2nd Battalion (Eastern Ontario Regiment). Twenty-eight years old, he was killed just short of Kitchener’s Wood by a shell burst.

‘Place of death’

Two weeks before the attack, Herbert wrote to a friend:

I am at present in the cellar of a ruined farmhouse, 100 yards from our trenches and the rifle fire and cannonading keep up incessantly. We therefore have to keep under cover. We haven’t had very many losses yet and hope it will continue that way. I guess it can’t last very long though.
This appears to show Canadian Expeditionary Force troops in a first line position sometime in 1915 in shallow trenches or defensive works BAC LAC M 488 J© BAC LAC M 488 J

Mauser Ridge

On 23 April, a little to the west of Kitchener’s Wood, the Canadians mounted an attack on a slight rise called Mauser Ridge. The gentle slope between Kitchener’s Wood and the Yser Canal was the ideal jumping off point for renewed German attacks. Across from where the Germans were dug in, the Canadians were an easy target and the units storming forward faced a torrent of bullets. Although the Canadians did not reach German lines, their counterattacks enabled them to extend their front line.

Arthur Percival Dearman Birchall
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Arthur Percival Dearman Birchall

Arthur Percival Dearman Birchall

Like many Canadian officers, Arthur Birchall was British by origin. He was educated at Eton and Oxford and was a sportsman and an avid hunter. In fact he was the paragon of the pre-war British officer class. During the Boer War, Arthur joined the army, making a career for himself and becoming a military instructor in Canada.

In late 1914 he joined the Canadian contingent as a captain, later rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. After the German gas attack of 22 April 1915, he and his unit, the 4th Battalion (Central Ontario), took part in the counterattack on Mauser Ridge.

There was hardly any cover to be found. Halfway up the undulating slope the German artillery pinned down the Canadians on the battlefield. The men lay there under fire for a full day. When a commanding officer was wounded, Lieutenant-Colonel Birchall took over command of his company. Towards evening, Arthur was killed.

The 4th Battalion suffered 506 dead, wounded and missing on 23 April. Arthur was buried close to Turco Farm, but after the war his body could not be identified.

‘Place of death’
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Rudimentary positions near Ypres, 1915.
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The drama of 24 April

In the early hours of 24 April, a gas cloud made a breach in the Canadian lines. The troops could protect themselves only by tying wet cloths over their mouths and noses, and handkerchiefs were of no use against concentrated poison gas.

The Canadian positions were impossible to hold. Chaos prevailed. There was not enough artillery support. Practically all lines of communication had been severed and to make matters worse the Canadian Ross Rifles proved unreliable. British ammunition, where it was available at all, jammed the Canadian-made rifles.

There was no option but to retreat. German machine guns covered every square metre. Despite heavy losses, the gap in the front line was closed by British reinforcements. After the drama of 24 April the Canadians were in a desperate state. The troops had been on the go for more than eighty-five hours, so they were exhausted, filthy and hungry. Many were wounded. Relief came not a moment too soon.

Henry Brown
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Henry Brown

Henry Brown

Henry Brown was one of innumerable British immigrants who volunteered for the Canadian Expeditionary Force right at the start. The young farmer was a reservist and he joined the ranks of the 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders).

Early in the morning of 24 April, a gas cloud blew across the Canadian lines. Henry and his companions were hit hard. Panic broke out and the battalion fled. This was no orderly retreat; it was every man for himself.

The losses suffered by the Highlanders were astronomical: 671 casualties, 223 of them fatal.

Henry Brown, just twenty years old, died at a dressing station from the effects of poison gas. There was no time to bury the young man. The Germans were approaching at a great pace and the dressing station fell into German hands that same day.

‘Place of death’
Ross Rifle© MMP1917 MZ 00694
After 1915 the unreliable Canadian rifles were gradually replaced with British rifles.

Conclusion

The German offensive continued to push the Allies back, but they could not come close to repeating the success of 22 April. The Canadians played a large part in the halting of the German offensive.

The price paid amounted to 7,000 casualties. More than 1,800 Canadians were killed.

  • The Muster of the 48th Highlanders after Battle of St Julien 212 out of 1034 The Red Watch With the First Canadian Division in Flanders
    The Muster of the remaining 48th Highlanders after the Battle of St Julien.
  • Uniform 48th Highlanders© 48th Highlanders Museum/15th Battalion Memorial Project: artifact 2, 6, 40
    Uniform of the 48th Highlanders with the less visible Balmoral Bonnet.

In Flanders' Fields

Lt Col John Mc Crae and his dog Bonneau BAC LAC 3192003

Moved by the many wounded and dead, and by the death of a good friend, Canadian army doctor John McCrae wrote his famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ on 3 May 1915.

Alexis Hannum Helmer
Alexis Hannum Helmer
Alexis Hannum Helmer

Alexis Hannum Helmer

Alexis Hannum Helmer

Alexis Helmer, son of a professional soldier, was born in Hull, Quebec, Canada. Alexis completed his training at the Royal Military College and afterwards studied to become a railway engineer. When war broke out, he was assigned to the 1st Artillery Brigade.

In late April 1915 the Canadian artillery remained at its post. Every available gun was deployed to stop the German advances. On 2 May 1915 Lieutenants Helmer and Hague left their positions on the Yser Canal. The two officers, aged twenty-two and twenty-six, went to observe German positions. All at once, a heavy shell burst nearby.

Helmer died on the spot. Hague was evacuated to a field hospital but succumbed to his wounds that same day.

Alexis Helmer was buried next to the canal. John McCrae, a medical officer with the brigade and a good friend of Alexis, attended his burial. The death of his friend inspired him to write the world-famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’.

‘Place of death’

Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry

After the Canadian division was relieved in late April, one Canadian unit remained active in the front line: Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

It was the last privately raised regiment in the British Empire. A Canadian volunteer unit, it was founded in August 1914 by a wealthy veteran. It served under British command. Only the best men were selected. The regiment was named after Princess Patricia of Connaught, daughter of Prince Arthur, Canada’s Governor General.

In early May 1915 the Germans launched a renewed attack on Ypres. The main blow was struck at the Patricia’s positions, near Bellewaerde. If the Germans broke through, the way to Ypres would lie open. From 4 to 8 May, shells rained down on the Patricia’s, but with the help of British reinforcements they maintained their position.

Nevertheless, 110 of the Patricia’s were buried together on the battlefield, close to the place where later a monument was erected in honour of the unit. In the chaotic early days of the war especially, the dead were often buried together in abandoned trenches or in shell holes.

Princess Patricia inspecting Princess Patricias Canadian Light Infantry in England 1919 BAC LAC 1970 074© BAC LAC 1970-074
Princess Patricia inspects her regiment, 1919.
'Land of mine'

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