By the time the Canadians arrived in the Ypres Salient in the spring of 1915, the devastation brought on by the war was on full display. The ancient city of Ypres, France had been flattened by German shell fire the previous October.
In the late afternoon of April 22nd, 1915 the German army took advantage of a favorable wind to release a cloud of chlorine gas. Soldiers of the Canadian 1st Division watched as the yellow-green cloud descended into the French trenches. Chaos ensued as panicked soldiers inhaled the lethal chemical.
The Germans then advanced with their infantry. The Canadians rushed to create a new defensive line to stop the German assault. Throughout the night they clashed with German troops who had moved with ease through the lines vacated by the French troops.
Nowhere was this more dramatic than at Kitchener's Wood, where the 16th and 10th battalions made a full bayonet charge across more than 200 metres of open territory.
The German fire killed or wounded nearly two-thirds of the 1,800 attacking troops. But the Canadians succeeded in reaching the wood and blunting the German advance for a brief period.
On the morning of April 24th, the Germans released a second wave of gas, this time directly against the Canadian lines. The Canadians improvised by breathing through urine soaked cloth for limited protection against the gas. Eventually the Canadians were forced back. They suffered more than 6,000 casualties.
It was a horrible introduction to war on the front, but the Canadians had proven they could hold their own in the face of a devastating attack.
The week after the gas attack Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae quietly wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields.” Today this poem is read across Canada on every Remembrance Day.
The Great War Video Series
September 15–November 11, 1916: A century after the battle, the incredible cost in human lives remains controversial.
April 9–April 12, 1917: For the first time, all four Canadian divisions attack together, with tremendous results.
October 26–November 10, 1917: Hard lessons are learned amid the mud and blood in Belgium.
August 8–November 11, 1918: A series of battles during which Canadian and Allied forces pushed the German Army into retreat led to the end of the war.