Wednesday 22 April 2015

The Canadian Stand at St. Julien

There’s a disturbing undercurrent of national pride knowing that Canadians were among the first soldiers subjected to chemical warfare when the German army launched an attack towards the French and Algerian positions on the Pilckem Ridge on 22 April, 1915. Although gas had already been used in the war, on the Eastern Front against Russians, and against the French in March, it was so ineffectual as to go unnoticed; its use around Ypres on that Spring afternoon would change that.

Thursday, April 22nd, “was like a warm day of Indian summer in Canada. It had been absolutely cloudless, with a faint haze and light breeze, which veered round to the north-east. Throughout the day there had been no special activity in the trenches in the matter of shelling, although one after another the big German shells roared over the Canadians there with the sound of a passing train. The men spoke of them as the "Wypers Express." George Adami, Canadian Medical Corps 

At 4PM the Germans began an intense bombardment of the French positions that gradually extended to the Canadian position, with 100 shlls falling every minute. An hour later, exactly at 5 PM, the Germans released the valves on the cylinders that held the chlorine gas. Almost immediately “the gas streamed out of the cylinders in the form of a white steam, which draped itself over the landscape like a blue-green veil.” Oberleutnant Mattenklott, of the II. Battalion, 238 Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment

While the Canadian troops, men of the 13th Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada), the 15th Battalion(48th Highlanders), 5th Battalion (Western Cavalry) and the 8th Battalion (Winnipeg Rifles), were spared the direct assault, their left flank collapsed when the Algerians, bearing the brunt of the attack, fled. This left an 8000 yard gap in the line through which the German infantry attacked. 

Calling up reserves stationed back at Ypres, men of the 10th Battalion and the 16th Canadian Scottish, the Canadians held the line and then counter attacked later that night at Kitchener’s Wood, a mile to the west.  Within 24 hours the Canadians themselves would be confronted directly with gas, and like the Algerians would be forced to retreat. 

Vancouver Corner is just a few minutes east of Ypres and and on the morning of May 10th, 2008 the weather was very similar to what it had been ninety-three years earlier. The sky was clear of clouds, it was bright blue, and in the hours before noon there was no breeze.

Today a path has been worn down in the mulch of the flower bed towards the northeast corner of  Memorial, witness to the number of visitors who have stood in that spot and looked across the fields towards Langemarck, from where the gas would have come. Instinctively you try to imagine what it would have looked like ninety years earlier. . .  and it’s surprisingly easy. 

The gas would have crept across the fields directly in front, which at the time would not have looked much differently, trenches and wire still evolving early in the war. The road to Langemarck to the left and to the right, Poelcapelle, were reference points at the time, as was the route from St Jean to Gravenstafel, directly to the west. Looking around on that Sunday morning the spires in Ypres were visible behind us, and far over to the right we could just make out the church in Passchendael. And the farms in front of us with the red tiled roof, and to the left, could easily have been Pond Farm or Mouse Trap Farm, key reference points for the Canadian troops.

The Canadian First Division would be in the line for another two weeks, until it was relieved on May 3rd. It was a brutal introduction to the nature of this war for men who had been in France for just two months and had yet to see any sustained front line action. A front that had been eight miles from the town of Ypres on the morning of the 22nd was just two miles from the town when the battle ended; and one third of the men who had been deployed with the division when it started, 5,970 men, were casualties - half of which were sustained on the second day of the battle when the Canadians had to defend their own lines against sustained gas, artillery and infantry attacks. 

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