First World War: Poison gas introduced at Ypres in 1915

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This year, when Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary, the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces honour the sacrifices Canadians made throughout the First World War. The battle was an important milestone in Canadian military history: the beginning of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence as we know it today. It was also during this battle that Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote “In Flanders Fields” and Dr. Cluny Macpherson came up with the idea of the gas mask.

Poison gas introduced at Ypres in 1915

In the first week of April 1915, the Canadian troops were moved from their quiet sector to a bulge in the Allied line in front of the City of Ypres. This was the famed—or notorious—Ypres Salient, where the British and Allied line pushed into the German line in a concave bend. The Germans held the higher ground and were able to fire into the Allied trenches from the north, the south and the east. On the Canadian right were two British divisions, and on their left a French division, the 45th (Algerian).

Here on April 22, the Germans sought to remove the Salient by introducing a new weapon, poison gas. Following an intensive artillery bombardment, they released 160 tons of chlorine gas from cylinders dug into the forward edge of their trenches into a light northeast wind. As thick clouds of yellow-green chlorine drifted over their trenches, the French defences crumbled, and the troops, completely bemused by this terrible weapon, died or broke and fled, leaving a gaping 6.5 km hole in the Allied line. German troops pressed forward, threatening to sweep behind the Canadian trenches and put 50 000 Canadian and British troops in jeopardy. Fortunately, the Germans had planned only a limited offensive and, without adequate reserves, were unable to exploit the gap the gas created. In any case, their own troops—themselves without any adequate protection against gas—were highly suspicious of the new weapon. After advancing only 3.25 km, they stopped and dug in.

All through the night the Canadian troops fought to close the gap. In addition, they mounted a counter-attack to drive the enemy out of Kitcheners’ Wood, an oak plantation near St. Julien. In the morning two more disastrous attacks were made against enemy positions. Little ground was gained and casualties were extremely heavy, but these attacks bought some precious time to close the flank.

The fierce battle of St. Julien lay ahead. On April 24, the Germans attacked in an attempt to obliterate the Salient once and for all. Another violent bombardment was followed by another gas attack in the same pattern as before. This time the target was the Canadian line. Here—through terrible fighting, withered by shrapnel and machine-gun fire, hampered by their issued Ross rifles which jammed, and violently sick and gasping for air through soaked and muddy handkerchiefs—they held on until reinforcements arrived.

Thus, in their first major appearance on a European battlefield, the Canadians established a reputation as a formidable fighting force. Congratulatory messages were cabled to the Canadian Prime Minister. But the cost was high. In these 48 hours, 6035 Canadians—one man in every three—became casualties, and of whom more than 2000 died. These were heavy losses for Canada’s little force, whose men had been civilians only a few months earlier—a grim forerunner of what was still to come.

Courtesy of Veterans Affairs Canada

Dr. Cluny Macpherson – Inventor of the first gas mask

Dr. Cluny Macpherson was born in St. John’s, Nfld., in 1879. He enlisted in September 1914 and was appointed principal medical officer of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment during the First World War. He served in France, Belgium, Egypt, Salonica, and Gallipoli, Turkey.

Early in the war, a soldier’s only protection from gas was to breathe through a handkerchief soaked in urine. Dr. Macpherson invented the first gas mask by modifying a helmet with a canvas hood, eyepieces and a breathing tube. This became an important protective device in the war, protecting soldiers from blindness, disfigurement, and injury to their throats and lungs.

Courtesy Veterans Affairs Canada

Dr. John McCrae – author of “In Flanders Fields”

Born in Guelph, Ont., on November 30, 1872, John McCrae joined the military within weeks of Britain declaring war on Germany in 1914, and was appointed brigade-surgeon to the First Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery with the rank of major and second-in-command.

In April 1915, Dr. McCrae was in the trenches near Ypres, and tended hundreds of wounded soldiers every day. One of Dr. McCrae’s closest friends was killed in the fighting and buried in a makeshift grave with a simple wooden cross. Wild poppies were already beginning to bloom between the crosses marking the graves. It was this loss that drove him to write “In Flanders Fields”, which soon after its publication, became the most popular poem of the First World War.

Dr. McCrae died on January 28, 1918, of pneumonia and meningitis.

In part because of the poem’s popularity, the poppy was adopted as the Flower of Remembrance for the war dead of Britain, France, the United States, Canada, and other Commonwealth countries.

Courtesy Veterans Affairs Canada

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