The Horrors Of Gas Warfare: Army, Part 53

Photo: national archives of canada

Photo: national archives of canada

Richard Jack’s painting, The Second Battle of Ypres, depicts the battle scene in 1915.

While 1st Canadian Infantry Division was training and re-equipping in England, the war on the Western Front had become stalemated. Trenches began to stretch from the Swiss border to the Belgian coast, with the Kaiser’s army taking up positions on the most advantageous ground. The German army planned to be defensive in the west, defeat Russia and then turn to deal with France and Britain.

In Northern France, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had suffered catastrophic losses in the retreat from Mons, Belgium, and was struggling to rebuild its strength. The Canadians would be a welcome addition, and Sir John French, who commanded the BEF, wanted their training accelerated. Throughout February 1915, the Canadians were introduced to warfare in France by experienced officers and non-commissioned officers from regular British divisions. By March, all components of the Canadian Expeditionary Force had worked with their British counterparts and were considered ready to enter the line astride the Belgian-French border near Armentières.

The Canadians had suffered a small but steady drain of casualties during their advanced training period and more were killed or wounded in the “quiet” Armentières sector. Troops in the front line were subject to artillery and sniper fire and learned to take cover and develop ways of suppressing enemy fire. On March 10, the Canadians were ordered to prepare to exploit a possible British breakthrough at Neuve Chapelle. 1st Div.’s job during the attack was to create a diversion by firing on the German line. However, the Allied advance was halted by a serious shortage of artillery and by the arrival of German reinforcements.

Photo: national archives of canada

Photo: national archives of canada

The town of Ypres, Belgium, suffered near-total destruction in World War I.

The next assignment promised a more difficult future. The division was to take over a dangerous sector of the Ypres salient, where some of the bloodiest fighting of 1914 occurred. The decision to defend a position overlooked by the enemy from three sides was and is controversial, but in March 1915 no one knew the full horrors that lay ahead. The Canadians found the trenches in poor condition and their own efforts at improvements were frustrated by a water table less than two feet below ground.

Eight days after their tour of duty began, the period of quiet that had settled over the salient was broken by an artillery barrage that began in the late afternoon. Historian Tim Cook described what happened next in his book on gas warfare, No Place to Run: “Along with the shells came an ominous grey-green cloud four miles long and half a mile deep” which crept upon the 45th Algerian and 87th Territorial divisions of the French army.

One by one the French guns fell silent only to be replaced by screaming and choking Algerians running into and past the Canadian lines…. The victims of the gas attack writhed on the ground. Their bodies turned a strange gas-green as they struggled to suck oxygen into their corrupted lungs. The chlorine attacked the bronchial tubes, which caused the membranes to swell into a spongy mass and ever-increasing amounts of fluid to enter from the bloodstream. The swiftly congested lungs failed to take in oxygen, and the victims suffocated as they drowned in their own fluids.

The Canadians were spared all but the edges of the cloud and it was evident that they would need to launch a counterattack to check the expected German advance. There was much confusion as well as indecision and moments of panic, but the counter-attacks mounted by the 1st and 3rd brigades that night were carried out with skill and resolution.

Early on the morning of April 24, as the Canadians and the first British reinforcements struggled to build new defensive positions, a second gas attack began. The 15th and 8th battalions of Canada’s 2nd Bde., holding the original lines in what was now the apex of the salient, saw the gas drifting toward them and urged each other: “Piss on your handkerchiefs and tie them over your faces.” Urine, the chemistry students in the army recalled, contained ammonia which might neutralize the chlorine. Cook quotes Major Harold Matthews’ vivid memories of the moment. “It is impossible for me to give a real idea of the terror and horror spread among us by the filthy loathsome pestilence. It was not, I think, the fear of death or anything supernatural, but the great dread that we could not stand the fearful suffocation sufficiently to be each in our proper places and to be able to resist to the uttermost the attack which we felt must follow and so hang on at all costs to the trench we had been ordered to hold.”

Matthews’ emphasis on the duty of resisting “to the uttermost” and fears of failing to do one’s duty may strike modern observers as strange, but his contemporaries understood him well enough. Courage and determination were, however, no proof against the full force of the gas. As the Canadians retreated, wounded and severely gassed soldiers were abandoned to become prisoners or to face death. A new defensive line some 1,000 metres further back was established with the help of British troops, and the next day the Germans launched a series of conventional attacks near the village of St-Julien. After the German advance south of the village was halted, the division commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Edwin Alderson, was ordered to recapture St-Julien and “re-establish our trench line as far north as possible.”

The attempt to carry out this order compounded the growing chaos and led to further heavy losses. On April 26, yet another attack into the German positions was launched. The Lahore Div. of the British Indian Army made some progress until gas, used for the first time defensively, broke the impetus of the attack.

The Canadians emerged from the battle with more than 6,000 casualties, including 1,410 who became prisoners of war. This high casualty rate would never be exceeded, not even at the Somme. The British and Canadian press lauded the Canadian achievement and the enemy acknowledged their “tenacious determination”, but behind the scenes there were serious conflicts over the conduct of the battle, including sharp criticism of Brigadiers Arthur Currie and R.E.W. Turner. Many Canadian officers were equally unhappy with the performance of senior British commanders. After April 1915, this tension between British and Canadian officers helped to ensure that 1st Div. became the core of Canada’s national army rather than an imperial formation drawn from a dominion.

The town of Ypres with its magnificent public buildings and churches suffered near-total destruction between 1915 and 1918, but today the visitor learns about the war in the beautifully restored Cloth Hall. Here, a high-tech museum introduces the sights and sounds of battle in the salient. The storyline reflects current concerns with European unity and the rapprochement between Belgium and Germany. The war is viewed as a plague visited upon Europe by alien forces. The story of the violation of Belgian neutrality and the campaign of terror inflicted upon its people is ignored. Instead, the visitor learns about the impact that four years of war had on soldiers and civilians.

Visitors obtain a sensitized card carrying the name of an individual and they are invited to insert it into a computer terminal at various points in the display. I followed the story of a French soldier while my wife, who knew the art of Germany’s Käthe Kollwitz, learned of her agony as a mother who lost her sons in battle. The museum’s approach may help create a way of remembering the war that serves the needs of the 21st century, but in avoiding the hard questions it breaks faith with those who fought.

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News of the gas attack and the valour of the country’s soldiers reached Canada on April 24, before the battle was over. Newspapers reported that Canadian “gallantry and determination” had saved the situation. However, they also hinted at the heavy losses. The Toronto News described the mood: “Sunday was one of the most anxious days ever experienced in Toronto, and the arrival of the officers’ casualty list only served to increase the feeling that a long list, including all ranks, was inevitable. Crowds scanned the newspaper bulletin boards from the time of arrival of the first lists shortly before noon, until midnight, while hundreds sought information by telephone.”

Historian Ian Miller, writing of Toronto, describes the dawning awareness that whole battalions had been devastated. At first it was impossible to believe that battalions such as the 15th, made up of men from the city’s 48th Highlanders, had been wiped out and the press assumed many were prisoners of war. When the full lists were available, the truth was apparent. The 15th Bn. had virtually ceased to exist and “half the infantry at the front have been put out of action.”

The events of the spring of 1915 transformed the war from a great adventure to a great crusade. A week after the enemy introduced the horrors of gas warfare, the Lusitania was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland with a loss of more than 1,200 people, including 150 children. Newspapers across Canada published heart-rending stories about the sinking alongside further accounts of the fighting in the Ypres salient. The war was now seen as a struggle against a barbaric enemy.

Revisionist accounts of the war have sought to minimize German war crimes in 1914-15, but at the time Canadians recognized policies designed to inspire terror for what they were. This was particularly true after the first gas attack when, to cite just one example, a letter from the front printed in the Toronto World informed readers that: “…the dead are piled in heaps and the groans of the wounded and dying never leave me. Every night we have to clear the roads of dead in order to get our wagons through. On our way back to base we pick up loads of wounded soldiers and bring them back to the dressing stations.”

The censors did little to prevent the printing of such letters, and they proved equally unable to control the content of articles on the war. One attempt to stop the publication of Robert W. Service’s gritty descriptions of his experiences as an ambulance driver was ignored by editors determined to print front line reports from the popular author and poet. Service’s description of the “red harvest” of the trenches with its images of “poor hopeless cripples” and a man who seemed to be “just one big wound” left no room for doubt about the ugliness of war, but the effect of such accounts was to inspire young Canadians to enlist.

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The 1st Div. returned to the battlefields of Flanders on May 17, capturing “one small orchard and two muddy ditches” at a cost of 2,468 casualties. The capture of the “Canadian orchard” was a small part of a major French-British offensive that included a futile attempt to seize Vimy Ridge. Overall Allied losses in May and June totalled more than 200,000 men, a clear demonstration that battles could not be won with the weapons available in 1915. The British and French field commanders were convinced that with more and better shells for the artillery, including ones filled with gas, they would break the German defences. Lord Kitchener, who was striving to create a ‘New Army’ which would place 70 divisions in the field, was less sure. He was preparing for a long war, but admitted he had no idea how it might be won.

It is evident that British generals, like their French and German counterparts, were totally surprised by the realities of trench warfare. They had no idea how to get men across the zones of machine-gun, mortar and artillery fire to close with the enemy. They were equally unprepared to exploit any breach in their opponents’ defensive position.

Senior British officers, with a few outstanding exceptions, demonstrated a profound lack of imagination and initiative in the early years of the war. The first suggestions for a tracked armoured vehicle which could overcome barbed wire and cross trenches were made in Britain during the fall of 1914 but the army was uninterested. Instead, experiments were carried out by a “landships committee” formed by Winston Churchill. The first such vehicles, known for security reasons as “tanks”, were ready in July 1916, and employed for the first time that September.

Steel helmets, which saved many lives, were issued by the French in early 1915, but British and Canadian troops waited another year before helmets became standard issue. The Germans made great use of trench mortars but it took 11 months to authorize the mass production of the British-invented Stokes mortar. The shortage of artillery shells was not resolved until later. The public, meanwhile, was not aware of these problems, but people were told a good deal about machine-guns, which were said to account for German success in trench warfare.

The machine-gun movement, which became a popular crusade in Britain, was launched in Canada by John C. Eaton of the department store family, who donated $100,000 to purchase armoured cars equipped with Colt machine-guns. The concept of motorized armoured machine-gun carriers was an initiative of Raymond Brutinel, a French immigrant to Canada, who organized the first motorized armoured unit formed during the war, which was reinforced by the batteries created in Canada. The static conditions on the Western Front provided little opportunity for mobile warfare and before 1918, Brutinel’s 1st Cdn. Motor Machine Gun Bde. was used primarily in a static fire support role.

Other individuals and associations offered money for additional machine-guns, which were to be provided “over and above the regular complement supplied to each battalion.” By the fall of 1915, these private initiatives were halted by Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden’s embarrassed announcement that all equipment required by the troops would be paid for out of the “Canadian Treasury.” Canada had moved beyond playing the part of a loyal colony. It was now playing the part of a nation at war.

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