Without warning, a yellowish-green cloud began drifting over the landscape toward the Allied front line. It was April 1915 and the first to fall to the chlorine gas were soldiers from the 45th Algerian Division. Two days later, Canadian soldiers would be clutching their throats, choking on the same asphyxiating gas. We begin a series of articles on Canada’s initial battles on the Western Front.
Early on the evening of April 21, 1915, the 13th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force began preparations to take over part of the forward line in the Ypres Salient. A rounded tumour bulging into the German lines on the Western Front, the position was an unfortunate legacy of the determined defence of the only major town in Belgium—Ypres—to escape occupation by the German army.
That battle, known as First Ypres, ended in November 1914 with the Germans in control of much of the high ground. This gave the enemy the advantage of being able to observe and shell the salient from three sides.
The 13th Bn. had been recruited by Montreal’s most prestigious militia regiment, the 5th Royal Scots known as the Canadian Black Watch. As with the other battalions that formed the 1st Canadian Division, roughly two-thirds of the non-commissioned officers and men were British born, including many who had arrived in Montreal in the pre-1914 wave of immigration. The officers were, however, Canadian born, drawn from well-established families such as the Drummonds, Molsons and McCuaigs.
Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Loomis, who commanded the battalion, was a wealthy manufacturer and longtime militia officer later promoted to brigade, then divisional command. He participated in every major battle fought by the Canadians.
Loomis established his headquarters in the villages of St. Julien, where he was made garrison commander. Three Black Watch rifle companies, with 200 men each, went forward to relieve the men of the 14th Bn., Royal Montreal Regiment. They had spent four quiet days in trenches which were little more than shallow ditches with sandbag parapets that provided minimal protection. It was difficult to improve the trenches because “bodies, buried and unburied” made it impossible to excavate new positions. The engineers reported that the entire front line was “in a deplorable condition from the standpoint of defence, safety and sanitation.”
Roman Jarymowycz, who has written a new history of the Black Watch, notes that Lieut. J.G. Ross, the battalion machine-gun officer, was able to borrow additional Colt machine guns from the 14th Bn. These were added to newly built emplacements “roofed with arched sheets of heavy corrugated iron with loopholes for crossfire.” The rifle companies were responsible for 500 yards of trenches between a small creek and the Ypres-Poelcappelle road. To their right the 15th Bn., 48th Highlanders, occupied a similar stretch of low ground that linked up with Arthur Currie’s 2nd Brigade. The situation on the left flank was less certain. The 45th Algerian Div. had arrived in mid-April and was in the midst of relieving its forward brigade. There was no provision for liaison across a corps boundary which also divided the armies of two empires.
Wars fought by coalitions are never free of politics and the French government, anxious to control all aspects of strategy, insisted on separating the British and Belgian armies. Inserting a few French divisions on the northern flank of the British Expeditionary Force might limit British influence with the Belgians, but it made little military sense.
In early April, General Joseph Joffre, the French Commander-in-Chief, decided to reduce the commitment to a token force in the northern third of the salient. Three British Empire divisions, including the Canadians, took over the rest of the sector. The British official history notes, “There were no arrangements for unity of command of the three contingents and the two junctions were ill-chosen, that of the French and British at the shoulder of the salient, and that of the French and Belgians at the canal where two forces were on opposite sides of the water.”
British and Canadian officers were sharply critical of the condition of the trenches left by the French army, but the problems were partly a product of the very different doctrine the French had adopted. By 1915 the French army had learned to rely on its quick-firing 75-mm guns and infantry reserves positioned to counterattack when a German advance began. An early version of defence-in-depth, the forward trenches were lightly held and, given conditions in the salient, little was done to strengthen these outposts.
British doctrine was very different. The front line was to be fully occupied and held to the last man. The corps and divisional commanders had emphasized this policy and rejected the option of planning for a phased withdrawal to much stronger second-line defences. The French had begun to build such a position two to three miles behind the front known to the British as the GHQ Line. This well-constructed position was protected by a continuous belt of barbed wire, six yards wide, with five trenches and redoubts sited to provide good fields of fire.
Still, the bulging salient presented a target the Germans found difficult to resist. A successful attack would shorten their front, force the evacuation of Ypres and divert Anglo-French reserves that were preparing for a spring offensive. When Fritz Haber, who was to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry, suggested using chlorine gas as a method of attacking the enemy, it was determined that the north face of the salient was the obvious place to stage the experiment. The prevailing winds were westerly, but north winds were common enough. Long lines of gas cylinders, with simple hose extensions, were installed opposite the French positions in early April.
Shortly after the cylinders arrived, a young German soldier, Auguste Jaeger, deserted his post and provided the French army with a detailed account of the placing of “asphyxiating gas cylinders” and the distribution of packets of gauze to soldiers. The plan, he reported, was to release the gas as soon as winds were favourable.
This vital intelligence was supported by other evidence, but no one in authority knew what to make of it. Was it a ruse to force a withdrawal? If gas was used would it be more than a nuisance? Senior officers mulled over the problem for more than a week, but took no action and no one thought to ask scientists about the effects of chlorine, used extensively in German industry.
The Germans assumed the gas would force a French withdrawal, but no reserves were available to transform tactical success into a large scale, operational victory. The orders issued to the German troops called for the capture of the high ground north of the Ypres-Poelcappelle road. This, they had decided, would make it “impossible for the enemy to remain longer in the Ypres Salient.”
On the morning of April 22, the Germans began to shell Ypres with long-range siege guns. The first shells struck the main square, killing a Canadian officer and 17 men as well as 30 civilians. Fires began to burn leading many to evacuate the town. Apart from the shelling of Ypres that continued throughout the day, all was quiet on April 22, until 5 p.m. when a northeasterly wind was judged strong enough to risk releasing the gas. The Canadian divisional commander, Major-General E.A.H. Alderson, who was inspecting gun positions at St. Julien, ignored the sounds of rifle fire in the distance until “two clouds of yellowish-green smoke appeared.”
Medical officers soon recognized it as chlorine, but it was not until hundreds of French soldiers streamed back through Canadian positions when the full extent of the danger was understood.
The gas had overwhelmed the men in the forward lines of both French divisions. Others, not yet reached by the gas, fled with them. The French 1st Bn. Tirailleurs, which was next to the Black Watch, were on the edge of the gas cloud and held until outflanked. A new defensive line at right angles to the old front was patched together with Algerian and Canadian soldiers holding the roadside ditch. As Jarymowycz notes in his new history of the Black Watch, “Captain Guy Drummond, who spoke fluent French…managed to steady over a hundred Tirailleurs and place them on the extreme left of the ad hoc line.”
Drummond and his company commander, Major E.C. Norsworthy, were both killed before the position was overrun, but they bought enough time to allow Maj. Rykert McCuaig’s company to turn to face the open flank and then employ their machine guns to force the enemy back across the road. They held on using the roadside ditch as an improvised trench.
Platoons from the other Black Watch companies arrived to reinforce the turned flank, but the enemy continued to shell and probe the defences. McCuaig made the decision to abandon the exposed position and establish a new line 300 yards to the rear where better fields of fire would be obtained. At first light the arrival of further reinforcements, including a British company reversed this sensible solution and the road position was reoccupied. Fortunately a Black Watch machine-gun detachment from St. Julien arrived to suppress the enemy’s enfilade line.
Lance Corporal Fred Fisher, whose exploits in protecting the guns of the 10th Field Battery the previous day led to the award of Canada’s first Great War Victoria Cross, was killed while setting up one gun. However, the second gun continued to provide suppressive fire until evening when the battalion was ordered to withdraw.
An attempt was made to bury the dead and evacuate the wounded. “Loaded down as they were with a considerable number of wounded,” notes Jarymowycz, their retreat across open ground was subject to constant harassment by German artillery. A small rear guard party under Lieut. C.B. Pitblado checked the German infantry.
The Black Watch dug new trenches, “about two feet deep” and established links with the 48th Highlanders and 7th Bn., British Columbia Regt., at Keerselaere. Machine-gun ammunition and food was brought forward “but with no water, eating biscuits was like chewing sand.”
The German 4th Army Commander, Generaloberst Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg, frustrated by the continued resistance, decided to mount a second gas attack directed at the Canadians. The 48th Highlanders and the 8th Bn., still holding their original line took the worst of the gas, but as they withdrew the Black Watch were forced to retire. The order did not reach everyone and scores of prisoners, most of them wounded, were captured.
Black Watch casualties for the three-day battle totalled 511, including 69 killed and 233 missing. The unit had sacrificed itself to prevent an enemy breakthrough that might have cut off Canadian and British troops—a magnificent display of courage and tactical skill.