The Second Battle of Ypres
( Originally Published 1918 )
FIRST to feel the effects of German terrorism through poison gas were the gallant Canadian troops on the afternoon of April 22, 1915, at Ypres, Belgium. Gas had been used by the Germans previously to this, but they were mere experimental clouds directed against Belgian troops.
Before the battle, the English and Canadians held a line from Broodseinde to half a mile north of St. Julien on the crest of the Grafenstafel Ridge. The French prolonged the line to Steenstraate on the Yperlee Canal. The Germans originally planned the attack for Tuesday, April 20th, but with satanic ingenuity the offensive was postponed until between 4 and 5 o'clock on the afternoon of Thursday, the 22d. During the morning the wind blew steadily from the north and the scientists attached to the German Field Headquarters predicted that the strong wind would continue at least twelve hours longer.
The Canadian division held a line extending about five miles from the Ypres-Roulers Rail-way to the Ypres-Poelcapelle road. The di-vision consisted of three infantry brigades, in addition to the artillery brigades. Upon this unsuspecting body of men the poison fumes were projected by means of pipes and force pumps. The immediate consequences were that the asphyxiating gas of great intensity rendered immediately helpless thousands of men. The same gas attack that was projected upon the Canadians also fell with murderous effect upon the French. The consequences were that the French division on the left of the Canadians gave way and the Third brigade of the Canadian division, so far as the left was concerned, was "up in the air," to use the phrase of its commanding officer.
It became necessary for Brigadier-General Turner, commanding the Third brigade, to throw back his left flank southward to protect The enemy, of course, was aware—whether fully or not may perhaps be doubted—of the advantage his breach in the line had given him, and immediately began to push a formidable series of attacks upon the whole of the newly-formed Canadian salient. The attack was everywhere fierce, but developed with particular intensity at this moment upon the apex of the newly-formed line, running in the direction of St. Julien.
It has already been stated that some British guns were taken in a wood comparatively early in the evening of the 22d. In the course of that night, and under the heaviest machine-gun fire, this wood was assaulted by the Canadian Scottish, Sixteenth battalion of the Third brigade, and the Tenth battalion of the Second brigade which was intercepted for this purpose on its way to a reserve trench. The battalions were respectively commanded by Lietenant-Colonel Leckie and Lieutenant-Colonel Boyle, and after a most fierce struggle in the light of a misty moon they took the position at the point of the bayonet. At midnight the Second battalion, under Colonel Watson, and the Toronto regiment, Queen's Own, Third battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel Rennie, both of the First brigade, brought up much-needed reinforcement, and though not actually engaged in the assault, were in reserve.
All through the following days and nights the battalions shared the fortunes and misfortunes of the Third brigade. An officer who took part in the attack describes how the men about him fell under the fire of the machine guns, which, in his phrase, played upon them, "like a watering pot." He added quite simply "I wrote my own life off." But the line never wavered. When one man fell another took his place, and with a final shout the survivors of the two battalions flung themselves into the wood.
The German garrison was completely de-moralized, and the impetuous advance of the Canadians did not cease until they reached the far side of the wood and intrenched them-selves there in the position so dearly gained. They had, however, the disappointment of finding that the guns had been blown up by the enemy, and later on in the same night a most formidable concentration of artillery fire, sweeping the wood as a tropical storm sweeps the leaves from a forest, made it impossible for them to hold the position for which they had sacrificed so much.
The fighting continued without intermission all through the night, and, to those who observed the indications that the attack was being pushed with ever-growing strength, it hardly seemed possible that the Canadians, fighting in positions so difficult to defend and so little the subject of deliberate choice, could maintain their resistance for any long period. At 6 A. M. on Friday it became apparent that the left was becoming more and more involved, and a powerful German attempt to outflank it developed rapidly. The consequences, if it had been broken or outflanked, need not be insisted upon. They were not merely local.
It was there decided, formidable as the attempt undoubtedly was, to try and give relief by a counter-attack upon the first line of German trenches, now far, far advanced from those originally occupied by the French. This was carried out by the Ontario First and Fourth battalions of the First brigade, under Brigadier General Mercer, acting in combination with a British brigade.
It is safe to say that the youngest private in the rank, as he set his teeth for the advance, knew the task in front of him, and the youngest subaltern knew all that rested upon its success. It did not seem that any human being could Iive in the shower of shot and shell which began to play upon the advancing troops. They suffered terrible casualties. For a short time every other man seemed to fall, but the attack was pressed ever closer and closer.
The Fourth Canadian battalion at one moment came under a particularly withering fire. For a moment—not more—it wavered. Its most gallant commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Burchill, carrying, after an old fashion, a light cane, coolly and cheerfully rallied his men and, at the very moment when his example had infected them, fell dead at the head of his battalion. With a hoarse cry of anger they sprang forward (for, indeed they loved him), as if to avenge his death. The astonishing attack which followed—pushed home in the face of direct frontal fire made in broad daylight by battalions whose names should live forever in the memories of soldiers—was carried to the front line of the German trenches. After a hand-to-hand struggle the last German who resisted was bayoneted, and the trench was won.
The measure of this success may be taken when it is pointed out that this trench represented in the German advance the apex in the breach which the enemy had made in the original line of the Allies, and that it was two and a half miles south of that line. This charge, made by men who looked death indifferently in the face (for no man who took part in it could think that he was likely to live) saved, and that was much, the Canadian left. But it did more. Up to the point where the assailants conquered, or died, it secured and maintained during the most critical moment of all the integrity of the allied line. For the trench was not only taken, it was held thereafter against all corners, and in the teeth of every conceivable projectile, until the night of Sunday, the 25th, when all that remained of the war-broken but victorious battalion was relieved by fresh troops.