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Baptism by Fire: the Canadians at Ypres

For the week of Monday, April 20, 2015

The Second Battle of Ypres began on April 22, 1915. It was the first major engagement for Canadians during the First World War, and saw the first large-scale use of poison gas by the German army on the battlefield.

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Richard Jack, The Second Battle of Ypres -
22 April to 25 May 1915

© Canadian War Museum
Beaverbrook Collection of War Art
CWM 19710261-0161

In spring 1915, the 1st Canadian division joined several Allied (British, French, and Belgian) divisions near the town of Ypres, Belgium. British and French headquarters had received multiple warnings of a possible gas attack, but were without protective gear to combat this new and deadly weapon.

The battle began when German forces bombarded Allied trenches and released chlorine gas near the French divisions. The gas burned soldiers’ skin, eyes, and throats. Many soldiers died or fled, leaving a six-kilometre breach in the Allied defence, allowing the German forces to advance. The Canadians stretched their forces to fill the gap, before counter-attacking to prevent a German breakthrough at Mauser Ridge, at Kitchener's Wood, and at other critical areas.

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Canadian military demonstration,
Shorncliffe, September 1917

© Canadian War Museum
George Metcalf Archival Collection
CWM 19930003-217

Two days later, when the Canadians were attacked with gas while defending the town of St. Julien, they knew what to expect. Men who anticipated the attack covered their noses and mouths with wet rags, which provided some limited protection from the chlorine. These ad hoc respirators were not very effective, but they saved many from suffocating. Despite facing gas and heavy machine gun fire, the Canadians successfully held the area until reinforcements arrived.

After the Battle for St. Julien, Canadian involvement at Ypres ended. During the Second Battle of Ypres the Allies suffered 60,000 casualties, and of those 6,035 Canadians were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Many are buried near the St. Julien Canadian Memorial in Belgium.

The Second Battle of Ypres and another First World War battle, the Battle of Passchendaele, are both National Historic Events. Sir Arthur William Currie, a brigade commander at the Second Battle of Ypres, and Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, who served as a surgeon with the Canadian Field Artillery at Ypres and wrote In Flanders’ Fields during the battle, are both National Historic Persons.

To learn more about the First World War, please read: Canada Joins the Great War, Forever Remembered, Canadians Join the Fight at Passchendaele, United at Vimy Ridge, Newfoundland's Saddest Day, and Lest We Forget  in the This Week in History archives. Also, visit the Government of Canada’s World War Commemorations page.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada! Click here to learn about the Historic Sites and Monuments board of Canada.

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