'the Second Fight for Ypres'

The Battle of the Week

a new element in warfare - asphyxiating gas


On April 22 the guns about Hill 60 to the south of Ypres had rumbled to silence, and the long trench lines stretching north and south of the town were waiting- lazily for something to turn up in the shape of excitement. British aeroplanes buzzed overhead, and were objects of interest to the newly arrived Canadian troops, who, after spending a winter in the mud and cold of Salisbury Plain, fretting for the more active life of the front, found something interesting in every new and strange sight. Word had come to the commanding officers that something was afoot before the Canadian line. Strong reinforcements had been observed by the airmen being brought to this front, and along the Canadian trenches, and farther to the north and the left of the Canadian line, in the French trenches the officers were alert and watchful, looking suspiciously for any and every happening on their front which might foreshadow a sudden attack by the enemy.

Along these lines the crack of the rifle was heard incessantly. Sniper shot at sniper; and now and again, at rare intervals, a great shell would come shrieking overhead, or would burst with a terrifying explosion in the rear of the trenches. But the Canadians had grown used to this by now. The novelty of the sniper and the terror of the "Jack Johnson" had passed, and they had settled down in a remarkably short space of time to the humdrum existence which trench life affords.

It was toward the evening that firing- on their left became unusually heavy, but this was no new experience either; for scarcely a sunset came but it brought with it an intensity of fire.

"What is that over there ?" asked a sergeant of the Canadians, pointing to before the French line, where a curious green mist was moving slowly along the ground, propelled by the north wind toward the French trenches.

"The French are withdrawing," said a Canadian officer in alarm, and telephoned the news to headquarters.

Looking through their glasses, the Canadians could see some of the French going back, reeling about like drunken men.

"There it is in front of us now," cried an officer, and pointed ahead.

The mist which they had seen before the French lines had now appeared before their own, and was moving slowly and inexorably towards them. The firing on their front had almost ceased, and the men, gazing over the parapet with puzzled looks at this curious apparition, speculated as to its meaning. The evening mist was common enough, but the sun had not yet sunk, and, moreover, they had never seen a mist of this colour before. Presently it reached them, and then the realisation of the black villainy of their enemy came to them in a flash.

This mist was caused by asphyxiating gases, which had been cunningly released before their trenches at the first sign of a fresh northerly breeze, which would carry the fumes to the British line. They could fight against an enemy, however powerful he was; meet attack with attack, bayonet with bayonet; but here was an enemy more insidious, more terrible than any the British soldier had been asked to confront. Men went choking, gasping, to their death in the foot of the trenches; others reeled forth and endeavoured to outstrip the rolling clouds. The men in the Canadian trenches in, the rear saw their comrades leave the first line and come "like a crowd of drunken men," staggering toward the support trenches. Back went the Canadian left, only just in time. No human power could stand against this terrible weapon.

And now the truth was known. The French who had retired had telephoned the news to headquarters. A hint of all the Canadians were enduring had been flashed to the British general, and it was realised that a desperate attempt was being made by the Germans to break the British line.

Behind Ypres, unconscious of this new manoeuvre, British soldiers were enjoying a well-earned rest. They had been relieved from the trenches that morning, and many of them were watching a football match out of the range of the enemy's guns. Then came the alarm, and ten minutes later players and spectators had fallen in and were hurrying forward to repair the damage. Men from billets, men from other trenches, reserves of every kind, hastily but effectively formed, were pushing across the broad plains of Flanders to meet the enemy. For behind these rolling gases had come masses of German infantry, their mouths and noses covered with pads which prevented the passage of these dangerous gases to their lungs, and expeditiously they occupied trench after trench line, pushing forward their front until it seemed they must go unchecked to the very coast itself.

The Canadians had bent back, leaving the tiny wood to the south of Poel Cappelle and four 4.7 guns to fall into the hands of the enemy. It was not until this had happened that the Canadians realised the extent of the enemy's success.

"Canadians," said a gallant colonel of Canadian infantry, "these fellows think they have got you beaten."

If the German harboured any such delusion he was quickly to be undeceived. The Canadians re-formed and came back, carefully, systematically, but irresistibly. Without waiting, they went straight into the first of their old trenches, which were now occupied by the Germans. The struggle was short but decisive. With a hoarse roar these men from Toronto and Montreal, from New Brunswick and Winnipeg, flowed into the trenches, bayoneting, shooting, and stabbing their way to victory. Another trench line fell, another, and yet another. The Canadians were not to be denied. The bitterness of defeat was on them, and the bitterness was accentuated by the fact that the German had secured his advantage by means which were contrary to all the laws under which nations make war.

"Men of Canada," cried Colonel Birchall, "in that wood are the guns we have lost, and the Germans who are holding them."

He need say no more. At a jog-trot the Canadians advanced to the trench which covered the wood, Colonel Birchall, armed only with a light cane, leading. In the moment of victory he fell, shot dead, and with a roar, as they saw their beloved commander fall, the 4th Canadian Battalion swept forward and the trench line was won. Into the wood which held the guns, and which was protected by whole batteries of machine-guns, General Alder-son, commanding the Canadians, flung the Canadian Scottish and the 16th Battalion of the 3rd Brigade and the 10th Battalion of the 2nd Brigade. The fight was long and sanguine. Far into the night it continued, and a misty moon looked down upon the avenging Canadian bayonets, which in one final grand assault carried the wood and placed the captured guns in British hands. That they were blown up mattered little to the triumphant men from the Dominion, for they had forced the Germans to destroy them.

And now, at a moment of crisis, when the whole line to the north of Ypres was being shifted slowly backwards, and when it became abundantly clear that the enemy had been tremendously reinforced, and that at least two army corps were confronting the Canadian division, help was to hand. Through the battle-wearied troops of Canada passed a British brigade, and the men from overseas, exhausted as they were, rose with a yell to cheer the indomitable comrades from the Motherland, who, in the face of heavy fire, going forward, as many of them knew, to certain death, locked the door which the Canadians had closed, and cried "Halt!" to these soldiers of the Kaiser, who had employed every despicable subterfuge to gain their temporary advantage.

In his attack the German lost 12,000 men and secured a few square miles of territory which could in no way compensate him for his loss of Hill 60 and the ground which was gained to the eastward of Neuve Chapelle. For three weeks he struggled desperately to consolidate his gains. He carried the village of Lizerne from the Belgians, but scarcely had he put the place in a condition of defence than the Belgian came back at him with a ferocity which, said a captured German officer, "was terrible to witness." The village was wrested from his grip and the enemy was flung over the Yser, leaving 600 unburied corpses before the Belgian front.


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