A secondary trench line, marked on the maps, was nowhere to be found, and a third line – dubbed the GHQ Line – was nothing more than strong points 500 yards apart strung together in a line, with a 6-yard wide belt of barbed wire as protection. The Germans were said to be preparing an attack; rumours of poison gas spread after prisoners leaked the word of their preparations – large tanks of chlorine gas had been brought up well in advance, waiting for a favourable breeze to carry it into the Allied lines. The Germans had already used gas on the Eastern Front, but there was a reluctance among the Allies to believe that the Germans would use it in the west, where the Hague Conventions of 1907 specifically forbade the use of "poison or poisoned weapons."
Gas attack at Gravenstafel
See also main article on Gravenstafel
The Second Battle of Ypres opened when 168 tons of chlorine gas were released by the Germans at 5:00p.m. on April 22nd over a four mile front, following a heavy bombardment that had started at 4:00p.m. The gas affected the lungs and the eyes causing respiration problems and blindness. Being denser than air it flowed downwards, forcing French troops of the 45th and 78th Divisions to abandon their positions en masse, leaving a 4,000 yard wide gap in the front line.
The Canadians in the line to the right could discern a large yellow-green cloud over the French positions; three German divisions swarmed forward past dead and panicked troops. The Canadians were in disarray as many of their telephone lines had been cut in the shelling, and units now began giving conflicting reports back to their headquarters, far behind the front. What was clear was that their left flank was wide open; what was not known was that the Germans had inexplicably stopped for the night after driving 3,000 yards into the French positions.
Early on, the 13th Battalion had strengthened positions around St. Julien under the initiative of their commanding officer. This small group was one of the few holding the entire left flank. To the southwest, the only unit between the Germans and the 3rd Brigade headquarters at Mouse Trap Farm was a battery of British 4.7-inch guns at Kitcheners' Wood. Another battery 1,000 yards north of St. Julien engaged a large number of Germans over open sights at about 7:00 p.m. that night, and with the help of men from the 13th, 14th and 15th Battalions, were able to move their guns back to safety. Lance Corporal Frederick Fisher of the 13th Battalion was instrumental in this action, and killed the next day – he became the first Canadian to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the Great War.
An hour later, the commander of the 3rd Brigade by now fully realized the delicate situation his left flank was in, and requested reinforcement from the 2nd Brigade and from the Division. The 10th Battalion, reserve unit for the 2nd Brigade, and the 16th Battalion, in reserve for the 3rd Brigade, were tasked for an immediate counter-attack on Kitcheners' Wood following a request at 8:00 p.m. from a French liaison officer to General Alderson for Canadian cooperation in a counter-attack the 45th Division was preparing against Pilckem.
The name of this oak plantation derived from the French name, Bois-de-Cuisineres, a reference to the fact that French soldiers housed their field kitchens there. The 10th Battalion was assembled and ready to go at 11:00 pm. The 16th Battalion arrived as they were forming, tasked to support the advance. Both battalions had over 800 men at the start line and formed up in waves of two companies each. Neither unit had spent a single minute on training in night fighting, no reconnaissance had been conducted on the ground, no intelligence was available on where exactly the enemy was located or in what strength, and there was no co-ordination between the two units as to what each would do once they had reached the woods. The order was simply given to advance at quarter to midnight.
The leading waves of the 10th covered half the distance from the start line to the Wood, running into a strong hedge interlaced with wire. No reconnaissance had been done prior and the battalion was forced to break through the obstacle with rifle butts, bringing down fire from alerted German machine-gunners about 200 yards distant. Both battalions charged the last 200 yards to the wood, but the commanding officer of the 10th, Lieutenant Colonel Boyle, was mortally wounded in the opening moments of the firefight, being hit five times in the groin by a German machine gun.
As the battalions crashed into the wood, having lost many senior officers in the charge, soldiers of both battalions thoroughly intermingled, and fell on the Germans with rifles, bayonets, and even rifle butts and bare hands. Algerian troops accompanying the Canadians led the attack towards the right, towards their former positions. The Germans began to surrender, but many were still shooting, and there were relatively few attackers and as a consequence, according to the battalion's second in command "very few prisoners were taken and many lives were lost by the enemy forces." The Canadians had hit the boundary of two regiments, the 2nd Prussian Guards and the 234th Bavarian Infantry, and taken one of their colonels prisoner.
By midnight, it was over, fifteen minutes after it had begun. A German prisoner paid the 10th the ultimate compliment, acknowledging to his guard "You fellows fight like hell" as he was marched to the rear. Inside the wood, the 4.7-inch guns of the 2nd London Heavy Battery were found – with the bodies of some of their crew lying intermingled with German bodies – lying abandoned after a ferocious fight.
The battalions reorganized, but the fighting was only beginning. A German redoubt in the southwest corner of the wood was still holding out. Further attacks on the German hold-outs were brushed off by machine-gun and small-arms fire. The French counter-attack on the left had never materialized.
By 2:30a.m., Lieutenant Colonel Leckie of the 16th Battalion realized that there were too few men on the ground to hold the wood, and he ordered a withdrawal to a trench on the south edge. During a roll call in the morning, of the 816 that had set out the previous night, only 193 were left on their feet. The 16th Battalion was down to 268 all ranks.
After the war, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Allied Supreme commander, remarked that the "greatest act of the war" had been the assault on Kitcheners' Wood by the 10th and 16th Battalions.
The 3rd Brigade area, in the meantime, continued to receive reinforcements, and the 2nd, 3rd and part of the 7th Battalions were put into the sector north of St. Julien to shore up the line, along with five British battalions. Another counter-attack, at Mauser Ridge, had been ordered by the French, with the support of two Canadian battalions. The French never launched their attack, but the 4th Battalion went forward anyway on the morning of the 23rd, and along with the 1st Battalion took heavy casualties. Supporting artillery had not been able to bring down sufficiently heavy weights of fire to keep the enemy suppressed. The two battalions made repeated attempts to move forward until ordered to hold fast later in the morning. The original front line was holding firm, and a shaky but intact defensive line had been extemporized on the once-open left flank.
The survivors of the 10th spent the 23rd in their trench on the southern edge of the wood, attempting to improve their position – the parapet had been blown down in places – and even digging communications trenches back to a slight dip further south. Some of their number were engaged in a day-long firefight near the enemy redoubt, only 50 yards from the trench. At dawn on the 24th of April, following a heavy bombardment to the 10th Battalion's right, another yellow-green cloud appeared from the German lines, creeping out over the trenches and seeping into the lines of the Canadian Division. The official history called what happened next “a great and terrible day for Canada.” The Battle of St. Julien had begun.
The Battle of St. Julien
The chlorine gas hit the 15th and 8th Battalions; supporting artillery fire thinned the ranks of the Germans coming for the 8th Battalion, but the S.O.S. flares of the 15th Battalion went unheeded, as their supporting battery had moved out of range.
Anti-gas equipment had by now been distributed, in the form of damp cotton-gauze masks. Someone – it is not clear today who – advised that urine soked handkerchiefs would also neutralize chlorine, and many soldiers attempted that as a solution. The gas cloud was strongest at the boundary of the two battalions, and the protective equipment did nothing to shield the eyes. Many troops suffered seared eyes and lungs, particularly in the innermost companies along the inter-unit boundary. One company of the 8th Battalion, however, was missed entirely by the gas cloud and brought heavy fire on the advancing Germans. Unfortunately, as was common throughout the 2nd Battle of Ypres, they found that their Ross rifles were prone to jamming, especially during rapid fire, to the point that in some cases it took several men to keep one weapon operating. It was during the fighting on the 8th Battalion front that the second Canadian Victoria Cross of the war was earned, when Company Sergeant Major Frederick Hall attempted to rescue a wounded man lying forward of his trench; he was killed in the attempt.
The 15th Battalion was eventually pushed back 700 yards to the base of the Gravenstafel Ridge. They suffered 647 casualties in the greatest single-battle loss of any Canadian battalion for the entire war. The 13th Battalion, having held back the initial attack, was also forced to withdraw from its positions in the northwest sector of the Canadian line. Units not yet engaged were thrown into the fight – what was left of the 10th Battalion was withdrawn from Kitcheners' Wood, having been relieved by the 2nd Battalion, was sent to help, numbering now just 3 officers and 171 men. “Battalions” by now were, in the words of historian John Marteinson, “simply ad hoc groups of men in the same general location.” The 16th Battalion went to reinforce a new line being formed by the 3rd Brigade, while the 8th Battalion received companies of the 5th and 7th Battalions. The Germans had managed to capture the apex of the Ypres Salient, but the Canadians were able to limit their gains to a maximum penetration of 1,000 yards. The day was far from over, however, and fresh battalions continued to attack.
At mid-morning, renewed assaults hit the line north-east of St. Julien, particularly the positions of the 7th Battalion. Machine Gun officer Lieutenant Edward Bellew received Canada's third Victoria Cross of the war, single-handedly holding off an overwhelming force until his automatic weapon ran out of ammunition, then resorting to his pistol and a bayonet until he was taken prisoner. The 7th Battalion was all but wiped out when they, along with the 14th and 15th Battalions, decided independent of brigade orders to attempt a withdrawal.
By early afternoon, the Canadians had lost another 1,000 yards of territory beyond St. Julien, with the remnants of fourteen companies belonging to five different battalions all that was left in the defences. While the 2nd Brigade was still holding firm in its original positions, its left flank was now completely “in the air.”
The 3rd Brigade added to the confusion by beginning a further withdrawal without communicating with other units, to the GHQ Line, 1500 yards southwest of St. Julien, and 3500 yards to the rear of Gravenstafel Ridge. As they were preparing to move, however, British battalions arrived to reinforce the position, sent by the commander of the British 27th Division. The German commanders seemed equally disoriented, pausing in their advance rather than capitalizing on the open flanks and rolling up the 2nd Brigade. The remnants of the 2nd, 3rd and 13th Battalions still fighting around St. Julien were finally overrun when ammunition gave out, the last troops succumbing at 3:00p.m.; an hour later two more British battalions arrived and counterattacked to push the Germans beyond St. Julien. The Canadian Division was ordered that evening to retake the town, and went forward on the 25th with entirely British units into the face of massed machine gun fire.
After the war, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Allied Supreme commander, remarked that the "finest act in the War" had been the assault on Kitcheners' Wood by the 10th and 16th Battalions.
Fighting in the Ypres Salient continued into May, but the Canadians' part in the great drama came to an end on the 25th. The 1st and 3rd Brigades left the front lines for the rear on the 26th, and the 2nd Brigade the next day. Divisional headquarters nominally maintained a sector, but with British battalions under command.