Canadians Fight Against Odds in 1915

Saturday, May 1, 1915

In trenches on Yser Canal

The Battalion War Diarist wrote for this day: “For particulars see summary attached to April War Diary”. [1]

“After dusk on April 30th the battalion was moved back to the trenches in C19d and C20c, the frontage meantime having been rearranged to make room for the whole Bn.  Here the Bn. remained for Saturday, Sunday & Monday, May 1st, 2nd & 3rd under shell fire.”   [2]

01 May 15THIS DAY IN RMR HISTORY: “London, May 1. The Press Bureau reports that an officer with the Canadians states that four divisions, supported by immensely superior heavy artillery, attacked the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Brigades, who were holding 5000 yards from the Ypres-Roulers railway to the Ypres-Poelcapelle road.

When the French Zouaves retreated the Canadians, at a moment’s notice, had to extend their line to 9000 yards. Later, during Thursday, the 1st Canadian Brigade, which was a reserve, hurried up to the front. The Canadian-Scottish Battalion and the 10th Battalion led the assault upon the wood west of Saint Julien, and found that the Germans had blown up the four guns which they had captured on the evening of the 22nd. During the assault the fire from the machine guns played upon the Canadians like water from a watering-pot.

The situation was so critical at dawn that the commander decided that it was essential to counter-attack the German trenches two and a half miles ahead. General Mercer led the 1st and 4th Battalions, assisted by a British brigade. Colonel Burchill, carrying a cane, coolly rallied the men wavering under a withering fire, and moment later fell dead heading the 4th Battalion.

The Canadians sprang forward to avenge his death. An astonishing charge followed, which was pushed home in the face of a direct frontal fire in broad day-light. After a hand-to-hand struggle the last Germans were bayoneted in the trenches.

The Germans made several emissions of poisonous gas, forcing the Montreal Highlanders to abandon the trenches, but the Highlanders rallied and reoccupied them. Three German onslaughts finally forced the left flank of the 3rd Canadian Brigade to retire upon Saint Julien wood. Captain M’Craig [sic; s/b McCuaig], of the Montreal Highlanders, who was seriously wounded in the trench, might have been carried to safety, but he refused, and continued to command. When orders were received to withdraw the men wished to take him with them, but he resolutely refused to be a burden to them, and was left in the abandoned trenches with three loaded Colt revolvers waiting, racked with pain, to sell his life as dearly as possible.

Seven British battalions reinforced the Canadians on the Friday afternoon, but the Germans increased their artillery fire, and had an overwhelming superiority of numbers. Stubbornly contesting every yard, the 3rd Brigade abandoned Saint Julien.

The Canadians found it impossible without hazarding a large force to disentangle two or three hundred Montreal Highlanders and Royal Montrealers, who occupied Saint Julien. As already cabled, the rifle fire of these regiments was heard hours after the rest of the Canadians had retired from the town. If the Montrealers died, they died in a manner worthy of Canada.

Meanwhile the retirement of the 3rd Brigade left Brigadier-General Curry’s 2nd Brigade unsupported. The Brigadier-General then flung the left flank southwards, as the 3rd Brigade had done when expelled from the trenches by the emission of asphyxiating gasses by the Germans. He then counter-attacked and retook the trenches at the point of the bayonet. The Canadians remained in the trenches until the German artillery fire obliterated them.

On Sunday, General Alderson, commanding the British reinforcements, took up the attack. As the British passed the Canadian lines they paused and gave deep-throated cheers for Canada, this being the first indication of the intense admiration which the exertions of the Canadians had excited in the British army.

The German attacks were pressed so fiercely that on Monday General Alderson asked Brigadier-General Curry if his stricken brigade was able to return to the firing line. The Canadian brigadier-general replied that his men were tired, but were ready and glad to return. Curry’s brigade, though reduced to a quarter of its original strength, returned to the hottest section of the fight, and held the position throughout Monday, only retiring from the fighting line on Wednesday.” [4]

[1]   War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, May 1, 1915.  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa,
[2]    Operation-Report of May 6th, 1915 (Apr 16th – May 5th); War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, May 1915.  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa,
[3]   “The Canadians Fight Against All Odds, The Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, Australia, Monday, May 3, 1915, pg.10, col. 1.
[4]   Ibid.

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