Gas Attack! 2nd Battle of Ypres Begins in 1915

Thursday, April 22, 1915

In billets, St. Jean

The Battalion War Diarist wrote for this day: “Heavy shelling of Ypres and vicinity began.  At 5 p.m. received orders to stand to.  At 6 p.m. the battn. less No. 2 Coy began to move up towards St. Julien, shelling continues.  On way up Ypres-St. Julien road, one gun of a British R.H.A. battery galloped past battn. and came into action in field on left of road just above Wieltje.  1, 3 & 4 Companies took up positions in G.H.Q. line at 3rd Bde Headquarters.  No. 1 Co. under Major Shaw, with Major Warminton 2nd in command, and Lieuts. Terroux and Porteous    occupying trenches west of 3rd Bde. H.Q. (on Pilkem side).  Nos 3 & 4 in trenches east of Bde. H.Q. between them and Ypres-St. Julien road.” [1]

22 April 15_A

THIS DAY IN RMR HISTORY: The 14th Battalion history, elaborates: “At about 3 o’clock on the afternoon of Thursday, April 22nd, 1915, the Germans opened a tremendous bombardment of Ypres, the roads leading from that city to the front line, and the trenches forming the rim of the Ypres salient. Guns of all calibres joined in this drum-fire, wrecking and devastating the lines of communication and tearing great gaps in the Ypres defences. Obviously such a bombardment heralded an attack on a major scale and the Allied forces stiffened to meet the blow. Little reply could be made to the German fire, however, owing to a pronounced shortage of guns and ammunition. In all France at this time the British Army controlled but 700 field guns and some 71 guns larger than 5-inch. The task of hurling back the German attack, therefore, fell to an overwhelming degree on the ever-willing and devoted infantry…”

“When the attack opened on the afternoon of April 22nd, the 14th Battalion, … lay in billets in St. Jean and St. Julien. No. 2 Coy., in St. Julien, formed part of a special reserve and came under the orders of Lieut.-Col. F.O.W. Loomis, Town Commandant of St. Julien, and Commanding Officer of the 13th Battalion. As soon as it became certain that the Germans had penetrated the French lines to the Canadian left, Lieut.-Col. Loomis ordered Major Hanson to take up a defensive position north of St. Julien and between the Steenbeek and the St. Julien – Keerselaere Road. Heavy fire was encountered during the move forward and after the position was occupied, Major Hanson, the Company Commander, and Lieut. W.K. Knubley suffering severe wounds and Capt. Steacie, second-in-command, being killed. Command of the company thereupon devolved on Capt. W.C. Brotherhood, who dug in and linked up with Capt. R.Y. Cory, who commanded a half company of the 15th Battalion on the right. Later Cory sent to Brotherhood’s support a party of approximately 200 French coloured troops, under a gallant subaltern, who were requested to dig themselves in on Brotherhood’s left. The French troops were willing, but were discovered by a French senior officer, who sharply ordered them to the rear. This senior officer appeared dazed and was obviously lost, none the less the subaltern in command of the Turcos dared not disobey his explicit orders and the French troops accordingly withdrew.

As the position of No. 2 Coy. was vital to the safety of the troops on the forward flank, Lieut.-Col. Loomis gave orders that it must be held at all costs. In obedience to these orders, the men of the company prepared to hold on, come what might. Shell fire poured on the position throughout the night, halting occasionally to permit sharp attacks by battle patrols of the enemy.” [3]

St. Julien and Kitcheners Wood:“The Second Battle of Ypres was the first time Germany used chemical weapons on a large scale on the Western Front in the First World War. The Second Battle of Ypres actually consisted of four separate battles:

  • The Battle of Gravenstafel – 22 to 23 April 1915
  • The Battle of St. Julien – 24 April to 4 May 1915
  • The Battle of Frezenberg – 8 to 13 May 1915
  • The Battle of Bellewaarde – 24 to 25 May 1915

When the “Race to the Sea” swept through the area around Ypres, the First Battle of Ypres in 1914 had resulted in a salient – a bulge in the line – 8,000 metres deep to the east and north of the town, where the ground rose onto a series of low ridges. Ordinarily insignificant, in the flat countryside, these tiny heights became of supreme importance to the Germans, who gained the advantage of observation out over the countryside, and into the salient, where they could see what occurred between the Allied lines and Ypres itself.” [4]

St. Julien – April 22 – 24, 1915: The inexperienced Canadian troops were moved into the front lines around the Belgian town of Ypres for the first time in April 1915. On the Canadian right were two British divisions and on their left a French division, the 45th Algerian.

22 April 15_B

“An idea of what the Canadians faced at Ypres on 24th April may be gleaned from the gas cloud at the battle of the Somme in 1916. Regrettably not a single photo of the gas attack at Ypres exists, undoubtedly because it was unexpected.” [6]

On April 22, the Germans tried to break the stalemate on the Western Front by introducing a new weapon, poison gas. Following an intensive artillery bombardment, they released 135 tonnes of chlorine gas into a light northeast wind. As thick clouds of yellow-green chlorine drifted over their trenches, the French defences crumbled and the unprotected troops, their lungs seared, died or broke and fled, leaving a gaping six-kilometre hole in the Allied line. The German troops pressed forward threatening to sweep behind the Canadian trenches and put 50,000 Canadian and British troops in deadly jeopardy. But the Canadians stood their ground and after advancing only three kilometres the Germans dug in, allowing the Canadian troops time to close the gap. The next day, the Canadians mounted three counter-attacks to drive the enemy back and while little ground was gained and casualties were extremely heavy these attacks bought some precious time to close the flank. On April 24, the Germans attacked again in an attempt to obliterate the Canadian position. Through terrible fighting, withered with shrapnel and machine-gun fire, hampered by rifles that jammed, violently ill and gasping for air through mud-soaked handkerchiefs, the Candians held on until reinforcements arrived. In 48 hours, 6,035 Canadians – one man in every three – became casualties, 2,000 of them killed. [7]

22 April 15_C“The St. Julien Memorial is a Canadian war memorial and small commemorative park located in the village of Saint-Julien, Langemarck , Belgium. The memorial commemorates the Canadian First Division’s participation in the Second Battle of Ypres of World War I which included the defence against the first poison gas attacks along the Western Front. Frederick Chapman Clemesha’s sculpture, the Brooding Soldier, was selected to serve as the central feature of the monument following a design competition organized by the Canadian Battlefield Monument Commission in 1920.” [8]


[1]  Operation-Report  of May 6th, 1915, War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment,  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa;
[2]   Col. G.W.L. Nicholson, CD., Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919,  Duhamel, Queens Printer, Ottawa,1962,  pg. 66.
[3]   R.C. Featherstonhaugh, The Royal Montreal Regiment 14th Battalion C.E.F. 1914-1925, Montreal, The Gazette, Printing Co., Ltd., 1927, pp. 37-39.
[5]   CWM ARCHIVES / ARCHIVES DU MCG : Photo Archives 52A 2 48 ;  Image no.  84-12608
[6]   George H. Cassar, “Hell in Flanders – Canadians at the Second Battle of Ypres,” Toronto, Dundurn Press, 2010, pp. 181
[7]   “Remembering other Canadian battles from the First World War,” National Post,
[8]   Wikipedia contributors, "Saint Julien Memorial," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed February 2, 2015).
[9]   Ibid
[10]   Ibid

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