The Second Battle of Ypres
22 April 1915 - 25 May 1915
Even though the Canadians were lucky enough that they didn't get effected by the first gas attack that the Germans pulled on them, the French- Algerians did. They learned that the mysterious gas was actually chlorine gas. The soldiers were ordered to put on urine-soaked cloths covering their mouths and noses, so the gas wouldn't kill them.
War is a terrible thing, and in my life I have come to experience it. I’m a doctor, I earned my medical degree at the University of Toronto, and I postponed my further studies at McGill so I could fight in the African War. There I distinguished myself as lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Artillery. Thankfully, I returned to Canada to continue practicing medicine. In 1914, World War 1 broke out and battles were taking place. I decided I would enlist myself as a major and brigade surgeon of the 1st Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, as more than 31,000 Canadians did. My country was in need of help, and the skills I obtained would be needed during the war. My brigade was first sent off to Neuve- Chapelle, France. On April 15th, we were ordered to move to Belgium, to a quiet section in the Ypres salient, and boy, was it hell.
In October 1914, the Canadian Expeditionary Force traveled to Europe. There we trained for about a year until later in February we arrived in France where the Germans were waiting. There I was, looking out at two opposing trenches from North Sea all the way to Switzerland. It was a war of attrition, wearing down enemies to the point of collapse. It was us and the Allies, the French, Britain, and its Empire, against the Germans.  On April 1915, Canadians were ordered to move into the north side of the Ypres Salient. It was a bulge in the front lines on the Flanders Plain, east of the ancient Belgium city of Ypres, and it was extremely dangerous for Allied defenders. The Allies wanted to protect Ypres for many reasons, one being that the railways and roads link to very important ports on the coast, which they wanted to keep away from the Germans. Also, Ypres was one of the last Belgium towns that were not taken over by Germans. Britain’s role also felt it was important to defend the Belgian people. It was concluded that our inexperienced Canadian soldiers would head on over to the “death trap” where they would be surrounded on three sides by enemy soldiers and artillery.
Canadians were ordered to move to the North side of the Ypres Salient, which is a bulge in the front lines on the Flanders Plain East of the ancient Belgium city of Ypres. The Canadian line was right beside the French- Algerian line.
After a couple of days of stillness, I finally had the opportunity to adjust to the poorly constructed Canadian trenches. There we sat and waited, and all you could hear was the sound of birds not far off, but then suddenly it went silent. I heard a shriek of confusion from the French- Algerian section of the trench. As I looked up I saw this putrid green and yellow cloud coming straight at them, as they fled towards the Canadian side of the trench, leaving a huge gap, around 6 km in length, at their part of the trench. It was too late. Most of the men fell to ground choking on the mysterious gas that has filled their lungs with fluid, causing them to drown. As this was all happening, Germans were heading over to the open part of the trench where the French- Algerians used to occupy minutes before. The Canadians and British battalions fled to the open part of the trench, along with other soldiers suffering from the gas. The Germans planned to test this mysterious weapon out on us in the Salient, where the First Canadian Division was located, but the southward wind drifted the gas over the Allied lines where the heaviest section of the gas hit the French- Algerians. In war it’s all about luck, and we had a bit of that day.
The Canadian and French British Forces spent days launching counterattacks and fighting a series of chaotic engagement. This helped hold lines outside of Ypres, but on April 24th, another gas attack this time hit the Canadians really hard. We discovered that the mysterious gas was in fact chlorine, so we ordered the soldiers to hold urine- soaked cloths over their mouths and noses to survive. Many did survive, but a lot of the soldiers fled which opened up serious gaps in the Canadian lines causing us to force retreat of several battalions. The First Division held their ground buying time for French and British reinforcements to be brought. Canadians were mostly relieved on April 25th and withdrawn on the 26th.
The battle continued for another month, but it was mostly fought by the British, and it’s safe to say that we re-established control of the Salient after that second gas attack. I left the Artillery brigade in June after the end of the battle of Ypres. I didn’t go back home to Guelph, but instead I stayed in France to become the lieutenant- colonel in charge of medicine at No. 3 Canadian General Hospital. I took 20 minutes to write a poem while I was in the Salient near the Flanders Plain waiting for injured soldiers to be brought to our brigade. As I wrote, I thought of my very close friend, Alexis Helmer, who had just passed away, which greatly impacted me, but the truth is, it wasn’t just my friend that affected me, it was the war. I kept the poem in the pocket of my jacket while I was in the battle, but now I am safe, and my poem is getting published. How can someone possibly go back to living a normal life after what has happened to all of us out there on the Front. It’s been weeks and I haven’t spent one night in a sheltered home, because I’ve insisted on living in a tent just like how many other soldiers, some who I’ve come to know, are on the battlefield doing so right now. I haven’t slept in days, still thinking about all those men still out there. I wake up from nightmare of near death experiences during the battle. I still picture, day and night, of Canadian soldiers stuffing their face in dirt, trying not to inhale the deathly gas, but still end up dying. Every day I hear the cries of men, running for their lives. I don’t feel safe even though I should. Out of 59,000 men from the British Force, 6,500 of those who were Canadian, were killed wounded, or captured, and I survived. People tell me to be happy. I’ve never heard of a soldier who is ever happy after the war. I am a physician, a poet, and I was a soldier.
John McCrae wrote the famous World War poem, "In Flanders Fields" in 20 minutes during the second battle of Ypres, which he wrote on May 3rd after one of his fellow friends died during the battle.
1. Marsh, James H. "John McCrae." The Canadian Encyclopedia. N.p., 17 Mar. 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2015. <http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/john-mccrae/>.
2. Leeson, David. "Ypres: Inexperienced Canadians Hold the Line." The Canadian Encyclopedia. N.p., 16 Dec. 2013. Web. 21 Feb. 2015. <http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/ypres-inexperienced-canadians-hold-the-line-feature/>.
3. Foot, Richard. "Second Battle of Ypres." The Canadian Encyclopedia. N.p., 15 Aug. 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2015. <http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/battle-of-ypres/>.
4. "Exhibition: We Will Remember Them: The No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) in the First World War 1915-1919." Exhibition: We Will Remember Them: The No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) in the First World War 1915-1919. N.p., 13 Feb. 2015. Web. 21 Feb. 2015. <http://www.mcgill.ca/library/channels/event/exhibition-we-will-remember-them-no-3-canadian-general-hospital-mcgill-first-world-war-1915-1919-241436>.