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ARCHIVED - Oral Histories of the First World War:
Veterans 1914-1918

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Graphical element: Rendering first aid to a wounded Canadian soldier

The Second Battle of Ypres

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Images of The Second Battle of Ypres

Essay on The Second Battle of Ypres

At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the German army swept into France through Belgium. The invasion of Belgium, whose neutrality was guaranteed by Great Britain, brought the British Empire -- including Canada -- into the war. The German offensive came close to capturing Paris, but it was defeated at the Battle of the Marne. By the fall, the opposing armies were deadlocked, occupying a line of trenches stretching from Switzerland to the English Channel.

Early in 1915, the first Canadian troops arrived in Europe to serve with the British Expeditionary Force. In April, the Canadian 1st Division took up position in the front lines northeast of the Belgian town of Ypres, beside an Algerian division of the French army. As it happened, this was the spot the Germans had chosen for their next attempt to break the Allied lines.

The Germans launched their attack on April 22, 1915. They began their assault by releasing a cloud of chlorine gas, the first time that lethal gas had been used in warfare. The gas cloud rolled over the Algerian troops, who were suffocated or fled in terror. This opened a four-mile hole in the line on the Canadians' left flank. The Germans advanced through the gap, but Canadian units were shifted over to contain the damage. A series of desperate counterattacks, including Canadian assaults on Kitcheners Wood and Mauser Ridge, managed to stabilize the line. On April 24, the Germans launched another gas attack, this time directly at the Canadians. Despite having only clothes wetted with water or urine tied over their mouths as a defence against the lung-searing gas, the Canadian infantrymen stood their ground. For a week, the fighting see-sawed around Gravenstafel Ridge and the village of St. Julien, as the British and Canadians fought tenaciously against overwhelming odds. In the end, the Germans failed to break through. Most Canadian troops were pulled out of the fighting by April 26, but one battalion -- the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, which was attached to a British division -- served through to the end of the battle in late May.

The Second Battle of Ypres was the Canadians' introduction to the First World War. They had proved themselves first-class soldiers, but the cost had been high: 6,714 Canadians were killed, wounded, or made prisoners of war in defending Ypres.