“Go Away and Let Me Die!”

English: Canadians on guard over German dug-ou...
Canadians on guard over German dug-outs waiting for Huns to surrender. Vimy Ridge. . Photograph taken during Battle of Vimy Ridge. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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No troops ever received a more severe baptism of fire in World War I than the Canadians who moved into the front line in mid April 1915.  They were assigned to hold Ypres in Belgium, gateway to the channel ports of Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne. The Germans had nearly broken through in 1914, as they did in 1940.

Nothing exciting happened until the afternoon of April 22, when a little breeze blew up.  Suddenly the Canadians saw gas drifting like fog across the fields toward them.  Algerian conscripts on the left flank broke and ran, throwing away their rifles.  As the gas was moving at 6 miles an hour, many were overtaken by it and fell into canals and ditches clutching their throats.

Soon, two French divisions to the left of the Canadians were over-run and the Germans came pouring through the gap, bayonets high.  The flank of the Canadian division was turned and almost trapped.

Ralph Allen in Ordeal By Fire says: “Three things stopped the Germans: their lack of any master plan, … the terror and discomfort the advancing soldiers met as they stumbled over their writhing enemies into the gas cloud they had created; and perhaps above all else the valour of the Canadian division.”

The battle raged back and forth until May 4, under the most terrible conditions.  There were no gas masks but the Canadians learned they could get some protection by holding urine-soaked rags over their noses and mouths.  The gas destroyed the will to live.  Victims usually cried, “Go away and let me die.”

On the first day of the battle, one battalion was down to 193 of its 800 men. Another had 250 left.  By May 4, the Canadians had lost 6,000 men; either killed, wounded, or missing, one man out of every five who had been rushed into battle.

In all, the Allies lost 60,000 men in the defence of Ypres, a tragedy made deeper by the aftermath.  Military historians still cannot decide whether it was worthwhile.  At this great cost Canadians proved that they ranked with the best of fighting men.

There are a few places to read about this on the net. A few I suggest are About.com, Veterans Affairs Canada, The Great War is a site I’ve recently discovered.

25 comments

  1. It is a shame that so many people have to die over money and power, and it is really how these people are misled into these wars. My grandfather almost lost his feet in the mountains of Korea from frost bite. Is there really a price for freedom? and if there is why does it come at such a high price?

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  2. I had the unbelievable good fortune to visit Ypres, Dunkirk and Vimmy Ridge. Three of the most profound experiences of my life. I was moved beyond words. The Canadian Government did an amazing job at Vimmy. You can easily envision the battle and sections of fenced off because of unexploded shells. It remains without a doubt the most moving experience of my life.

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    • I can imagine how powerful those visits were … I’m happy for you. I probably never visit it myself, but I sure would like to. Thank for sharing that! I appreciate it. 🙂

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  3. That gas was such a horrible weapon. My Irish grandfather, who fought with the British army elsewhere on the Somme was gassed but survived. His lungs were scarred for the rest of his life, though, and was advised never to come to Canada to visit my Mom. He never did. He did live into his nineties, though.
    Your post reminds me of W. Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est.”

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