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.