Dawn of Chemical Warfare|
Canadians soldiers are front and centre during some of the first gas attacks in the First World War
Canadian soldiers were among the first to witness the horrors of modern warfare as "the war to end all wars" exploded onto the world stage.
|During the First World War, gas attacks killed or injured an estimated 1,296,853 soldiers on both sides. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)
In August 1914, the First World War broke out in Europe pitching Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire against Britain, France and Russia.
As part of the British Empire, Canada went to war as well.
"It will be a terrible war," a Canadian doctor named John McCrae wrote to a friend, "and somebody's finish when all is said and done."
But even McCrae couldn't imagine the terror to come when chemical warfare was first introduced to the battlefield.
On October 3, 1914, thirty-one thousand Canadians set sail for the battlefields of Europe, the largest convoy ever to cross the Atlantic. The troops were poorly equipped and hastily prepared but three months of training awaited them in England.
By the spring of 1915, the German army had swept through most of neutral Belgium and Canadian troops were about to see their first action. The Canadian First Division took up position alongside French troops near Ypres, the last Belgian city not captured by the Germans.
At first there was constant bombardment on the battlefield. Then on April 22, 1915, old-fashioned warfare turned modern.
In the late afternoon, a green cloud - poisonous chlorine gas - rose from the German trenches and moved slowly with the wind over the French lines. The French troops who weren't immediately overcome fled to the Canadian trenches.
Canadian Lieutenant Colonel Ian Sinclair described the scene:
"Our trenches were shortly filled with them crowding in from out left. They were mostly blind and choking to death, and as fast as they died were just heaved behind the trench."
The Germans waited for the gas to clear then moved to the abandoned French trenches. Canadian troops were out-numbered and out-gunned but they charged the Germans preventing a further advance.
On April 24, a twenty-foot wall of green gas moved toward the Canadian trenches in Ypres. Soldiers were ordered to soak their handkerchiefs in urine and tie them around mouths and noses as a crude defense. The gas moved through the ranks, filling men's lungs and leaving sacs of blood hanging from their skin.
John McCrae witnessed the scene:
"On the front field one can see the dead lying here and there, and in places where an assault has been they lie very thick on the front slopes of the German trenches."
Canadas troops fought for two weeks in Ypres and experienced 6,000 Canadian casualties, a third of the Division. Of those, a thousand men lay dead on the battlefield, many the victims of the first effective gas attack in modern warfare.
During First World War, gas attacks killed or injured an estimated 1,296,853 soldiers. This figure does not account for soldiers who developed symptoms of gas attacks after the war; Or soldiers killed by gunfire because they became disorientated from the gas.