The Second Battle of Ypres (22 April-25 May 1915)
The Second Battle of Ypres was Canada’s first major engagement in the First World War. The battle was fought in Flanders in the Ypres Salient – a section of the front line that surrounded the town of Ypres, Belgium, and divided the Germans from the Allies. In the first four days of battle (22-25 April 1915), the 1st Canadian Division fought with great determination and courage to hold back a German offensive. Their tenacious and bold actions in defence of Allied positions proved their mettle on the battlefield and received international recognition. In battle, the Canadians faced almost overwhelming odds, including the first large-scale chlorine gas attack of the war, and paid a massive cost with approximately 6,000 casualties, many of whom are buried nearby. At home, Canadians took enormous pride in the success of their countrymen on the battlefield, while at the same time, communities from across the country mourned the loss of their fallen sons. In the battle’s aftermath, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote, In Flanders Fields, a poem that would continue to resonate long after the war was over.
By 1915, the Western Front had developed into a relatively static front line with entrenched defenders on either side. In search of a method of breaking through the line in the Ypres Salient, the Germans decided to employ poison gas. On April 22, they opened the valves on gas cylinders positioned opposite a section of the front line held by French Territorial and Algerian troops, and over 160 tons of chlorine filled the air.
The 1st Canadian Division, which had only recently arrived in France, held the line immediately to the left of where the gas was released. Over the next 24 hours, the Canadians engaged in fierce, bloody battle as they attempted to close a gaping hole in the line created when French and Algerian troops died or retreated in the face of the asphyxiating gas. In the early morning of April 24, the Germans released a second gas attack, this time directly on part of the line held by Canadian soldiers. Some soldiers were able to continue fighting under duress, while others were overcome by the chemical assault. Finally, on April 25, British reinforcements allowed the 1st Canadian Division to engage in a fighting retreat. Later, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), who were part of the British 27th Division, fought a bloody battle in defence of Bellewaarde Ridge on May 8 (known as the Battle of Frezenberg). The PPCLI successfully held back the German advance, at great cost with hundreds of casualties. The Second Battle of Ypres ended on May 25.
Following the battle, the Canadians received international praise and earned a name for themselves as tough, unyielding soldiers. Four Canadians won the Victoria Cross, while countless other acts of bravery occurred through the division. Fighting with great resilience against incredible odds, the Canadians suffered great losses, and the horrific events at the Second Battle of Ypres inspired what became Canada’s best known war poem.
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