Department of National Defence

Department of National Defence

April 20, 2015 08:00 ET

Media Advisory: First Poison Gas Attack on Canadians Remembered

TORONTO, ONTARIO--(Marketwired - April 20, 2015) - Media are invited to a commemoration of history's first chemical warfare attacks at the Battle of St. Julien during the First World War when the soldiers of the Canadian Army stood their ground against a German assault backed by chlorine gas. Without gas masks and breathing through their handkerchiefs that they had soaked in urine, the Canadians stood firm. A week after the battle, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote the poem In Flanders Fields. On Friday, four Toronto-based units of the Canadian Army that fought in that desperate battle will mark its 100th anniversary and honour those who fell with a candlelight ceremonial service at Queen's Park.

The 48th Highlanders (perpetuating the 15th Battalion Canadian Expeditionary Force), The Governor General's Horse Guards, The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, and The Royal Regiment of Canada (all perpetuating the 3rd Battalion) will march from the Ontario Legislature to the 48th Highlanders of Canada Regimental Memorial at the north end of Queen's Park, led by the Pipes and Drums of the 48th Highlanders. Minister of Veterans Affairs Erin O'Toole and CBC journalist Brian Stewart will speak at the ceremony.

When: Friday, April 24 at 8 p.m.
Where: The 48th Highlanders of Canada Regimental Memorial, at Queens Park Crescent and Queen's Park.
What: The Pipes and Drums of the 48th Highlanders of Canada will lead an honour guard of Canadian Army regiments that fought at the Battle of St. Julien in 1915 to a candlelight memorial honouring the soldiers who fell in the First World War battle.

Notes to editor / news director:

Backgrounder information on the Second Battle of Ypres available at:

Fact sheet

The First World War and the Second Battle of Ypres

The Second Battle of Ypres marked the Canadian Army's first major engagement in the First World War.

In 1915, the Germans were attacking Russia in the east. On the Western Front, they were mostly on the defensive against French, British and Canadian troops though they continued to mount local attacks if conditions were favourable. To probe Allied defences, cover the movement of troops to the Eastern Front, and test their new weapon, chlorine gas, the Germans prepared for a limited offensive in Belgium in spring 1915 against the Ypres salient, a bulge in the Allied lines. The last major Belgian town in Allied hands, Ypres provided a defensive position from which to protect French ports on the English Channel. It had to be held.

On April 22, two Canadian brigades (approximately 8000 men) were in the front lines, with a third in reserve near Ypres. At 5 p.m., the Germans released 160 tons of chlorine gas against the French 45th (Algerian) Division to the Canadians' left. An enormous green-yellow gas cloud, several kilometres long, drifted towards the French lines. When it rolled over their positions, French troops either died or fled, their eyes and throats burning from the chlorine gas, leaving a gaping 6.5 kilometre hole in the Allied line. Most of the gas missed the Canadians, but the French retreat had exposed the Canadian's left flank and threatened the destruction of the whole Allied position in the salient. Canadian units shifted positions to cover the gap, but the German gas attack had torn a huge hole, several kilometres wide, in the Allied line. German troops pressed forward, threatening to sweep behind the Canadian trenches and put 50,000 Canadian and British troops in deadly jeopardy. The Germans had planned only a limited offensive and, without adequate reserves, were unable to exploit the gap the gas created. In any case their own troops, themselves without any adequate protection against gas, were highly suspicious of the new weapon. After advancing only 3.25 kilometres they stopped and dug in.

The Canadians fought tenaciously to defend their exposed position. All through the night of April 22nd the Canadian troops fought to close the gap and in addition they mounted a counter-attack to drive the enemy out of Kitcheners' Wood, an oak plantation near St. Julien. During the morning of April 23rd two more disastrous attacks were made against enemy positions. Little ground was gained and casualties were extremely heavy, but these attacks bought some precious time to close the flank. The 15th Battalion (the 48th Highlanders of Canada) suffered 647 casualties holding off the numerically superior Germans who were well supported by heavy artillery and automatic weapons. This was the largest single-battle loss of any Canadian battalion for the entire war.

Outnumbered, outgunned, and outflanked, on April 24th the Canadians faced a second chlorine gas attack targeted directly against them. As the breeze carried the gas towards their lines, the Canadians evacuated their first line of trenches and withdrew to a secondary position 100 metres to the rear. Not having been supplied with gas masks or any other protective equipment, the Canadians covered their mouths with handkerchiefs or cotton cloth that they had soaked in urine and waited for the German infantry to reach the now empty trenches. Opening fire upon the enemy at such close range caused heavy casualties and stopped the German assault. The Canadians also suffered heavily - 3058 troops had become casualties on April 24 alone.

The Canadian Division's trial-by-fire at Ypres earned the Canadians a reputation as tough and dependable troops and established their status as a formidable fighting force. The price was high - 5975 Canadians had become casualties, over 1000 of which were fatal.

Fact sheet

The Army Reserve

The 48th Highlanders of Canada, The Royal Regiment of Canada, and The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada are Army Reserve infantry units based in Toronto, Ontario. The Governor General's Horse Guards is an Army Reserve armoured reconnaissance unit also based in Toronto. The role of the Army Reserve (historically known as the Militia) is to produce well trained soldiers to augment operations of the Canadian Armed Forces in Canada and abroad.

Reservists are part-time soldiers. All of them attend school or hold civilian employment in addition to their military duties. After receiving their basic training and the additional specialized courses that qualify them as fully trained soldiers, they train a minimum of one night each week, one weekend each month and two weeks during the summer. There are opportunities to attend further training courses or exercises during the year.

The infantry fight on foot. As the Army's primary war-fighters and the core of the combat arms team, their role is to close with and destroy the enemy. Equipped with small arms weapons, and anti-tank weapons, the infantry operate in any environment in the world - in the Arctic, in mountains, jungle, and desert or in city streets in any type of weather. They often deploy by helicopter.

Armoured reconnaissance is reconnaissance by soldiers in specialized vehicles. The mission of armoured reconnaissance is to gather information about the enemy.

Army Reserve armoured reconnaissance units operate the G-Wagon - Light Utility Vehicle Wheeled (LUVW). The G-Wagon (short for Geländewagen or cross-country vehicle), is a four-wheel drive full-size SUV manufactured by Mercedes-Benz. The G-Wagon is powered by a turbo-charged diesel engine. It can be outfitted with a tailored armour protection systems kit.

The Army Reserve is equipped with pistols, the C7 rifle, the C9 light machine gun, the C6 medium machine gun, the M72 rocket launcher, the Carl Gustav 84mm anti-armour weapon, and hand grenades. The soldiers are also trained in the use of various sophisticated communications, navigation, and night-vision equipment. They are also trained and equipped to protect themselves against chemical, biological, radiation and nuclear threats.

Members of the 48th Highlanders of Canada, The Royal Regiment of Canada, The Queens Own Rifles of Canada, and the Governor General's Horse Guards have served on missions throughout the world including Afghanistan, Cyprus, The Congo, Eritrea, Haiti, Kosovo, Bosnia, Namibia, The Golan Heights, Sierra Leone, and the South Sudan.

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