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Second Battle of Ypres, One Hundredth Anniversary


Hon. Michael L. MacDonald: Honourable senators, when Canadians are asked about their country's contribution and sacrifice during World War I, they are most familiar with the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, when the entire Canadian Army fought together for the first time under Canadian command. It was an event that is deservedly considered a watershed moment in our evolution as a nation.

But Canadian valour on the battlefields of Europe was evident throughout the Great War and established early in the conflict. On April 22, 1915, 100 years ago to this very day, a five-week series of military engagements known to history as the Second Battle of Ypres began. That battle is commemorated here on the east wall of the Senate, the third painting from the Speaker's left, showing Ypres destroyed by artillery fire, identifiable only by the ruins of the famous Cloth Hall, one of the great medieval buildings of Europe. The last major Belgian town in Allied hands in 1915, Ypres provided the defensive position necessary to protect the supply lines to French ports on the English Channel. It had to be held.

In the fall of 1914, the initial members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force had sailed for Great Britain. Recruited from across the country, they were an eclectic mixture of military men and erstwhile patriots — farmers, sailors, lumberjacks, university graduates, bank tellers, merchantmen — some with militia background but many without. In the spring of 1915, after a few months of training, the nearly 18,000-strong 1st Canadian Division was moved towards the war zone and into the trenches. Although the area around Ypres had been relatively quiet for months, that would soon change.

Ypres would prove to be one of the great theatres of conflict during the entire war, and the Second Battle of Ypres had many elements that distinguish it. Militarily, it accounted for the only German offensive on the Western Front in 1915. For the Canadians, it would be the great baptism of fire. And it was here that the horror of chemical warfare was first introduced to the world. Targeted were the Allied troops within the Ypres Salient, the large bulge in the enemy line surrounding Ypres, which was the last line of defence for the town. Included in that line, having just been sent to the front, was the 13th Battalion of the 3rd Brigade, the Royal Highlanders of Canada from Montreal, given the task of protecting the French flank to their immediate left.

At 5 p.m. on April 22, over 160 long tons of chlorine gas was sent drifting towards the Allied lines. The brunt of it was received by the French defenders, including many colonials from North Africa, and the results were devastating. Thousands of dead littered the landscape, with the gasping survivors, many of whom would later die, understandably running for their lives. A huge four-mile hole opened up the middle of the Allied defences. Over the next few hours, the enemy would move up to an oak plantation known as Kitcheners' Wood in preparation for the final assault on Ypres.

The 10th and 16th Canadian Battalions were then ordered to counter attack and drive the enemy out of Kitcheners' Wood. At quarter to midnight, these young Canadians plunged into the darkness, into the lingering gas and into relentless machine gun fire. When they got within 200 yards of the enemy, they fixed bayonets, charged and engaged in unimaginable hand-to-hand combat.

But when the dust had settled, the Canadians had won the day and forced the enemy to withdraw from Kitcheners' Wood. Then the Canadians helped fill the four-mile gap that had opened in the lines. Two days later, the second gas attack was launched, but this time the Canadians were the target. Protected only by urine-soaked hankies, the Canadians held the line again, frustrating the enemy advance. Finally, on April 25, French and British reinforcements arrived to relieve the Canadians from their ordeal.

There were 10 Victoria crosses given out during the Second Battle of Ypres and four of them went to Canadians. Of course, it was during a lull in the fighting at the Second Battle of Ypres that a doctor from Guelph, Ontario, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, wrote his immortal poem, In Flanders Fields.

After the war, the great French General, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Supreme Allied Commander, remarked that the single greatest act of the war was the assault on Kitcheners' Wood by the 10th and 16th Canadian Battalions. High praise indeed.

Honourable senators, tonight when we go to sleep, take a moment to reflect on the sacrifice of these men 100 years ago today.