Around the same time that the Battle of Kitcheners’ Wood was ending for the Canadian troops, a new battle was just beginning. The Battle of St. Julien would begin on April 24, 1915. This battle would be notable for many reasons, not the least of which was the fact it featured the first major gas attack against Canadian troops in the First World War, and the first awarding of the Victoria Cross to a Canadian soldier during the war.
Like the Battle of Kitcheners’ Wood, The Battle of St. Julien is mostly forgotten by Canadians today, but it was major news for the country when it happened. The battle itself is just one part of a much larger battle, the Second Battle of Ypres, which ran from April 22 to May 25, 1915. In fact, I could have somewhat included my previous episode on the Battle of Kitcheners’ Wood with this attack as they happened close to each other, and the days nearly overlap.
When the Germans conducted their gas attack on April 22, launching 168 tons of chlorine gas at 5 p.m., followed by a heavy bombardment, the Village of St. Julien had been in the rear of the First Canadian Division. With the breaking of the line, the village was now the front line and it would become the first staging ground for the battle. This was because the Moroccans and French to the left of the Canadians had retreated from the gas and the Germans soon flooded into the gap.
The Canadians at the time were in disarray, with telephone lines cut by shelling and units giving conflicting reports regarding what was happening on the left flank.
As the Canadian artillery fired its 18 pounders into the German trenches, the Canadian commander became aware of German troops moving in the open towards his position. He quickly requested infantry support and the 14th and 15th battalions were sent forward. Among the group was a machine gun squad commanded by Lance Corporal Frederick Fisher. The 13th Battalion strengthened its position at St. Julien, and was one of the few holding the left flank.
Dealing with heavy fire, Fisher was able to cover the retreat of the battery, with four of his men dying in the process. By holding the line and allowing the battery to remove the immediate threat of the Germans. Fisher would continue firing into the Germans until his squad could be taken to safety. The next day, after recruiting four more men to replace his lost men, Fisher again went forward into St. Julien to fire at the Germans. While bringing his machine gun into action under extremely heavy fire, he was able to defend the Canadian Division’s sector from the Germans, but he lost his life in the process.
The London Gazette would report of his bravery, quote:
For his bravery, he was awarded the Victoria Cross, making him the first Canadian recipient from the Canadian Expeditionary Force to receive the honour. Fisher’s body was never found. His Victoria Cross would be sent to his parents, along with a handwritten note from King George V himself. In 1916, a portrait of Fisher was unveiled at McGill.
On April 24 at dawn, the Germans released another gas attack on the Canadian line west of St. Julien and George Nasmith, the head of the field laboratory for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, advised a field ambulance officer to pass along the order to counteract the gas with urine. Nasmith had spent six years working as Toronto’s Deputy Health Officer when he enlisted in the First World War. When gas was released by the Germans, his experience with water purification was vital as he identified the fumes approaching as chlorine gas. Along with recommending that urine be used to filter the gas, he quickly created the first gas mask of the First World War by saturating a small cotton pad with hyper chloride of soda. His method was quickly adopted by the rest of the force. As soldiers realized the gas was approaching, they ran as fast as they could and within one hour, there was a 1.5 kilometre gap in the Allied line. The Germans were worried about the gas in the area and did not take advantage of this gap immediately, which allowed the Canadian and British troops to retake the position.
Of the gas attack, George Casser, an officer with the Third Canadian Brigade, would state that the men who died from the gas were, quote:
“Suffering the agony of the damned, grey-green in the face and dying from suffocation.”
Even with urine soaked cloths, the gas attack was devastating for the Canadians. Many were half blind, crying from the pain in their eyes, coughing and vomiting. Some soldiers attempted to get to safety in craters and ditches, only for the chlorine gas to pool in the low ground.
An unnamed officer, quoted in a Dec. 13, 1915 Montreal Gazette article, would state, quote:
“At about this time too, the rifle fire which was growing in volume and coming much closer on our left warned us that the line had been penetrated. A peculiar sickening odour assailed us which at the time I attributed to the shells which were bursting about us, but which we have since learned was the asphyxiating gas used there by the Germans for the first time.”
The 15th and 8th Battalions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force were the focus of the gas. Troops reported burning in their eyes and lungs in the 15th battalion, but the 8th battalion was missed. They would attempt to attack but they soon found their Ross rifles were jamming. During this fighting, Sgt. Major Frederick Hall discovered several men were missing in the trench. On the ridge, he could hear the cries of the wounded. In the dark, he went over the top twice and rescued a wounded man twice. On April 24, at 9 a.m., he again went over to rescue wounded soldiers with the help of two other soldiers. Under intense enemy fire, the two other soldiers retreated but Hall continued and rescued a man who was calling for help. He then lifted the man on his back and attempted to carry him back to the trench. As he did this, he was shot in the head and killed instantly. The soldier he attempted to save was also shot and killed. For his bravery, he was presented with the Victoria Cross, the second of the war for Canadian troops. Hall had come from Pine Street in Winnipeg on the 700 Block. That same block had two other Victoria Cross recipients, Leo Clarke and Robert Shankland. It is believed to be the only street in the British Empire to have three Victoria Cross recipients live on it. In the 1990s, a History Minute was made about the street.
The Germans were eventually able to take the area and the British troops were unable to retake it due to, once again, the use of gas by the Germans.
The Germans then attacked the line north of Gravenstafel but the Canadian troops were able to hold the line for most of the day. In the evening, the Germans attacked once again and pushed the Canadians behind Gravenstafel. This attack hit the 15th Battalion hard, with the battalion suffering 647 casualties in what is considered to be the worst single battle loss for any Canadian battalion in the entire war.
The unnamed officer in the Montreal Gazette story would describe the casualties, stating quote:
The 13th Battalion was also forced to withdraw from its position, while those units that had not engaged the Germans were thrown into the mix, including the few remaining members of the 10th Battalion that had been decimated in the Battle of Kitcheners’ Wood, which by this point had only two officers and 171 men. By this point, the Canadian battalions involved in the battle were nothing more than random groups of men who were fighting in the same location. The 16th Battalion went in to reinforce the new line that the Third Brigade had created, while the 8th Battalion was reinforced by the 5th and 7th Battalions. At one point, the 10th Artillery Battery were pushed back and had their backs against the wall. In order to alleviate the attack by the Germans, they began to fire their artillery point blank at the Germans.
During a renewed German attack, Edward Bellew was part of a company suffering heavy casualties as the Germans advanced. Holding two guns on high ground, he began to attack the Germans directly. With one other soldier, he continued to fight as the Germans advanced. The other soldier was killed while Bellew was wounded but he remained at his post fighting until his ammunition failed. At that point, he took a rifle and smashed his machine gun, and continued to fight until he was taken prisoner. He would be held as a prisoner of war until 1919. For his actions, he was presented with the Victoria Cross, the third of the war and the third of the battle for Canada.
Sir John French, the commander-in-Chief of the British Forces stated, quote:
“After a very gallant resistance by the Canadians against superior numbers, St. Julien was captured by the enemy. Our lines now run south of that place.”
By this point, the 7th Battalion was nearly wiped out, while the 14th and 15th Battalions had suffered heavy casualties. The Canadians had lost 1,000 yards beyond St. Julien with 14 companies, what was left of them, fighting in five different battalions.
By April 26, most of the Canadians had been relieved and pulled back from the line.
While the British would continue to fight in the line for several days, the Canadians time in the battle had come to an end.
The casualties for Canada was beyond anything that the country had seen to that point, with 5,975 total casualties, including 2,000 Canadian soldiers killed in the battle. On April 24 alone, 3,058 casualties occurred during the infantry attack, artillery bombardment and gas discharges. In all, one out of every three men became casualties.
The Calgary Herald would report, quote:
“At St. Julien were little graveyards where the bodies of several Montreal and Toronto Highlanders, killed in previous day’s shelling, had been buried. Despite a large wooden cross marking the sanctuary of death, the Germans made particular practice at the spot until it was absolutely obliterated.”
The Saskatoon Daily Star would report, quote:
“It was only the Canadians wonderful stand on the promontory maintained many hours and varied by violent charges, that enabled the Allies to retire in good order and reform the line. A summing up of the situation shows, however that the Germans gained a good deal.”
In Banff, while most roads are named for animals and places in the Rocky Mountains, St. Julien Road is named for the battle that changed Canada’s role in the war forever.
At St. Julien, there is a 35-foot tall granite monument, called the Saint Julien Memorial, or the Brooding Soldier, stands with its head bowed and his hands on the butt of a rifle, to honour the Canadians who died in the battle.
As usual, I want to look at the soldiers who lost their lives in the battle, or were severely wounded. There are 2,000, so naturally I will only be looking at a very small number.
Private Peter Truss of Port Perry, Ontario was stationed with the 48th Highlanders and would lose his life on April 23.
Private John Flanagan was serving with the 15th Battalion when the Battle of St. Julien occurred. His grandfather had served in the Crimean War, so war was in the blood of the family. By the time John enlisted in the First World War, he was 29, unmarried and both of his parents were dead. Reported as missing on April 24, his body was never found and he was listed as dead on April 29.
Private Robert Ingham had been working for the Canadian Pacific Railway when he decided to enlist in the war. Serving with the Ninth Mississauga Horse, his last letter home would be on April 14. Soon after in the battle, he was reported missing. On May 17, he was listed as killed in action.
Private Abner Claus was wounded at the age of 20 during the battle. His mother was soon notified in St. Thomas, Ontario but by the time the wounded notice had reached her, he had already died.
Private Fred Smith from Artemesia Township was gassed during the battle and taken prisoner by the Germans. He would remain with the Germans until he was exchanged for another prisoner in the fall of 1917. Soon sent to a hospital, he would die in Switzerland, still in a hospital, on July 22, 1918.
Raymond Arthur Saunders
I’ve decided today to look at Raymond Arthur Saunders, who enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force on Sept. 24, 1914 at the age of only 16. Lying about his age and stating he was 18, he was assigned to the Second Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery.
Colin Campbell, a corporal in the brigade, described Ray as his, quote:
“Best and only chum”
The two men became good friends in the battalion, spending most of their time together talking about their families and sharing meals.
Raymond was described as very popular in the Battalion and he took great pride in his horses.
On April 25, 1915, Colin and Raymond decided to bed down for the night with their horses in a small grove of trees. Suddenly, a shell hit near them and after the commotion, Colin saw that his friend had been hit by a piece of shell, hitting him on the left side of his head. Raymond was not dead but he was seriously wounded. The four horses with them were all killed.
Raymond was quickly taken to the closest casualty clearing station where he received medical attention. Sadly, 20 hours later, he had died.
Colin would write upon his friend’s death, quote:
“It is awful hard to lose someone one loves.”
Along with his friend Gunner McNeil, he buried his friend. He made a cross and painted his friend’s name on it. He would then write home to the father of Raymond, telling him about his son’s death and stating that he would visit him when he returned home from the war.
Sadly, on Oct. 10, 1917, aged only 22, Colin died.
Information comes from CanadianSoldiers.com, Government of Canada, Wikipedia, Mount Pleasant Group, WarTimeHeritage.com, Royal Montreal Regiment, Rocky Mountain Outlook, the St. Catherines Centennial Book, Split Rail Country, Virtual War Memorial, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Saskatoon Daily Star,