Chapter III – Ypres

– Prelude –

While recruiting for a second and then a third division continued at home, the first contingent, 33,000 men and 7,600 horses, arrived at Salisbury Plain,  a ninety-square mile training area southwest of London. British engineers had supervised the erection of “thousands of bell tents, marquees and kitchen shelters” in four large camps, and the first Canadians to reach the area were impressed with the preparations for their arrival. Then it began to rain. As the official history notes, “It was the beginning of a period of abnormally heavy precipitation which brought rain on 89 out of 123 days, the fall of 239 inches between mid-October and mid-February almost doubled the 32 year average.[1]

The War Diaries[2] kept by Montreal’s two infantry battalion offer little insight into their experience in England apart from frequent entries reporting “rain” or “heavy rain.” Official reports, letters home, and stories filed by newspaper reporters tell stories of the flooding of Salisbury Cathedral and “the great wind storm” of 11 November when many of the leaky tents were blown down during “a solid month of dirty weather.” Complaints were frequent but as one group of soldiers told a journalist only the “chicken hearted” were protesting conditions.[3] The Montreal Daily Mail, responding to such stories urged readers to send comforts to the troops, including “cholera belts, sleeping caps, socks, mufflers, cigarettes, pipes and Christmas presents.” Cholera bells were cumberbunds of flannel or silk which were used to protect stomachs from chills that were popularly associated with cholera in previous wars. On 25 October, the divisional commander, General Sir Edwin Alderson[4], announced his decision to override the Minister of Militia’s insistence on dry canteens for Canadians. Henceforth, Alderson declared the “wet” canteen customary in the British Army would make beer available within the division. The news prompted widespread protests in temperance circles in Canada, but “amongst the troops, who were after all the most vitally concerned, the move was a popular one.”[5]

Salisbury Plain

Despite the weather, training continued at Salisbury and the expeditionary force was organized into a standard British infantry division of 18,000 men with reserve or depot battalions theoretically able to provide trained reinforcements. The division was composed of 12 infantry battalions, each of roughly 1000 officers and men, grouped into three brigades. Each brigade was supported by its own field artillery, four batteries of four eighteen-pounder guns. Each gun was towed into position by a team of four draft horses. A second horse team, towing a steel-bodied wagon, added 38 rounds to the 24 carried with the gun. Resupply depended on wagons and the 600 horses of the ammunition column. Engineers, a company of cyclists, and one of signalers, service corps teamsters, a cavalry squadron and medical corps personnel plus a Mobile Veterinary Section were also attached to the division.[6] British battalions relied on the sturdy Lee-Enfield rifle and a Vickers machine gun section for fire power, whereas the Canadians were equipped with the more delicate Canadian-made Ross Rifle and Colt machine guns. The attempt to use unique Canadian equipment extended to different webbing, the McAdam shovel, which was supposed to serve as a bullet-proof shield, and boots manufactured in Canada to specifications that took little account of English roads or weather. All would have to be discarded to the dismay of Sam Hughes.[7]

Sir Sam Hughes with the McAdams shovel.

Hughes, who had sailed to England from New York in time to meet “his boys” at Plymouth, returned to Canada to organize a second contingent leaving Colonel John Carson behind as his personal representative. Carson, a wealthy Montreal financier, had commanded the 5th Royal Scots before his age-forced retirement. Carson loved everything about the military and with the support of his friend Sam Hughes he helped finance the transformation of a failing militia regiment into the Canadian Grenadier Guards.[8] The job in England was his reward but given the attitude of the British officials toward colonials and an uncertain relationship with the acting High Commissioner, George Perley[9], no one knew what the job was. Lines of authority became even more confused when Col.J.C. Macdougall was promoted and told that he was in command of all Canadian troops in England with the responsibility to ensure that jobs were found for all the Canadian officers in England. Since 1st Division was under War Office control and the Canadian Cavalry Brigade had been given to J.E.B “Jack” Seely, the former British Secretary of State for War, there was little for either man to do and few jobs for unemployed officers made surplus by the new battalion organization that called for four large, instead of eight smaller companies.[10]

One positive development was the result of the determination of Julia Drummond who travelled to England in November 1914 seeking to play a role in the war. As Lady Drummond, the widow of Sir George Drummond one of Canada’s wealthiest men, she was able to employ both money and influence establishing the Canadian Red Cross Information Bureau in February 1915. Known initially as the “Information Department, Casualties and Prisoners,” the bureau’s mandate was to “collect and distribute information concerning the sick, wounded, missing, and prisoners of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.” Volunteers were recruited throughout the United Kingdom to visit Canadians in hospitals and convalescent homes. Drummond, who had helped establish the Victorian Order of the Nurses and much else in Montreal, was a superb manager who recruited a cadre of highly skilled, competent women to run an organization that grew to include scores of workers and visitors.[11]

Another influential Montrealer, Hamilton Gault,[12] was able to free his battalion, known to some as the “Princess Pats”, from Salisbury and the Canadian army. The PPCLI was assigned to the 27th British Division and despite their lack of combined arms or brigade level training they crossed to France in December 1914. Ready or not they entered the trenches south of Ypres in January. The trenches were “ditches dug across a sea of mud, too wide for protection from shellfire and too shallow to be bullet-proof”. When they rotated out three days later “swollen feet, dysentery and severe colds were the chief troubles”[13]

The regiment next moved a few miles north to take over trenches at St Eloi. It was here that Francis Farquhar[14] who was proving to be a superb commanding officer, organized a sniper section to curb the enemy’s use of this tactic. Unwilling to stand on the defensive he ordered what many believe was the first large-scale trench raid of the war. Fauquhar called it a “reconnaissance in force” and at 5.15 am on 27 February one hundred men of No 4 company set out to do some damage to an enemy the war diary noted that “had become very aggressive” They crossed no man’s land without rousing the enemy. “Lieut Crabbe then led the company down the trench whilst Lieut Papineau ran down the outside of the Parapet throwing bombs at the enemy”. Lieut Talbot Papineau was awarded the Military Medal for his actions.[15] During the withdrawal Gault was wounded while assisting the stretcher bearers and was evacuated to England. During their weeks in the line eighty-five Patricias including Francis Farquhar were killed, and losses due to wounds, sickness and shellshock further reduced their numbers.[16]


By February 1915 the Canadian Division was considered to be “well trained and able to take their place in the line.” Captain Emile Ranger, who was now Second-in-Command of the French Canadian company in the 14th Battalion, and a journalist in civilian life, provided La Presse with a running account of his impressions after the division reached France. These well-written articles offered human interest stories quite different than the official dispatches. He described the enthusiastic crowds at St. Naizaire, where the Battalion entrained for northern France in freight cars marked “40 hommes—8 chevaux,”. Officers, of course travelled in first class compartments. Two days later, they reached their billets in the small village of Flêtre where “the principle industry was beer.”[17]

After a move to Armentières, which was close to the front lines, the Canadians were introduced to trench warfare through the simple method of attaching a section to a British platoon. “In this way newcomers learned trench routine. Almost before they were aware of it they knew the posting of sentries, the screening of fires, the establishment of listening posts. The issuing of rum…ration pouches, wire cutters, loop holes…and all the score of things that are of vital import when men gather in opposing ditches to do one another to death.”[18]

The two Montreal battalions were part of the 3rd Infantry Brigade which, with the rest of the division, took over its own sector of the front line near Fleurbaix, southwest of Armentières. Shallow trenches, overlooked by the enemy on Aubers Ridge, and inexperience led to numerous casualties from enemy snipers, part of the regular “wastage” of trench warfare. Ranger’s description of the new daily routine included the story of an entente, or informal truce with the enemy that ended when the Saxons warned “look out Sunday, Prussians,” and an account of his first fighting patrol.[19] After their second four-day tour in the line, the 13th Battalion “enjoyed a bath and change of underclothing” before moving into reserve well behind the front. During the seven mile march a new song, with verses that would survive the war, emerged:

I want to go home, I want to go home

The Germans shoot dum-dums/I don’t like their roar

I don’t want to go to the front anymore[20]

Instead of home they found themselves in the Ypres salient a legacy of the determined defence of the only major town in Belgium to escape occupation by the enemy. The battle known as First Ypres ended in November 1914 with the Germans in control of much of the high ground, able to observe and shell the salient from three sides.

Wars fought by coalitions are never free from politics and the French government, determined to control all aspects of strategy, had taken over defence of the salient, inserting a small French army between the British and the Belgians.[21] This attempt to limit British influence with the Belgians had serious military consequences when the French Commander-in-Chief, Joseph Joffre began preparations for his spring offensive aimed at Vimy Ridge. Joffre persuaded Sir John French, the British commander, to take over the defence of the southern half of the salient, leaving a much-reduced French Corps, the Détachment de l’armée Belgique in the northern half. As the British official history notes this change was made without any arrangement for unity of command among the three national armies.[22]

Sir John, who needed his veteran divisions and most of the available artillery for their part in the spring offensive, – the Battle of Aubers Ridge – sent the Canadians and two recently formed British divisions, the 27th and 28th to Ypres. The Canadian Division was deployed next to the newly arrived 45th Algerian Division and General Alderson placed the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade, with its two Montreal battalions, on the Algerian flank hoping to overcome the language barrier. The 2nd Brigade was next in line while 1st Brigade was in reserve behind the Ypres-Yser canal.[23] British and Canadian officers were sharply critical of the state of defences left by the French Army but the situation was partly the result of very different doctrines of the two armies followed in 1915. The French practiced defence-in-depth, with lightly held forward trenches backed by their quick-firing 75mm guns. Most of their own infantry was held in reserve to counterattack. The French had also begun construction of a well-sited position with barbed wire and deep dug-outs in case a withdrawal was required.[24]

British doctrine called for full occupation of the front which was to be held to the last man. Local reserves were to be committed to regain lost forward trenches while artillery assisted the infantry with observed fire at relatively short ranges.[25] Implementing this doctrine in the salient proved to be a difficult task as the 14th Battalion discovered when daylight revealed the contours of the position they were supposed to defend. The regimental historian described the scene

“A parapet of sand bags stretched along the Battalion front, but this was flimsily construction, was not bullet proof, and was broken by one gap approximately 100 yards wide. Some value attached to the parapet as a screen from view, but danger signs gave warning that Germans sniped through the protection repeatedly. No parados had been built on the trench; few traverses existed, and no shell proof dugouts at all. Water, and bodies buried but a few inches beneath the surface, had rendered the construction of underground shelters impossible. Many bodies had been buried in the parapet of the trenches; scores lay unburied between the lines; large rats wandered everywhere; and unsanitary arrangements were, from a Canadian point of view, inadequate. Consequently the line was dangerous and possessed of the most sickening smell imaginable.”[26]

After five days and 22 casualties, including seven killed, the Regiment was replaced by the 13th Battalion. The 13th, which increasingly advertised its connection with Scotland’s prestigious Black Watch (Royal Highland) Regiment, went into the line wearing their customary kilts.[27] Lieut-Colonel Frederick Loomis established his headquarters in the village of St. Julien, where he was made garrison commander. Three Black Watch rifle companies, with 200 men each went forward to assume responsibility for 500 meters of trenches between a small creek and the Ypres-St. Julien-Poelcappelle road. To their right the 15th Battalion, Toronto’s 48th Highlanders, occupied a similar stretch of low ground linking up with Brigadier Arthur Currie’s[28] 2nd Brigade. The situation on the left flank was less certain. The 45th Division had arrived in the salient in mid-April and was just settling in. The 1st Battalion Tirailleurs, known to the British as “Turcos” were however professional soldiers and readily agreed to a request to adjust the boundary so the Black Watch could occupy both sides of the road. Canadian engineers had constructed a series of machine gun emplacements “roofed with arched sheets of heavy corrugated iron, with loopholes for crossfire”. With two additional machine guns on loan from the 14th Battalion, the Black Watch was as well prepared as possible.[29]

The Canadians were part of the 5th British Corps commanded by Lieut-General Sir Herbert Plummer who appeared to believe his troops would soon be ready to attack the enemy, A “Memorandum on Offensive Action” required his three divisional commanders to make “definite plans” as to where such actions should be carried out.[30] To the Germans, on the high ground, the bulging salient presented an opportunity to carry out an experiment that had been suggested by a German scientist. Fritz Haber, a chemist who would later win the Nobel Prize, though not for peace, argued that if chlorine was released from pressurized cylinders, a favourable wind would carry the gas cloud into the enemy lines forcing a withdrawal. The Hague Convention outlawed the deliberate use of poison gases in munitions but it did not mention asphyxiating gas clouds. Haber left the question of legality to the army but told his fellow scientists that gas might shorten the war and save lives.[31]

The prevailing winds in France and Belgium were westerly but north winds were common enough so hundreds of gas cylinders, with simple hose extensions were installed on the north face of the salient, in early April. Shortly after the cylinders arrived a young Germany soldier deserted his post and provided the French Army with a detailed account of the plan to use “asphyxiating gas”.[32] He brought one of the packets of gauze distributed as a primitive mask with him but no one in authority knew what to do with the information. Was it a ruse to force withdrawal? Would such a gas be more than a nuisance? Information about the possible use of gas was passed on to the British Army. By the time it reached the senior Canadian medical officer on 15 April the intelligence was characterized as a “rumor that this evening the enemy will attack our lines with an asphyxiating gas to overcome our men in the trenches. Arrangements for the handling of 1000 wounded tonight…”[33] When the “threatened attack” did not occur the warnings were ignored. No one thought to ask a British or French scientist about the kind of gas that might be used, its effects or possible counter-measures.

– The Battle –

German artillery began shelling the salient on April 20. A siege gun firing a “42 cm shell, five feet long and a ton in weight” targeted Ypres. “The first of them, landing in the Grand Place … killed a captain and about forty soldiers and civilians”.[34] The artillery assault continued through the next several days until the late afternoon of 22 April when a shift in the wind provided the opportunity to open the gas cylinders. Clouds of greenish-yellow smoke were reported but it was not until hundreds of French soldiers streamed through the Canadian lines that the full extent of the danger was recognized.[35] Surprise, visual confusion, “the almost immediate incapacitation of many men, the frightening appearance of the affected men; and the fright-inducing symptoms, strangling or drowning sensations, caused by the gas” created a general panic.[36]  The result was a forced withdrawal of the French divisions to the west bank of the Yser Canal exposing the Canadians’ 2000 yard left flank and threatening to encirclement of the divisions still in the salient.


The Algerian battalion closest to the Canadians was on the edge of the gas cloud and held on until it was outflanked. The nearby Black Watch company, commanded by Major Rykert McCuaig, sent a platoon to assist the Algerians buying time for McCuaig to turn his company to the north. The Black Watch reserve, a half company, led by Major Edward Norsworthy, extended the new line using the ditches along the Ypres-Poelcappelle road. His second-in-command, Captain Guy Drummond, who spoke fluent French, encouraged and cajoled the retreating Algerians into joining the Black Watch. “He walked up and down the road, cheering and jollying us up and speaking to each one of us.” Without artillery support the position was quickly overwhelmed, both Drummond and Norsworthy were killed, McCuaig was wounded and taken prisoner along with more than one hundred men.[37]

The Black Watch line, which now bent back towards St. Julien, was bound to be outflanked unless reinforcements arrived. The situation was temporarily stabilized by a battery of 18 pounder guns firing shrapnel at the German infantry advancing into the gap. Shortly afterwards reinforcements advanced from St. Julien, a RMR company and a Black Watch machine gun section led by Lance-Corporal Frederick “Bud” Fisher.[38] The gunners, who were under fire trying to move the guns, were saved by Fisher and his men who checked the German advance with suppressive fire. Fisher, a nineteen year old McGill engineering student who had enlisted at the outbreak of war fought until most of his detachment was killed. He then recruited volunteers from the RMR company to carry the heavy machine guns, moving them forward to support the Black Watch. Fisher, who was killed in action the next day, was awarded the first Great War Victoria Cross won by a Canadian.[39] Fisher’s comrades held onto the apex of the salient until the next morning but they were out of water and unable to evacuate the wounded. A withdrawal across open terrain produced more casualties. New trenches “about two feet deep” were dug and links established with the 7th British Columbia Battalion which had reached the crossroads at Keerselaere to close part of the gap. Machine gun ammunition and food was brought forward “but with no water, eating biscuits was like chewing sand.”[40]

Elsewhere in the salient the 10th and 16th battalions had suffered heavy losses in a hastily improvised counterattack ordered in support of a promised French advance that failed to materialize. The Germans had originally planned to cross the Yser Canal and advance to Poperinghe but by the afternoon of the 23rd a lack of reserves led to the 4th Army to limit the objective to “the closing of the Ypres Salient.”[41] This decision produced continued pressure on the Canadians holding positions along the Ypres-Poelcappelle Road. One company of the Royal Montreal Regiment, tasked with defending St. Julien, lost all its officers and most of the men to heavy shelling and probing attacks. Captain Wilf Brotherhood, a 28 year old electrical engineer and pre-war Grenadier Guards militia lieutenant, reported that “enemy forces were advancing on his left and front… should the enemy force him to retire to the right he would contest every traverse of the trench”.[42] Brotherhood was killed that afternoon.

After two more Canadian battalions attacked across open country in support of another failed French advance it was surely time to reconsider ways of defending Ypres. However instead of prepared withdrawal under cover of darkness, additional troops were brought forward to hold the narrowed salient.[43] As dawn broke on the 24th, the German artillery burst into action, firing for close to an hour before “men wearing mine-rescue helmets appeared over the German parapet. They seemed to have hoses in their hand and immediately then was a hissing sound, and a heavy greenish-yellow cloud rose slowly like a thick fog moving across no-man’s land.”[44] By mid-afternoon some 800 Canadian soldiers, some shell-shocked, some slightly wounded, many simply unwilling to remain in exposed positions under continuous fire, made their way back to the rear where an engineer officer interrupted and organized them to form a new defensive line.[45]

The next day attempts to hold St. Julien and Gravenstafel Ridge were abandoned as German artillery blew apart the shallow trenches. The Canadians who had suffered close to 6000 casualties were gradually withdrawn west of the canal to be placed by British and Indian Army troops. The Black Watch lost 511 men including 69 known dead and 236 missing. It was later learned that 130, many of them wounded, were taken prisoner. RMR casualties were concentrated in the Grenadier Guards company, overall the toll was 29 killed, 84 missing and 122 wounded.[46]


One of the many soldiers who had endured the prolonged battle war Major John McCrae,[47] a medical doctor who had served with the artillery in the Boer War. By 1914 he was 42 years old, a pathologist, and a professor at McGill where many of his colleagues were working to establish what became the army’s No. 3 General Hospital. McCrae was unwilling to wait and volunteered to become the surgeon for the 1st Canadian Field Artillery Brigade. The Brigade was in reserve when the German attack began but was soon fully committed to the defense of Ypres and the canal line. McCrae’s Advanced Dressing Station was just west of the Ypres-Yser Canal within sight of the Germans on Mauser Ridge. The rough dug-outs, built into the mounds of earth left over from digging the canal, were later enlarged and protected by concrete. Visitors to the western front who make the pilgrimage to “Essex Farm Dressing Station” need to remember how primitive conditions were in 1915 when during a lull in the battle McCrae composed the best remembered poem of the war “In Flanders Fields.” McCrae described the rough wooden crosses placed over just-dug graves, not the neat, orderly rows of tombstones at nearby Essex Farm Cemetery. His third verse which begins “Take up our quarrel with the foe” was written in the context of the horrors of Second Ypres and the death of his close friend, Lieut Alexis Helmer.[48]

The Canadian Division’s ordeal ended on 27 April but one Canadian infantry battalion closely identified with Montreal remained in the salient. The Princess Patricia’s, like other battalions left in action, were to be the victims of the uncertain leadership of Sir John French. Sir John, under pressure from the French Army, rejected the advice of his army commander and authorized further attempts to regain ground lost to the gas attacks. As losses mounted and the French withdrew artillery to support the spring offensive Sir John belatedly agreed to a withdrawal. A new line apparently selected without reference to the ground, offered little protection from the overwhelming firepower the enemy would bring to bear. The Patricia’s occupied a sector in front of Bellewaerde Lake, working all night to build fire trenches to add depth to the position. Of necessity, these were located on a forward slope open to direct observation from the higher ground to the east. The British Official History describes the trenches of the new line as “narrow and only three feet deep-they were difficult to improve, even with slight evacuation, reached water level. The soil was treacherous; the trenches fell in even without bombardment and there was a great lack of sandbags to repair them…the position, though defensible, was a framework on which much still required to be done. Without deep dugouts to shelter men during bombardment, it does not seem possible that any troops could have help out for long.”[49]

Hamilton Gault who had returned to the regiment, bring a draft of 47 reinforcements, assumed command after Lieut-Col. H.C. Buller was wounded. He ordered everyone available “Signalers, pioneers, orderlies, and servants into the support trenches” preparing to fight to the last man. The shelling began again and Gault was among the severely wounded. Command was passed to Capt. Agar Adamson and when he was wounded the senior Lieutenant, Hugh Niven.[50] The Patricias would not give ground even after the battalion on their left flank was overrun. The War Diary notes the arrival of a platoon from the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry bringing small arms ammunition and reinforcements. “Another attempt by Germay to advance was stopped by rifle fire although some reached the fire trench on the right… none of our men there were alive at this point” At 11:30 pm the Patricias were relieved handing over their support trenches to a reserve battalion, “who gave us assistance to bury our dead… it was impossible and impossible and imprudent to attempt to reach the fire trenches” where most of the dead lay. For the Patricias the battle designated “Frezenberg Ridge” was over. They had lost 10 officers and 375 other ranks including killed in action with 81 missing, presumed dead.[51]

The thirty-three day blood-letting at Ypres was “a new kind of battle in which the enemy infantry would merely occupy ground” from which artillery and poison gas “had driven every living creature.”[52] The French and British armies were totally unprepared for this kind of warfare. They lacked reliable air observation, signals equipment, and above all heavy artillery able to disrupt the enemy through counter-battery fire. The opening of the French army’s Artois offensive and First British Army’s attack on Aubers Ridge brought no relief to the battered battalions in the salient. What was left of the British Divisions fought on for another week before exhaustion and ammunition shortages forced the Germans to pause. Ten days later with favourable wind clouds of chlorine gas rising to a height of forty feet, drifted towards the British lines forcing a further withdrawal. The new line held long enough to persuade the enemy to declare victory – the battle known as Second Ypres was over. Close to 60,000 British, Canadian and Indian Army soldiers were killed, wounded or missing in defence of the salient.[53]

A British officer, Sir Morgan Crofton who served with a dismounted cavalry regiment at Ypres kept a diary throughout the struggle in the salient. His words on the gallantry of the Canadians who “were never broken… their steadfastness saved the day” recognized the difference between the initial crisis and the attritional bloodletting that followed. Crofton’s entry for 5 June reads: There is no doubt that the Salient at Ypres is simply an inferno. It is not war, but murder, pure and simple. The massacre that has been going on there since 22 April is not realized at home. From May 1 – 16 we were losing men at a rate of 1,000 a night… we cannot conceive of why the Salient is not straightened and given up…”[54]

– Reaction –

News of the fighting in Flanders reached Canada on 24 April when the morning newspapers reproduced Sir John French’s dispatch reporting an attack “preceded by a heavy bombardment” in which “the enemy at the same time made use of a large number of appliances for the production of asphyxiating gas.” The scale and quantity of the chemical used “indicates long and deliberate preparation, contrary to the terms of the Hague Convention…” Later on the same day the War Office provided the first indication of Canadian involvement noting that the loss of part of the line at Langemarck “laid bare the left of the Canadian division which was forced to fall back… The Canadians had many casualties but their gallantry and determination undoubtedly saved the situation.”[55] On 25 April the Montreal Star published a free “Special Edition” on Langemarck and for the next week the daily newspapers provided regular accounts of the ongoing battle reporting rumours, second, and third hand accounts and the first reports of heavy casualties. A United Press story, dated 26 April, described the Canadian counter attacks in heroic terms with the Star adding dramatic sub-headings. “Though Terribly Sick, Half Blind and Weak From Poisonous Fumes and German Bombs, They Drive Their Charge Home – Magnificent Dash and Spirit”.[56] Details of the gas attack were published on 27 April when a British scientist explained that the gas cloud was undoubtedly chlorine, an asphyxiating gas outlawed by the Hague convention. A British war correspondent reported the impact in graphic terms:

“Among those who escaped nearly all cough and spit blood the clorine attacking the mucous membrane. The dead were all turning black at once. The effect of this poisonous gas was felt over about six kilometers away.” [57]

One of the most dramatic and heroic reports was credited to a “Canadian Highlander”. He paid tribute to the Algerian troops, “among the finest soldiers in the world”, who had been transformed into “A mass of dazed and reeling men..they bore upon their faces made of agony”. His battalion, the 16th Canadian Scottish, was, with the 10th battalion, committed to the night attack on Kitcheners wood which was described in vivid terms. “Overcoats, hats and even equipment was dropped and we immediately advanced in light order. Scarcely had we reached the low ridge in full view of the wood when a perfect hell of machine gun fire was hosed on us… instantly the order was given to charge and on we rushed cheering, yelling, shouting, screaming, for the foe…”[58]

By the third day the newspapers began to describe the personal, city-wide tragedy that was unfolding, identifying those killed, wounded and missing who had listed a Montreal address for “next of kin”. This meant that large numbers of British-born who had enlisted in Montreal and provided a next of kin address in the United Kingdom were not listed, but more than one quarter of the 320 names published in the Star were British-born. Seventy-one of those born in Canada were French Canadian, 169 English-Canadian.[59] Inevitably stories focused on the officer casualties especially Guy Drummond. The Gazette story was titled “It will be Difficult for the People of Montreal to Realize the death of Lieutenant Guy Drummond… he was only married a little over a year ago and was the first to give his life for his country”. His wife, “pregnant with child”, was in England with her sister and her mother-in-law, Lady Drummond. Both young women, the daughters of A.D. Breithwaite, the Assistant Manager of the Bank of Montreal were widowed on the same day.[60]

Guy Drummond. Credit: McCord Museum.

All the daily newspapers carried stories about Drummond including a tribute from a friend Gonzalve Desaulniers the President of L’alliance Francaise. Desaulniers, a journalist lawyer, and poet who was a leading figure in the école litteraire de Montréal wrote: “His death brings grief not only to his own family but to all French Canadians and French people…”[61] The newspapers used the Drummond family tragedy to personalize the bereavement of all women describing, Lady Drummond’s continuing charitable work in London as an example for all.

The two major English-language weeklies offered detailed and emotionally charged coverage of the first major Canadian action. The Witness, in a lead editorial noted that “Montreal could hardly have been hit harder in a single battle than by the loss of such a group of her younger leaders… The achievement of the Canadian force will rank in history with the great deeds of war from Marathon to Waterloo, but glory will not give us back these men.”[62] The Standard maintained its heroic approach to the conflict with dramatic stories and sub-headings on the “giant struggle” in which “Canadians made themselves immortal.” Stories of “the heroic fight made by the boys from the Dominion” were interspersed with accounts of the horrors of the “German murderer’s fiendish act”. The flagrant breach of the rules of civilized warfare “led one officer to state that he now believed “the Germans actually did massacre the Belgian people.”[63]

A news report from Berlin which noted the capture of 1000 Canadians encouraged many to believe that there was hope for those missing but as the list of confirmed casualties grew the mood darkened. Memorial services were organized to take place at the five largest protestant churches with Roman Catholics gathering at St. Patrick’s, Anglican Bishop John Farthing and the non-conformist ministers preached sermons that reflected their commitment to victory in a necessary and righteous war.[64] Hugh Pedley, the minister at Emanuel Congregational Church, declared that the “highest honour we can do them is to push on this war until their work is complete…” He then quoted the words of the Gettysburg address “that we have highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that the nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom…” The Crescent Street Presbyterian Church was crowded with soldiers from the new “Black Watch” battalion, the 42nd. The minister spoke of the “sacrificial heroism” of those we honour, who were fighting against an enemy “threatening not a Dominion, not an empire even, but liberty herself…”[65]

The city’s two largest Methodist Churches were the setting for particularly patriotic, total war messages. The sermon at Dominion Methodist “breathed a spirit of lofty religious patriotism”. The Rev Dr. S. P. Rose told his congregation that it would be most unwise to emphasize the sadder or more painful aspect of affairs… “old age is not necessarily a distinction while an early death may well be a crown of honour”. He then expressed a germ of an idea that would come to dominate and disfigure protestant discourse for the balance of the war.

“When therefore a man, from motives of patriotism turns his back upon home and comfort, and offers his life in devotion to the good of his Empire, he shares no slight measure, in the same purpose that brought Jesus to the cross.” Dr. Rose concluded his address with an appeal for volunteers. “From the unmarked graves of France,” he intoned, “the cry comes to us, who will take our places and carry forward what we died to achieve?”[66]

            La Presse, La Patrie and Le Canada all gave prominent coverage to the death of Guy Drummond and other English-speaking Montrealers though much of their reporting was naturally focused on French-Canadian volunteers. Three French Canadian officers, Major Hercule Barré, Lieutenant Adolphe Dansereau and Lieutenant Henri Quintal were among the wounded. Barré’s story in La Presse explained that he was wounded early in the battle suffering two of the most terrible hours of his life waiting for assistance. Dansereau was the son of the political editor of La Presse. He attended Royal Military College and joined the Corps of Guides in 1911. Dansereau’s transfer to the 48th Highlanders, a Toronto regiment, was one of the many inexplicable decisions made at Valcartier.[67]

A letter from Dansereau, written from hospital in England, provided a graphic account of the second day of battle. Dansereau was struck by shrapnel from a “whiz-bang” and briefly lost consciousness. Awakening he recalled making an act of contrition as he “was covered with blood. One of my men put a bandage on my head with a field dressing to stop the blood” As he was being evacuated Dansereau was again struck by shrapnel but he reached the dressing station and was sent to Boulogne for transfer to England.[68]

Montreal was still mourning the men lost in Belgium when a German U-Boat sank the Lusitania. A debate over the circumstances surrounding the loss of the Cunard Liner and the 1,153 passengers and crew who drowned, began almost immediately and has continued for a hundred years. The German Consulate in New York had issued a warning that all Allied ships sailing into the war zone were liable to be sunk but no one believed the giant, 32,000 ton passenger liner could or would be attacked. After the Lusitania was torpedoed Berlin declared that the ship was armed and carrying munitions and was therefore a legitimate target.[69] The ship was not in fact armed but was carrying war material. In 1915 few people in the Allied or neutral nations cared about such issues. What mattered was the terrible loss of civilian lives, men, women and children.[70]

The city’s English-language newspapers outdid each other in describing the “most stupendous act of piracy in human history”. The best answer to “Prussian treachery” was to recruit more volunteers to serve overseas.  The Standard appeared on 8 May with a headline declaring “World Will Hate the Baby Killers More than Ever,” and “Awful Scenes as Lusitania Sank with Passengers.”[71] The Gazette and the Star provided detailed coverage of the fate of Hugh Montague Allan’s daughters Anna and Gwen, 16 and 15, who were with their mother and the family maids when the Lusitania sank beneath them. The Allan girls were lost when suction from the ships sinking drew them under. Gwen’s body was recovered on 16 May but Anna’s was never found. Lady Allan, suffered serious injuries but she and the two maids, Annie Wallar and Emily Davis were saved. Dorothy Braithewaite, who was on her way to London to join her two sisters, widowed at Second Ypres was with the Allans and she too was drowned as was her eighteen month old grandson, her maid and the baby’s nurse. The story of the survival of Herbert Holt’s teenage son who was said to have given his life jacket to a woman before swimming for over an hour towards shore added to the drama that played out for the next several weeks.[72]


The city had barely processed these events when a report that the “Reinforced Canadian Division Again Suffered Severely in Recent Fight” was published. Few details about the battle were available given the control over information excerised by the British War Office but the long lists of killed, wounded and missing, often accompanied with personal stories, made the war seem all too real.[73] The battle, known as Festubert, was the British Army’s second attempt to support the French offensive in Artois. The first action, Aubers Ridge, ended in defeat, swift, bloody and complete, with British losses of 10,000 men. Douglas Haig, the army commander, who had tried a brief “Hurricane” barrage the first time, now proposed to experiment with a sixty-hour preparatory artillery program hoping to observe the effects of fire and attack through gaps created by the guns. Few gaps were created as a high proportion of dud shells and problems with observation and accuracy plagued the gunners. This did not stop Haig from ordering repeated infantry attacks which over a ten day period resulted in close to 16,000 casualties.[74]

The Canadian Division was in reserve when Festubert began, attempting to absorb several thousand replacements. There were not enough men in the first contingent’s reserve battalions so company-size drafts from Montreal’s 23rd Battalion were sent to the Patricias as well as the 13th and 14th Battalions. The 23rd had recruited a large number of British army veterans and men who had served in the militia but less than six weeks had passed since their arrival in England.[75] Haig’s decision to employ such men in a failing operation suggests how determined the British were to meet French demands to support their spring offensive. The full story of the Canadians at Festubert has never been told but there are indications that in the initial advance across flat, west fields, intersected with ditches the 14th Battalion, Royal Montreal Regiment, stopped and dug-in to avoid annihilation. This early example of officers and men at the sharp end exercising agency and finding a middle ground “between mutiny and obedience” left the 16th Battalion, which continued forward, in difficulties but they too soon ceased to advance. Other battalions were then ordered forward completing the capture of what came to be called the “Canadian Orchard”. The casualty toll reached 2,468 men.[76]

The casualties from Festubert reinforced the sombre mood in the city marked by seemingly endless memorial services for those killed in action.  The Protestant clergy, who had offered support for the war in terms of Christian duty, tried to explain how God could permit such horrors to occur and how the faithful were to reconcile the command to love your enemies with German war crimes. Ephriam Scott, the Editor of Montreal’s Presbyterian Record told his readers that loving your enemies referred to “an attitude of mind and heart with which men do the duty of life, even though it be the duty of stopping evil and death by stopping the life that is wrongfully causing evil and death.”[77] A McGill Classics professor, John MacNaughton provided a different message in a tribute to Guy Drummond and Edward Norsworthy, “those twin stars that have annexed Langemarck to Canada”. The “Scotch Catechism”, MacNaughton declared “tell us that the souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness and do immediately pass into glory.” He did not elaborate on the fate of non-believers.[78]

The nationalist newspapers took a very different approach. Le Devoir provided basic news-service coverage of events but Bourassa’s editorials deplored the attitude of “everything for the Empire and nothing for Canada.” The tenth anniversary of the death of Jules Tardival prompted a lengthy essay lauding the achievements of the icon of clerical nationalists and anti-Semites, who Bourassa described as the founder of independent journalism in Canada. Le Nationaliste emphasized the heavy losses and the likelihood of conscription. The editor Georges Pelletier questioned the failure of the English to come to the aid of the Canadians during the battle and deplored the “Jingos” who wanted to send more men to the battlefields.[79] On 19 May Bourassa delivered a two hour address at the Monument Nationale offering a defence of French language rights and the necessity of maintaining a bi-ethnic and bi-lingual country. There was no reference to Ypres or the Lusitania, the focus was on the plight of the Franco-Ontarians.[80]

By the summer of 1915 the French Canadian bourgeoisie was split between Bourassa nationalists and those who continued to support Canada’s participation in the war. The pro-participation popular press argued that the future of France and the fate of Belgium justified Canadian involvement. The newspaper carried stories about the Canadians in battle emphasizing the contribution of French Canadians, and provided detailed war reports from Paris. German actions in Belgium were the subject of frequent comment and Cardinal Mercier’s defiance of the German occupation authorities was a major story. La Patrie published the entire text of Mercier’s declaration denying the legitimacy of German rule and both La Presse and Le Canada provided detailed coverage of his actions.[81] The nationalist press did not ignore these issues but chose to isolate events in Europe from Canadian affairs. Was the stage now set for a great crusade, a surge of Canadian-born volunteers motivated by a desire to ensure the heroes of Langemarck had not died in vain? Or would nationalist opposition, casualty lists and graphic images of soldiers choking on poison gas discourage enlistment?


[1] G.W.L. Nicholson, Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), pp. 34-35.

[2] War Diaries of all the CEF units are available online

[3] The newspaper accounts cited are from the website of the Royal Montreal Regiment Association which as part of an anniversary project developed by Hamilton Slessor reproduces the daily war diary entry with additional material from newspapers. The Montreal Daily Mail, 19 November, 1914, p.2, and the Toronto Globe, 16 November, 1914, p.9 may also be found online at Google Newspaper Archives.

[4] Desmond Morton, Alderson, Sir Edwin, DCB Online

[5] R. C. Fetherstonhaugh, The 13th Battalion Royal Highlanders of Canada, 1914-1919 (Toronto: 13th Battalion, 1925), p. 22.

[6] Andrew Iarocci, Shoestring Soldiers: The 1st Canadian Division at War, 1914-1915 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), p. 25.  Iarocci claims that training continued despite the weather and argues that the Canadian division was well trained when it sailed for France

[7] Ronald Haycock, Sam Hughes: The Public Career of a Controversial Canadian, 1885-1916 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1986), pp. 232-234.

[8] A. F. Duguid, History of the Canadian Grenadier Guards, 1760-1964 (Montreal: Gazette Printing Company, 1965), p. 55.

[9] Desmond Morton, Perley, Sir George, DCB Online

[10] Desmond Morton, A Peculiar Kind of Politics: Canada’s Overseas Ministry in the First World War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), pp. 35-37.

[11] Iona K. Carr, A Story of the Canadian Red Cross Information Bureau during the Great War (Montreal, 1917). 


[13] Jeffrey Williams, First in the Field: Gault of the Patricias (St. Catherines: Vanwell Publishing Ltd., 1995), p. 75.


[15] Williams, First in the Field, pp. 81-83


[17] Pierre Vennat, Les “Poilus” Québécois de 1914-1918 (Du Meridien, 1999), p. 60.

[18] Fetherstonhaugh, The 13th Battalion, p. 35

[19] Vennat, Les “Poilus” Québécois de 1914-1918, p. 64.

[20] Fetherstonhaugh, The 13th Battalion, p.35

[21] William James Philpott, “Britain, France and the Belgian Army,” in Look to Your Front: Studies in the First World War, ed. Brian Bond (Staplehurst: Spellmont, 1999), pp. 121–36.

[22] J. E. Edmonds, Military Operations, France and Belgium, 1915, vol. 1, 2 vols. (London: MacMillan, 1927), p. 162.

[23] The 14th Battalion stationed the French-Canadian company beside the Algerians, R. C. Fetherstonhaugh, The Royal Montreal Regiment, 1925-1945 (Westmount: Royal Montreal Regiment, 1927), p. 35.

[24] Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, p. 57. The British referred to this position as the GHQ Line. See “Report on condition of the trenches 21 April 1915” Duguid, Vol 1 App 334. See also “Second Battle of Ypres 1915” 

[25] Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, p. 55

[26] Fetherstonhaugh, The Royal Montreal Regiment, p. 36. A parapet is on the forward side of a trench, the parado is on the rear side. A traverse was dug at an angle to the trench, ideally connecting with a second position.

[27] R. Jaramowycz, “Montreal and the Battle of Ypres 1915: One Hundred Years,” Canadian Military History 25, no. 1 (2015).

[28] Tim Cook, Currie, Sir Arthur, DCB Online

[29] R. Jaramowycz, The Black Watch, A History (unpublished manuscript) p. 332. The late Lieut-Col (retired) Roman Johann Jaramowycz a friend and former student allowed me to read and cite from a draft of this manuscript.

[30] A. F. Duguid, Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War 1914-1919, vol. 1 (Ottawa: Ministry of National Defence, 1938), p. 220.

[31] William van der Kloot, “April 1915: Five Future Nobel Prize Winners Inaugurate Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Academic-Military-Industrial Complex,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 58, no. 2 (2004): 149–60.

[32] August Jaeger’s identity as the deserter was made public in a French newspaper in 1931. He was arrested and tried for treason and received a ten year sentence. See Reference Online:

[33] War Diary, Assistant Director of Medical Services, 1st Canadian Division, 15 April 1915.

[34] A. F. Duguid, Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War 1914-1919, vol. 2 (Ottawa: Ministry of National Defence, 1938), p. 227.

[35] Tim Cook, At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting in the First World War, 1914-1916 (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2007), p. 116.

[36] Hammereau, p. 37

[37] Jaramowycz, Draft History of the Black Watch p. 347.

[38] See “The gallantry of Lance Corporal Fred Fisher V.C.” a segment of a detailed account of combat in the Ypres Salient 1915.

[39] A. F. Duguid, Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War 1914-1919, vol. 2 (Ottawa: Ministry of National Defence, 1938), Appendix 352, p. 240; Captain F. A. C. Scrimger was also to receive the Empire’s highest award for valour for rescuing wounded men under fire. Dr.Scrimger, the original medical officer of the 14th Battalion was a well known Montreal doctor who became Chief of Surgery at Royal Victoria Hospital after the war. 

[40] Jaramowycz, Draft History, p. 348

[41] Mark Humphries, “The First Use of Poison Gas at Ypres,” Canadian Military History 16, no. 3 (2007), p. 66. 

[42] Fetherstonhaugh, Royal Montreal Regiment, p. 39

[43] Nicholson, p. 69-70

[44] Dugid Vol I p. 279

[45] Iarocci, Shoestring Soldiers, p. 154-155

[46] Iarocci, Shoestring Soldiers, p. 288

[47] John F. Prescott, McCrae, John DCB Online

[48] Helmer, the son of Lieut-Colonel R. A. Helmer of Ottawa was born in 1892. A graduate of McGill (1914) he joined the 1st Canadian Field Artillery on 27 August 1914.

[49] Edmonds, Military Operations 1915, p. 312

[50] Williams, First in the Field, p. 90 – 91

[51] War Diary, PPCLI, May 1915

[52] Edmonds, Military Operations 1915, p. 357

[53] Ibid, p. 356

[54] Morgan Crofton, Massacre of the Innocents : The Crofton Diaries, Ypres 1914-1915, ed. Gavin Roynon (Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2004), p. 264.

[55] Montreal Star 24 April 1915 p.1

[56] Montreal Star 27 April 1915 p. 3.

[57] Montreal Star 28 April 1915 p. 4.

[58] Montreal Star 28 April 1915 p.4

[59] Data Base, Montreal Casualties as reported in the Montreal Star. The data base was prepared by Alexander Maavara.

[60] Montreal Gazette, 26 April 1915 p. 4

[61] Montreal Star 26 April 1915 p. 6

[62] Montreal Witness 27 April 1915 p. 1

[63] The Standard 1 May 1915 p. 1

[64] Melissa Davidson, “‘Private Sorrow Becomes Public Property’: Canadian Anglican Sermons and the Second Battle of Ypres, May 1915,” Historical Papers, 2011.

[65] Montreal Star, 30 April 1915 p. 3

[66] Montreal Star 30 April 1915 p. 3

[67] Personnel File, Joseph Adolphe Dansereau, LAC.

[68] Vennat, Les Poilus Vol I. 120-123

[69] Montreal Star 1 May 1915 p. 1.  

[70] Kevin O’Keefe, A Thousand Deadlines The New York City Press and American Neutrality, 1914-17 (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1972), pp. 89 – 103.

[71] Standard, 10 May p. 11

[72] The website offers detailed information about the fate of the passengers aboard the Lusitania

[73] Montreal Gazette 4 June 1915, p. 6

[74] This account of Aubers Ridge and Festubert is based on J. P. Harris, Douglas Haig and the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 132 – 152.


[76] Iarocci, Shoestring Soldiers, pp. 202 – 224; Fetherstonaugh, Royal Montreal Regiment, pp. 52 – 57. For the phrase “between mutiny and obedience” and the most detailed account of agency by front line soldiers see Leonard V Smith, Between Mutiny and Obedience the Case of the French Fifth Infantry Division during World War I (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

[77] Michelle Fowler, “‘Death Is Not the Worth Thing’: The Presbyterian Press in Canada, 1913-1919,” War & Society 25, no. 2 (2006), p. 29.

[78] Montreal Standard 5 June 1915 p. 28

[79] Le Devoir April 26 – May 15 1915. Le Nationaliste 9 May 1915 p. 1.

[82] Michelle Fowler, “‘Death Is Not the Worth Thing’: The Presbyterian Press in Canada, 1913-1919,” War & Society 25, no. 2 (2006), p. 29.

[81] Le Patrie 3 April 1915, p.  10