St. Julien Gas Attack
St. Julien was the site of a brave stand of the Canadian 10th Battalion who endured a poison gas attack during the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915.
After six hours of fierce fighting during a courageous but costly counterattack at Kitchener's Wood, near Ypres, Belgium, on the night of 22-23 April 1915, the 10th Battalion was reduced in strength from 816 all ranks to 5 officers and 188 other ranks. Without a chance to rest or recover, the remnants of the battalion were ordered to reinforce a company of the 7th Battalion, desperately trying to hold another position in the Ypres Salient.
In the early hours of 24 April, 1915 the Germans released poisonous chlorine gas for the second time in two days. Canadian battalions bore the brunt of the gas attack, which has been commemorated every April since 1915 by the "Fighting Tenth", and their successors, The Calgary Highlanders.
Second Battle of Ypres
On 1 April 1915, the 1st Canadian Division was ordered to defend the Ypres Salient, north and east of the Belgian town of Ypres. The Salient was an 8 kilometre line defended by the allies in a semi-circle around the town. At 18,000 strong, the Division moved into the lines vacated by the French and found shallow trenches filled with decaying bodies, large, lice-infested rats, dead horses and mules, all lying in ankle deep muddy water. Within a few days, they would face a greater enemy.
The Germans were bombarding Ypres into rubble and were preparing to take what was left of the town. The battle of Ypres would be the beginning of the vicious fighting experienced by the Canadians in the First World War and would introduce them to the horrors of gas attacks and trench warfare.
The struggle for Ypres was the 1st Canadian Division's baptism of fire and is one of the great battles in the history of the Canadian Army. It cost 6,700 casualties of which 2,000 soldiers were killed between 22 April and 8 May 1915.
The Canadian line of defense ran through the little valley of the shallow Stroombeek River, with Gravenstafel Ridge some 1,500 metres to the rear to be used as a secondary defensive line, while a further 1,000 metres to the rear was the small village of St. Julien, being prepared as a strong point.
In reality, the Battle of Ypres was the second time the ground had been fought over. The first battle had taken place in October 1914 when the opposing forces had both attempted to outflank each other between the town of Ypres and the English Channel coast. On 22 April after much heavy artillery bombardment and the release of chlorine gas used for the first time, the Germans attacked in force along the entire front.
The Battle of Ypres was actually a series of battles, including St. Julien, where Lance Corporal Frederick Fisher of the Black Watch Royal Highland Regiment of Canada, was awarded the first Canadian Victoria Cross of the First World War.
The fighting became more intense and furious and between 22 April and 8 May 1915, the Germans continued to attack in force. The ensuing battles at Gravenstafel Ridge, Kitchener's Wood, Mauser Ridge and Frezenberg would enter the annals of Canadian military history. At the Battle of Kitchener's Wood alone, well over 1,000 men were killed or wounded, no thanks to their rifles.
In the first real test of the Canadian built Ross rifle, tragically extolled as a fine weapon by Colonel Sam Hughes, Canada's incompetent Minister of Defense, the rifle was a miserable failure. The rifle bolt would jam repeatedly during rapid fire and while jammed, was no doubt the direct cause of many soldiers' deaths. These pieces of trash were quickly discarded and British Lee Enfield rifles picked up by Canadians from fallen British soldiers.
There were many acts of heroism and bravery performed by Canadian soldiers at Ypres, among them L/Cpl. Frederick Fisher VC. During the extrication of the guns of the 10th Field Battery, where the Battery would have been overrun by the Germans, L/Cpl. Fisher continued to move his machine gun into strategic, but exposed positions in order to stop the advancing Germans. His action provided the time necessary for the removal of the Battery’s guns. L/Cpl. Fisher was killed in action the next day, 23 April 1915.
During the gas attack on 24 April, Company Sergeant Major Frederick Hall of the 8th Battalion made a valiant attempt to reach and rescue a wounded soldier. In his second attempt to retrieve the wounded man, CSM Hall was killed as he lifted the man to carry him to safety. CSM Hall was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
During the battle of St. Julien, with every man in his machine gun crews dead or wounded, Lieutenant Edward Bellew, the 7th Battalion Machine Gun Commander, took over a gun himself, firing until he was out of ammunition. He then destroyed the gun before being overpowered and taken prisoner. His heroism checked the German advance on his Battalion’s position. He was awarded the third Victoria Cross at Ypres.
For "greatest devotion to duty" outlined on his citation, Captain F.A. Scrimger, the Medical Officer of the 14th Battalion, was awarded the Victoria Cross on 25 April 1915.
At the Battle of Mauser Ridge, the first Canadian winner of the Military Cross for bravery was awarded to Lieutenant W.D. Spinks.
The Menin Gate Ceremony
In gratitude to those allied soldiers who died for their city’s freedom and independence, the Belgian citizens of Ypres have established a special ceremony. Every night, regardless of weather since 11 November 1929, the buglers of the Ypres volunteer Fire Brigade play the Last Post, the traditional salute to the fallen warrior.
The ceremony is played at the Old City Gate on the Menin Road leading to the Ypres Salient battlegrounds. The only exception was during the second German occupation from 20 May 1940 to 6 September 1944. On the very evening of the liberation of Ypres by Polish soldiers in 1944, the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate and has continued every evening since.