On today’s date in 1915, Canadian forces bore the brunt of the first chemical attack of the First World War during the Second Battle of Ypres.
According to the Canadian War Museum, two Canadian brigades were in the front lines while a third brigade was in reserve near Ypres. At 5 p.m., German soldiers released gas against the French 45th (Algerian) Division, which was located to the Canadians’ left side.
“An enormous green-yellow gas cloud, several kilometres long, drifted towards the French lines. When it rolled over their positions, French troops either suffocated or fled, their eyes and throats burning from the chlorine,” reads the War Museum website.
Most of the gas missed the Canadians brigades; however, the French retreat exposed the Canadian’s position and threatened to destroy the entire Allied position in the area.
DEFENDING THE POSITION
From April 22-25, Canadian soldiers defended their positions—some wearing only wet gauze patches and urine-soaked rags over their noses and mouths—but the attack opened a 6.5-kilometre gap in the Allied line.
“Outnumbered, outgunned, and outflanked, on the 24th they faced a second, this time direct, chlorine gas attack,” reads the War Museum website. “The Canadians counterattacked to stall the German advance, and then slowly gave ground, buying precious time for British troops to be rushed forward.”
The Second Battle of Ypres was the first major gas attack on the western front and marked the beginning of modern chemical warfare.
SECOND BATTLE OF YPRES COIN
Designed by Silvia Pecota, the Ypres coin depicts a Canadian soldier standing in the foreground with a bayonet and a Ross rifle, scoping the advancing enemy. Behind him, one soldier is crouched as he tends to his rifle while another leans against sandbags and shoots at the enemy. To the right, a soldier is using a handkerchief to protect himself against the burning effects of the chemical clouds that bore down on the Allies.
A banner frames the lower portion of this poignant image, with selective gold plating showcasing the winged figure of “Victory” as it appeared on the Victory Medal awarded to Allied soldiers of the First World War.
The obverse features the effigy of King George V by Sir Edgar Bertram Mackennal. The coin has a weight of 31.39 grams, a diameter of 38 mm and a mintage of 10,000 pieces.
The First World War Battlefront series debuted in 2015 and depicted scenes from eight battles, including:
- the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle;
- the Second Battle of Ypres;
- the Battle of the Somme;
- the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel;
- the Battle of Vimy Ridge;
- the Battle of Passchendaele;
- Canada’s Hundred Days; and
- the First Armistice at Compiègne.