Off to the Trenches
April 22nd 1915,
‘Nothing of any importance occurred this day’.
(Source: War Diary, National Archive)
Unfortunately this statement wasn’t accurate.
The first gas attack of WW1
On the afternoon of April 22nd at around 5.00pm, the Germans unleashed the first poison (cholorine) gas attack on trenches north of Ypres.. At around 5.00 pm , French sentries in Ypres noticed a yellow-green cloud moving towards them – a gas delivered from pressurised cylinders dug into the German front line between Steenstraat and Langemarck. They thought that it was a smokescreen to disguise the movement forwards of German troops. As such, all troops in the area were ordered to the firing line of their trench – right in the path of the chlorine. Its impact was immediate and devastating. It caused immediate asphyxiation and 6,000 casualties. Despite the Canadians heroically trying to hold out against the enemy, the gas attack opened a four mile hole in the allied defences and created an opportunity for the Germans to advance into the strategically important Ypres salient.
Reinforcements were needed immediately.
(Source: The Northern Echo)
April 23rd 1915
War Diaries National Archive. April 23rd:
11am: Orders received from Brigade HQ to prepare to move forward at once to the fighting line
1.45pm: The Bn. concentrated just north of CASSEL and proceeded by march route to RIVELD.
From here orders were received to proceed at once to STEENVOORDE.
Large numbers of French troops were seen here proceeding north in lorries.
5pm: The Bn. left in two parties in motor buses for POPERINGHE and onwards to VLAMERTINGHE.
Here the Bn. went into billets at the W end of the town.
The following information was received at VLAMERTINGHE.
11pm: The French had been attacked by the Germans with poisonous gas and the former had given way.
The Canadians had filled the gap and were winning back the lost ground.
Very heavy artillery fire could be heard and YPRES was reported to be heavily bombarded.
As April 23rd dawned, the 8th [Battalion DLI] received its emergency call-up.
With the noise of the distant guns getting louder, the Durhams marched to Steenvoorde, where they gathered in a field, were issued with dressings and phials of iodine to treat the injuries they were going to sustain, and those who had not yet done so were ordered to make a will. Then a fleet of red Lond double-decker buses carried them towards the guns.
The moon shone down on a strange scene for us – a faint mist covered the ground. Our buses swayed and bumped along the uneven pave. The men were in excellent spirits, and sang and cheered like boys out for a school treat. – Capt. Harvey.
(Source: The Northern Echo)
Saturday 24th April:
On April 24th, the red London buses dropped off the Bede boys who had been trained as teachers rather than soldiers, near Ypres. They marched through the devastated town, its buildings collapsing into the streets and its roads blocked with dead bodies.. German missiles were flying overhead, and gassed and injured Canadian soldiers were flooding into the town from the opposite direction. Then it started to rain heavily, soaking their greatcoats.
Leaving Ypres, the 8th Battalion marched through the night towards the front, the noise getting louder, the very lights getting brighter and the stream of casualties turning into a torrent.
Just before dawn on April 25th, the 8th DLI stopped at Boetleer’s Farm at the top of Gravenstafel Ridge. Two companies, the Bede boys in A and the Durham Pals in D were selected to walk down the ridge, picking their way past dead bodies, to the partially – flooded trenches. The shattered Canadians in the trenches were delighted to see them and showed them how to wet a cloth and place it over the face to protect from gas.
Then the Canadians left, leaving the Durhams – who had never fired a shot in anger – beside the gap in the lines through which the Germans were about to flood.
(Sources: The Northern Echo & Harry Moses)
All the morning the Bn. stood by ready to turn out.
The heavy artillery fire continued.
6.30pm: The Bn. turned out and proceeded east through YPRES to the fighting line where it went into action.
Casualties of the fighting were: OFFICERS OTHER RANKS
KILLED 8 81
WOUNDED 9 153
MISSING 2 340
TOTAL 19 574
(Source: War Diaries National Archive)