By Natasha Eklund
This year marks the 100-year anniversary of World War I’s end. As we all should know, the war began in 1914 with Archduke Ferdinand being assassinated. This resulted in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire forming the Central Powers as they fought against the Allied Powers: Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan, and the United States. This war, often referred to as The Great War, introduced new and extreme levels of trench warfare and military technologies. Chemical weapons such as mustard gas and phosgene were introduced, working alongside the use of planes, tanks, machine guns, and radio communication–which were all used on a large scale during this war. Although the Allied Powers had claimed victory, more than 16 million soldiers and civilians died.
This war also created massive social change as women entered the workplace to replace the men who had gone to fight, as well as women who fought for the right to vote and hold office. Nellie McClung presented the Alberta legislation with a petition on February 26, 1915, which demanded that women get the right to vote. Two months later, this was granted, and provinces across Canada slowly began its implementation. On January 28, 1916, Manitoba was the first to announce that women now had the right to vote and hold office. This was closely followed by Saskatchewan in March and Alberta in April of 1916. British Columbia women (excluding Aboriginals and Asians) had this right granted by April 1917, as did Ontario. Nova Scotian women did not receive this right until April 1918. However, on June 7, 1917, Louise McKinney and Roberta MacAdams were the first women in Canada elected into an Albertan provincial legislation. On July 9, 2917, Helen MacGill was appointed British Columbia’s first female judge.
It was thanks to Dr. Fritz Haber, the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, that we have the creation of a lethal weapon in the form of chlorine gas. While there had been skepticism about its use, it reluctantly gained approval to be used. The French and British had received warning of this, but neither believed it to be true as they couldn’t believe that Germany would violate the laws of a civilized war (trial by gas). On April 22, 1915 at Ypres, also known as Flanders, the British, French and Canadians experienced the first attack of gas. The gas looked like a greenish-yellow wall of fumes that slowly drifted across no-mans-land and into the trenches of the Allied Powers. Soldiers were unprepared as they had no gas masks: they “choked and gasped for breath, feeling a stabbing pain in the chest with some vomiting a yellow substance and others staggering, falling, and rolling on the ground in their death throes.” A Canadian gunman, Andrew McNaughton, had been making his way to the front to offer some relief when he saw the soldiers running “as if the devil were after them, their eyeballs showing white, and coughing their lungs out – they were literally coughing their lungs out; glue was coming out of their mouths.”
The results from a low-level of exposure to the gas would result in difficulty of breathing and a burning sensation in the nose, eyes, and throat. Extended exposure to this gas would result in the destruction of respiratory organs and cause a slow, painful death by suffocation.
On April 24, a second attack of chlorine gas was launched, but this time, they aimed specifically at the Canadians. The Germans had released 150,000 kilograms of chlorine gas; while many soldiers fled, the Canadians continued to fight, battling for every inch of ground that they could.
The soldiers reacted to this one by soaking their handkerchiefs in urine acting as makeshift gas masks, holding them to their noses and mouths. Oswald Monteith said that “[The Germans] wait on the wind and when the wind favours the devilish thing, they pump it out in tons and the wind brings it right on you, then the coughing, spitting – it turns you blind, useless for days…” Their rifles jammed as a result of their rapid firing, but the Canadians did not panic or flee. Instead, they were able to successfully achieve their objective of preventing the German from breaking through. The Second Battle of Ypres resulted in 6,036 Canadian deaths.
This use of gas proved to be a heavily psychological weapon as soldiers began to nervously anticipate the attack of gas, knowing the extreme physical harm it could do to them. There was a common fear that the neutralizing agents of their gasmask would fail before the air was safe to breathe. As well, these masks were awkward and troublesome as soldiers had to carry them, and breathing in them was difficult as they were, basically, a small and enclosed container which made them feel as though they were suffocating within the masks. As well, it made any activity much more difficult when wearing them. Occasionally, a soldier would remove his mask in a desperate attempt to breathe before the danger of the gas was over.
When remembering the battle of Flanders Field (or Ypres), a Saskatchewan Private named A.G. Hall recalled that it was “death-strewn, shell-torn waste of desert” and that “corpses lie around everywhere, the stench of corrupting bodies fills the air and all around nothing, but carrion, flies and rats are to be seen.” Private Stanley Kay said that when he was fighting, he had become “possessed with a hate that is terrible to describe. I saw my pals fall all around me…I had to look down at the headless body of my best friend. This made me savage and I pumped that gun as fast as the trigger would go…”
While the achievements of the Canadians at Ypres were highly recognized and Canadians had slowly begun to build their own sense of national identity as separate from the British, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was a victory for Canadians that clearly defined their national awareness.
The Battle at Vimy Ridge lasted from April 9-12, 1917, when four divisions of Canadian troops stormed the Germans. This was Canada’s “first major victory as a united Canadian Army, forging, in the blood and mud, a true sense of Canadian identity.” The soldiers who overtook Vimy underwent several weeks of training and specialist roles such as machine-gunners, rifle-men and grenade-throwers were assigned. This was the first time the four Canadian divisions attacked together, storming Vimy at 5:30 AM on April 9. The Canadians had single-handedly charged the machine gun nests and forced the surrender of Germans in their protective dugouts. This battle took three days, and the Canadian operation had been a success.
The victory at Vimy is seen as one of Canada’s greatest military triumphs, as it has been referred to as Canadians “Birth of a Nation.” The Canadians suffered the loss of 3,578; additionally, 7,000 were wounded.
The Military Service Act had come into effect on August 29, 1917 as Canada introduced conscription and placed men within six categories. The first category placed single men aged twenty to twenty-four within it, and the sixth category were married men aged forty-one to forty-four. Anyone who was physically unfit or had an essential job was allowed to file for exemption from this conscription. Failure to report for duty would result in five years of jail time with hard labour. Across Canada, 403,395 men had reported within class one and 380,510 filed for exemption. Of those who filed, 334,989 were granted exemption.
Germany and France were the most impacted by the war on their population as each had sent approximately 80% of their male population between the ages of 15 and 49 into battle. By the end of war, 628,562 Canadians served within the military forces and 60,661 were killed. The Geneva Convention in 1925 signed off that chemical weapon use to restricted, something which is still in effect to this day.
Most of us tend to think of Remembrance Day as a day when we wear poppies, but this year, take a moment to think about the things our soldiers had to go through.