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Senior Contributor

for Canuck about WWI interesting

Less than a year of fighting into WWI, the Western front was at a stalemate. The armies of France, the British Empire and Germany were unable to break through one another's trench defenses. The Germans, not a people exactly fond of "calling it a tie," decided to use a new weapon of war to break the standoff: Chlorine gas. They deployed the gas on the French territorial troops, and "the line quickly broke." Well, that's how the Germans phrased it, anyway.
Jolly-fun-time Germans, not scary Buchenwald Germans.
A more accurate way to put it would be to say that 6,000 soldiers died in the first 10 minutes of the battle from asphyxiation, many more were blinded and a four-mile gap of destruction was carved into the Allied lines. The only downside to this tactic was that the Germans had to wait to advance into that gap, seeing as how Chapter 1 of The Art of War is "Don't Run Into Your Own Poison, Fellas."

The Weirdness:
While the Germans waited for the gas to disperse, Canadian forces were sent in to fill the gap. A medical officer (there is some debate as to which one, exactly) saw the greenish cloud approaching and identified the weapon. Then, thinking quickly, he spread word to the troops, advising them to urinate in cloths and hold them up to their faces.
"Dulce et decorum est, eh buddy?"
Whoever he was, we feel we can unequivocally state at this point that the medical officer in question was either the most beloved man on the battlefield or the most feared, because the troops quickly obeyed and basically pissed all over their own faces at just his say-so. And that's what saved all of their lives: The urea in urine reacted with the chlorine, effectively neutralizing the deadly gas. The Canadians were able to hold the Germans back until British reinforcements arrived. And though they suffered nearly 50 percent casualties defending Ypres, they successfully held the Germans off with the power of pee.

1 Reply
Veteran Advisor

Re: Battle of Ypres

Ypres was an important battle for Canadians as well as the Allies in WW I.

It was the first large use of gas in WW I, gas had been used in smaller fights before but not in such a large amount

It was the first real fighting the Canadians had seen in WW I.

I believe they had only been on the front line for days before the attack happened.

The gas hit the allied line just to the left of the Canadians where the French formed the line. To the Canadian right were British.

The gas killed thousands of the French in minutes and sent the rest retreating as they were having trouble breathing and seeing.

 The Battle actually took place over several days but the gas opened a hole in the line of 6-8 kms.

The Canadians only got a light whiff of gas so had to try to retake and fill the gap in the line. Believe the total Canadian casualties at Ypres was similar to the deaths of the French in the first few minutes of the gas attack.

The Canadians were gassed a day or 2 later as the Germans tried to break through the Canadian section too.

The Germans were not prepared for the breakthrough and so did not fully capitalize on it.

Had not heard about urine used to reduce gas impact but they soon utilized `wet gauze` and goggles to protect them. Many suffered the rest of their lives from the effects of the gas on their lungs and eyes but the Canadians hung on and put up so much resistance that they slowed the Germans and the British were eventually able to move in reinforcements.

The result of the Canadian resistance by inexperienced men against seasoned Germans left the reputation that Canadian soldiers were excellent soldiers and were used as shock troops later in the war.

Ypres built a reputation for Canada and helped to separate Canada as a country from England rather than a colony.

BTW the poem In Flanders Fields, was written by a Canadian doctor John MaCrae while the Battle was going on.