The Canadian Scottish at Kitcheners’ Wood

Two years after the “Terrific Drive” by the Canadians in April 1915, Frank Dadd composed this sketch. The fact that this was done so long after attests to the significance of that event in the war. In fact it was a major event in history. It marked the first significant use of poison gas as a weapon on the battlefield.

The ancient city of Ypres was under German control by the end of 1914. It was considered a strategic point of control along the western front, one that would be fought for in ever shifting battles until the bitter end in 1918.

This event, known as the Second Battle of Ypres began with a massive logistical effort, as German troops hauled 5730 cylinders of chlorine gas, weighing 90 pounds (41 kg) each, to the front by hand. There the  German soldiers also opened the cylinders by hand, relying on the prevailing winds to carry the gas towards enemy lines. Because of this method of dispersal, a large number of German soldiers were exposed and injured or killed in the process of carrying out the attack.

At around 5:00 pm on 22 April 1915, the German Army released one hundred and sixty-eight tons of chlorine gas over a 4 mile (6.5 km) front on the part of the line held by French Territorial and colonial Moroccan and Algerian troops.

Approximately 6,000 French and colonial troops died within ten minutes, primarily from asphyxiation and subsequent tissue damage in the lungs. Many more were blinded.

Chlorine gas forms hydrochloric acid when combined with water, destroying moist tissues such as lungs and eyes. The chlorine gas, being denser than air, quickly filled the trenches, forcing the troops to climb out into heavy enemy fire.

The survivors, panicked by the new and cruel weapon began abandoning their positions en mass and a 4-mile gap was left in the front line. In a stroke of luck for the battered allies the German High Command had not foreseen the effectiveness of their new weapon, and failed to order reserves to the area. Still a number of German troops started to enter the gap at 5:00 pm.

At Kitcheners’ Wood, the area depicted in this fine sketch,  the 10th Battalion of the 2nd Canadian Brigade and the 16th Battalion Canadian Scottish of the 3rd Brigade were ordered to counter-attack into the gap created by the gas attack. They formed up at 11:00 pm. Despite the hours that had elapsed, swirls of deadly gas still lingered in the low fields and hollows.

Both battalions stepped off, formed up in waves of two companies each. Without opportunity for prior reconnaissance, the battalions ran into obstacles half way to the objective and drew heavy automatic weapons fire from the Wood, prompting an impromptu bayonet charge.

A young piper, James Richardson, was among the men that night. Not allowed to pipe into the attack, Jimmy carried a bayonet into the woods. It was the first major engagement for the 16th Battalion who had just recently arrived in France. Remarkably their attack cleared the former oak plantation of Germans, but it came at a high price.

Of the triumph and tragedy witnessed that night, Jimmy would refuse to write home about it. This, despite repeated inquiries from his father back in Chilliwack, British Columbia.  Finally sometime during the summer of 1916  Jimmy wrote the following, recounting and clarifying some of the events that took place that night of nights.

Dear Father,

I would very much like to know the name of the man who related my experience to you. There were only 3 men in the battalion, to my knowledge, who knew of my experience, and only one man saw me actually go through it. It is now over a year since this incident happened during the German’s second attempt to take Ypres, and it seems funny to start to relate the story so long after, but I suppose I will have to do so.

Well you will remember we made a charge at St. Julien on the 22nd April, 1915, and took a wood from the Germans.  After we had carried the wood some of us kept going on Fritz’s heels and after advancing about 30 yards on the other side of the woods, the party, about 50 men, started to dig in, but I kept going on my own, although the thing was ridiculous.

Well, I may tell you I didn’t get very far ahead, about 40 yards, before I landed at a farmhouse, and sure enough, the Fritzies were all clustered around sheltering from the flying bullets. When I saw what I was up against, I didn’t know what to do, but my brain worked like lightning.

As it was dark save for the moonlight, I flopped to see if I was spotted and I really thought that while I was laying there they would hear my heart beating. Laying motionless, I saw an officer, judging by his voice and actions, coming towards me and waving his arms, as if letting his men know to follow on.

My brain told me that I had two alternatives, namely to shoot the nearest man I saw, which was the officer and make a dash for my pals, or give myself up as a prisoner. I risked the former and aimed as quick and true as I could at my man, who rolled over like a log.

Then you talk about running? There isn’t a man who could have covered the ground quicker than I did and nobody could be more thankful than I was when I found myself among my own kith and kin.

I told the sergeant-major that the farmhouse in front was full of Germans and that they would have to be cleared out if we intended to hold our position through the next day. Well, as the farmhouse was an ideal sniping post for the Huns, the matter was reported to the artillery, which, needless to say, put the farmhouse out of business.

About The Author

Ian is an acclaimed writer, producer, and director of documentary films and multimedia events. He is also a competitive bagpiper and has produced large scale multimedia concerts and pipe band recordings. It is his combined passion for film and piping that endow him with a unique and personal perspective for the Pipes of War project.


One Response to “The Canadian Scottish at Kitcheners’ Wood”

  1. William Griffiths says:

    My father, also William Griffiths, was in the 16th Canadian Scottish during WW I. Is there any way I can get further information on his WW I service?

    William Griffiths

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