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Gas On The Western Front – Baptism of Fire for Canada I THE GREAT WAR Week 39


It seems I repeat myself. I begin many of
these episodes by talking about new introductions to the war- a new front, a new weapon, a new
strategy- but impossibly, the war, with a death toll in the millions, still grows larger
day by day, as this week Canadian troops really show their skills for the first time, and
the Germans begin the regular use of poison gas. I’m Indy Neidell; this is the Great War. Last week the war in the air had grown with
both sides bombing each other by Zeppelin and airplane. The Russians were still unable
to force the Austro-Hungarian army, now reinforced by German troops, back in the Carpathians.
Italy was considering joining the Allies, and the British held their ground in Mesopotamia. It’s interesting that the war in the air
was a hot topic last week, because this week now saw the war underground develop at the
Battle of Hill 60. This battle lasted from the 17th of April
to the 22nd and it was launched when the British set off an explosion of mines underneath the
German positions on the relatively high ground of Hill 60, southeast of Ypres. This was actually
the first time the British Army had laid mines beneath an enemy position to blow them out
of their defenses. The fighting was pretty fierce, but the British managed to capture
the hill. Now, on April 19th, British Commander in Chief
John French denied a rumor that the British had used poison gas at Hill 60. This is interesting
because his opponents, the Germans, most definitely did use poison gas in the first large scale
successful gas attack of the war a few days later on April 22nd, as they attacked the
Allies to begin the Second Battle of Ypres. The first attack came at around five PM against
French Algerian and territorial troops. 168 tons of chlorine gas was released by the Germans
along a front nearly 7 km wide, and a greenish-yellow mist rolled across the land from toward the
French positions. The gas struck with devastating effect. Within minutes, the French colonials
had suffered some 6,000 casualties, either dying of asphyxiation or tissue damage to
the lungs, or being blinded, since the chlorine destroys soft tissue like lungs and eyes.
Now, the gas was heavier than air, so it settled into the French positions and anyone escaping
the gas was in the line of fire, so this first attack was incredibly effective and soldiers
were forced to run for their lives, opening a hole over a kilometer long in the line. But the Germans didn’t really exploit their
sudden and striking success, partly because it had been an experimental attack and they
weren’t prepared for it to work so well, and they hadn’t planned on taking the whole
Ypres salient, which they may well have been able to, but many of their reserves had been
transported to the Eastern Front to fight the Russians. Still, though, the German advance
slowly came on. Canadian troops came up to defend the flank
of the break in the lines, taking heavy casualties by being attacked on three sides but holding
on, and then at Kitchener’s Wood another Canadian battalion counter-attacked just before
midnight. They used makeshift respirators like cloths covered in urine to protect their
faces, and advancing without reconnaissance and eventually charging with bayonets, managed
to drive the Germans from their positions, but at a casualty rate reported as high as
75%. Although Canadian troops had fought at Neuve Chapelle weeks earlier, this was the
first major engagement by Canadian troops in the war, and they fought exceptionally
well, especially considering the terror of the poison gas. Actually, years later, Ferdinand
Foch, at this time a French General, would remark that the Canadian charge on Kitchener’s
Wood was the greatest act of the entire war. At dawn on the 24th, the Germans attacked
again, with another cloud rolling ahead, this time toward the Canadians at St. Julien. Though
better prepared for the gas this time, it was still another horror story, and though
again they fought impressively, they were pushed back all along their line. In just
48 hours, the Canadians took total casualties of one man in every three. Actually, there were troops from all over
the world fighting the Second Battle of Ypres. On the 25th, 15,000 British and Indian troops
went into action, with yellow flags flying- they were to show their position to the British
artillery, but they also showed it to the Germans. The day earlier, General Smith-Darrien
had asked Commander French not to order any further attacks because of a disastrous attempt
across no-mans land where his men were just chopped to pieces, but no dice. The attack
went ahead, and when the Germans released gas again, it went haywire, with some French
colonial troops shooting their own officers for trying to make them advance into the gas. However, the Germans also experienced big
problems combining an infantry attack with the gas- there was the issues with winds dispersing
or blowing back the gas toward their own lines (gilbert p. 145), and of course now that everyone
could at least have a makeshift respirator, it’s effectiveness was not nearly what it
had been during the initial attack and the immediate danger was over. Actually, there were other troops from the
far flung corners of the British Empire gathering this week, expecting to soon see action further
to the southeast, where throughout March and April, Australian and New Zealander forces,
ANZACs, were being assembled for an assault on Gallipoli. However, the Turks were also busy there. Labor
battalions had been frantically rebuilding the forts and the defenses of the peninsula,
with the aid of 500 German officers and troops. Actually, only four of the Ottoman divisions
on the peninsula were Ottoman led, the other two had German commanders. Barbed wire was
laid where landings might take place; machine gun nests were installed; when an allied landing
finally happened, it would be no picnic. The Turks weren’t the only ones worried
about an invasion, though; throughout the month Austro-Hungarian army Chief of staff
Conrad von Hotzendorf was worried about what Italy was going to do. The Italians, who’d had an alliance with
Austria and Germany before the war, were now demanding huge chunks of Austrian territory
to remain neutral, and were even considering joining the Allies in the struggle. If they
did, what would Conrad do, given that as many troops as possible were desperately needed
to keep the Russians at bay in the Carpathian Mountains, and the troops he proposed to deploy
to a theoretical Italian front would most likely not be enough to hold back an Italian
army hundreds of thousands strong. Conrad insisted that only a new combined Austro-German
offensive against the Russians could relieve the pressure and allow him to consider the
Italian question; Conrad believing that Italian military intervention could decide the war.
German army Chief of staff Falkenhayn, to Conrad’s surprise, agreed and began transferring
German troops to the east to prepare for a massive assault. And a smaller assault was underway this week
in Eastern Anatolia, where Turkish forces surrounded and set siege to the city of Van.
Within the city were 1300 armed Armenian fighters and 30,000 civilians. Also at this time, tens
of thousands of Armenians were being deported from Erzerum over the mountains into Mesopotamia,
and further south, by April 20th the deportation of 25,000 Armenians from Zeitun was complete. Almost every continent on earth was involved
actively in the war this week, and there was even a fair amount of fighting in Africa. Union forces under Colonel Van Deventer advanced
in German Southwest Africa, occupying Seeheim April 18th and taking Keetmanshoop on the
20th. Further to the north, Anglo-French troops took Mandera in Cameroon. So that’s where we stand at the end of the
week; the British attacking the Germans beneath the ground, the Germans effectively using
poison gas, and the Canadians gamely taking them on. Both the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman
Empires concerned with being invaded, the Germans losing more and more territory in
Africa, but preparing to try and make it up with Russian territory. And the war grows larger and larger as troops
from all over the world begin to make their appearances- the Canadians this week surprising
everybody with their unexpected skill and perseverance. But, you know, we’ve seen
troops from every warring nation exhibiting enormous courage, even, or especially, when
their leaders led them straight into disaster, and that would continue, and whether victorious
or not, whether routing the enemy or facing catastrophe, whether facing a wall of machine
guns or clouds of poison gas, the great sadness is that the best of the men, the bravest and
best of the soldiers, those with hearts of lions from whatever nation, would be the first
to die and would die in the greatest of numbers. In early 1915 this sacrifice was especially
gruesome. Both in the Carpathians in the Caucasus men were dying sent to death in the thousands
by leaders not in touch with reality. Check out our episode from Week 24 of the war. For more stories of world war 1, follow us
on Facebook and if you like our show, tell your friends all about us and subscribe. See you next time!

Stephen Childs

100 Comments

  1. so to survive poison gas you could wrap your face up with a piss soaked rag. hmmm

  2. Why didn't any European nations draft Africans from their colonies to fight ?

  3. Who was the person who discovered or knew a cloth over face full of piss can make a makeshift gas mask in the first place??

  4. I would surprised that they didn't sue for peace with Russia already. The Tsar was probably susceptible to a white peace. But logic is non existent to someone willing to cause such huge war.

  5. I Went to hill 60 on a WW1 school trip from the UK to Belgium, went all around the battlefields of the war. Really moving.

  6. The baptism of fire for the awful Ross rifle that failed spectacularly too bad good skill with awful equipment they say a bad workman blames his tool but it is true sometimes.

  7. Did Any side use yellow or green smoke grenades as fake gas to scare soldiers out and the barrage them with artillery as a scare when they where out of gas?

    Btw love this show thank you I really appreciate this.

  8. 3:13 how did the cloths covered in urine "protect" the Canadians against gas attacks & who/or how did this idea come up as a viable solution?

  9. can u list out all the link where u got all information about second battles of ypres

  10. The Canadian battalions where the 10th and 16th The 10th is from my home town of Calgary Alberta. The 10th became my regiment The Calgary Highlanders and to this very day the Highlanders wear an Oak Leaf battle Honour to commemorate what was done at Kitchener's Wood and St Juliens

  11. Another offensinve… against Russia… by Conrad… why, just why?

  12. Stapping cloth covered in urine to your face to help you kill people…

    Humans are so fucking weird…. We're weird.

  13. Hey Indy, if a machine gunner was taken prisoner after a charge, how would they be treated, due to the many men they killed. I saw in a book that the Russians killed german machine gunners with the butt of there rifles for killing all of there friends in a charge.

  14. Chlorine gas doesn't destroy just any kind of soft tissues it destroys wet tissues as the gas turns into liquid acid when in contact with water from your eyeballs and lungs.
    Flamethrowers and napalm and trench rats are examples of weapons that can destroy all soft tissues; if chlorine gas could destroy all soft tissues then the battlefield trenches would be filled with skeletons and weird melted flesh puddles.

  15. incorrect Indy well kind of at Hill 60 it was mainly Australia New Zealand and Canadians not bloody British

  16. Hi. One theme in this series is how out of touch with reality the military leaders were in this war. My question is, why was this so common place? While a learning curb is to be expected, especially in an age where new technologies were changing warfare, the ceaselessness of many key leaders is absolutely stunning. What was is about World War I that produced such leadership?

  17. Supposedly when the Germans first used gas as a weapon the German troops had not yet been issued with gas masks, so it would have been dangerous for them to push up into the cloud of gas.
    The Germans had used tear gas before chlorine but it was so ineffective the French troops did not realise they had been gassed.

  18. I actually saw the memorial the belgians erected for the victims of the first gas attack in belgium.

  19. brave men go to war and die, cowards stay behind and breed. a wise man once said, it's better to be a coward for a minute than to be dead for the rest of your life.

  20. Watching in 2017, and Im trying to get caught up now and just binge watching the living crap out of these episodes.

  21. The death toll of chlorine was, actually, rather low, wasn't it? That's what I'd heard, at least. It was only the Phosphine which introduced a staggering number of deaths. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

  22. "The fighting was pretty fierce, but the British managed to capture the hill"
    After so long it's kind of strange to hear a successful offensive that didn't result in thousands of casualties

  23. We haven't heard a lot from Japan regardless of battles taking place or not. It'd be nice to get an update as to their position, scheming, or diplomatic endeavors.

  24. Good videos and I'm glad that Canada is mentioned, but I feel that a lot of the countries aren't given enough credit. All of the defending forces at Ypres retreated, and Britain basically sent Canada on a suicide mission to hold the line. The Canadians did so with tremendous skill and courage. Without them, WW1 would have been won by the Germans two years earlier.

  25. Always seems like the Brit's sacrifice dominion troops in the worst battles. Is there a special on Australia in the war yet? I can't find it.

  26. For anyone interested in the Canadian part of the history of WW1, Tim Cooks' At the Sharp End and Shock Troops are required reading

  27. It amuses me that the Germans, the first to use poison gas and the inventors of mustard gas, thought shotguns were inhumane.

  28. Not sure it could be called "courage". Courage, in the way I see it, is when someone performs a selfless act that would scare common men. Being told to perform an attack on an enemy trench, with no other option other than being court martialed or deserting. They just took the option they felt would either honor them or had the biggest chance of survival to them. Not saying that they're cowards, just saying thata courage might not be the right word here.

  29. We emptied-out whole towns in Saskatchewan to hold that Goddamn salient. 😐

    I would dissent from my fellow citizens in being proud of that moment. It was a very costly action, and for what? The salient was a death trap anyway – we should have simply re-formed the front rather than choosing to hold a non-critical location at any cost.

  30. It's a major battle honour for my regiment the Calgary Highlanders then known as the 10th battalion.

  31. Indy, what wall has American troops played at this point in the war? I have yet to hear any mention of them throughout the series and yet you say that all warring nations were involved thus far. Just curious and I'm sure it will come up later as I'm new to this Series.

  32. Very disappointed you did not describe in detail the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli on 25 April.

  33. using this to help write my assignment in school "To what extent was gas the most significant new weapon in WW1" its worth 20% of my exam so this episode and your poison special is really helping (love this channel by the way)

  34. One of my ancestors was gassed at 2nd Ypres… great uncle I think, either that or great great uncle. He died some time in the 1920s as a result.

  35. I​ watched this video to help with school and it was genuinely interesting

  36. Ah Canadians… just the most gosh darn nicest people, until you declare war on them, then you’re in the afterlife not entirely sure how you got there except it involved pain… so much pain

  37. Never thought history would be so gripping! I wish you were my history teacher 🙂

  38. When did Canada even join the war? I don't remember that part

  39. I know this is a minor issue, but it does grate on my nerves that Indy continuously refers to the Entente as the Allies

  40. I was just wondering what did they use to disperse the gas? Was is artillery shells?

  41. Did the German soldiers have gas masks during the Second Battle of Ypres or something close to it.
    Might be a stupid question but I can't really find anything on it except that gas masks became standard issue in the German Army in August 1915, unless it was just given to the units handling the gas and the units that would go into battle after the gas was deployed.

  42. When was the first time gas was used in warfare? Did it start in the Great War or earlier?

  43. I'd prolly shoot you too if you made me run into a gas attack

  44. It is genuinely sad how Russians get little to no credit for mammoth sacrifices they've made fighting on 3 fronts against 3 empires.

  45. This is great. Stuck in the house with a bad leg, I get to watch this all week long, while collecting my sick pay.

  46. Lots I dont understand about this war. But one thing sticks in my craw. Why would Australia, New Zealand and Canada waste their taxes and healthy young men on Europes madness?

  47. April 22, 1915, my great great grandfather Alfred Lowe, a paramedic, was blown sky high by a German shell.
    He lived on another 26 years.

  48. 3:53 this statement gets attributed to a lot of factions, so much so that it begins to look like all the French generals did was dish out compliments to foreign troops. Example: "The taking of Blanc Mont is the greatest single achievement of the 1918 campaign."

    – Marshal Petain, speaking of the U.S. Marines

  49. The incompetence of so many of these leaders would be hilarious if it didn't result in millions of valuable lives being either stolen or ruined.

  50. Canadians have always been tough sumbitches under arms. That war was a meat grinder for everyone, led by generals who, as always, were fighting the last war.

  51. How did canadians get there? The mighty ocean liner. Everybody always forgets about them.

  52. Man I couldn’t imagine what brings people to use poison gas. It’s sad what humans do to each other for power.

  53. Yeah Canadians are really nice people, until you start shooting them and blowing gas in their face. Would not recommend

  54. In Flanders fields the poppies blow

    Between the crosses, row on row

    That mark our place; and in the sky

    The larks, still bravely singing, fly

    Scarce heard amid the guns below.

    We are the dead. Short days ago

    We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow

    Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

    In Flanders fields.

    Take up our quarrel with the foe:

    To you from failing hands we throw

    The torch; be yours to hold it high.

    If ye break faith with us who die

    We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

    In Flanders fields.

    lieutenant-kolonel John McCrae
    Thank you for all the horror and sacrifice you did for us , there are no words for RIP

  55. How were the Canadians even able to apologize with their faces covered up like that?! It must have been a terrible experience for them.

  56. My grandpa was also gassed. I was told this same story by my mom years ago. He was a motorcycle escort for a Canadian supply caravan. Urinating on a hanky and being out on the open road instead of in the trenches probably saved him. But he always had respiratory problems afterwards. Damaged lungs, then TB added to diabetes made grandpa a grouchy old man.

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