The Re-Writing of History: The Second Battle of Ypres

February 7, 2014 § 1 Comment

Ypres was a hotspot in the First World War.  No fewer than five  major battles took place around this Flemish town between 1914 and 1918.  During the Second Battle of Ypres, fought in April-May 1915, the Germans wafted a cloud of chlorine gas at the Allied troops across No Man’s Land.  The other side was occupied by Moroccan and Algerian troops, flanked by Canadians.  In other words, the main targets were French African colonial troops.  The Germans didn’t dare set the gas towards Europeans.

The Moroccans and Algerians died on the spot and/or broke ranks and ran.  This left a massive gap, 4 miles long, in the Allied lines, which the Germans were rather hesitant to rush into, for obvious reasons.  That meant the 13th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force was left to counter the German attack, on its own.  It was reinforced by the 10th Battalion of the 2nd Canadian Brigade, as well as the 16th Battalion of the 3rd Canadian Brigade the next day.  It’s worth noting that the Canadians became the first colonials to defeat a major European power at Ypres.

In short, the Allied lines when the Germans used chlorine gas on them were manned by colonial troops: Moroccans and Algerians who took the brunt of the gas, and then Canadians who also got hit with gas, but to a lesser extent (they urinated on handkerchiefs and then put them to their faces to survive the attack).

This is the version I was taught in school and university in Canada.  And it was also the version I saw in pop culture, films, literature, history books, at least until recently.  In the past year or two, this story has been simplified: French and British troops were gassed by the Germans.  And while that is technically true, it is massively mis-leading.

In the case of Canada, our national mythology says that our country came to age on the battlefields of the First World War.  It led to Canada demanding and gaining the ear of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George with the creation of the Imperial War Council (along with the other Dominions). And Canada (as well as the other Dominions) were seated at the Versailles conference.  Eventually, in 1931, Canada (and the other Dominions) gained control of their own foreign affairs in 1931 with the passing of the Statute of Westminster.  And, as I argue myself in my own forthcoming book, The House of the Irish: History & Memory in Griffintown, Montreal, 1900-2013, Canadians were consciously fighting for their own nation, they fought in their own army, the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  And even if the CEF was appended to the British Expeditionary Force, Canada was coming of age as a nation of its own right.  So, to state that the British and French were the victims of the German gas attack is disingenuous.  And yet, there it is in our culture, everywhere from writers who should know better to Downton Abbey.

Imagine my surprise, then, to be reading a quick review of Graeme Kent’s new book, On The Run: Deserters Through the Ages, (which has yet to be published in North America) in The Times Literary Supplement, that states that the gas attack “fell four square on the French and to a lesser extent on the Canadian First Division.”  I quickly flipped to the back to see who the reviewer, Nathan M. Greenfield, was.  A Canadian military historian.  So that sort of doesn’t count.  And, there is also the fact that while Greenfield did wave the Canadian flag, he also denied the Moroccan and Algerian troops their due.


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