Major Keenan, the Regimental Medical Officer, was sure he heard the engines of a Zepplin approaching in the late evening of April 12th but the other officers were skeptical. Within a few minutes, though, six massive bombs dropped, some just missing the Patricias' rest camps. A direct hit would have wiped them out entirely. Luckily there was no damage except for the gaping holes in the earth larger than anyone had ever seen before. It was a forecast of things to come.
German artillery and aerial bombing began to intensify mid month. The enemy had brought in their long range heavy guns, the largest mobile artillery pieces in use by any army at the time. These 42 cm howitzers had demonstrated such destructive force at the outset of the war they earned the nickname Dicke Bertha, or Big Bertha, by the German Army. The shells weighed up to 1785 pounds and could project over a distance of almost six miles. Reports from solders say the shells were visible to the eye and sounded like a freight train hurtling through the air. The delayed action fuse could penetrate up to 40 feet of concrete and earth before exploding. The guns were disassembled for transport and reassembled in six hours, requiring a crew of 240 to service and man each gun. Hiding in the forest north of Ypres on April 18th was a Big Bertha Howitzer poised to systematically demolish one of the most beautiful ancient cities in Flanders.
|One of the first Big Berthas being prepared to fire|
Ypres was bombarded relentlessly throughout April 18th, 19th and 20th. Hundreds of civilians and British troops were killed and wounded in the shelling and it became immediately too dangerous to stay. On the 20th the shelling was so severe the barracks had to be moved outside the city walls. The billeting accommodations in the Cloth Hall were evacuated.
Adamson wrote to Mabel, “….a very heavy bombardment of the town: a shell fell in my billet backyard, killing two horses and one in the front, littering the whole room and scattering the lacemaking. About one o’clock they commenced firing 15 inch shells knocking down a large part of the town; the large square was littered with debris, and dead and wounded civilians, a great many women and children were killed and wounded. The whole town was a continuous stream of stretcher bearers carrying their loads. Brigade H.Q. badly shelled and moved to infantry barracks. At 4 p.m. we got an order to remove our men from the Infantry Barracks, where they were closely packed with Divisional troops. We took them to a vacant field outside the town and scattered them and watched the shelling of the town. Had it not meant so much to so many people, it would have been a magnificent sight.”
Patircias worked around the clock helping the wounded and digging civilians out of the rubble. At night they brought food and water as shops were forced to close when the townspeople escaped to safety. Sewer and sanitation systems were destroyed quickly compromising living conditions. Fighting on the front lines had intensified as well and the men were given warning to stay in the Polygon Wood trenches and there they remained, without relief, for the next twelve days.
|Ruins at Ypres|
There had been rumours and warnings of a gas attack but there was a general belief among Allies the Germans wouldn’t use this deadly weapon in the west as the Hague Conventions of 1907 prohibited the use of "poison or poisoned weapons." The Germans had already used gas to great effect on the Eastern Front and the salient presented a perfect target for their next trial with chemical weapons to weaken Allied defences. Gas cylinders with simple hose extensions were installed opposite the French positions in early April.
On April 22nd, at 5:00 pm, following a heavy bombardment, 168 tons of chlorine gas was released along a four mile front against two French divisions in the northern sector of the Ypres Salient. Canadians to the right witnessed a large yellow-green cloud sifting down from the sky, forcing French troops to flee from their positions.
German troops penetrated a 4000 yard hole in the line, and advanced through masses of victims. Locals still living in nearby villages and farms were trapped by the toxic fumes with poison gas burning their eyes and lungs, causing respiratory distress and blindness. The Canadian Division was in disarray with telephone lines cut during the severe shelling. Their left flank was wide open yet, inexplicably, German forces halted after a 3,000 yard push into the French position.
Five miles down the line, Patricias, fortunately, were unharmed from the gas as they had not been issued adequate protection. They had been advised to prepare for attack. The Second Battle of Ypres had begun.