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The Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge

This is a photograph of the Canadian Memorial at Vancouver Corner not far from St.Julien where in 1917 Blunden and his battalion were in the front line. The column is situated at a crossroads and records the fact that some 18,000 Canadians withstood the first German gas attack on the 22nd April-24th April 1915 losing 2000 men in doing so.

Mention has been made of Blunden and his friend Tice looking at Kitchener’s Wood from the British front line just before they went into the attack on St.Julien on 31st July 1917. This wood featured in the German gas attack of 22nd April 1915. Some background is now given as to what took place in the Kitchener’s Wood area of the Ypres Salient during 22nd April 1915 –" 2nd Ypres ".

The 22nd April was a glorious sunny day and the Royal Flying Corps reported considerable activity behind the German lines. At 5 p.m. the German artillery bombardment commenced. It was assumed at first by the Canadians that the nearby French Algerian troops were firing their guns on a ranging exercise. However, it was quickly realised that the greenish-yellow clouds with their peculiar smell later observed from the British lines were in fact clouds of poison gas (chlorine) enveloping the French front line. Almost simultaneously the French Colonial troops and others began retreating towards the rear areas. It was obvious that a rout was about to take place and soon the Germans advancing behind the retreating French would be breaking through. Not all French troops fell back, however. Tirailleurs and Zouaves in support stood fast. Nevertheless a gap quickly appeared in the Allied lines and the Germans quickly broke through. Much now depended on the resistance by the Canadians holding the adjacent front lines.

At Vancouver Corner two platoons of the 13th Canadian battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada) were in action and managed to hold back the German advance units but eventually were overwhelmed fighting to the last man. L/Corporal Frederick Fisher from St. Catherine’s, Ontario was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his part in this action. He was the first Canadian-born man to win the V.C. with the Canadian Army. A company of the 14th Canadian battalion fought bravely at a position called Hampshire Farm south of Kitchener’s Wood. The German breakthrough on the Canadian front was finally halted when two guns of the 10th Canadian Battery near St. Julien brought withering fire on the advancing German troops.

At midnight the 10th and 16th Canadian battalions made a successful counter attack towards Kitchener’s Wood. However, the French units nearby had been unable to lend support to the attack and with German artillery fire descending on the wood, very soon the Canadian battalions were reduced to just 10 officers and some 400 Other Ranks. The 2nd Canadian battalion sent a company forward to help but it was exterminated. Evacuation was therefore ordered and an assessment of the position disclosed that by the 23rd April the German attack had been held and some 12 battalions of Canadian infantry and British artillery now formed a tenuously held front line.

Fierce fighting by the Canadians and numerous battalions of British infantry regiments brought forward in support carried on for the next few days. By the 24th April, although considerable ground had been lost, the Germans had not broken through to Ypres (and never would) but casualties on the Allied side had been substantial. The part played by the Canadians in stemming the attack was a noble one.

However, included in the ground lost was St.Julien. It had been captured by the Germans, strongly reinforced with concrete pill boxes and would remain in their hands until the 2nd August 1917 when it was finally taken by the 39th Division, part of which was Blunden’s llth Royal Sussex. 

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