Called the ‘finest act’ of the First World War by French Marshal Foch, the fight for St. Julien and Kitchener’s Wood during the battle of Ypres in April 1915 defined two Canadian regiments — and Canadian soldiers in general.
This month, a contingent of Vancouver Island reserve soldiers with the Canadian Scottish Regiment joined counterparts from the Calgary Highlanders in France to mark the anniversary of that battle. A Sidney man is among them, the Scottish’s Honorary Colonel, Richard Talbot.
“People have realized this is the anniversary, too, of the first chemical warfare attack,” Talbot said before leaving for England last week.
In April of 1915, during the battle for Ypres, German soldiers used mustard gas for the first time, routing the lines of allied soldiers.
Canadians with the First Division, including soldiers from Vancouver Island and Calgary, were asked to counter-attack and re-take the ground. They did so, at much cost, and came to be known by their enemy as storm troopers. Those contingents of soldiers would later be reformed as the Canadian Scottish, with companies in Victoria, Nanaimo and Comox, and the Calgary Highlanders.
Talbot noted the anniversary is taking place at the same time as a chemical warfare conference in France and what was initially a battlefield tour by the regiments, turned quickly into ceremony.
On April 15, a memorial was held in London at Canada House. Approximately 30 uniformed soldiers and 30 Regimental Association members were there, making up a Canadian contingent of around 100, said Talbot. They were joined by royalty and Canadian High Commissioner Gordon Campbell, among others.
Today (April 22) and tomorrow, he said the group would be touring the site of the Battle of Ypres and Vimy Ridge. They will be joined by members of the Belgian army and other allied troops for an international parade to mark the anniversary.
The Canadians, Talbot said, will then visit a place called the Mouse Trap Farm — a staging area where soldiers in 1915 set off for Kitchener’s Wood.
“It’s essentially a farmer’s front garden now,” Talbot said. “A barn there is going to be used for a dinner on or near the battlefield.
“It’s a bit ghoulish, perhaps, as half of both regiments were either wounded or killed at Kitchener’s Wood.”
The trip is also an opportunity to recognize soldiers lost during the war — literally. Talbot said Ottawa author and researcher Norm Christie has indicated there’s possibly an unmarked grave of 48 Canadian Scottish soldiers in land eyed for development. Talbot said a regimental piper and their troops will visit that site to pay their respects.
“That will be quite moving. The thing is, that after the battle for Vimy Ridge, the soldiers were probably buried, then forgotten.”
Talbot added part of the Canadian presence there is to raise awareness of the dead buried there and to possibly move them.
Talbot said the Canadians will also place plaques at the sites where Canadian Scottish soldiers Colonel Cyrus Wesley Peck and Corporal William Henry Metcalf each won the Victoria Cross.
Disclosure: Steven Heywood is a former member of the Canadian Scottish Regiment.