One of the very best Canadian historians was the late Daniel Dancocks of Central Alberta.
His specialty was Canadian military history. One of the very best books he ever wrote was Welcome to Flanders, the incredible story of the Canadians first major battle of the First World War – the Battle of St. Julien.
Officially, the Battle of St. Julien was a part of the greater Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium. The Allied Forces were immersed in a huge and bloody struggle with the Germans over the control of the strategic Flemish town of Ypres.
Moreover, the Second Battle of Ypres saw the first mass use of poison gas as a weapon on the Western Front.
The horrific consequences became one of the enduring images of the Great War.
On the afternoon of April 22nd, 1915, the German Army released several tons of chlorine gas. The first victims were largely French soldiers in the Territorial, Moroccan and Algerian units. The men had never faced poison gas before.
Within 10 minutes, the French troops suffered more than 6,000 casualties. Not surprisingly, almost all of the survivors fled for their lives.
The soldiers of the First Canadian Division, who were seeing active combat for the first time, were given the job of holding the line and closing the gap in the Allied defenses.
They took the extreme emergency measure of using cloths drenched in urine to counter the effects of the gas.
Nevertheless, the Canadians suffered a horrific casualty rate of 75% from the gas and the intense combat that followed.
On the morning of April 24th, the Germans released another cloud of chlorine gas on the Canadians who were trying to defend the village of St. Julian.
This time, a form of anti-gas protection had been distributed in the form of cotton-gauze masks.
Again, many men soaked the masks in urine to help protect themselves.
Again, the Canadians suffered horrific casualties. However, once again, the Canadians managed to stop the expected German breakthrough. Consequently, the Canadians earned a reputation of some of the very best frontline combat troops on the Western Front.
There were several men from Red Deer and district who were part of the Battle of St. Julien and the broader Second Battle of Ypres. Many had enlisted with the 35th Central Alberta Horse in the summer and fall of 1914. They had been very anxious to see combat.
Now their wish was granted. Tragically, the fulfillment of the wish came with the harsh lesson of the horrors of battle.
Ray Alcock wrote about his experiences for the Red Deer newspapers. He had been with one of the cooks’ wagons, well back from the front when the gas attack started. He and his comrades decided to move towards the front line to see what was happening. They arrived just as the gas cloud struck.
In his account, Ray Alcock wrote, “Believe me. I have done many foolish things in my life, but nothing like that, before or since.”
Fortunately, the unit he was with was on slightly higher ground. Therefore, those men did not get hit as badly by the gas as those nearby. Nevertheless, his unit suffered a casualty rate of more than 50%.
Eventually, Ray Alcock found himself in a platoon with a half dozen other Red Deer men – John Masson, George Smith, Osbert Knight, W.B. Bothamley, Colin Broughton and Oscar Alexander.
Major David Sandeman, the former commanding officer of the 35th Central Alberta Horse, was killed in action.
John Forrest, Arthur Gill, Osbert Knight, W.B. Bothamley, Charles Hardy, Charles Mathews, John Muir, James McGregor, Walter Mackenzie, Leonard Patterson, Norman Robinson, D.H. Tozer, Adam Thompson, George Winter and Frederick Winter were all wounded.
After the First World War ended, only Ray Alcock and four others in his unit returned to Red Deer.
The War had brought a very bitter and lasting blow to the community.