From: Canadian Military History, Vol. 8, Issue 2
...This article will offer a case study to understand better the Canadian policy of raiding; piece together the fragmented narrative of the raid itself, which has previously been examined without a proper understanding of the integral component of poison gas; and attempt to analyze why the raid was such a failure. Unrealistic expectations, a break-down in command, an absence of doctrine, and most important, the inability of staff officers to understand and adequately employ poison gas, culminated in the most self-destructive Canadian raid of the war. The interplay of technology and soldiers is a tenuous subject, but it is the key to understanding the failure of the Gas Raid of 1 March 1917.
After losing 24,000 casualties in the grisly fighting on the Somme, the Canadian Corps under the command of Sir Julian Byng turned in the winter of 1916–17 to rebuilding its shattered battalions and integrating new troops into the formations. Despite their losses, and during this period of recuperation, the Canadians continued to harass the German lines by trench raids. Long had the Canadians been regarded by the British as elite soldiers and their refinement of trench raiding in the last month of 1915 had led Sir Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, to congratulate the colonials for their skill and elan.
The Canadians transformed trench raiding to a deadly art, which wore away at the enemy's morale and strength as he was kept taut and nervous whenever opposite the "wild colonials." The raids were conducted in the dead of night and centered on the principle of destroy and retreat. They were not meant for holding ground in the enemy trench, simply to wreak havoc. The chaos of night fighting, false attacks and barrages up and down the enemy front line, disrupted communications, and the inherent confusion of ascertaining where the exact attack was being launched, left the defenders momentarily vulnerable. Yet trench raiding was not without its costs, and the intricate plans could degenerate into mad, vicious battles with high casualties to both sides. Casualties notwithstanding, the success of the Canadians in winning control of no-man's-land, as well as recognition in the language of the trenches as "fire-eaters," further pressed their commanders to organize larger more innovative assaults.
After a series of daring raids, the 4th Division planned a larger and riskier operation than anything carried out by its more experienced corps companions. It was to be launched against the heights of Vimy Ridge, a position which dominated Canadian lines and included the unmarked graves of thousands of Frenchmen from two previous failed but more formal assaults. As a result of the particularly strong position held by the Germans on top of the ridge, the planners decided that poison gas would be employed to suffocate the dug-in garrison. Components of four battalions would raid the enemy lines. This policy of raiding was not born in a vacuum, however, and there was a gradual evolution culminating in the massive chemical raid.
...After several months of trench raids gathering in scope and size, the 4th Division planned to launch the largest Canadian raid of the war to date. It was labeled "a reconnaissance in force," and the operation was to consist of 1,700 men from the 54th, 72nd, 73rd, and 75th Battalions. Their objective was the highest point on Vimy Ridge, Hill 145 (where the Vimy Memorial now stands), a fortified series of interlocking machine gun nests, wire belts, and deep dugouts. The danger and complexities of attacking uphill where the Germans would have the advantages of their fixed defences as well as the heights, when combined with the difficulty of accurately laying down counterbattery fire on the enemy guns, resulted in the plan being conceived as a surprise attack. Because of the strong defensive position, it was necessary that poison gas smother the enemy before he realized what was occurring.
|Stretcher Bearers Returning Wounded from the Raid|
The concept was flawed from the start, and the division's staff officers planning the raid had little understanding of how chemical agents worked in battlefield realities. Ever since the British disaster at Loos in 1915, canister released gas clouds were seen as a fickle weapon, to be used only by specialists who were seen more as chemists than soldiers. There was simply very little understanding of this weapon by senior commanders, who hoped that any release of gas would emulate the first gassing at 2nd Ypres when two whole divisions were routed. Although gas was still a fearful weapon, better anti-gas discipline and respirators ensured that no such rout would occur again.
Equally detrimental, the staff officers and commanders had neglected training their soldiers in any doctrine—or set of common, accepted instructions or guidelines—about how to work with this weapon. Yet, because of the formidable position of the Germans on Vimy, gas was needed for the very reason that other more conventional weapons could not guarantee success. Gas was not the weapon of choice, but of desperation. Ill-placed faith created delusions which outweighed all logical assumptions.
Moreover, the heights of Vimy were ill suited for a gas cloud release. Being heavier than air, poison gas sinks into low-lying trenches, dugouts, and shell holes. Gas was an useful weapon for ferreting the enemy out into the open, but it had to reach his lines first. For gas to move uphill would require a very strong breeze, and without it the gas would pollute the craters and depressions that pocketed the Vimy battlefield—the exact positions that the attackers would have to pass over to reach their destination. Without a forceful breeze the operation would be fiasco.
The 85th Battalion took part in carrying hundreds of gas canisters into the trenches in preparation for the gas attack; its regimental history notes that "fifteen tons of gas was to be sent over to strike terror into the black heart of the enemy. The first wave was to be of deadly poisonous gas that would kill every living thing in its path: while the second would corrode all metal substances and destroy guns of every description. When complete all our men would have to do would be to walk into the enemy trenches, throw out their dead bodies and take possession."
Such assumptions must have sounded fanciful to some of the veterans, but as this was the official line, and it accorded with the constant rumours that percolated at the front with regard to new, lethal gases being introduced, it is little wonder that the "poor bloody infantry" placed so much faith in their gas clearing the enemy trenches...
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