Beyond Courage: The Canadians at the Second Battle of Ypres
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography
Sidney Allinson is a Victoria-based communications consultant, Canadian
news correspondent for Britain’s The Army Quarterly and Defence, and
author of The Bantams: The Untold Story of World War I.
It is rare nowadays to read any new books about the Great War, much less one so well researched and freshly written as George Cassar’s Beyond Courage, which centres on Second Ypres, a turning-point battle in Canada’s military history. That combat is best known as the hideous time in April 1915 when soldiers of the 1st Canadian Division faced a new weapon in frightfulness — poison gas — and stood steadfast when even the formidable Zouaves beside them broke and ran. However, this book has a more ambitious aim than the telling of front-line heroism. It sets out to paint the broader picture of how and why our troops came to fight in that particular sector of the Western Front’s slaughterhouse.
The author employed a number of techniques and sources, including segments from radio programmes of reminiscences, many primary sources, and the private papers and personal memories of still-surviving participants. (It was pleasant to note that they included Captain Dick Ellis, once of the Canadian Cyclist Corps, an irrepressible old gentleman well known to this reviewer.)
Not least in interest is Cassar’s research into some of the origins of chemical weapons. After mentioning examples in the Middle Ages, he describes how a New Yorker named John Doughty was rejected when he suggested the Union Army use a liquid chlorine gas shell during the U.S. Civil War. Cassar goes on to say, “The French were more advanced than the English in the development of a chemical warfare program and appear to have been the first among the belligerents to resort to toxic substances to assist their attacks. During the early weeks of the First World War, they introduced a rifle grenade filled with bromic acid and a hand grenade filled with lachrymatory liquid called ethyl bromo-acetate. The idea was to incapacitate enemy soldiers by temporarily blinding or choking them.” However, it was the Germans who actually first used lethal (chlorine) gas in warfare, and it was Canadian troops who were fated to be among the first to inhale the choking yellow-green clouds of “Devil’s fog.”
Students of World War II will catch a familiar ring to Cassar’s observation that, in the Great War, “The British Army was further handicapped by acute shortages of heavy guns and ammunition essential to wage siege warfare. Between 1906 and 1914 insufficient government funding had compelled the army to reduce its purchase of vital equipment. No belated wartime spurt could immediately overtake the consequences of pre-war neglect. It was not until the middle of 1916 that the British government was able to provide the army with the means to fight a war of position effectively.” Modern-day critics of defence spending, and the well-meaning naifs in the Western “peace movements,” could equally take thoughtful note of those circumstances.
The book ends on a touching note, by quoting the best-known poem of the Great War — “In Flanders Fields,” written by Canadian medical officer John McCrea while in a dugout at Second Ypres. In telling this battle’s tale, George Cassar uses admirably straightforward language, with uncluttered maps, portraits of some important but now-obscure personalities of the time, and a particularly useful bibliography. Highly recommended as a study of the Canadian side of the battle, and for a better general understanding of the entire campaign.