The 1st Canadian Division and its supporting artillery (more than 18,000 men) arrived in France in early February 1915, landing at St. Nazaire to great public acclaim. The Canadians took over six kilometres of the front line in the Armentières sector where British troops helped them acclimatize to the grim realities of trench warfare. It was here that they suffered their first casualties from shelling and machine-gun fire. During the first week of April the Canadians were rotated north to relieve a French division in the infamous Ypres salient, a deep bulge into German lines centred on the Belgian city of Ypres. To the right of the Canadians were two British divisions and to their left two French divisions, including one raised in Algeria.
Although the Germans were standing on the defensive along the Western Front, they still mounted local attacks. In order to screen the withdrawal of German forces heading to the Eastern Front and anxious to seize the salient, the Germans had prepared a minor offensive supported by terrible new weapon: poison gas. Despite the fact that the use of gas in warfare had been prohibited by the Hague Convention to which Germany was a signatory, during the early evening of 22 April, the Germans released 171 tonnes of heavier-than-air chlorine gas from 5,730 cylinders concealed behind their lines mainly opposite the Algerian division. A ghastly greenish cloud five metres high formed and blew into the French trenches, causing panic as the men’s lungs and throats burned. The French line broke as the men, without gas masks, fled in terror, leaving a five-kilometre gap through which the Germans poured, threatening to cut off and destroy the Canadians and British from the rear. But the Germans were ill-prepared for a major breakthrough and, with nightfall approaching, they stopped and dug in after advancing three kilometres. The Canadians immediately turned to the northwest to plug the gap and prevent further German advances. They launched a series of desperate night-time and early morning assaults to blunt the Germans’ momentum; Canadian losses were extremely heavy, especially in their attempts to retake Mauser Ridge and Kitchener’s Wood. On 23 April Lance-Corporal Frederick Fisher, a machine-gunner with the 13th Battalion, won Canada’s first Victoria Cross of the war for his courageous actions in preventing the capture of some Canadian artillery. He was killed later that day. Three other Canadians would win the Victoria Cross at Ypres.