Monday, 27 April 2015

A century on, we do remember them

At about 3:00 AM on April 24, 1914, Canadian soldiers of the 15th and 8th Battalions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force experienced the absolute horror of war.

Following an hour long artillery barrage, soldiers in the Canadian trenches could see German soldiers wearing what looked like diving gear on their heads, scurrying across the front. A hissing sound was heard and a yellowish green vapour began to flow towards them. Driven by a light morning breeze, a deadly cloud of chlorine gas ten to fifteen feet high quickly enveloped the 15th Battalion.

Calls for immediate artillery support were not answered. The divisional artillery was well out of range of the trenches.

The Canadian soldiers did not panic. Gas had first been seen on April 22 in other sectors at Ypres and word spread across the trenches that a handkerchief soaked in water or urine was an effective way to reduce the effectiveness of the gas.

It didn’t work. Coughing, choking and suffocating, the soldiers took shelter in the bottom of their trenches, where the gas concentrated. Many suffered and died there or in the subsequent artillery barrage.

Ten minutes after the release of the gas, German soldiers moved out of their trenches, and wearing crude respirators, advanced towards the Canadian lines.

The 15th Battalion took the brunt of the attack. Closest to the German lines, No. 1 and No. 3 Companies were left without support from other troops and from their own artillery.

By 5:00 AM their trenches were overrun and any survivors of the 15th Battalion withdrew to what was called “Locality “C”“, on the road between Gravenstaffel and St. Julien, on the crest of the Gravenstaffel Ridge.

On April 27,when the 15th Battalion assembled for morning parade, only three officers and 171 other ranks answered. Over 650 officers and men were dead, wounded or missing.

This became known as the Second Battle of Ypres. It was the largest single unit operational casualty loss of Canadian soldiers in the whole of the First World War.

My great uncle, Private Harold Leigh Shearman of Toronto, had enlisted in the 48th Highlanders in Toronto less than a year earlier. Along with members of the 97th Regiment (Algonquin Rifles) from Sudbury and Cobalt and the 31st Grey Regiment (Owen Sound), the 48th Highlanders formed the 15th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force.

There were six soldiers from Grey County in the 15th Battalion who died at the Second Battle of Ypres. It’s possible they knew my great uncle. All are among  missing and presumed dead.

From my inquiry to the 48th Highlanders Regimental Association, Brig. Gen. Greg Young suggests that, “whether (Pvt. Shearman) went missing and was subsequently indicated on the 29th as KIA at the forward position or Locality C or somewhere in between is not known. My best guess would be that he died in the forward lines.”

Harold Shearman’s death had a profound impact on my family. His brother was captured as a prisoner of war in the same battle. The family, in their grief, threw themselves into prisoner relief effort. And when the Menin Gate was dedicated, Harold’s mother went to Europe to be present there.

It was and is the only memorial for her son.

When I was born there was some family conversation that I should be named either Harold or Leigh. My father did not do so, and took a few sharp words from Harold’s sister.

Today, a century later, we can only pause as we recall the words of the poet Lawrence Binyon; “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

We will remember them.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.