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Graphical element Home > War and Military > Oral Histories of the First World War Français
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The Second Battle of Ypres

Interview with Lester Stevens: 8th Battalion
Transcript Excerpt, 8 minutes, 12 seconds

Q. You see the place where they broke through the French, they threw all the Canadian reserves the night of the 22nd, they threw all the Canadian reserves into that hole and they held them through the 23rd. Now, on the 24th they threw the gas over again, this time on the Canadians. Now, were you in the sector where the gas came?

A. Oh yes, I saw the Germans hop over their trenches and put these cans in front of their trenches.

Q. You could literally see them doing that?

A. They were only a few hundred yards at that place. I don't know, I would have said, roughly, about four hundred yards. I saw these Germans and I thought that they were, I wondered what they were doing, just one here and one a little further along. It looked like tin cans they had put over and the smoke from them boiled up and it didn't rise, you know, the atmosphere kept it down and the wind blew it towards us, you see. I thought it was smoke and they were going to come up behind so we started firing at them to prevent them from following up this smoke. Then when it came along towards us, it turned green, a greeny yellow colour, chlorine gas, it was. It came up and went over the trenches and it stayed, not as high as a person, all the way across. Two fellows, one on my right and one on my left dropped and eventually they got them to hospital but they both died. One was on each side of me. They were lumberjacks from Fort Francis and I was an office man but I was a bit of an athlete in those days and a good swimmer and I could hold my breath. I could swim under water for two minutes which is a long time. If you ever tried to put your head in a bowl of water and see if you could hold it for two minutes, it's a long time, but I was always a good swimmer and, as soon as I saw that gas coming, I tied a handkerchief over my nose and mouth. I thought it was smoke, you know. That saved my life but eventually I had to go to hospital. I got worse, you know, I got some of the gas and I went to the medical officer. I went back in the trenches, where was it -

Q. Festubert?

A. Festubert. I went to the doctor and I said, "I don't know what's wrong with me, I can't breathe. I'm jittery as if I were a piece of haywire in the days when we used to tie bales of hay with wire. I said to him, "It's just as if someone was tying that tighter every morning". I said, "I thought the fresh air would get me over it but I'm getting worse" so he said, "You'd better report to the dressing station" so I did and then they sent me to the hospital and the doctors said that I'd got some of the gas into me and it paralysed the nerves of the bowels, that's how it affected me. When I was in hospital, I remember telling a fellow, "How did the gas affect you". He said, "It tied me all up in knots, in my stomach". I said, "Well, it has affected me something like that. I don't go to the bathroom only about every fourth day". He says, "You've got diarrhoea, I don't go only once a week".

Q. You stood up, did you, sir, so that you got your head above the gas cloud, was that the general idea?

A. It might have been. I got less of it than some of the others did.

Q. Because various people have told me, General Odlum was one, that he tried to get everybody up on their feet because the worst thing you could do was to get down.

A. Oh sure, to lay down was the worst thing. One of my chaps, he collapsed and I put him in a dugout. I said, "You lay down there". I thought he'd probably get better but one of the fellows came to me and said, "He's asking for water and nobody has any water". We hadn't had any food or water, I think for three days. I don't like water and I never drink water on marches or hikes or anything else. I very seldom touch it but I did have about a wine glassful of water in my water bottle. I was the only one that had any water. They were asking others, you know. I said, "I've got a little tiny drop" so I went and gave him a little tiny drop of water and it killed him. I told the doctor about it afterwards. He said he would have died anyway but he said it was the worst thing, a drop of water.

Q. How did you manage to survive through that, Sir? They attacked, I gather, behind this gas wave. What did you people do, how did you manage to hang on at all?

A. Well, those that could kept up a rapid fire at the Germans.

Q. This is when you went through four Rose rifles, was it?

A. Yes.

Q. The story I have is that this resistance was so unexpected that they stopped and started to dig in.

A. The Germans didn't realize the success of the gas attack. If they had done, they'd have gone right through to Calais.

Q. Yes but apparently one of the reasons that they didn't realize was because there was so much resistance.

A. Yes, there were so many of us that could still hang on and shoot and that's what stopped them. Currie told Lipsett to retire but Lipsett phoned back to Currie and told him that he wasn't going to retire, we could hold on.

Q. Lipsett was your battalion commander?

A. Yes. We held on. Then they brought up reinforcements on the left and built up the connection between us and the left. It was at an angle, see, the line was like this. Then they reinforced it and made it like that.

Q. You had to bend back, in other words.

A. Those on the left did, we didn't. We stuck in the same trenches we were in originally.

Q. You stuck right in those same trenches right through all this?

A. We didn't move. We got orders to retire and then the order was countermanded when Lipsett decided to hold on.

Q. That's really remarkable.

A. He said, "To hell with retiring, we're not retiring. We're staying here" and we did.

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