A Letter from Ypres

Writing from the trenches of World War I, a young Canadian private shares the terror of the first effective gas attack on the Western Front.

He seemed an unlikely hero — short in stature, slight of build. Percy Leland Kingsley was born in Picton, Ont., Aug. 26, 1886. His family moved west and Percy worked as a clerk in the lumberyard they established in Humboldt, Sask. Then came war. At 5-feet, 6-inches, and 135 pounds, Percy barely met the physical requirements for volunteers when he joined up in August 1914 at age 28.

Like many young recruits, Private Kingsley did his best to stay in touch with family and friends. However, many of the thousands of letters those young men wrote were carefully constructed so as to avoid upsetting the folks at home. The horrors they experienced and witnessed were left out, or at least played down. But one of Private Kingsley’s letters was not like that.

At a time when the war was not going well for the Allies, this young soldier wrote about what he saw and what he experienced. There is no concern here for propaganda, jingoism, politics, adventure or any other form of distortion. This letter is blunt, honest and hauntingly disturbing. It is the truth of one man’s experience.

The letter is dated June 26, 1915, and quoted as it appeared in the Humboldt Journal of July 22, 1915. It was addressed to a Miss Hanley. Her connection to the letter writer has been lost in time. So has the identity of the Mr. Davis referred to. Censorship of letters was in force, but perhaps because the letter was written after the battles had taken place, it got through in this form.

Dear Miss Hanley,
Your letter of the 11th was received last night, and was indeed glad to hear from Humboldt. I also received a letter from mother and Mr. Davis. This is the first Canadian mail I received in over two months. A lot of our mail was burned and blown up at Ypres.

Well, I think I must have a charmed life. At least I am a very lucky fellow to be here at all. I went to France on February 9 and went into the trenches at Armentiers on February 18. We were in the front line for two days, in reserve and digging trenches for several days. It was not very busy then, although we lost a few men with shellfire and snipers.

After leaving there we went to the trenches at Fleurbaix on March 1. We were in the trenches at Fleurbaix until April 1. This is three days in front and three days in reserve. The trenches were knee deep in mud and water. A number of our boys were taken out with rheumatism and frozen feet, but I was OK.

During our stay in Fleurbaix we lost about 100 men which was giving us a taste of the real war. We were relieved by a British division and went back to the town of Estaires for 21 days.

Estaires is a typical French town of about 30,000 population, which fortunately has not been ruined by shelling, although it is only seven miles from the firing line. From Estaires we moved to Steenvoorde, where we were located for three weeks in billets. We were reviewed by General Smith-Dorien and General Alderson on Sunday, April 10, who told us of the good work we had done, and as he was pleased with our work and excellent appearance he would send us to the most important part of the line.

We left Steenvoorde on the following Wednesday. Little did we know what was before us.

On Thursday, April 14, we moved through the famous town of Ypres. Although Ypres had been shelled, the civilians were still living there, stores were open and lighted up the night as we passed through, and it looked real home-like. The Seventh and Tenth Battalions of our Brigade went into the trenches that same night and we remained in reserve.

On April 15 we [5th Battalion, 2nd Brigade] relieved the tenth, and the 8th Battalion relieved the 7th. The trenches had been held by French troops and were in very bad condition.

The next morning at dawn, we had first view of our surroundings. Just over the parapet about 40 yards away lay over 300 dead Germans, who had been lying there since last October and when the sun rose, believe me, the stench was simply awful. Also in our trench there were hundreds of Germans and French just buried about a foot deep and you could not dig to improve [the] trench without striking a dead body.

The first two nights I slept on a grave containing a number of dead Germans and they were so near the surface that the ground would spring up and down like dough, and oh that smell.

That was the last sleep I had for seven days and nights. On the morning of April 22, as you know, the great German attack began.

They turned the gas on the French [Algerian] troops, who held the trenches on our left, and they retired in disorder leaving 4,000 yards of the line open, and this left the Canadian division cut off.

We extended at right angles to our line, and blocked the German advance. It was here that our boys were gassed badly, and it was here that 8,000 of us held 60,000 Germans for 22 hours without supports, and under the most terrific shellfire during this war. Just fancy shells of all kinds bursting over and around at 100 per minute and you will have some idea of it. It is marvellous how anyone ever lived under it.

Our artillery was put out of action, and it was in the charge of the 10th Battalion to recover a battery that poor Joe Pinnette from Humboldt was killed. He was killed by a bullet through the brain within 20 yards of our trench. Poor Joe, he did not suffer though.

Well, to make a long story short, we were there for five days and nights without food and when relieved some of the boys could hardly walk. Our losses were terrible, and the sights I saw I shall never forget.

We marched on to Wieltje, about three miles, and were given breakfast, then we were taken back in reserve in two days battle at Wieltje, where we were again cut up with artillery, but we advanced over two miles. To give you some idea of the slaughter, our brigade went in over 5,000 strong and came out 1,200 in number.

When we were finally relieved we marched back through Ypres to relieve trenches guarding the Yser Canal and bridges for six days. Here we lost 77 men by shellfire, and we were four miles from the firing line.

When we came back through Ypres the Germans were shelling it and the destruction was something awful. There were dead men, women, children and soldiers lying all over the city, and I don’t think there was a house in the town that had not been ruined. It was an awful shambles. The dead were piled in houses and fired and burned. After six days here, listening to Jack Johnsons and Coal Boxes [high explosive shells] bursting and dodging shrapnel, we went to billets 4 miles the other side of Bailleul for 10 days, and then to Robaic and then down to again let me know any news you have of any of the rest of the Humboldt boys, as I am the only one from Humboldt in our battalion.

The war is still raging same as ever, and I think it will be at the very least one year before it is over. I expect to be into it again about September 1. Tell Mrs. Fournier not to worry about Ed, as prisoners are not treated as bad as they say in Canada. Tell Mr. Davis I am answering soon and think it very kind of him.

Will remember you when I am smoking those cigarettes.

Well bye, bye.

Yours truly,

Private Kingsley was assigned to the 5th Battalion, 2nd Brigade of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. His unit was under the command of Lt.-Col. G.S. Tuxford, a Moose Jaw area rancher widely known for his cattledrive adventures. The unit sailed for England on Oct. 3, 1914 and went into reserve on the sodden, cold Salisbury plain until February 1915.

The 2nd Brigade was part of a contingent that departed on Feb. 7, 1915 from Avonmouth, England, for St. Nazaire, France. It was a cold, wet and stormy five-day journey with many of the soldiers seasick. They then endured a 43-hour train trip to the front, in boxcars. There they received a week’s indoctrination to the trenches with experienced British units.

On Feb. 26, 1915, the Canadians began to relieve the British 7th Division in the trenches of Fleurbaix. The Canadian trenches were 6,400 feet long. They were flanked by the British on both sides. Enemy trenches were only 200 to 250 feet distant. The trenches were sodden, fouled, stinking and cold. “Trench foot” was a common result of continual exposure of the feet to the cold, damp conditions. It was similar to frostbite in its effect.

The French and the British had different perspectives when it came to trenches. The French viewed them as temporary places in which to pause between offensives. The British viewed them as defensive positions that should be held at all costs. As a result, the French trenches were shallow, short and unconnected, with only light protection by barbed wire. British trenches were deeper, connected, longer and more solidly reinforced.

The Canadians held the line near Fleurbaix for 24 days before being relieved by the British 8th Division on March 25, 1915. They had suffered 278 casualties. On April 1 the Canadian Division was reassigned to General Sir Horace Smith-Dorien of the 2nd Army. They would go to the Ypres Salient, Belgium, a 17-mile-long curve from Steenstraat to Saint-Elio. The troops were sent by double-decker bus to Vlamertinghe. From there they marched through Ypres and Wieltje. The Canadian Division went to a sector consisting of 4,250 yards of trench. There were two French divisions on their left, the 45th (Algerian) and the 87th (Territorial). The 2nd Canadian Brigade, of which Percy Kingsley was a member, moved into position on the night of April 14/15, and remained there until April 22, a sunny, warm spring day on which the German forces attacked.

The Germans had installed 5,730 cylinders of chlorine gas along their trenches. At 4 p.m. the attack began with an artillery bombardment on the French positions. At 5 p.m. the winds were right and the Germans unleashed the deadly gas, causing the French to retreat in disarray. The gap left by the retreating French troops was about 8,000 yards, twice the length cited in Kingsley’s letter. Three French soldiers died from the gas, and 625 were treated for its effects.

This was not the first time poisonous gas had been used. On Oct. 27, 1914, the Germans fired shells filled with chlorine gas near Neuve Chapelle. Still, the release of the gas at Ypres was unexpected, and the higher ranks were in chaos with no clear picture of what had happened, or was continuing to happen.

The German troops advanced and then dug in for the night as ordered. They did not press their advantage. Unaware that the Germans were stopping, the Canadians frantically tried to close the gap. The Germans’ pause allowed time for the Allies to plug the gap, though it stretched their resources to the breaking point. On April 24 the Canadians were gassed and sustained a heavy bombardment of artillery that lasted for 10 minutes. The 5th Battalion, of which Percy Kingsley was a member, and the 8th Battalion took a heavy pounding.

Advancing Germans troops were astounded to find the Canadians still in their trenches after the gas and artillery barrage. They attacked five times and were repelled by the Canadians each time. The Canadians were also being assaulted by artillery coming from three directions. Their situation was desperate.

Around noon on the 24th, the German attack abated. Later in the afternoon British troops began to relieve those Canadians who survived. But the Canadians had to return, and did not withdraw again until April 26. Private Kingsley’s 5th Battalion had been in the thick of battle at Ypres from April 22 to April 26 without reinforcements or food and only a very brief relief. The 10th Battalion had gone into the trenches with 816 men. The day after the German assault only 231 answered the roll call. The 2nd Brigade had actually been reduced from 4,000 men to about 1,200. Kingsley’s letter overstates the toll. While part of the 2nd had to return to the lines, Private Kingsley’s 5th Battalion remained in reserve near Fortuin. They were there for two days and endured heavy shelling.

Late on April 27, the 5th Battalion was ordered to Canal de l’Yser and camped near Vlamertinghe. The 5th and 10th Battalions combined lost 91 men to shelling there. The Canadians then went to billets at Bailleul, about 25 kilometres from Ypres, from May 4 to 6.

The Battle of Festubert, in the Ypres Salient, lasted from May 15 to 27. The attack by the Canadians, begun on May 18, followed an attack by infantry from India. The Canadians faced heavy opposition from German artillery, and were unsuccessful.

Allied forces renewed their effort with attacks between May 20 and 24. They captured the town of Festubert, but had gained less than a kilometre of ground. The battle was abandoned on May 27, with Allied forces suffering approximately 16,000 casualties. The Canadian 2nd Brigade had lost 1,253 men.

Private Kingsley’s stay in the Birmingham hospital was followed by recuperation at convalescent homes until October 1915. He was then transferred to a reserve battalion before going back to the 5th, the unit he was with at the time of his injuries. He continued to be affected by unexplained fevers and was hospitalized for them in 1916.

In 1917 he was transferred to the 1st Canadian Divisional Headquarters and in November of that year promoted to corporal. At Divisional Headquarters he was assigned as an instructor in the Anti-Gas School. In January 1918, Corporal Kingsley was mentioned in dispatches for distinguished and gallant service for his actions at the Battle of Festubert. In May of that year he was promoted again. As Sergeant Kingsley, he rejoined the 5th Battalion for the journey home to Canada in April of 1919. He was discharged in Regina, Saskatchewan, on April 24, 1919. He went back home to Humboldt and the family lumber business.

Kingsley married Margaret Pollard on July 26, 1922, and they had tree daughters, all of whom married and moved to the U.S. In 1939 he moved to Saskatoon, where he worked as a superintendent for Reliance Lumber Company and area representative for Swanson’s Lumber of Edmonton. Percy Leyland Kingsley passed away in Saskatoon Nov. 30, 1982, at 96. He indeed had “a charmed life.”

— Text by Stephen Carthy

This article originally appeared in The Beaver, December 2005-January 2006.