South Cowichan in the Second Battle of Ypres

On April 22, 1915, the First Canadian Division, recently arrived in France for duty in the trenches of the Ypres Salient, experienced its first major engagement in what has come to be known as the Second Battle of Ypres. On that day, the Germans used poison (chlorine) gas in an effort to break the stalemate along the western front and smash through the Allied salient around Ypres in order to capture Calais and the Channel ports.

The gas attack, which marked the opening phase of the battle, began at approximately 5 p.m. in front of two divisions of the French army on the immediate left of the First Canadian Division.

In the ensuing melee, both French divisions withdrew from their positions thereby threatening to collapse the salient. In the ensuing battle, which lasted several weeks, the Canadians experienced a significant number of fatalities – including five men whose names are recorded on the South Cowichan cenotaph at Cobble Hill.

This article describes those men and the circumstances of their death.

It is gleaned from a variety of online sources, in particular the Library and Archives Canada First World War databases and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. Another source is the collection The Men of the Cowichan Valley and World War I compiled by Reverend Jim Short and held at the Cowichan Valley Museum and Archives.

All but one of the men who died at Second Ypres joined the First Contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) in Valcartier, Quebec. They came from a variety of backgrounds, and, although none were born in Canada, they were all British subjects. They belonged to three different units: the 7th Battalion, (British Columbia Regiment) – an amalgamation of several militia units including the 88th Regiment (Victoria Fusiliers); the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) – an amalgamation of several Highland units including the 50th Regiment (Gordon Highlanders), and Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), the last privatelyraised unit formed in the British Commonwealth.

Once the extent of the open flank on the Canadian left became apparent during the evening of April 22, Major-General Alderson, Commander of the First Canadian Division, ordered an immediate counterattack.

Accordingly, at midnight of April 22/23, the 10th and 16th battalions put in a hasty attack on Kitchener’s Wood, an area that overlooked the town of St. Julien. (Kitchener’s Wood is a literal translation of Bois des Cuisiniers and has no relation to Field Marshal Kitchener.) Against all odds, the two battalions swept the Germans from their position and recaptured four heavy guns that had been lost earlier in the day. In the face of the inevitable counterattack on April 23, the 10th and 16th, now mixed together, fell back to the southern edge of Kitchener’s Wood.

It was during the fighting of the night of 22/23 April in Kitchener’s Wood that Private Thomas James Young of the 16th Battalion lost his life. The battle was so ferocious that his body was not recovered and he is commemorated, along with all the other missing, on the Menin Gate in Ypres. Young was born in the UK in 1891 and prior to coming to the Cowichan Valley, had served for eight years in the Royal Navy.

On April 24, the Canadians faced another gas attack, this time directly in front of the trenches of the Third Brigade. The ensuing battle involved all available reserves, including three companies of the 7th Battalion (Bn) which were moved to the vicinity of St. Julien to stem the tide on the Third Brigade’s left flank. It was on this day, later known as St. Julien Day, that a further three men from South Cowichan died.

Private Hamilton de Beauvoir Nelson (7th Bn) was born in 1895 in San Francisco to British parents. He was raised and educated in the UK and he stated on enlistment that his trade was Rancher – a common enough designation for men of the Cowichan Valley. As in the case of Pte. Young, Nelson’s body was not recovered and he is commemorated on the Menin Gate.

Private Horace Leslie Ravenhill (7th Bn) was born in the UK in 1889 and prior to moving to Shawnigan Lake with his father and two aunts in 1910, served for a year in the 7th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment. When he joined up, Ravenhill described his trade as Bushwhacker – no doubt an accurate reflection of his occupation as he and his father sought to tame the wilds of Shawnigan Lake. Once again, Ravenhill’s body was not recovered and he is commemorated on the Menin Gate.

Lieutenant Napier Arnott Jessop (7th Bn) was born in the UK in 1888 and emigrated to Cobble Hill where he first worked at Hill Farm before becoming involved in real estate in Victoria. Prior to the war, he served with the 6th Battalion, the Bedfordshire Regiment and the 2nd County of London Yeomanry. In Canada, he joined the 88th Regiment (Victoria Fusiliers) and was serving with that unit on strike duty in Nanaimo from August 1913 until the outbreak of the war. When he joined up, he identified his trade, rather enigmatically, as Gentleman. His body was recovered after the battle but was initially unidentified. Presumably when individual graves were consolidated after the war, his remains were identified and he is buried in Oosttaverne Cemetery, Belgium. His commanding officer is quoted as saying of Lt. Jessop on April 24 that: "…[Jessop] was perfectly splendid under the fierce attack that was thrown against us that day. He was an inspiration to his men. There is not much to tell, for his platoon were in the trenches throughout and merely fought the Germans off by rifle fire. There was nothing spectacular about it, but it was the height of enduring courage."

Our final South Cowichan fatality was Corporal Arthur Emil Jones. At the time of the Second Battle of Ypres, he was serving with the PPCLI which had proceeded independently to France before the First Canadian Division arrived. The PPCLI were part of the 27th Division of the British Expeditionary Force during the Second Battle of Ypres and were located to the south of the Canadian Division.

Jones was born in the UK in 1890 and emigrated to Canada in 1912. He joined up in Victoria in November 1914 with the 30th Battalion of the Second Contingent of the CEF. When he joined, he stated that his trade was Clerk. As in the case of several CEF battalions, the 30th was designated as a "Reserve" battalion when it arrived in the UK and provided reinforcements to the understrength units in Belgium. He was transferred to the PPCLI in early April 1915 and during the battle around Ypres, suffered from "gas poisoning." He was evacuated to No. 11 General Hospital, Boulogne and died on May 5, 1915. He is buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery.

Five men, all recent arrivals to South Cowichan, all dead in one major battle. Perhaps a cause to take a moment on St. Julien Day (April 24) to reflect on the human dimension of the First World War which was ironically designated as the War to End All Wars.