Interview with Lester Stevens, 8th Battalion, Canadian Division

April 24, 1915 | Library and Archives Canada, ”œThe Second Battle of Ypres”

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, ”œI 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, ”œIt’s just as if someone was tying that tighter every morning”. I said, ”œI thought the fresh air would get me over it but I’m getting worse” so he said, ”œYou’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, ”œHow did the gas affect you”. He said, ”œIt tied me all up in knots, in my stomach”. I said, ”œWell, it has affected me something like that. I don’t go to the bathroom only about every fourth day.” He says, ”œYou’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.