March 1917 Gas Attacks at Vimy Ridge

WWI War Stories: Turmaine and Emery.

In honor of today’s ceremonies in honor of the 100th anniversary of the battle at Vimy Ridge, I am reposting several articles about my own ancestors who died in WWI. 


In my father’s French Canadian, ‘Turmaine’ branch of the family, we have two known soldiers who died in the first world war. The first was my grand uncle, Pte. Joseph Philias Albert Emery, and the second was another grand uncle, Pte. Joseph Turmaine – and here are their WWI war stories.


Pte. Joseph Philias Albert Emery
Pte Joseph Philias Albert Emery – just one of many WWI war stories.

PTE. JOSEPH PHILIAS ALBERT EMERY, the son of Albert Emery and Émilie Labelle was born in Saint-André Avellin, Ripon Township, Papineau County, Québec, Canada. At 5’6″, he had a fair complexion, brown hair and grey eyes and he was a papermaker at the time of his enlistment in the 77th Canadian Battalion, Governor General’s Foot Guards.

Having later been reassigned to the 73rd Battalion Canadian Infantry, Black Watch of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, he was engaged in the preparations for the advance on Vimy Ridge. He was reported missing on March 1, 1917, about a month prior to the capture of the ridge. His remains were never found and he was memorialized at Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery, Souchez in Pas de Calais, France.

Gas Attacks in March 1917 at Vimy Ridge - war stories
Of many WWI war stories, this one included deadly gas attacks in March 1917 at Vimy Ridge. Image of a gas cloud being released fromm canisters on the Western Front circ 1916.

During gas and artillery attacks planned for that day, the troops came under fire from the Germans.

An excerpt from the war diary of the 73rd Battalion dated March 1, 1917 reads, “Officers and men without exception fought magnificently. Casualties during the attack were as follows: 26 OR killed, 99 OR wounded, 27 OR missing.”



Preserved WWI tunnel at Vimy Ridge
Preserved WWI fighting tunnel at Vimy Ridge.

Pte. Emery was among those missing and was never recovered.

A very detailed and well-researched account entitled, “A Proper Slaughter: The March 1917 Gas Raid on Vimy Ridge”, written by Tim Cook contains some great photos and makes great reading.

Another account of the incident taken from the ‘ Canadian Battlefields ‘ website is as follows:

   “Thirty-nine days before the Canadians infamous and victorious attack on Vimy Ridge from April 9-12, 1917 there was a disastrous reconnaissance raid.   On March 1, 1917 at 3:00 am the gas sergeants took their positions to release the phosgene gas from the hundreds of gas canisters, referred to as “rats”, they had placed prior to the scheduled raid date. Every night they had lugged the heavy, poisonous gas canisters four miles to the front lines. They dug holes in the ground, nicknamed “rat traps” where the canisters were carefully placed and held in position with dirt and sandbags. A rubber hose connected to the canister would be maneuvered away from the trench, into No Man’s Land towards the enemy. The Canadians knew all too well what poisonous gas did to the human body from their experience at the Ypres Salient in 1915 when they were hit with gas for the first time.

    At 5:00 am the gas sergeants were to release the chlorine gas and 45-minutes later the 1,700 troops assigned to the raid were to go “over the top”. Of course things didn’t work out. For a gas attack, the velocity and direction of the wind is crucial. Secondly, gas is heavier then air. This meant that even if the gas sergeants managed to release the gas from the canisters and through the hose into No Man’s Land, the gas then had to travel up the hill to kill the Germans. (I shake my head at this, as I’m sure you are too). Gas is heavier than air, therefore it is logically impossible for it to flow up hill. Rather, they would find that the gas would settle in the pot-marked landscape and trenches, the very places our soldiers would seek protection from German fire. The idea was that the first gas release would kill most of the Germans. The second release, of chlorine gas, would surely finish off the Germans. 45-minutes after the chlorine gas release, a proposed sufficient amount of time for the gas to dissipate, our soldiers would walk in, finish off the few struggling Germans, collect the information they were sent for and then return. If I, a civilian, can see flaws in this plan, I cannot help but question, almost scream, “How did anyone ever let this plan go further than its first mentioning?!”

   The Germans realized a gas attack has been launched. They sounded the alarms, and released hell on No Man’s Land. A German artillery barrage and a steady pumping of rifle and machine gun fire rained down on the Canadians. The shells smashed into buried gas cylinders, causing our own trench to instantly fill with poison gas. With a tremendous rupture a wave of yellow gas plummeted from our trenches. The chlorine gas cylinders had been hit. “Making matters worse, the wind had changed direction. The release of the second wave of gas to supposedly finish off the German defenders began blowing back in the faces of the Canadian brigades.” (Barris, 2008: 13).
   In about 5 minutes we lost 190 men and two company commanders. It total, there were 687 casualties. Only 5 men actually reached the German trenches. Those that somehow managed to stay alive in No Man’s Land, were captured and spent around 21-months in a German prison camp
   On March 3 an extraordinary event took place. No Man’s Land had been eerily silent after the attack, but out of the mist a German officer carrying a Red Cross flag walked out into No Man’s Land in front of Hill 145. He called for and was met by a Canadian officer to discuss a two-hour truce ‘from 10:00 am until 12:00 noon’ during which time Canadian stretcher bearers and medical staff could carry back casualties and remains. What seemed even more remarkable [was] “the Germans said they would assist by bringing Canadian casualties halfway.”


PTE. JOSEPH TURMAINE, son of Herménégilde Turmaine and Virginia Perrault, was born in 1891 at Lac Mégantic, Québec, Canada. He was 5’7 1/2″ tall, had a dark complexion, blue eyes and very dark hair. He was a Private in the 27th Battalion Infantry, Winnipeg Regiment and took part in action against the Germans in Courcelette. He was reported ‘missing in action’ and was never recovered.

I have summarized the account of his Battalion’s war diary for the date he went missing below:

The 27th Battalion, Winnipeg Regiment left at 2 pm, September 14, 1916 for brigade headquarters, arriving at 5 pm. They then left brigade headquarters at 9 pm and proceeded to the front line to take up position in assembly trenches, which was delayed due to congestion of the trenches and was completed just after 4 am.

At 6:20 am, the artillery barrage opened 50 yards ahead of the German trench and the first wave started crawling over. As the barrage lifted, the Battalion advanced to the first German line and were met with heavy rifle and machine gun fire. As soon as the Canadian troops reached the trench, the Germans threw up their hands and surrendered. The Battalion followed up the barrage closely and met very little resistance at Sunken Road, the Germans surrendering in large numbers. By this time, the first wave was nearly wiped out and the second wave took their place. Owing to casualties, reinforcements were sent to hold the line at Sunken Road. The Germans attempted to advance but were driven back by Canadian fire. A large number also advanced and started sniping the Canadian front only to also be driven back by Canadian fire.

Two Canadian patrols pushed on toward Courcelette, but were forced to return to the line due to barrage fire. The German artillery fire was very intense for 48 hours on the front line.

A few troops dashed forward under cover of Canadian machine guns and captured a German Maxim. Approximately 22 Germans surrendered.

The Germans had thrown away the feed block of the captured gun but after considerable searching it was located and the gun was turned on German snipers, causing considerable damage. After the Battalion returned to the Brigade Reserve it was reported that there were 72 killed, 250 wounded and 72 missing (including Joseph Turmaine).

photo credit:

Sources for WWI War Stories: Turmaine and Emery:

  1. Cook, Tim (1999) ““A Proper Slaughter”: The March 1917 Gas Raid at Vimy Ridge,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 8: Iss. 2, Article 1. Available at: (
  2. Books of Remembrance, Veterans Affairs Canada, (
  3. Pas de Calais, France, “XIV. F. 25.,” database, Commonwealth War Graves Commission ( . Attestation Papers – Archives of Canada, digital images.
  4. Certificate of Memorial; Private Joseph Phillias Albert Emery (SN: 144880), 73rd Battalion, Canadian Infantry; Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery, Souchez, France.
  5. Casualty Form – Active Service; Private Joseph Philias Albert Emery.
  6. Form of Will; Private Joseph Philias Albert Emery.
  7. Medals, Decorations, Promotions and Transfers Record; Private Joseph Philias Albert Emery.
  8. War Service Gratuity Form; Private Joseph Philias Albert Emery.
  9. Provencher, Gérard and Blue Jeans, George, Pontbriand, B.; ” Marriages of Outaouais (Theft. I-II) 1815-1970 “, *86-87, Québec, 1971, S.G.C.F. * S.G.L. (Directory); French Title: Mariages de l’Outaouais (Vol. I-II) 1815-1970.
  10. Canadian Battlefields; Vimy Ridge: Before the Gas at Hill 145 (website:
  11. Les Labelles, Daniel Labelle online (, accessed.1901 Canadian Census – St. André Avelin, Labelle District, Québec; Émerie Family: Charles, Émelie, Alice, Albert, Clarinda, Émeralda, Rose A. (Amande).
  13. Personal knowledge and interviews with family.