LT. COLONEL RUSS BOYLE
October 29, 1880 - April 25, 1915
For the six-minute Extended Version of the above video, please click here.
On April 22, 1915, Lt. Colonel Russell Lambert Boyle heroically led the 800 men of the 10th Battalion (Calgary Highlanders) in Canada's first attack of the First World War (1914-1918) at Kitcheners' Wood. The Germans had infamously attacked behind a cloud of chlorine gas. The French had run, but the 18,000 Canadians had held and were in danger of being surrounded. Boyle was ordered to stop the German advance and just before midnight, led the counterattack that changed history.
Charismatic, rugged and handsome, Boyle lived a life of high adventure and mortal danger! Take a look at the remarkable story of this MONUMENTAL CANADIAN.
Kitcheners' Wood, so named because it was where the French troops had their field kitchens, was a symbol of Canadian courage and audacity as well as tragedy and loss. A part of the overall 2nd Battle of Ypres in Belgium, Kitcheners' Wood was the site of the Imperial German army's inaugural use of poison gas on the Western Front.
Official survey map of the Ypres area, detailing the situation from April 22nd-April 24th, going counterclockwise. The top right quarter (Map A) shows the situation as of 4 PM on April 22nd - some hours after German chlorine gas, coming from the northeast, floated southwest and decimated the French lines. Kitcheners' Wood is the small patch of green at the intersection of grid squares 10, 11, 16, and 17 in section C. Map B (top left) shows the morning after Boyle led the Canadian troops in their counterattack. Image courtesy of the Canadian War Museum.
At sunrise on April 22nd, a great yellow-green cloud wafted over the French infantry of the 45th Division. Ill-prepared for the chlorine gas effects, they soon broke ranks, resulting in a gap nearly 6.5 kilometres wide and exposing the Canadians' left flank. The 1st Canadian Division, having been in reserve till that time, was ordered to retake the positions abandoned by the French, which had started to be occupied by the Germans. Specifically, it was the 10th and 16th Battalions of the 2nd and 3rd Brigades' Canadian Expeditionary Force, respectively, that provided the troops. Shortly before midnight, Boyle led the 10th Battalion (which would be officially known as The Calgary Highlanders) in the first wave of the attack, quickly covering the distance from their line to where the Germans were holed up in the Wood. However, no reconnaissance had been made of the area before the charge, and the Canadians soon got bogged down by a hedge protected by barbed wire. Using nothing more than their rifle butts, the two battalions hacked and bashed their way through all the while German machine guns were firing upon them from 200 yards away.
The troops charged the remaining distance and successfully overpowered the Germans - but at a very high price. Over the next several days as the Germans fought to regain the position, the two Canadian battalions collectively lost over 80% of their total strength. For their courage and steadfastness, the Allied Supreme Commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, called the Canadian assault "the greatest act of the war" - an act that would not have been possible without men like Lt. Colonel Russ Boyle, who led the opening assault. Sadly, shot five times in the groin region by a German machine gun, he succumbed to his wounds three days later on the 25th.
One artist's depiction of the April 22nd/23rd evening attack by the Canadians. Note the soldiers on the left half of the image - they are in kilts, denoting them as being part of the 10th Battalion, then commonly known as the Highlanders. Image courtesy of Calgary Highlanders.
Boyle's fate was echoed by all of the other officers in the 10th Battalion - by April 24th, all of the 10th's officers had either been killed or wounded so severely as to be unable to maintain even war diary records. That day, the Canadians became the direct victims of another German chlorine gas attack. They were more prepared than the French, however, and fought for every metre of ground as they slowly retreated in the face of superior German numbers. Eventually, British troops arrived to relieve the Canadians, allowing a steady no-man's land to be established. This was the Canadians' first battle of the First World War. Their performance, despite the extremely high casualty rates, earned them a reputation for being hardy and dependable. It was by this 2nd Battle of Ypres that John McCrae was inspired to write the famous poem, "In Flanders Fields".
Lieutenant-Colonel Russ L. Boyle's remains are interred in the Poperinghe Old Military Cemetery in Belgium, 10.5 km west of Ypres town centre.
For scans of the April 22nd/23rd, 1915, war diary entries of the 10th Battalion outlining the Canadians' assault, click the below links, listed by time of the events:
Apr. 22, 11:44PM - 11:55PM
Apr. 23, 12:01AM - 12:15AM
Apr. 23, 12:30AM - 1:30AM
Apr. 23, 2:00AM - 3:00AM
Apr. 23, 3:30AM - 6:30AM
Apr. 23, 6:00AM - 7:45PM (contains list of wounded/killed officers, including Boyle)
To read more of the 10th Battalion's experience in the war (1914 to 1917), please visit this page on the Canadian Great War Project website.
VALOUR CANADA wishes to acknowledge The Poppy Fund, Calgary Foundation and Veterans Affairs Canada for their generous funding of MONUMENTAL CANADIANS.