The noisy rat-a-tat produced by this First World War rattle (on display in the Memorial Room at Soldiers’ Tower) warned all those within earshot of an impending poison gas attack. In the trenches the only criteria for alarm devices were that they be loud and distinctive – but as a bonus, rattles didn’t require use of the lungs. Soldiers used wooden rattles, klaxon horns and steel triangles, but also made alarms from whatever materials they had available, such as empty shell cases and church bells.
Poison gas caused more than a million casualties in the First World War. Widespread use of lethal gas began in April of 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres in western Belgium. This battle, known as the Canadian Army’s “Baptism of Fire,” gave Canada’s soldiers a reputation as a force to be reckoned with. Yet, in 48 hours of fighting, 6,035 Canadians – one in every three soldiers in the First Division – were injured or killed. More than 2,000 died. The University of Toronto suffered many casualties at Ypres, including medical student Norman Bethune (BSc Med 1916) who was wounded in the fighting and spent three months recovering in a British military hospital. Prof. Harold Innis was another member of the U of T community who was gassed during his service overseas. Pictured on our cover in 1917 wearing a gas mask around his neck, a “very tired” Innis had just come off duty as a signaller with the Fourth Battery of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Western Europe.
On April 9, 1917 at Vimy Ridge, gas shells hit between his feet but “did no damage other than to release a rather stifling chlorene (sic) gas.” A few months later Innis was not so lucky when shrapnel from a German shell ripped through his right thigh. The wound was severe but not lethal, thanks in large measure to his avowed “habit of carrying around great quantities of stuff in my rucksack.” Books and other equipment stopped additional shell fragments from entering his body. The pictured Field Message Book, which now belongs to the Harold Innis collection at U of T Archives, was among the objects that may have saved his life.