“I Do Not Want to See Such a Horrible Sight Again”: An American with the Canadians at the Second Battle of Ypres (Recipe: Rhubarb Betty)

Norwich Bulletin, May 24, 1915

It’s not really clear how Sam Lasoff’s letter home ended up in the Norwich, Connecticut Bulletin. Born in Manchester, England, and having grown up in a Jewish family in Baltimore, Maryland, Sam did not appear to have any connections to coastal Connecticut. His letter wasn’t to anyone living there, and the paper didn’t publish anything about him before or after his letter showed up in their “Stories of War” column on May 24th, 1915.[i]

It’s also not clear how Sam ended up in Canada, but by the time he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force, he’d been living and working up north for several years as a waiter. He enlisted as a Private on September 22, 1914, receiving Reg. No. 9800.[ii] Because this early in the war, numbers were given sequentially as volunteers joined up, we know he stood in line for his evaluation next to two other foreign-born fighters enlisting the same day: David Kidd, No. 9799, born in Scotland, and William Leathem, No. 9801, born in Ireland.[iii] It’s interesting to wonder what they talked about as they waited. Their reasons for joining up – love for their adopted country?  anger at Germany? a search for adventure? Or maybe they chatted about themselves, how they’d settled in Canada. Or perhaps they spent time admiring Leathem’s most significant identifying feature: a horsehead and horseshoe, tattooed on his right forearm.[iv]

Lasoff in the official registry of the Third Battalion

At the end of the line, all three were accepted into the CEF. Sam noted down his mother’s address in Baltimore, said he was okay with being vaccinated, and was helpfully described on his enlistment card as “Complexion: Dark. Eyes: Dark. Hair: Dark.”[v] All three were assigned to the First Division, Third Battalion. Kidd would end up in the 10th Regiment, Lasoff the 12th, and Leathem the 105th. The battalion sailed from Canada at the end of September.

Lasoff’s enlistment card, from his personnel records at Library and Archives Canada.

Sam apparently didn’t find anything in his first few months enlisted important enough to share with family back in Baltimore, but when he did finally send his first letter, it was with big news: He was in England, recovering from a shrapnel wound that had ripped through his jaw, knocking him unconscious, wounding ten others, and killing his commanding officer.[vi] The injury, he wrote, had been acquired at a momentous occasion: April 22, 1915, the start of the battle that would become known as Second Ypres, most famous as the first use of poison gas on the Western front.

As Sam told it, the real action had started two days earlier, on April 20th, when his regiment had fought off a group of Germans who had snuck across the mere 300 yards of no-man’s land separating the two armies and attacked the Canadians in their trench. “We opened fire on them and killed them by the hundreds until they finally had to give up,” he wrote. Refusing to abandon the trench, the Canadians fought for half an hour, and when the shooting ended and the smoke cleared, horror awaited: “[W]e could see nothing but dead Germans in the front of our trenches.” The gore was so much “[t]he sight nearly turned [him] sick.”[vii]

This was the first battle Sam had experienced, but it had nothing on what followed. The Germans waited two days to take their revenge. On April 22, at 9 at night, they attacked. Sam described them throwing “gas bombs near our trench” which “nearly suffocated” the Canadian soldiers. Realizing the risk, the Canadian general ordered a retreat. The soldiers fell back almost a mile, abandoning the trench and some large guns to the Germans. Regrouping, they were then ordered to counterattack, and Sam found himself in the thick of vicious combat:  

“It was simply horrible. I was expecting every minute to be killed, for my comrades were falling all about me. We charged the Germans and were running and yelling like mad men. It was a hand to hand fight and the Germans were being forced back, when a shell lit in front of us, killing our officer and a number of men and wounding 10 of us. I was picked up unconscious and rushed to a barn nearby [….]”[viii]

The letter gave a striking picture of the fighting at the start of Second Ypres to readers in Connecticut. But for historians, it’s also interesting for another reason.

It’s wrong.

In most of the details offered, Sam’s information doesn’t line up with what actually happened to him or his regiment at the start of the battle of Ypres. There are multiple issues. Per the battalion’s war diaries and the official histories, the Third Battalion -indeed, the whole First Division – wasn’t at the front on April 22nd; instead they were behind the lines at Vlamertinghe.[ix] The gas attack occurred at 5PM, not at 9. There was a counter-attack, but not until much later that night. The 10th and 16th of the Third participated, but not Sam’s regiment.[x]

The troops the Germans directly hit on the 22nd were similarly troops of empire, but ones who’d likely enlisted under much different circumstances from the volunteer Canadians: colonial French Algerians, in the 45th Division. Canadian officers who saw the results of the attack on the Algerians reported vividly on the horror of the spectacle:

General Alderson […] could see two clouds of yellowish green one on either side of Langemarck; these drifted slowly southwards, close to the ground, and spread laterally until they united into one long low rolling bank of choking horrible fog. Stumbling and gasping in an agony of terror-stricken flight before it, scattered groups of French African infantrymen with reeking, yellowed clothing and ashen purple faces, staggered across the fields, through hedges, over ditches and down the roads, regardless of everything but this unknown devil which had them by the throat.”[xi]

Painting of a line of soldiers walking apparently blind
Singer Sargent, Gassed (1919). Public Domain.

The Canadian troops at the front were to the left of the direct hit of the gas attack, and contrary to Sam’s description, they did not retreat but held the line.[xii]

Canadian troops were directly hit with gas two days later, on the 24th. On this day, reports of gas attacks came in around 4:30 in the morning, and some of the troops did fall back. The Third Battalion participated in efforts to reinforce the line, at the cost of multiple casualties. The battalion’s war diaries show the chaos of the day, as the Canadians struggled to hold their position in the face of the onslaught. Per official records, at some point during this day  — and not the 22nd — Sam Lasoff became a casualty, with a gun shot wound to the head.   

Lasoff’s casualty form from his personnel records, indicating he’d received a “G.S.W. Head.” Library and Archives Canada.

Why the wrong info? It’s hard to say definitively. It seems unlikely that someone in America knew Sam existed, knew where he was stationed, and made up a letter from him, so most likely it was a real missive from Sam. The mistakes, then, lie with him. It could simply be that he confused the dates. The battle was chaotic, and he had been injured. Some of his details work for the 24th. Canadian troops were gassed that day. An order to move forward to reinforce the line might seem like a counter-attack to a private. Multiple casualties in fighting did occur. But even for later date, there were errors. While a 5 — close to the actual gas attack time on the 24th — could be confused for a 9 when transcribing the handwritten letter, he did specify “at night,” which would have been inaccurate. Perhaps it was not accidental at all. It could just be that as he recuperated in England, Sam became aware of the significance of the 22nd and wanted to insert himself into that timeline: to be a part of history.

If Sam’s letter is not useful as an account of the first use of poison gas on April 22nd, it still holds value as a reflection on what it felt like to be in battle on the Western Front at that time. The description of combat – likely accurate on how he was wounded, if not right on when – vividly showed the chaos and chance of battle. His letter also caught the impact of the aftermath of the fight. As he read the news from his hospital bed in England – where the recuperating men, he noted, were feted as kings by the locals – he told his parents that “from the casualty list I find that nearly all our officers have been killed.” The overwhelming losses, and what he had seen, made him wary of returning to the front. “I must say,” he wrote, “I do not want to see such a horrible sight again as the battle through which I went at Ypres. It was a horrible sight.”[xiii]

No more of his letters appeared in the Norwich Bulletin, but his digitized personnel file shows that Sam did return to his unit and to the front. Although out again several months in early 1916 for illness — during which time he was docked three days’ pay for smoking in a marquee against orders — he rejoined his unit once more that June, returning to the front.[xiv] He was just in time for the Battle of Mount Sorrel.

On June 13, he would have been among the troops that pushed back against the Germans, recapturing lost ground from the earlier fighting. But he would not have been among those celebrating. He was reported missing, one of over 8000 casualties to the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the nearly two weeks of battle. By July 20th, his file had been updated:

Library and Archives Canada

“Previously reported missing now for official purposes presumed to have died on or since 13th June 1916.”

His body was never located.

Samuel Lasoff is memorialized at the Menin Gate Memorial, on Panel 18 – 24 – 26 – 30.

 Rhubarb Betty

Rhubarb Betty – Mix together three cupfuls of fine stale bread crumbs, one cupful of sugar, a pinch of salt, one teaspoonful of mixed ground spice and one half of a cup of melted butter. In a baking dish put alternate layers of crumbs and finely cut rhubarb, adding more sugar if the fruit is thought to be very tart. Bake three-quarters of an hour in a hot oven and serve with sweetened cream.

This appeared on the same page as Sam’s letter in the Norwich Bulletin. The page had the editorials, letters to the editor, random tidbits of news, and the women’s section, including tips on cleaning, dealing with burns, and this very helpful bit of advice: “When cheese is used in any large quantities it should replace meat or fruit juices.” I support this. I often replace entire food groups with cheese.

It also had this recipe for rhubarb betty. I’m always intrigued by rhubarb. I’d really like to know who the person was who first thought “Well, Jack keeps getting sick when he eats the leaves, but I bet this stalk, which is super tart, won’t kill us AND will be great in desserts!” Whoever they were, early spring CSA recipients everywhere thank you.

Most Bettys I’ve seen use brown sugar and oatmeal, but breadcrumbs are more economical and with that much sugar and butter they should do just fine. And speaking of sugar, yes, my rhubarb is thought to be very tart, thank you very much, so I’ll be adding sugar there too.

This might end up delicious but it won’t be healthy. I’m okay with that.

Rhubarb Betty


  • 1 lb rhubarb, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 cups unseasoned breadcrumbs (see note)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • Sweet cream or vanilla ice cream, for serving


  1. Preheat the oven to 400. Grease a casserole dish and set aside.
  2. Chop your rhubarb finely. Toss it in a bowl with 1/2 cup of sugar and set aside.
  3. If you have breadcrumbs, great! If not, follow Jessica Gavin’s instructions to make some. You’ll need X slices of regular sandwich bread to make 3 cups.
  4. In a medium bowl, mix together your 3 cups breadcrumbs, 1 cup sugar, 1 pinch salt, and 1 tsp allspice. It will smell really good.  
  5. Add 1/2 cup melted butter and stir to combine. It will now smell very good, and be mushy.
  6. Cover the bottom of the casserole with a layer of the breadcrumb mixture. Over this, spoon a layer of the rhubarb/sugar mixture. Repeat until the casserole is full, ending with a layer of the breadcrumb mixture.
  7. Bake at 400 for half an hour, until the top layer is brown and the rhubarb is easily pierced with a fork.

The original recipe recommended sweet cream; I think summer dishes go best with vanilla ice cream, so we’re using that.

It wasn’t pretty, but the dinos approved.


This got a loud, resounding, overwhelming “…Meh.” And really, that was spot-on. It was… okay. It wasn’t bad. It certainly wasn’t good. It was okay.

            It could, however, probably be made better. I let the rhubarb sit with the sugar too long, which resulted in extra liquid, which meant the bread crumbs on top had a harder time crisping up because of the liquid boiling up from the sides. The bits that did caramelize were delicious. So: try it without macerating the rhubarb. I’d also suspect using less sugar in the fruit overall – to let some of the tartness shine through – would be good.

            The reality just might be, however, that if I’m making something with springtime fruit, what I really want is strawberries.

            And pie.

            The ice cream was really good, though.

[i] “Stories of War,” Norwich Bulletin (Norwich, CT), May 24, 1915, p4.

[ii] “Lasoff, Samuel,” RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 5419 – 55, Personnel Records of the First World War, Library and Archives Canada/Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.

[iii] Library and Archives Canada/Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, “First World War Service Numbers Guide: Soldiers of the First World War: 1914-1918,” https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/001042/f2/Regimental_Number_List_of_the_Canadian_Expeditionary_Force.pdf; “Canadian Expeditionary Force: Third Battalion: Nominal Roll of Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and Men,” http://data2.archives.ca/e/e444/e011089496.pdf.

[iv]Leathem, William John,” RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 5491 – 54, Personnel Records of the First World War, Library and Archives Canada/Bibliothèque et Archives Canada. Leathem was one of only 40 of the original battalion who returned with the unit when the war ended. Kidd ended up a prisoner of war, only released in England in January of 1919. “Kidd, David,”  RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 5136 – 1, Personnel Records of the First World War, Library and Archives Canada/Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.

[v] “Lasoff, Samuel.”

[vi] “Stories of War,” Norwich Bulletin (Norwich, CT), May 24, 1915, p4.

[vii] “Stories of War,” Norwich Bulletin (Norwich, CT), May 24, 1915, p4.

[viii] “Stories of War,” Norwich Bulletin (Norwich, CT), May 24, 1915, p4.

[ix] The Third Battalion’s war diaries – wonderfully transcripted and available online – note for April 22 “Vlamertinghe. Bn still in billets. Orders to be ready to move at short notice cancelled. Training + general routine carried on at noon. A.P.M. took over 17 men undergoing F.P. No. 1. Fine day.”

[x] For more details on the events of April 22nd, see the official histories of the CEF from 1938 and 1964, as well as Andrew Iarocci’s Shoestring soldiers : the 1st Canadian Division at war, 1914-1915 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).

[xi] Duguid, Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War 1914-1918, Vol. 1 (J. O. Patenaude, ISO, Ottawa, 1938), p 217-218.

[xii] Canadian War Museum, “Poison Gas,” https://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/battles-and-fighting/weapons-on-land/poison-gas/.

[xiii] “Stories of War,” Norwich Bulletin (Norwich, CT), May 24, 1915, p4.

[xiv]   “Lasoff, Samuel,” This illness was not acquired on the battlefield. His medical card listed him in treatment at this time for “VDG,” followed by “VDS,” and then by “VDG” again: Venereal Disease, Gonorrhea, and Venereal Disease, Syphillis. He was docked 50 cents a day from his pay for his time in the hospital.

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