Tommy, p.48Richard Holmes
THE DEVIL’S BREATH
Gas was first used on the Western Front by the Germans at Second Ypres in April 1915. Its appearance introduced a new edge of harshness into the war. Ernest Shephard’s company was caught by a gas attack on Hill 60, just outside Ypres, on 1 May 1915, and even the tough-minded Shephard was shocked by what he saw.
The scene that followed was heartbreaking. Men were caught by fumes and in dreadful agony, coughing and vomiting, rolling on the ground in agony … I ran round at intervals and tied up a lot of men’s mouths, placed them in sitting positions, and organised parties to assist them to the support dugouts … When we found our men were dying from fumes we wanted to charge, but were not allowed to do so. What a start for May. Hell could find no worse [than] the groans of scores of dying and badly hurt men.
The following day he wrote:
The bitterest Sunday I have ever known or wish to know … Hardly know who is dead yet, but several of my best chums are gone under. Had we lost as heavily while actually fighting we would not have cared as much, but our dear boys died like rats in a trap, instead of heroes as they all were. The Dorset Regiment’s motto is now: ‘No prisoners. ‘ No quarter will be given when we again get to fighting.109
Lord Stanhope was at a French headquarters near Ypres just after the initial attack, and saw a French general interview prisoners, one of whom admitted to helping launch the gas. ‘Sergeant major,’ said the general quietly. ‘Take a file of men and take this man to the wall at the bottom of the garden.’ There was a brief pause and a volley.110
A German officer prophesied that the Allies would condemn the Germans as uncivilised and develop gas themselves as soon as they could, which is precisely what happened. The British government immediately decided to retaliate, and in May 1915 Charles Foulkes, a regular engineer, who had hitherto known nothing about chemical weapons, was appointed to command an organisation which began as the Special Service Party, was briefly 250th Company RE, and went on to become the Special Companies and eventually the Special Brigade. Foulkes was typical of the energetic and resourceful men who would rise to meet the challenges posed by military revolutions, without allowing existing organisational barriers to stop them, but, in the process, losing much of their objectivity about the merits of their pet weapons.
The War Office wrote to universities in search of chemists, and combed the army for suitable personnel: by 30 July it had 400, 126 by transfer and 274 by special enlistment. In September, on the eve of the first British use of gas at Loos, Robert Graves’s company commander was scathing about them: ‘Chemistry-dons from London university, a few lads straight from school, one or two NCOs of the old-soldier type, trained together for three weeks, then given a job as responsible as this.’111
This was not an unfair analysis of the Special Companies’ composition, although it did less than justice to the quality and commitment of many of their members. They were enlisted as corporals, Royal Engineers, on 3 shillings a day, which created predictable problems, and Foulkes asked them to revert to private soldiers. Ronald Ginns, a well-educated and democratically-inclined corporal, described how: ‘the proposal was voted upon and, needless to say, rejected unanimously’. He agreed, however, that some of the Old Army NCOs were not ideal. There was a corporal with a DCM: ‘reduced to the ranks for drunkenness. He looked like what he was, a drink-sodden Irishman, who was however entirely destitute of fear.’ And then there was a sergeant who was:
a regular army man from the Lancers. He was a drink-sodden bully, who claimed that he came from a good family. His most unpleasant trait was his habit of borrowing money from the corporals in his section and forgetting to pay it back. Those who objected to being fleeced, myself particularly, had extra duties found for them. I should have been heartily pleased if he had been killed.112
Some of the sergeants ‘& better-class corporals’ were commissioned in the field, ‘gazetted straight away and equipped in France’. And it was also quickly realised that the gas companies had an appetite for honest labour, and reserve infantry battalions in Britain produced ‘some good steady workers …’.
Foulkes recommended that chlorine gas should be discharged from cylinders in front-line trenches, which was the method used by the Germans. He had 5,100 cylinders containing 140 tons of chlorine available for Loos. By dawn on 25 September the 1,400 men of the gas companies had lugged their cylinders into the front line, connected up their discharge pipes – a vertical pipe going up to the parapet and a horizontal pipe pointing towards the German lines. The success of the gas would depend partly on wind direction, and Haig, then commanding 1st Army, was faced with a difficult decision, for the wind was very light that morning: he asked his senior aide de camp to light a cigarette, and when he saw the smoke drift gently eastwards he authorised the use of gas. It worked well in the southern part of the attack front, but in the north the wind eddied back, blowing the gas onto the attackers. The episode is often highlighted as an example of the sheer stupidity of the high command, but the effects of the gas on British troops are overstated: in fact it killed only seven of them, and without it the substantial gains around Loos village would have been impossible.
The first appearance of gas had prompted the adoption of primitive anti-gas protection, with rags, gauze or cotton pads (French and Belgian chemists generously supplied sanitary towels for this purpose, with ear-loops already handily attached) held across the mouth and nose by tape or string. It could be kept damp with a solution of bicarbonate of soda, and some medical officers recommended urine. In late May some units were supplied ‘with a flannel pad chemically treated and a pair of eye protection mica goggles’. By the end of the year most soldiers had what was officially called the ‘smoke helmet’ but was better known as ‘the goggle-eyed booger with the tit’, a grey flannel bag, impregnated with chemicals, with two eyepieces and a rubber mouthpiece. Frank Hawkings received his helmet ‘made of flannel soaked in hexamine and glycerine, and fitted with a rubber mouth valve’ in July.113 Bernard Livermore was in the line near Vimy a year later when:
Some order came round that a gas attack was expected and we had to pull our uncomfortable flannel bags over our heads. The eye goggles steamed up and we could see very little but we dared not take them off as gas might be in the trench. A new device had been issued to rid the trenches of gas; gigantic flat fans, like fly swotters on long poles. One had to walk along the duckboards, flapping gas in front of one by beating on the ground. We flapped the gas – if there was gas – round the traverse; there we met a man from the next bay flapping it stoutly into our territory.114
The smoke helmet had only a limited life once exposed to gas so two had to be carried. In 1917 it was replaced by the PH (Phenate-Hexamine) Helmet, which had thicker material, impregnated with alcohol, glycerine, caustic soda and sodium phenate. It had a one-way valve at the mouth piece, and two glass eyepieces, with spare glasses available.
This in turn was succeeded by the box respirator, which Lieutenant W. Drury of 4/King’s Shropshire Light Infantry described in his Western Command Gas School notes as:
A tin cylinder filled with chemicals, with inlet valve at the bottom, and connected by a rubber tube to impervious face mask. In connecting tube is a rubber outlet valve. The face piece or mask is made of water-proof material with 2 elastic bands attached to slip over the head & hold the mask in position … The whole is issued in a water-proof sachel [sic].
Fresh air was drawn in through the cylinder, whose mixture of charcoal, permanganate and soda lime, in layers separated by gauze, was designed to filter gas from the air to make it breathable. The box respirator was available in five sizes, although ‘Nos 1 and 5 sizes are only issued by special indent … Every man at the front should have issued to him a box respirator, one PH helmet and one pair of goggles.’ Masks were tested in gas chambers at training units in Britain and at the base, and platoon commanders were bidden to inspect them weekly for wear and tear.115 The box respirator was a lifesaver, but men hated l
Anti-gas protection marched in step with improvements in gas delivery. In early 1916 the four existing gas companies expanded into the Special Brigade, with four battalions of four companies apiece, and a mortar battalion. The latter, equipped with 4-inch Stokes mortars, pointed the way ahead, for gas was now being delivered, by both sides, by indirect fire as well as cylinder. From mid-1916 gas was routinely added to bombardments. It was useful for incapacitating the horses of hostile batteries, which could be accorded only primitive protection via an equine gas mask: the very notion of trying to fit masks to terrified horses in a muddy wagon-line at two o’clock on a rainy morning beggars belief. Captain Dunn saw his first horse in a gas mask in August 1917: ‘worn at the “alert”, fixed to the noseband of the head-stall’. Gas could be used to drench headquarters, so that staff officers, even in deep dugouts, would be forced to work masked-up; and it could be slipped in with the morning mist to incapacitate men caught at break-of-day befuddlement.
Both the Allies and the Germans relied on two main types of gas shell, each of several different varieties, developed in an attempt to sidestep the enemy’s anti-gas protection. T-shells delivered liquid (usually benzyl bromide and xylyl bromide) which vaporised into lachrymatory or tear gas, ‘which causes men to weep and the eyes are made so painful that men are practically put out of action for some time’. The liquid vaporised slowly and ground contaminated by it remained dangerous for twenty-four hours or longer. K-shells were lethal, their palite or disphosgene converted to gas when the shell burst to give instant, though short-duration, effect. Sometimes K-shells had tear or sneezing gas added: the latter made it hard for men to keep their respirators in place, and if they fumbled too long the gas killed them.
Gas shells had a sound all of their own. The liquid in them – 317cc for a German 77-mm shell – slopped about as the shells spun in flight, sometimes giving them a curious hooting sound (James Dunn thought they ‘twittered’) as they arrived to burst with a plop which was scarcely louder that that of a dud. By the end of the war the British were using gas grenades too. One, a variant of the No. 28 grenade, filled with a coughing agent, was used for clearing enemy-held dugouts, and another variant, filled with a persistent tear agent, could be used to render abandoned dugouts uninhabitable by unmasked troops.
Mustard gas, a favourite filling for German shells in the last eighteen months of the war, was not primarily lethal but was incapacitating, spreading ugly blisters over the skin and causing temporary or permanent blindness. Captain Dunn reported the symptoms as: ‘redness or blistering of sweaty parts, streaming eyes, and a few have some cough’. One doughty fusilier muttered: ‘I don’t mind the (obscene) gas if it’ll rid me of the (obscene) lice.’117 Dunn noted that he had a fresh batch of casualties the next morning, and it soon became clear that mustard was very persistent indeed, and that splashed uniforms had to be discarded.
And in sufficient concentration mustard was indeed a killer. Sergeant Charles Arnold of the Border Regiment was in a dugout at Ypres when a gas shell burst squarely inside:
The men on my right and left were killed along with 15 others. I had got a slight hit in the head and was gassed. It was the time the Germans first started to use mustard gas. I had not been in the ambulance long before I was blind. The gas took all the skin off me and all my hair as well.118
One British officer, sent to decontaminate a captured German position in late 1918, saw two of his experienced sergeants, Jo Cross and Don Britton, looking at some damaged gas shells without their gas masks on.
Though we had all been through German mustard gas bombardments and knew the smell of it and that, normally, it was not particularly lethal, this was their first experience of it in high concentration and close quarters. Alas, it was their last …
Cross died in his billet next morning, and Britton was taken to hospital in extremis. And I, having inhaled comparatively little of the foul stuff, woke up the same morning, temporarily blinded, sores on the forehead and under the arms and with no voice.119
Familiarity often bred a dangerous contempt. When the Germans first used what was initially called ‘mustard oil’ at Ypres in 1917, Major Martin Littlewood RAMC saw the breezy divisional gas officer pick up an empty shell and put it under his arm. It produced an immediate blister, ‘so I entered him sick. It was a great temptation to fill in his label as a “self-inflicted wound”.’ Littlewood thought that the new gas was very effective indeed, and believed that the Germans could not have been aware just how many British gunners had been blinded by it.120
From mid-1917 the mortar battalion’s companies often delivered Thermit bombs, which were not conventional gas at all: their mixture of powdered aluminium and iron oxide was ignited to produce ‘a metal-melting heat that doused enemy trenches with a rain of molten fragments’.121 By then some of the best results were being obtained from the Livens projector, brainchild of William Livens, a civil engineer commissioned in 1914. His projector was basically a huge and simple mortar, usually dug-in dozens at a time, and fired at once to lob their projectiles, containing gas or Thermit, a relatively short distance. Baseplates of Livens projectors still emerge after the spring ploughing of French and Belgian fields: they look like large steel helmets trodden on by an ungainly giant.
From April to December 1917 the Special Brigade executed 348 operations, with almost 12,000 cylinders and 100,000 projectors and another 120,000 Stokes mortar bombs delivering about 2,050 tons of gas.122 Foulkes still hoped to do better: in the last year of the war he experimented with ‘gas beam attack’, with railway trucks packed with gas cylinders trundled parallel with the German lines when the wind was right: in ten beam attacks Foulkes’s men discharged more than 27,000 cylinders of gas.
The German scientist and ardent patriot Fritz Haber played a leading part in the development of the German chemical weapons programme, and his son Ludwig wrote The Poisonous Cloud (1986), one of the best works on gas in the First World War.123 His last chapter, ‘Was Gas a Failure?’, demands the unequivocal response that it was. Its effects were never decisive: indeed, Fritz Haber himself admitted that once the British had developed a box respirator, gas ‘was a waste of time’. It caused far fewer casualties than shells and mortar bombs, machine guns and rifles, and of the men it injured fewer (3–4 percent) actually died than was the case with most other weapons, where deaths ran at about 25 percent of all casualties.
But it made the lives of all combatants significantly more difficult: the invisible threat of a ghastly death struck at the very heart of men’s ability to cope with battle. Norman Gladden reflected that gas ‘inspired a fear that was out of all proportion to the damage done’. Lord Moran thought that it was a major cause of psychiatric casualties, for it exposed a man’s natural unfitness for war, although he believed that most of those affected by gas were more frightened than hurt. Alan Hanbury Sparrow called gas ‘the Devil’s Breath’.
It was Ahrimanic from the first velvety phut of the shell burst to those corpse-like breaths that a man inhaled almost unawares. It lingered about out of control. When he fired it, man released an evil force that became free to bite friend and foe till such time as it died into the earth. Above all, it went against God-inspired conscience …
The gas mask makes you feel only half a man. You can’t think; the air you breathe has been filtered of all save a few chemical substances. A man doesn’t live on what passes through the filter, he merely exists.124
Even soldiers who had seen many dreadful things found that it was the sight of gas casualties that froze their marrow years afterwards. Bernard Martin heard the gas-gong sound at Ypres in 1916 when the sentry spotted a cloud of gas moving towards the British lines.
Blast from a shrapnel shell momentarily bl
Albert Bullock was moving up to the attack through a gas cloud with his company on 4 October 1918 and: ‘met Griffiths crying because he had just found one of the goggles of his gas mask broken and didn’t know what to do. Last I saw of him.’126 And for James Dunn there was something almost wordlessly terrible about the effects of the gas that passed low through a Flanders farmyard:
Horses and tethered cattle were startled and tugged at their head-ropes. A little dog on a heavy chain, unable to scramble onto the roof of his kennel, ran about frantically; hens flew onto walls and outhouses, clucking loudly; little chickens stood on tiptoe, craning to raise their gaping beaks above the vapour; mice came out of their holes, one climbed the gable of a barn only to fall back when near the top. Seedling peas and other vegetables were bleached, and wilted.127
By 1918 gas, indecisive and ghastly though it was, was firmly woven into the combined arms battle, as part of the preparatory bombardment, tucked into the creeping barrage, or to blanket areas to which the enemy was to be denied free access. Smoke, too, was widely used, delivered by shells, mortar bombs, hand-held smoke candles, smoke generators or even smoke grenades.128 But far more portentous was the fact that this battle now contained a weapon which was beginning its ascent to the pinnacle which it was not to scale for another generation: the tank.
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