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Title: Gas and flame in modern warfare
Author: Auld, S. J. M.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Gas and flame in modern warfare" ***



[Illustration: Lieut. W. G. Thayer, of the Gas Defense Division, U. S.
Army, is the artist of the drawing here reproduced which was designed
for the purpose of bringing home the necessity of care in all that
pertains to the use and manufacture of the gas mask.

In order to impress upon the soldier in training the need of care and
speed in adjusting the mask in case of gas attack, the poster was
printed with this wording:


That the workers engaged in the manufacture of gas masks might realize
the importance of care and flawlessness in their work, the same poster
was placed in the factories with a legend reading:



  _Member of the British Military Mission
  to the United States_




  _Copyright, 1918,
  By George H. Doran Company_

  _Copyright, 1918,
  By The Curtis Publishing Company_

  _Copyright, 1918,
  By Doubleday, Page & Company_

  _Printed in the United States of America_


Need for the education of vast numbers of men in various branches
of Gas Service and those in camps on the position of Gas Warfare at
the front, has made imperative the publication of this book, as has
also the need of educating the public, owing to the many misleading
newspaper reports, sometimes merely misinformative, sometimes
distinctly mischievous, appearing from time to time.

Major Auld, chemist and teacher before the war, and as he modestly
styled it, “amateur soldier,” volunteered for service at the front as a
“Territorial,” at the very outset of the conflict.

Some months after the first gas attack, he was taken into the Gas
Service, owing to his training and ability as a chemist, and later
became Chief Gas Officer to Sir Julian Byng’s Army. He was awarded
the Military Cross after the Battle of the Somme, and was wounded in
an expedition into No Man’s Land to observe the effect of a British
Gas attack. He has therefore been in touch with gas warfare from the
beginning and knows all phases.

As the natural consequence of all this, the Government of the United
States welcomed him as the representative of Great Britain in its
counsel to America on all aspects of gas warfare. In this official
capacity the Major has been engaged here assisting in organization and
development of training, research and production aspects of Gas, and
lecturing at camps, the War College, and West Point.

The American Gas Service has, for all these reasons, deemed the
publication of Major Auld’s experiences very desirable.


  The first rumours of German gas attacks--Sceptically
    received--First attack in 1915--Canadian
    pluck under gas--Nernst and Haber the
    inventors of German gas--The difficulties of
    getting practicable gases--The technic of gas
    attacks--A German prisoner’s account                         9


  The first respirators--First-aid devices--The
    smoke helmet--Anti-gas sprayers--Their use
    and delicacy--The English chemists set to
    work--The task of training the whole army                   26


  Popular terror of gas--Necessity for drilling and
    early personal experience--Sure defence from
    gas possible--The first gas alarms--The prussic
    acid scare a myth--The phosgene scare a
    reality--The helmet made to combat it--Necessity
    for renovating the helmet                                   42


  The attack of Dec. 1915--The Allies’ good training
    tells--The casualties analysed--The new
    element of surprise--Evidences of the use of
    phosgene--The incident of the bulb--Improved
    alarms--The Strombos sirens--Accidents
    to the horns--The Tear Gas Shell--Its
    chemical analysis--Combated by anti-gas
    goggles--Tommies scoff at Tear Gas--The
    Germans make it formidable                                  62


  Summer of 1916 the highwater mark of the German
    gas cloud--Their improved methods--The
    need of speed and secrecy--Gas as a rat
    exterminator--Causes of Allied casualties--Germans
    killed with their own gas--Gas
    masks for horses and mules--Reduced Allied
    casualties--Humorous incidents                              88


  The last German gas cloud sent over August 1916--Its
    intensity--“Delayed” cases of phosgene
    gassing--Cigarettes as a test of gassing--Dangers
    of carelessness--The sprayer abandoned
    for Mrs. Ayrton’s fan--Responsibilities
    of the divisional gas office--Russian gas victims--The
    day of the gas cloud over                                  112


  The rising importance of the gas shell--The
    variety of gases practicable with the shell--The
    deadly Green Cross Shell--Risks of
    transporting “duds” for chemical analysis--Reduced
    Allied casualties--German blunders
    in shelling tactics--Importance of universal
    discipline                                                 127


  The gas-proof dugout--First-aid methods of
    alarm--Von Buelow improves German gas
    tactics--Popular errors about gas--Effectiveness
    of new British respirators--Vomiting gas--Germans
    speed up their manufacture--Gas
    as a neutraliser of artillery fire--As a neutraliser
    of work behind the trenches--Raw recruits
    ashamed to wear the mask--Casualties
    resulting                                                  145


  Mustard or Yellow Cross gas--Not deadly but a
    dangerous pest--Its troublesome persistence--Cleaning
    it out by fires--Sneezing of Blue
    Cross gas--Another pest--Its violent effect--The
    limit of gas shell effectiveness--The need
    for constant vigilance and disciplinary training           169


  Liquid fire--First used by Germans in July 1915--A
    great surprise and success--German hopes
    from it--Construction of a flame projector--Flammenwerfer
    companies--Their perilous
    duties and incidents of desertion from them--Improved
    types of projectors--Co-operation
    of machine-gun fire--Failure of liquid fire--Its
    short duration and short range--Ease of
    escape from it                                             185




  The first rumours of German gas attacks--Sceptically received--First
    attack in 1915--Canadian pluck under gas--Nernst and Haber the
    inventors of German gas--The difficulties of getting practicable
    gases--The technic of gas attacks--A German prisoner’s account.

In the early part of April, 1915, we were in the trenches opposite
Messines. We enjoyed the usual morning and evening “hate”; we sniped
and were sniped at; we patrolled and wired and attempted to drain
away the superfluous water, and there was much mud and humour and
expectancy. It is true there were no Mills grenades or Stokes mortars
or tin hats, but trench warfare was not so very different then from
what it is now--with one great exception: There was no gas. And
there were consequently no respirators to carry day and night. It is
almost impossible now to remember the time when one did not carry a
respirator in the trenches. Somehow it makes you feel quite naked to
think of it--and yet there we were, imagining we knew what war really
was like!

The newspapers we got at that time were generally a good many days old,
and censored at that, and our chief source of news about the war in
other people’s parts of the line was a summary of so-called information
issued from headquarters, which percolated down to the battalion and,
like every other summary before and since, went by the name of “Comic

Somewhere about the middle of the month we heard that in somebody
else’s summary had appeared a paragraph to the effect that a deserter
from the German lines up in the salient had told a cock-and-bull story
of how they intended to poison us all with a cloud of gas, and that
tanks full of the poison gas were already installed in their trenches.

Of course nobody believed him. The statement was “passed for
information for what it is worth.” And as nobody ever believed anything
that appeared in Comic Cuts in any case, we were not disposed to get
the wind up about it. And then, about a week later, on April 22, 1915,
was launched the first gas attack; and another constant horror was
added to an already somewhat unpleasant war. Details about the attack
are still somewhat meagre, for the simple reason that the men who could
have told much about it never came back.

The place chosen for the first gas attack was in the northeast part of
the Ypres salient at that part of the line where the French and British
lines met, running down from where the trenches left the canal near
Boesinghe. On the French right was the ---- Regiment of Turcos, and on
the British left were the Canadians.

Try to imagine the feelings and the condition of the coloured troops
as they saw the vast cloud of greenish-yellow gas spring out of the
ground and slowly move down wind toward them, the vapour clinging to
the earth, seeking out every hole and hollow and filling the trenches
and shell holes as it came. First wonder, then fear; then, as the first
fringes of the cloud enveloped them and left them choking and agonised
in the fight for breath--panic. Those who could move broke and ran,
trying, generally in vain, to outstrip the cloud which followed
inexorably after them.

The majority of those in the front line were killed--some, let us
hope, immediately, but most of them slowly and horribly. It is not my
intention to try to play upon feelings, but those of us who have seen
men badly gassed can only think with horror of a battlefield covered
with such cases, over which the Germans subsequently advanced.

The Canadians on the British left fared both better and worse than the
French coloured troops. Only their left appears to have been in the
main path of the poison cloud, but there is little doubt that in the
thickest part those who did not escape either to a flank or to the rear
were killed on the field. Thousands of those in the support trenches
and reserve lines and in billets behind the line were suffocated--many
to die later in the field ambulances and casualty clearing stations.

Of those on the fringe of the cloud many saved themselves by burying
their faces in the earth. Others wrapped mufflers round their mouths
and noses or stuffed handkerchiefs into their mouths. Many of these
men were saved by their presence of mind, for though gassed at the time
they recovered later, after treatment in the hospitals.

It is on record that the Canadians, with handkerchiefs or mufflers tied
over their mouths, continued to engage the Germans and that a number
of them actually charged back through the gas cloud in an endeavour to
reach the enemy. What became of them is not known.

In this way a big gap was made in the Allied lines, through which the
Germans advanced. But the Canadians quickly formed a flank on the left
and stoutly engaged the enemy, with such success that they first slowed
up and then brought to a halt the advance of the Germans. It was this
prompt action and gallant resistance that probably saved the day.

Whether the German high command had underestimated the probable effect
of the gas and had arranged for only a limited objective past which
the local commanders did not take the initiative to go, or whether
the latter were unaware of the real weakness of the Canadian line is
unknown. The fact remains that they did not press their advantage to
the full. They had taken the Allied front line on a wide front, killed
or captured thousands of men and taken sixty guns, and seemed to have
a clear way through to Calais; but they were stopped by the pluck of a
handful of Canadians. Reinforcements of men and guns were rushed up,
and the immediate danger was over.

It is a matter for surmise how long the Germans had been planning and
preparing their use of gas. The idea may have been a pre-war one, but
it is difficult to believe that a project deliberately planned for
years would not have been developed so as to make it a sure winner--for
it could easily have been that. If, for example, they had made the
attack over a wider front with such strong gas clouds as are now used
nothing could possibly have stood against them. Every living thing to a
depth of fifteen miles or more could have been killed.

On the other hand it is impossible to imagine the use of poison gas as
having been decided on without better preparation having been made to
meet retaliation, unless it was assumed either that the use of the gas
would be decisive or that at any rate the war would be finished before
the Allies could hit back with the same weapon.

In any case the preparation must have been going on for months. All
the production of material, organisation of personnel and so on takes
a long time. This we realised ourselves later, for though the decision
to retaliate with gas was made in May it was September before an attack
could possibly be made. If we assume that a like interval of four
months elapsed for the perfecting of the German arrangements it means
that the decision to use gas was made about Christmas, 1914.

The onus of urging the Kaiser’s advisers to adopt the use of poisonous
gases had been laid at the door of Professor Nernst, professor of
chemistry at the University of Berlin. Professor Nernst is a noted
chemist, and even before the war was a notorious Pan-German and
Anglophobe--one of the “professors” who carried too much weight in
Germany and whose arrogance and shortsightedness helped to lure
her to her downfall. Some time after the use of gas was started
Professor Nernst was made a count by the Kaiser for his “notable
services”--meaning presumably the use of gas in warfare.

The actual carrying out of the gas operations was intrusted to another
professor of chemistry, this being one Haber, of the Kaiser Wilhelm
Physical Chemical Institute at Berlin. In 1914, long before the war
started, Professor Haber and his assistants are known to have been
working secretly with some intensely poisonous arsenic gases and
liquids, and one of the assistants was killed and another is reported
to have had his arm blown off during the researches.

Haber’s particular job was to make all the scientific arrangements
in the field; to decide on the gases to be used, and the quantity
to employ; to study the wind directions and decide exactly when to
make the attack. In the weeks preceding the twenty-second of April,
Haber was continually at the Front receiving reports from the wind
observation stations and in close touch with the men in charge of the
cylinders in the trenches. On several occasions during this time the
attack was fixed for a certain hour, but was postponed by Haber, owing
to the wind’s being unsuitable.

The actual arrangements that had to be made were much more complex
than the carrying out of the attack itself. First of all, decision had
to be come to as to the gas to be used in the fiendish attempt. Such
a gas had of course to be highly poisonous. Then it must be cheaply
and easily made in large quantities; it had to be compressible, so
that it could be transported easily; it must be heavier than air, so
that it should keep close to the ground when first liberated; and for
preference it should not be unstable--that is, decompose easily and
enter into nonpoisonous combinations with materials, other than man,
that it should come across in its passage through the air.

Any chemist to whom such a problem is put will inform you there are
very few gases that fill the bill. The German choice rested on that
gas well-known to students of chemistry--chlorine. Chlorine in large
quantities was available from the alkali works in Germany, and it
meets all the other requirements except that of not easily combining
with other things. This deficiency was fortunate, for it meant that
protective chemicals were easy to find when it became necessary to
provide respirators to the Allied troops.

Then there was the question of transport and emission. The gas was
eventually put up in steel cylinders, about thirty inches long and
eight inches across and stout enough to stand a pressure of about ten
atmospheres, the gas being stored in them compressed to a liquid. On
opening such a cylinder the liquid boils and gives off the gas again,
but this would not do for field work, because of the intense cold which
is produced by the sudden expansion. This would freeze up the pipes and
slow down the discharge to such an extent that the gas attack would be
too weak.

To get over this difficulty the Germans fitted their cylinders with
internal siphon tubes so that actually liquid chlorine was forced into
the air, where it evaporated without affecting the gas remaining in the
cylinder. By this means the whole of the gas in the cylinder, amounting
to forty-five pounds, is emptied into the atmosphere in less than three
minutes. The sudden expansion of the chlorine in the air also makes
both it and the surrounding air cold and helps to keep the cloud close
to the ground.

The actual handing of the gas attacks was allotted to two regiments of
pioneers--the 35th and 36th Pioneer Regiments, which were specially
organised for this purpose. These regiments have the ordinary
organisation of two battalions per regiment, with three companies and a
park or transport company per battalion. The rank and file are ordinary
pioneers, but the officers are specially picked and include chemists,
mechanical experts, meteorologists, and other men with special
scientific qualifications.

The choice of country in which to make a gas attack was a serious
matter to the enemy. The gas of course will go with the wind, but it
depends largely on what the country is like where the wind will go. The
Germans themselves say they prefer a flat country without any marked
under features and sloping gently toward our lines, just as they had at
Ypres. Indeed, they went the length of saying that a gas attack could
not be carried out in hilly or very broken country; and they suffered
in consequence later on, through being taken unawares by the French in
just such country in the Vosges when retaliation was commenced. But
taking it altogether the Germans were wise in their choice of position.

Another thing that had to be considered was the outline of their own
trench system, so that they would not let off the gas in such parts
of the line that it would float back and gas their own troops in the
neighbouring trenches. To do this they invented a “factor of safety,”
which represented an angle between the direction of the wind and the
line of the trenches. No attack was to be made if the wind direction
came within forty degrees of any trench within gassing distance. This
worked very well.

Another consideration was the strength of the wind. The wind must not
be too strong when the gusts disperse the gas cloud, or it will weaken
it so that it loses a lot of its effect and will be blown over the
enemy too quickly; nor must it be so weak that it will take a long time
to reach the opposing trenches.

Another great danger in winds of too low velocity is that these are
just the winds which change their direction most frequently, and
anything under two miles per hour is just as likely to blow the
gas back to the place from which it came. It was disregarding this
principle on one occasion later on that caused the Germans numerous
casualties from one of their own gas clouds. In general, however, it
may be laid down that the most favourable winds are those between four
and twelve miles an hour, so that with a wind of eight miles an hour
the cloud would move just twice as quickly as a man walking rapidly,
and would take only twelve and a half seconds to cross No Man’s Land in
places where the trenches are fifty yards apart.

Let me try to give an account of the procedure of carrying out gas
attacks as it was told me by a German prisoner taken not so very long
ago. He said:

“I am not one of the gas pioneers, but being an engineer by trade and
having been in the trenches for many weeks with the 35th Regiment
of Pioneers I have got to know their methods fairly well. Indeed I
assisted on one occasion in carrying cylinders into the trenches for
an attack against the British. Gas is not popular with us; we have had
too many mishaps, and the cylinders are a nuisance to carry into the
trenches. They weigh ninety pounds and they are always carried in by
the infantry. A gas regiment does not do that for itself. It is a long
carry and it is really more than a one-man load. At the most two men
are allotted to carry in each cylinder, whatever the distance.

“Several thousand of these cylinders must be taken into the trenches,
and then we have the job of putting them in position. Deep holes are
dug just underneath the parapet of the trench, and into these holes
are placed the separate cylinders with the tops flush with the ground.
As each cylinder is placed into position the hole is covered with a
board, on top of which is placed a thing we call a ‘_Salzdecke_,’ which
is really a kind of quilt stuffed with peat moss and soaked in potash
solution so as to absorb any of the gases that may leak out.

“On top of the _Salzdecke_ are built up three layers of sandbags, so
that there is not much danger of the cylinders’ being hit by shell
fragments. This also serves to hide the cylinders in case a raid is
made, and the sandbags form an excellent firing step. In fact, you
would never guess that the gas was ready in position to make an
attack. All of this takes a long time to do, and then we have to wait
for a wind that is favourable.

“It may be weeks before the right time comes, but all the time the
pioneer officers and _Unteroffiziere_ make observations of the wind and
report back to somebody at headquarters. On the night fixed for the
attack all the infantry are warned beforehand. If the wind continues
favourable the sandbags are taken off, the domes removed from the
cylinders, and to each cylinder is attached a lead pipe which is bent
over the top of the parapet into No Man’s Land, with the end slightly
bent up, so that if any liquid comes out it is not wasted in the ground
but evaporates in the air. The end of the lead pipe is weighted with a
sandbag, so that it will not kick when the gas is turned on and blow
the gas back into our own trenches, as happened in one or two of the
earlier attacks. It is this kind of thing that makes gas unpopular in
the German Army.

“Eventually the time really does arrive for the attack, and the
pioneers stand by the cylinders, of which twenty form a battery; and
to each battery there are two pioneers and one noncommissioned officer
waiting to unscrew the taps. A signal is given by means of a rocket.
All the infantry have been eagerly waiting for this signal, which means
that they have five minutes to clear out of the front-line trenches
before the gas is turned on; and I can tell you they do not waste any
time. Everybody makes a rush to the support trench and leaves the front
line entirely to the pioneers.

“We all keep our masks ready to put on at a moment’s notice, because
in the earlier attack the wind on two occasions blew the gas back
again into our own trenches and killed a lot of the infantry who were
unprepared for its return. According to the length of time the attack
is to last the cylinders are turned on, from one up to five at a time,
in each battery.

“As soon as the taps are turned on the pioneers make for cover, but
they have a good many losses from bursting cylinders, from leaks, and
from the shrapnel and high-explosive shells which invariably greet the
start of an attack. The promptness with which this happened at the time
I was in the line made us believe that your people had known all about
our gas preparations for some time. The infantry are all very glad to
be away from the front-line trench when the cloud is sent over.”

This method has been practically unaltered throughout the time the
Germans have made gas attacks. In the first attack they probably had
one gas cylinder on every yard of front on which gas was installed, but
the number was increased in subsequent attacks.


  The first respirators--First-aid devices--the smoke helmet--Anti-gas
    sprayers--Their use and delicacy--The English chemists set to
    work--The task of training the whole army.

There is no need to dwell on the execration with which the use of gas
was met by the whole civilised world, and I will merely try to recount
how it was taken by the men in the trenches.

The British Tommy is a difficult man to terrify, and the moral effect
on the men, though quite unprotected, was remarkably small considering
the terrors of the game. For two or three days all we heard about were
the things we should do in the event of being similarly attacked. It
appeared that great chemists from England had immediately taken up the
question of providing efficient respirators, and until they came out
were advising people as to emergency measures. Some of these methods
seemed to us very funny. We were told, for example, that a respirator
could “easily” be made by knocking the bottom off a bottle, filling the
bottle with earth, and then learning to breathe with the neck of the
bottle stuck in the mouth. The breath was to be taken in through the
bottle and let out through the nose; but as bottles were scarce and few
of them survived the attempt to get the bottom broken off there was not
much doing.

However, we learned that handkerchiefs filled with earth and kept moist
would keep some of the gas out, and by the time the first novelty had
worn off we were receiving private respirators from England. These
had all been made in response to an appeal by Lord Kitchener to the
women of England to make respirators for the troops out of cotton wool
wrapped up in muslin or veiling. The result of this was that the War
Office was absolutely swamped with millions of these respirators within
a few days, and most fellows in the trenches had one or two sent out by
post straightaway.

Besides these, arrangements were made by the various divisions for
respirators to be made in towns behind the lines; and the government
factories in England got to work to turn out a simple type of
respirator which had been devised by the English chemists as the
quickest to make and the simplest to use. The result was that within
about one month we had four or five different kinds of respirators
issued to us. Most of these were simple pads of either cotton wool or
cotton waste. The earlier ones were soaked in washing-soda solution,
and the later ones were moistened with a special solution consisting
of ordinary photographic hypo and washing soda mixed with a little

One type that we had for a week or two in the trenches consisted of
the usual pad of cotton waste together with a small wad of the same
material which was kept separate. The respirators were stored in boxes
let into the paradoses, or rear walls of the trenches. On the alarm
being given each man in the trench made a dive for a respirator,
stuffed the wad into his mouth as a first protection, and then bound
the pad round his mouth and nose, the wad being afterward taken out of
his mouth and stuffed round his nose so as to make a tight fit.

These practices were popular for once or twice, but when it began to
be realised that the wads were not always used by the same man the
novelty waned. We thought we were getting pretty smart at it when we
could get every man in the trench fully protected--that is, with the
tapes tied--in forty seconds from the word “Go.”

Later on we had the official “black-veiling respirator,” which was
issued to all the British troops and which went through two or three of
the earlier attacks as the chief protection.

It was from one of these attacks delivered in the salient again, on the
twenty-fourth of May, that the first benefits of good training in the
use of the respirator were seen. One of the regiments which had been
on the flank of the first attack and had seen the effects of the gas
and what it really meant had taken the training very seriously, and
the officers had insured that every man had a respirator, kept it in
good condition, and knew how to use it in the quickest possible time
should occasion rise. Other regiments were not so good, and it was just
this training or lack of it that made all the difference between heavy
casualties and light casualties in subsequent attacks.

On the twenty-fourth of May the regiment mentioned above happened to
be in the very thickest part of the cloud, and though the battalion
on either side of it suffered serious losses they themselves came off
almost scot-free. Instances of losses from insufficient education in
the use of the respirator were numerous on this occasion. A lot of
men took their respirators off in the middle of the attack in order
to wet them with solution again; and as they did not wring them out
sufficiently the respirators were difficult to breathe through and the
men thought they were being gassed and repeated the dose--the result
being that they could not draw air through the sodden cotton waste, and
they were gassed either from pulling off the respirators altogether or
from the air coming in at the side.

One very bad instance was quoted by a medical officer at an advanced
dressing station which was taking in gas cases as they came down from
the line. Two or three men from one battalion came in pretty badly
gassed, but still able to walk. The M. O. asked them if they had
respirators issued to them. They said “Yes.”

“Well, why didn’t you put them on?”

They said: “We did put them on; we’ve got them on now.”

And so they had--strapped across their chests!

At that time respirators were generally carried by the men tied round
their caps, and in some cases could not be removed in time; and the
May twenty-fourth attack made it apparent that the respirators should
be carried in a position ready for immediate use. For this purpose a
waterproof cover was provided and the respirator kept in a small pocket
inserted into the jacket, or else in a pouch slung over the shoulder.

The other bad feature about the preparations was the arrangement for
dipping the respirators in solution in the trenches, as referred to
above. During the attack a lot of the men dipped their respirators in
water; which of course washed the chemicals out of the respirators and
made them ineffectual much sooner than they should have been. But all
of these matters were remedied before another gas attack was made.

After the first emergency respirator had been issued every effort was
made to devise a more effective form of protection than that given by
the cotton-wool pads, in expectation of a recurrence of German attacks.
As a matter of fact there were no attacks between the beginning of June
and December, 1915, because the wind was unfavourable to the Germans.
This was another point that they had apparently overlooked, because on
investigation we found that the prevailing winds in Flanders blew from
west to east, and that about three-quarters of the total winds were in
our favour and against the Germans.

The long interval of the summer of 1915 gave us a splendid opportunity
to develop the protection against gas which had been commenced in the
spring while attacks were still being made. The most important of
these developments were the invention of the celebrated “smoke helmet”
and the use of sprayers for the removing of gas from the trenches. We
also found out the exact value of certain other devices and methods
which had been suggested for combating the gas clouds, and a lot of
impossible ideas were consequently turned down.

The latter might be discussed first of all. One suggestion which was
made and believed in by most people at various times--including the
Germans themselves--was that fires built in the trenches or on the
parapet would cause such an upward draft as to lift up the gas cloud
and carry it safely over our heads. Experiments showed, however, that
this idea was absolutely false, because though an upward draft was
certainly formed the incoming air carried with it just as much gas from
the surrounding atmosphere, and nothing was gained by it. It was a long
time before the Germans tumbled to this, and even many months later
their own instructions on defence against gas included statements that
showed their reliance on this procedure.

One suggestion which actually reached the point of being acted on was
that the gas cloud could be dispersed by an explosion, and for this
purpose we were provided with wooden boxes filled with black powder and
with fuses attached, which we were supposed to light at the crucial
moment and throw into an advancing cloud. This heroic procedure was
never actually made use of, however, because experiments in the
meantime again showed that such explosions had very little effect on a
cloud of gas.

Two suggestions which really did turn out to be winners were those
referred to previously--the smoke helmet and the Vermorel sprayer for
clearing the trenches.

The idea for a respirator in the form of a helmet to go right over
the head is stated to have originated from an idea of a sergeant of
the Canadians who was gassed at Ypres, who stated that he had seen
some of the Germans through the gas cloud with things that looked like
flour bags pulled over their heads. It was thought that something of
this kind could actually be made use of, and experiments showed that
it was really a practical idea, because breathing is done through a
very big surface and not only through the chemicals directly in front
of the mouth and nose, as in the case of the respirator. By having
a big surface it is possible to have thinner material and there is,
therefore, less resistance to breathing. All that is required is to
tuck the helmet down inside the jacket and button the latter tightly
round it at the neck, and if this is done there is little possibility
of gas leaking in. As a matter of fact there is no evidence that the
Germans ever did use anything of the kind.

The first types of smoke helmet were made of flannel and had a window
for seeing through which was made of mica or celluloid. The helmets
were soaked in the same kind of solution--hypo, carbonate of soda
and glycerin--that had been employed for the respirators. Helmets of
this kind were capable of standing up against really considerable
concentrations of chlorine, and they were quickly recognised both by
the troops and by experts as being a very big improvement on the old

These helmets were made and issued to the troops as quickly as
possible and a few of them were actually used in the attack of May
twenty-fourth. Men unpracticed in their use were apt to find them hot
and stuffy, and, not realising that the feeling wears off, were often
inclined to think that they were being suffocated or gassed. As a
matter of fact well-drilled men could do almost anything while wearing
the helmet, the chief difficulty being that of limited vision. After
wearing the helmet for a short time the celluloid window got clouded
over from the moisture in the breath, but this could easily be remedied
by wiping it on the forehead. In many cases also the windows got
cracked or broken from the rough treatment they were bound to meet in
trenches, and this was a constant danger until men learned how to fold
the helmet properly so as to protect the celluloid and to place a small
sheet of cardboard or thin wood over the window before folding.

The sprayers previously mentioned were originally suggested for use
against the gas cloud itself, the idea being that chemicals should be
sprayed at the cloud so as to neutralise the poisonous gas and thereby
purify the air. Nearly everybody with even a nodding acquaintance with
chemistry wrote in suggesting ammonia for this purpose, oblivious of
the fact that the chemical reaction between chlorine and ammonia in
these circumstances produces a dense cloud which is most irritating to
the eyes and throat, and that this together with the excess of ammonia
would be almost as bad as the original gas.

In any case it is impossible to deal with the gas cloud by spraying,
because of the enormous amount of chemicals and apparatus that would
be required to neutralise the attack. A cloud of chlorine from one
thousand cylinders, for example, would require more than forty tons of
the strongest ammonia solution obtainable to kill all the gas, even if
none of the spray were lost in the ground. Besides this the spraying
might have to be continued for hours, some of the attacks having lasted
intermittently for more than three hours.

It was quickly seen that this was an utter impossibility, but
experiments showed that a spray of the hypo solution was quite capable
of removing what remained of the gas cloud out of trenches and shell
holes and from dugouts into which the gas had penetrated. This of
course applied only to chlorine. Arrangements were therefore made for
supplying a large number of these sprayers, which are exactly the same
as those used for spraying fruit trees and potatoes with fungicides,
and men were specially trained in their use so that they could be
employed after an attack was over. These men were officially known as
the “Vermorel sprayer men,” and were popularly supposed to preface all
their operations with the words “Let us spray.”

The solution to fill the sprayers was kept in all the trenches in
corked rum jars, and there were many amusing incidents rising out
of the dual purpose to which these revered vessels were put. It is
stated that a certain battalion on going into the line for the first
time saw these rum jars safely ensconced in niches in the parapet and
immediately thought that they contained the rum ration concerning
which they had heard so much before they came out. Some of the more
adventurous ones surreptitiously tried out the supposed rum and drank a
few mouthfuls of the nauseous liquid before discovering their mistake.
The real joke lay in the fact that even after they realised that the
liquid was not rum they continued to drink it, and by the time they
finished their two days’ tour of instruction there was not a drop of
Vermorel sprayer solution left in any of the trenches.

The sprayers were somewhat delicate pieces of apparatus to keep in good
condition in the trenches, and were apt to get crusted with mud and
out of order unless they were well looked after. Like everything else
connected with the defence against gas, their condition in the trenches
varied with different regiments according as they were well trained and
disciplined or otherwise, but as a rule the sprayers were well enough
looked after, and proved extraordinarily useful on many occasions after
their first appearance in the line.

As stated before, the long interval of the summer and autumn of 1915
gave the chemists and the army plenty of opportunity for thinking about
the gas question, developing organisation and methods to meet attacks
in the future, and making arrangements for the training of the troops
so that they should be thoroughly prepared when the next attack should

One of the most important things that was done was to start a big field
laboratory for dealing with questions of gas warfare. And as it had
already been realised that the whole basis of defence against gas was
going to lie in the hands of the troops themselves by increasing their
steadiness, developing their discipline, and generally accustoming
them to the idea that gas was now an ordinary method of warfare,
chemists and instructors were appointed for attachment to each of the
British armies.

These men were all chosen from the line. For the most part they were
infantry officers who could realise the real needs and limitations of
the troops, but they were picked in each instance because they had, at
any rate, some chemical knowledge and could translate into practice
for the benefit of the troops various chemical measures which had been
adopted for the latter’s safety. Their first chief job was to see that
respirators and smoke helmets were issued in sufficient number; to see
that they were in good condition; and then to arrange for the training
of all the troops in the army in their use. This was a heroic task, to
be accomplished in as short a time as possible, but by dint of speaking
to large bodies of officers and men at the same time it was so far
completed that all ranks were given practical instruction in the use of
the helmet.

When it is realised that each of these officers had to deal with at
least one hundred thousand troops it will be seen that it was no
mean feat that was accomplished. What was started then has never been
completely accomplished, partly because of the continual development of
gas warfare and partly because it is a matter of education--which is
always slow--but very largely also because of the continually changing
personnel and the enormous numbers of men that have had to be trained.


  Popular terror of gas--Necessity for drilling and early personal
    experience--Sure defence from gas possible--The first gas
    alarms--The prussic acid scare a myth--The phosgene scare a
    reality--The helmet made to combat it--Necessity for renovating
    the helmet.

The final object in the training of men in defence against gas is
that troops shall be able to protect themselves completely and as
quickly as possible in all the multitudinous circumstances in which
they may encounter the poisonous gas in the field. To attain this
it is necessary to inspire confidence by letting them in as far as
possible on the principles underlying the use of gas and the tactics
which are adopted by the enemy; and, secondly, to bring their practical
proficiency and discipline up to such a standard that they make the
very best use of the apparatus that is given to them.

It must be remembered that one of the greatest difficulties in talking
to people about gas is the mystery of it. Even educated people hardly
understand the word “gas” in connection with war and are apt to think
of coal gas and dentists’ gas in consequence. The result is that the
gas of the Germans was sometimes credited with all sorts of impossible
qualities of movement and deadliness, and it can hardly be realised
what alarm and distrust may exist in the raw recruit with regard to
gas until he has been given some instruction. This is even as great a
danger as the over-confidence of the veteran soldier, who may know just
as little about it.

Mere drilling and assertion are not sufficient to inspire confidence
and acquire proportion, and it was realised very early that personal
experience was needed. To gain this arrangements were made for every
man to see and smell gas in concentrations that would at any rate
produce severe discomfort if dwelt in for any length of time, and for
each soldier subsequently to be exposed to gas while wearing a gas
helmet in such a concentration that negligence in obeying orders or in
using the smoke helmet correctly would lead to real danger to life. By
this means confidence could be inspired in everybody, though there is
always a certain danger due to recklessness among the more adventurous

Besides this it was necessary to give as many men as possible some
idea of the common sense of the operations in which the army was being
drilled. This could only be done by giving a clear idea of how the
gas is used; how gas travels; where it accumulates; how it can be
removed, and so on; and under what conditions a respirator or smoke
helmet protects or ceases to protect its wearer. It was on these lines
that instruction was built up; and to do it thoroughly it was found
that a large number of instructors were required in order to train the
officers and noncommissioned officers and to get them to treat their
respirators with as great respect as their rifles and to learn to carry
them through a gas-defence drill in just as smart a manner as the
ordinary arms.

For this purpose special schools of instruction were started at each
army headquarters, and as many regimental officers and noncommissioned
officers as possible were given a four or five days’ course of gas
training, so that they in their turn could go back to their regiments
and spread the gospel, as the responsibility for getting things done
must eventually fall upon them. Not only was it found impossible to
provide specialist officers for each regiment or battalion, but it
was recognised that such a procedure would have a bad effect on the
gas-defence measures.

Gas defence was a matter which affected everybody and was in no way
to be regarded as a specialist’s job; battalions were already full
of specialists. Indeed the colonels were apt to complain that they
had nobody but specialists to command. There were bombers, snipers,
signalers, machine gunners and sanitary men; and at that time the
trench-mortar personnel was also a part of the infantry battalion. With
all these things the feeling was that if a job could be looked on as
being a specialty it should be put on the specialist officer concerned,
and nobody else worried about it much. Now if gas defence was to become
Lieutenant Snook’s job, it meant that it was going to be nobody else’s
job, and it was essential that the idea should grow up in the army that
gas defence was a purely military matter and affected everybody.

What was said then is just as true to-day--that the defensive appliance
is a certain protection if it is used properly and in time. Defence
against gas is thus on an entirely different footing from defence
against shells and bullets, where protection cannot be assured; and, to
quote instructions on the subject: “For destructive effects gas must
depend on surprise, on poor discipline or on defective appliances.
Consequently gas casualties are preventable if the soldier is trained
continually to exercise vigilance and is well drilled in the use and
care of his respirator.”

The basis of the whole thing, therefore, was that every officer
should see that the men under his command were properly instructed in
defensive measures against gas attacks, and that all orders on the
subject were thoroughly understood. It was then up to the officers to
see that their men could get their helmets on properly in the minimum
time, and this involved considerable amount of drill practice. It was
pointed out to the officers that since protection had been provided,
those battalions which had been carefully instructed had come through
practically unharmed, while those battalions in which instructions had
been neglected suffered severely.

It was also up to the officers to explain to their men as much as they
themselves had learned about gas clouds, and to impress on them, for
example, that by moving to the rear they would move with the gas, and
that if they got flurried they would breathe more deeply and would run
much more risk of being gassed.

Besides these questions of instruction and drilling a lot of other
arrangements had to be made, so that warning of German gas attacks
should be spread in the quickest possible time. Arrangements were
made to install alarms of various kinds in the trenches. Of course no
reliance could be placed on any method of communication which involved
the use of the lungs. A man cannot blow a bugle or a whistle while he
has a helmet on, and if he waited to give a signal by such a method
before protecting himself he would be almost certain to be gassed. What
was done was to place bells and gongs made from shell cases up and
down the trenches.

At first these were rather futile things, the bells generally being
much too small--some of them merely cow bells. The shell cases were a
bit better and are still used for local alarms; but the arrangements
for giving warning were not really very good at that time. The best
devices were a number of motor horns, which were obtained locally, but
the supply was insufficient and there was no general issue. Later on
the alarm arrangements were tremendously improved. In some cases signal
lights were used, but so many different kinds of rockets were already
employed for signalling to the rear that there was great difficulty in
finding a light sufficiently distinctive. There was also the danger
that it could be quickly copied by the boche, who would thus amuse
himself by giving us all kinds of shocks from false alarms.

Quite as important as the provision of signals was the making of
observations to see when the wind was in a dangerous quarter. This was
done partly at the meteorological stations at headquarters and partly
on the front line itself. The latter was regarded at the time as the
most important, and orders were given that each unit in the front
line should rig up some kind of wind vane and learn to ascertain the
strength of the wind, so that they should be immediately prepared for
an attack whenever the wind was in a dangerous quarter.

Wind vanes in the trenches were of the simplest types and a great deal
of ingenuity was displayed in fitting up weathercocks that would be
capable of turning in really low wind--say, one with a speed of only
two miles an hour. The bearings for the central rod were the greatest
difficulty, but it was found that by boring out a rifle bullet a sharp
pointed stick or a thick piece of wire could be got to revolve in the
hollow bullet quite easily, what remained of the lead core acting as a
kind of lubrication.

The greatest nuisance of these wind vanes at first was that they were
made so generally obtrusive that they could be seen from the enemy’s
lines, and they nearly always drew fire from snipers, and sometimes
actually from the artillery. Presumably the enemy thought that where
the wind vanes were installed company headquarters were probably
situated. The position of the wind vanes consequently had to be chosen
so that the direction and speed of the wind would be measured several
feet above the ground without the apparatus being too obvious. One
of the simplest types of vane adopted, and one which could hardly be
seen from any distance, was a bit of a stick to the end of which was
tied ten to twelve inches of thin thread with a tiny bit of cotton
wool at the end. When the wind is blowing the direction taken by the
thread shows the line of the wind fairly exactly, and the behaviour of
the cotton wool in rising and falling indicates the strength of the
wind. The latter, however, was supposed to be measured by reference
to Beaufort’s scale, which depends on the movement in wind of natural
objects. Beaufort’s scale, which was devised long ago by an English
admiral of that name, is as follows:

Smoke moves straight up, speed of wind is _nil_; smoke slants, speed
is two miles an hour; the wind is felt on the face, speed is five
miles; paper, etc., move about, speed is ten miles; bushes are seen to
sway, speed is fifteen miles; tree tops sway and wavelets are formed
on water, speed is twenty miles; tree tops sway and whistle, speed is
thirty miles.

All of these arrangements for training and equipment of the troops were
hurried on as quickly as possible, but at the same time sight was not
lost of the probability of the German’s using gases different from the
chlorine which had originally formed their stand-by. It was felt that
a good all-round protection should be capable of keeping out not only
chlorine and similar gases but also others which were quite likely to
come into use.

During the whole of this time we were getting a lot of information from
the intelligence branch as to materials which the Germans were making
for use against us in their next gas attacks. Some of this information
was really farcical, but on the other hand some of it was very good
and helped to confirm the conclusions to which our own scientists were
coming as to the likelihood or unlikelihood of particular gases. In the
former category may be classed one story which came to us containing
a very circumstantial description of some experiments which were
stated to have been carried out in Berlin. These trials were stated
to have been made in what we considered a very proper place, namely,
Hagenbeck’s menagerie, where, in the presence of a large number of
military representatives, a new gas was tried out.

A noncommissioned officer appeared with a tank of the gas on his back,
the spraying nozzle coming out under his arm. A camel and an elephant
were brought out. The noncommissioned officer advanced toward them,
and at twenty paces’ distance he pressed down the lever on the tank
and out came some small black bubbles of gas, which floated down the
wind toward the faded animals. The bubbles burst, giving off a yellow
vapour, and the minute this vapour came in contact with the camel and
the elephant the beasts dropped down dead!

This sounded very terrible, but even in the conditions we were at the
time it was not taken too seriously, and of course nothing of this kind
has ever made its appearance.

Another story which commenced to make its appearance at that time
and which we have heard a great deal about ever since was that the
Germans were busy making prussic acid in enormous quantities for a huge
offensive which was to finish the war. It was stated that the Kaiser
had at last been persuaded to use this terrible weapon in order by its
use to finish the war at once and prevent needless suffering.

When they first made their appearance stories with regard to prussic
acid had to be taken a great deal more seriously than those like the
“little black bubbles.” For one thing we were unprotected against
prussic acid, and for another it was known of course to be an extremely
deadly poison. Indeed before the war it was regarded as the most
poisonous vapour known, so a great deal of weight was attached to these
statements, and experiments were at once put on foot to find protection
against prussic acid and to see exactly how poisonous it was compared
with other gases.

As a matter of fact prussic acid has not been used by the Germans
simply because it is not poisonous enough. It is not so poisonous, for
example, as phosgene, and a lot of captured German documents showing
the relative toxicity of different vapours always put it on a rather
low basis. It was this and not a desire to avoid utter barbarity which
decided the Germans not to use it. The ordinary German soldiers, just
like ourselves, still consider prussic acid as the most dangerous
possible material, and whenever they have a story to tell of a new gas
being invented or being got ready to use against us they will tell you
in awestruck tones that it is prussic acid.

The most valuable piece of information which we got was a complete
set of notes of some very secret lectures given to specially selected
senior officers at a conference in Germany. We gathered that this
conference was held behind closed doors and triple lines of sentries,
and all that kind of thing, and I cannot of course indicate how the
information came into our hands, but there it was. It described a lot
of new gases which had been considered, and stated among other things
that they intended to make a big gas attack against either the French
or ourselves in Flanders in December, 1915, some time before Christmas
when the wind was favourable. For this purpose they were going to
use a mixture of chlorine with another gas, phosgene--the amount of
phosgene to be twenty per cent of the whole.

Now phosgene had been realised by our own chemists as a very likely
gas to be used. I cannot say that it is more poisonous than chlorine,
but it is infinitely more deadly because it is much more difficult to
protect against and is more insidious in its nature. For one thing,
though it is an asphyxiant like chlorine it is possible for a man to be
only slightly gassed and think he is all right, and then, especially if
he takes any exercise in between, to fall dead several hours later from
heart failure.

The information was so complete that our arrangements to provide a
helmet which would protect against phosgene were hastened as much as
possible; and it was as well that they were, for the attack actually
did come off just about the time and place mentioned, in the Ypres

It was realised of course that any change in protection would have
to include both prussic acid and phosgene; and this is not nearly so
easy as it sounds. Phosgene is peculiarly chemically inert for such an
active poison, and it was some time before a reasonable protection
was found which could be incorporated in a smoke helmet. The substance
actually decided upon was a solution of sodium phenate--that is,
carbolic acid dissolved in caustic soda, the mixture containing an
excess of caustic. This solution is quite capable of dealing with
reasonable concentrations of phosgene and would successfully protect
against three parts of phosgene to ten thousand of the air, which in
the circumstances was quite good enough. The French also altered their
protection at the same time and used sodium sulphanilate as the basis
of protection against phosgene. The objections against the sodium
phenate were that it could not be absorbed into a flannel helmet owing
to its destruction of the fabric, and on account of its being strongly
caustic it would tend to burn the faces of the men it came in contact
with. These difficulties were overcome by making the helmet of two
layers of flannelette instead of one layer of flannel, and by mixing
with the sodium phenate a large quantity of glycerin. This kept the
fabric moist and prevented the caustic from exerting its corrosive

It was realised from the start that a smoke helmet containing free
alkali would deteriorate considerably on exposure to air, and it was
found advantageous to provide a breathing tube in the mask so that
a man would breathe in through the helmet and out through an outlet
valve; in this way the breath, which contains a lot of carbonic acid,
would have no bad effect on the chemicals. The use of an outlet valve
was also found to have the advantage of keeping the air purer inside
the helmet and preventing the stuffy feeling which accompanied the
older types of helmet.

This additional complication to the helmet was not looked upon
favourably at first by the troops, but it was very quickly realised
that only a little practice was required to make a man breathe quite
normally in the way mentioned above, and that the advantages accruing
from the alteration were very great indeed. We found that we could
carry on for much longer stretches of time without being fagged
out, and more exact trials by the scientists showed that a man’s
temperature, pulse and rate of breathing did not increase nearly so
rapidly if he used an outlet valve as when breathing out and in
through the same material. This is largely due to what is called “dead
space,” which means the volume of air in between the lungs and the
atmosphere and in which the air is largely composed of breath exhaled
from the lungs. The smaller this space the easier it is to breathe.

This principle of using an outlet valve has been retained in all the
British respirators which have been invented since and is regarded as
one of the very highest importance.

Another thing which had to be taken care of was that the new helmets,
which were called “tube” or “P” helmets, would gradually deteriorate
on exposure to air, and would consequently have to be withdrawn from
the troops in the line from time to time in order to redip them in
chemicals and make them as effective as before. For this purpose large
repair factories were started at the bases and were placed in charge
of Englishwomen who were brought over for the purpose. These factories
were organised with local labour, helped out by a little military
personnel, and were capable of washing the helmets returned from the
line, redipping them in new solution, and sending them back in good
condition again.

This was no small job, as the smoke helmets which were sent in were
generally filthy dirty, sometimes soaked in mud and sodden with water,
and requiring very careful handling to be brought back into good
condition. All sorts of things got back with these helmets to the
repair stations, and it was not an uncommon thing for the satchels
containing the helmets to be found to hold anything from a live hand
grenade to the photograph of some girl, which had been stored there for
safe keeping. Both then and later we always had considerable difficulty
in preventing Tommy from using his helmet satchel, and later on his box
respirator satchel, for these illicit purposes. He seemed to consider
that if he had to carry another haversack he had a perfect right to put
in it whatever he liked--rations, knives and forks, ammunition, private
knickknacks of all kinds. This of course had to be stopped, owing to
the damage these things might do to the respirator and the difficulty
they might make in getting it out quickly.

During September and October, 1915, there were several scares as to the
imminence of gas attacks by the Germans, and on one or two occasions
it was definitely stated that the cylinders were actually in position
in their trenches. This helped to hasten things up, and the factories
in England and the repair stations in France kept themselves busy in
producing the new type of helmet. A large number of them were actually
issued to the troops by the time the Battle of Loos was started, and
were consequently employed by our men when the first gas attacks were
made, in September of that year.

It was these helmets which appeared in so many of the picture papers
showing the charge of some British Territorial infantry through the gas
cloud at the beginning of the battle, and there is no question about
it that the men had a very fearsome appearance. With the hood over
the head and the two big goggle eyes, and the outlet valve sticking
out where the nose should be, it is small wonder that the Germans
described them as “devils,” and were so terrified as not to be able to
put up much fight on the front where the particular charge was made.


  The attack of December, 1915--The Allies’ good training tells--The
    casualties analysed--The new element of surprise--Evidences of the
    use of phosgene--The incident of the bulb--Improved alarms--The
    Strombos sirens--Accidents to the horns--The Tear Gas Shell--Its
    chemical analysis--Combated by anti-gas goggles--Tommies scoff at
    Tear Gas--The Germans make it formidable.

The expected German gas attack was actually made on December 19, 1915,
at about 5:15 A. M., just before “Stand to” in the morning, the venue
being the north of the Ypres salient, from the canal bank at Boesinghe
down to Wieltje, a distance of three miles. It was preceded by the
appearance of parachute lights of an unusual kind and by a number of
red rocket flares. Almost immediately afterward gas was smelt in the
front trenches. In some cases a hissing sound made by the gas’s leaving
the cylinders was heard and was taken as a warning by the soldiers in
the trenches. In other cases the noise seems to have been deadened
by rifle fire. Taking it altogether, however, there was very little
warning, as the wind was favourable and the gas traveled surprisingly

There was absolutely no confusion, and the men put on their helmets at
once and lined the parapets within a minute. Where the trenches were
close together the men had some difficulty in getting on their helmets
in time. This was particularly the case in listening posts where we
had patrols out quite close to the German wire. In the support and
reserve trenches the arrangements for spreading the warning were not
so good as those in the front line, and a number of men were caught by
the gas before they had their helmets on. Indeed in a number of cases,
especially in batteries, the gas was smelt before the receipt of the

The actual gas wave lasted only about half or three-quarters of an
hour, but in some places the helmets had to be kept on for four hours,
as the gas hung about in hollows and dugouts for a long time. This was
particularly noticeable in the neighbourhood of the canal. The cloud
was felt as far back as Vlamertinghe, eighty-five hundred yards behind
the line, and was still visible at this point. For at least three
miles back behind the front-line helmets had to be put on everywhere,
and for six miles behind the line the smoke helmets were generally
worn, some men who did not put them on at this distance being gassed.

The actual gas wave was accompanied by a heavy bombardment of the
front line and of Ypres and the villages behind it, shrapnel and
high-explosive shell and also tear shell being used, the latter shell
being fired particularly against our artillery. This bombardment
lasted throughout the day and most of the following night. Though our
wire had been cut in many places by the artillery fire, the Germans
made no serious infantry attack, and small patrols which left their
trenches in a few places were immediately shot down, as our fellows
were continually on the alert and had not suffered to any considerable

Altogether a large number of troops were exposed to the gas, but,
compared with its extent, the cloud caused only a small number of
casualties. This was very satisfactory after our experiences of the
spring. Men who were gassed but not killed were all subsequently
questioned as to the reason for their being gassed, and in each case a
definite reason was forthcoming. In no single instance was the fault
laid at the door of the smoke helmet, which apparently had been quite
capable of standing up to the highest concentrations in any part of the

Among the reasons given for the casualties were things like the
following: Some men in the fire trenches did not get on their helmets
quickly enough owing to the short distance between the trenches, lack
of warning in the support line and insufficient practice. Some officers
and men sleeping in dugouts did not have their helmets attached to them
or they were caught away from their dugouts without helmets. Helmets
in many cases were under the overcoats, which made it very difficult
to get them and put them on quickly, as it was necessary to undo the
overcoat, the top button of the jacket and the cardigan waistcoat
before the helmet could be tucked in. One cause of casualties was that
the “P” helmet smelt very strongly of carbolic, and a lot of men who
had not had this explained to them thought that the peculiar smell
was that of gas coming in and they took their helmets off with a
view to replacing them with other helmets. This of course was fatal.
One sergeant was gassed through his helmet’s being holed by a bullet,
though he himself was not wounded. In some cases wounded men tried to
remove their helmets and were gassed in this way, and it was found
necessary to watch men who were hit to prevent this.

In many ways this attack of the Germans was of the greatest importance,
as it displayed all of the features on which the subsequent
development of the gas cloud was based. These features were: Increased
concentration; the use of new material; surprise. These three things
are really the basis of all gas warfare, even at the present day,
whether the attacks are made in the form of clouds or by the use of gas
shells or other projectiles.

The increased concentration was obtained chiefly by the reduction in
the time occupied by the attack. The first attack of all lasted about
one hour and a half. The next attack lasted about three hours. The one
in question lasted only thirty minutes, so that if the same amount of
gas was used the concentration of the cloud must obviously have been
increased six times over that of May twenty-fourth, as there is little
doubt that the cylinders had been installed in approximately the same
numbers--that is, one to a meter of front.

Probably the most important feature of the attack was the introduction
of phosgene. Now there never was any actual chemical evidence of the
poisons of phosgene in the German gas clouds until some of their
cylinders were captured by us when they retreated on the Somme in the
beginning of 1917. But unfortunately the peculiar effects of phosgene
on our men who were gassed were only too apparent. There were a large
number of “delayed” cases--men who thought they were only slightly
gassed but who became ill or even died several hours or sometimes a day
or so later from heart failure, especially if they had taken any heavy
exercise in between.

In these cases there was hardly any coughing. What was really wanted
was rest, but this was not realised at the time, and many men walked
to the dressing stations--sometimes a mile or more--through deep
mud and became quite exhausted. One officer of the Durhams had been
slightly gassed at the beginning of the attack but felt perfectly all
right until about noon, when he became faint and exhausted, though
not apparently seriously ill. After lying down he felt better, but in
the evening got worse again, and in walking to the ambulance to go to
the field dressing station he suddenly collapsed and died. This was
fourteen hours after the attack.

Another weighty piece of evidence as to the nature of the gas was given
by the smell, which to trained observers was quite different from the
typical chloride-of-lime smell of chlorine; and by the peculiar effects
on the taste of tobacco to men who had smelt the gas. If you take a
good smell of dilute phosgene and then smoke a cigarette the tobacco
tastes like nothing on earth. Tommy’s nearest description of the taste
and smell is “mouldy hay.” This peculiar effect is quite typical of
phosgene and is known as the “tobacco reaction.”

In the hope of getting samples of the German gas clouds for analysis
a large number of gas vacuum bulbs were distributed up and down the
line, and selected men were taught how to use them. This was supposed
to be done by nipping off the drawn-out end of the gas bulb, whereby
the contaminated air would rush in. The end was then to be closed with
a hollow stopper containing wax.

To get these samples was asking a great deal. Even when packed in
special boxes glass bulbs are somewhat fragile things for trench life,
and the wooden boxes made excellent kindling wood, which was always
being sought for. The result is that when the cloud does come along
the vacuum bulbs are often conspicuous only by their absence. Even
if they are kept whole it is asking rather a lot of a man to take an
accurate scientific sample during the excitement of a gas attack which
is accompanied by a bombardment by explosive shells and gas shells.

For a long time none of the bulbs found their way back to the field
laboratory. Eventually one did come, carefully packed in shavings and
wadding. I happened to be present when it was brought in, and there was
a good deal of excitement at the little prodigal’s return. The bulb was
taken out, but under it was found a leaf from a field-service note
book, on which was written: “Danger. This bulb was found in a hedge.
It seems to have been dropped from an aeroplane and probably contains
cholera germs. Fortunately it has not been broken.”

The “surprise effect,” which was mentioned above as being the third
fresh feature of this new-era gas-cloud attack, took the form of making
the attack in the dark and at a time when men were least prepared--that
is, just before the morning “Stand to,” the hour before dawn, when all
troops in the trenches stand to arms. By making the attack at night,
or at any rate in the dark, the boche achieved two objects: First of
all, there were better wind conditions for an attack, because the
night winds tend to flow down toward the earth and keep the gas cloud
low-lying and thick, whereas in the day the sun warms the ground and
produces so many upward currents of air that the cloud gets lifted up
and dissipated; in the second place it was impossible to see the cloud
when it was first liberated, and this reduced the means of detecting
the attack to only two--the hissing noise of the gas escaping from the
cylinders and the smell of the advanced parts of the cloud.

Later on it was known that the best hours for all gas attacks, both
cloud and shell bombardment, are in the night; and as a matter of
fact practically all gas warfare is now carried out at night, but at
that time the significance of this was not grasped, and many of our
casualties were due to lack of preparedness, numbers of men being
caught “on the hop” and overwhelmed.

Some most important steps in improving our protecting measures were
taken as a result of the lessons learned from the attack; in fact, it
may be taken that all measures in defence against gas have been learned
from bitter experience, and to this extent the sufferings of the
victims may be taken as having at any rate some compensating value. In
such a new and strange and continually developing kind of warfare very
little can be done by _a priori_ argument. This fact we have always
tried to impress on the men--that the gas warfare orders, sometimes
apparently trivial and frequently wearisome and annoying, have all been
made as the result of lessons learned from actual attacks.

Among the chief things that were done after the December nineteenth
attack was the improvement of our system of alarms.

The bells and horns in the front line had been found quite
insufficient, especially for warning people in the rear; and the
telephone could not be depended on for this purpose owing to the
possibilities of the wires being cut by shell fire. To protect them
from being cut, all wires would have to be buried at least six feet
deep in the ground, and this is practically impossible owing to the
work involved.

It would consequently be fatal to depend on telephonic communication,
especially as a gas attack is nearly always accompanied by a pretty
heavy bombardment of rear lines. In one case I knew, during just such
a bombardment, the staff captain at a brigade headquarters was talking
to one of the battalions when the whole telephone instrument seemed
to burst into a sheet of flame in his hands, owing to a cut wire. The
battalion concerned was isolated for more than an hour as a result,
and anything might have happened in the meantime.

For these reasons it was decided to adopt for gas alarms sirens worked
by compressed air, which would make a noise sufficiently loud and
distinctive to be heard long distances away. The type of siren which
was used has been kept in use ever since in continually increasing
numbers and has proved extraordinarily useful. It is known as the
Strombos horn, and consists of the horn proper and two iron cylinders
of compressed air charged to a pressure of one hundred and fifty
atmospheres. Only one cylinder at a time is connected to the horn, the
other being kept as a reserve.

The Strombos horns are mounted in the trenches in such a way as to
protect them from shell splinters as far as possible. This is generally
done by packing them round carefully with sandbags, only the mouth of
the horn being displayed and pointing toward the rear. Every sentry
must know how and when to sound the horn. All he has to do when he
realises that a gas attack is being made, or on receiving instructions
from an officer to do so, is to loosen the tap on the cylinder one
complete turn, when the horn will sound continuously for more than a
minute. The noise is terrific and in an enclosed space or in a quiet
region it is absolutely deafening. In the trenches, however, it is none
too loud, and the distances between the horns in the front system of
trenches are never more than four or five hundred yards. Farther back
in the chain, toward the rear, the distances can be increased. Horns
are now installed at battalion, brigade and divisional headquarters.
By turning them on when the noise of those in front is heard it is
possible to pass the alarm in an incredibly short space of time and
thus forestall the cloud of gas to such an extent that every man in the
support trenches or in rest billets or the villages behind the firing
line is aware that an attack is in progress and gets ready to protect

Naturally, things don’t always work out exactly according to schedule.
The horns are frequently damaged. In one place I was at, just this
side of the canal, near Boesinghe, a heavy German trench mortar
wrecked three of our Strombos horns within a week, and another and
less suitable position had to be found for the alarm. Then there are
occasional false alarms. These sometimes arise from individual men
“getting the wind up” from a bombardment by gas shell and thinking that
a cloud attack is being made. Others I am afraid have been more in the
nature of experiments “to see how it works.” After all, it must be a
great temptation to a sentry to be in charge of a Strombos horn and
never have the pleasure of turning it on.

False alarms are a great nuisance, however, and good arrangements have
now been made to prevent their spreading. It is possible to avoid
all the unnecessary disturbance to which troops are subjected by a
false gas alarm. This disturbance is particularly objectionable in
back areas where regiments returned from the trenches are in billets.
When the alarm goes everybody has to turn out--probably in the middle
of the night. Sentries wake the officers and men in all the billets;
messengers have to be sent post-haste to outlying villages or farms
with which there is no telephonic communications; respirators are
hurriedly inspected and placed in the alert position; the gas-proof
curtains of cellars and dugouts are adjusted; the officers move about
in the darkness to see that all their men are accounted for and ready;
every one is in a state of expectancy--and then the word comes through
that it is a false alarm, and the men go back, cursing, to their
billets. Not only is an occurrence of this kind wearying to tired
troops, but it has the old disadvantage of crying “Wolf, wolf!” when
there is no wolf--the consequent determination on the part of the men
not to take the next alarm so seriously.

Though it was not realised at the time, it is almost certain that the
Germans started to use gas in shell almost simultaneously, and probably
actually in the first attack, with the use of the poisonous gas clouds
in the attacks of April and May, 1915. Many instances came to notice of
men’s eyes being strongly affected to such an extent that they could
not keep them open. There seemed to be something in the air which made
an unprotected man weep copiously if he tried to keep his eyes open,
and of course if he closed them he could not see what he was doing.

These effects, and a peculiar smell which was noticed both during and
after the gas-cloud attacks, gave rise to the belief that something
like formaldehyde was being used by the Germans mixed with some
chlorine gas. Others described the smell as being that of chloroform
or ether, but nobody could say definitely what the material actually
was. It was only after a number of blind shell had been obtained and
examined that it was realised that the Germans were firing shell filled
with liquid which had a powerful lachrymatory effect.

It does not appear certain whether the use of lachrymatory liquids
for putting men out of action by making their eyes water is in itself
contrary to The Hague Convention, as the vapours need not actually be
poisonous. This was the case with the first German gas shell, as it
was found that the liquid contained consisted only of a material known
chemically as “xylyl bromide.” The vapour of this liquid and of many
similar substances has a most powerful effect on the eyes, like that of
onions but much stronger. Except in very high concentrations it cannot
be regarded as poisonous--at any rate not in the sense that chlorine is

Examination of the German lachrymatory shells showed that the liquid
was contained inside the shell in a sealed lead vessel so that the
material should not come in contact with the steel of the shell, which
it destroys gradually. Shell of this kind, though termed gas shell, are
not really such, as the liquid has to be broken up into fine droplets
by the explosive charge of the shell before the vapour can produce its
effect. The liquid has no pressure of its own inside the shell and
depends entirely on the bursting charge to get it distributed into the

The xylyl bromide used by the Germans was not pure, but contained a
big proportion of benzyl bromide, showing that it had been made by the
action of bromide on coal-tar light oil from which most of the toluene
had been removed for the manufacture of the well-known high explosive,

The effect of xylyl bromide on an unprotected man is instantaneous
and remarkable. Even such small proportions as one volume of vapour
diluted with one million volumes of air will at once make a man weep so
copiously that he cannot possible keep his eyes open.

Obviously a material of this kind has great military value, for though
it does not put men out of action permanently by killing them it
neutralises their effectiveness to such an extent that for the time
being they may be regarded as of no military importance. In strong
concentrations the effect on the eyes is most powerful. I have walked
into an area which was being bombarded with lachrymatory shells
and suddenly got the effect just as if I had been hit in the face.
Fortunately the lachrymation has no lasting effect on the eyes, and a
man on getting into pure air very quickly recovers.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1915 these lachrymatory shells
were used in considerable numbers, especially in the vicinity of
Ypres, and at times the ramparts of that much bombarded town reeked
of lachrymatory vapour and nobody could stay in certain spots for
any length of time without having his eyes protected by specially
constructed goggles or by wearing a gas helmet right over his head.

Taking it altogether we were not troubled nearly so much by this new
type of gas as were the French, in the southern part of the line. In
much the same way that the gas cloud was developed by the Germans
against the English the gas shell were developed chiefly against the
French, and very much larger numbers were employed against the French
positions than we had to contend with during the first six months or
so. Later on things were more equallised in this direction. Captured
German documents and statements by prisoners showed us that the
Germans were counting very considerably on the effect produced by the
lachrymatory shell, and detailed instructions for their use in various
circumstances were carefully laid down. The lachrymatory shell was
known by the Germans as “T-Shell,” and the xylyl bromide as “T-Stoff,”
and instructions were laid down for the use of this material. Another
kind of shell was known as “K-Shell,” which up to that time had not
been used against us, or at any rate had not been recognised.

The T-Shell was particularly to be used against positions which it
was not intended to occupy immediately, the reason for this being
that T-Stoff hangs about for a long time. Some of the liquid is apt
to be spread about the ground and gives off enough vapour to make the
neighbourhood of the shell hole uninhabitable for many hours, and in
favourable condition--for the enemy--for several days. The K-Shell, on
the other hand, was intended to be used against infantry positions and
strong-points which it was hoped to assault and capture within an hour
or two of the bombardment or on areas which it was hoped to traverse
during a big attack.

The advent of the lachrymatory T-Shell incommoded us considerably, but,
as it was quickly realised that the gas was not poisonous, the Tommies
were not much taken back, and the “tear shell,” as they were quickly
called, were not considered by the rank and file to have importance,
which as a matter of fact they have; but at the same time we heard
rather alarming stories of the effects of gas shell as used against
the French.

It was rumoured, for example, that in the Crown Prince’s big advance in
the Argonne, in the late spring of 1915, that such enormous numbers of
gas shell had been used against the French positions that the infantry
occupying them were not only put out of action by the effect on their
eyes but that the amount of gas used was so large that the French
soldiers were actually anæsthetised and were taken prisoners by the
Germans while in an unconscious condition.

Whether this was true or whether it was exaggerated is not certain,
though it is certainly true that the Crown Prince’s advance was
prefaced by a hurricane bombardment of gas shell, the tactical effect
of which was considerable.

Stories of this kind, however, combined with the effects which we
ourselves were experiencing, made us realise that protection against
tear gas was essential, and for this purpose arrangements were made to
supply every officer and man in the front line with a pair of anti-gas
goggles. The earliest types of these goggles were very simple in
construction, and we are told were copied from a French pattern. They
consisted of a waterproof fabric lined with flannel containing a wire
spring for the nose and fitted with celluloid eyepieces. By bending the
wire to the shape of the nose it was possible to close the nostrils and
at the same time give a reasonably good fit to the flannel on the face.

In some cases the flannel was anointed with some kind of grease so as
to make a still closer fit, in order to keep out small traces of gas
which are quite sufficient to produce lachrymation. Later on we had a
much better type of goggle backed with rubber sponge to make a tight
fit to the face.

With the small numbers of gas shell used against us we had no
experience of any effect on the lungs, and it was found also that the
helmet form of respirator was enough to keep out, at any rate, low
concentrations of the lachrymator; but we got a rude awakening when
the boche began to use his tear shells in larger numbers. Such a case
happened to us in the beginning of 1916, at the celebrated village
of Vermelles, a little ruined town just behind the lines near Loos.
The enemy tried out an attack on us over about a mile front for the
purpose of bagging some of our trenches, and he attempted to keep
reinforcements from coming up to counter attack him by putting down a
tear-shell barrage through Vermelles and north and south of it over the
roads on which our fellows would have to advance. He used thousands
of his tear shells and the neighbourhood absolutely stank of them.
Fortunately, it was almost impossible to put down an effective standing
barrage with gas, and our reserves got through on two roads that had
not been blocked effectively. The boche attack was a fizzle, but
Vermelles was a little private hell of its own for that day and most of
the next forty-eight hours as well.

During and immediately after the bombardment, troops passing through
the village wore both goggles and gas helmets, but the concentration
of lachrymator was so great that many of our fellows were sick and
actually vomited inside their helmets. If you can imagine men going
up to a battle with these flannelette bags over their heads and
then being sick inside them, you can realise that the boche was not
particularly popular with us at the time.

Besides this, Vermelles was much used by troops in reserve and was full
of cellars and dugouts occupied by the waiting infantry and also by
signallers, headquarters of various kinds, and so on. The vapours--and
some of the shells themselves, for that matter--got down into these
cellars and made them almost uninhabitable for days, except in those
cases where they had been properly protected by double lines of
blankets hung at the entrances.

About the same time in 1916 the enemy began making surprise
bombardments with a new lachrymator and with the K-Shell mentioned
previously, for the purpose of assisting in raids. Both of these gases
rejoice in long names, the lachrymator being bromethylmethylketone, and
the K-Shell gas monochlormethylchloroformate. These gases are much more
poisonous and do not hang about as long as the old “T” tear gas.

One such raid in which they were used was carried out at a place
called La Boiselle--afterward famous as a jumping-off point in the
Somme Battle.

I was not in at the raid, but heard details of it afterward. The boche
rained his gas shells into the selected area and at the same time
prevented reinforcements from getting up by putting down a so-called
box barrage with explosive shells round the trenches to be attacked.

Our men were taken completely by surprise. Many of them were badly
gassed, all were temporarily blinded; and then after a short interval
the boche came in. He timed his arrival so that most of the gas had
disappeared. Then there was some very fierce fighting--so fierce that a
number of our men died afterward because of the exertion following on
the breathing of the K-gas.

But gassed and blinded men, however brave, cannot fight successfully
against others fresh and unaffected, and the enemy captured a number of
prisoners and two Lewis guns.

Curiously enough, during the Somme Battle a few months later we did
in properly the regiment which had carried out the raid and captured
the official report of the commander of the raiding party. In this
report he said: “... the men of the Royal Irish Rifles created a fine
impression both as regards their physique and their mode of repelling
an assault. Had it not been for the use of the gas shells it would have
been impossible to clear the section of trench attacked.”

Rather a fine tribute--and one thoroughly deserved!

Of course surprises of this kind cannot be pulled off twice, but
occurrences like this and the bombardment at Vermelles let us see that
the enemy intended to develop his gas-shell industry much more than
we had anticipated, and our protective measures were taken in hand so
as to meet future eventualities. In fact it was about this time that
the box respirator was being hurriedly developed so as to protect us
against any further devilment that Fritz might send along.


  Summer of 1916 the highwater mark of the German gas cloud--Their
    improved methods--The need of speed and secrecy--Gas as a rat
    exterminator--Causes of Allied casualties--Germans killed with
    their own gas--Gas masks for horses and mules--Reduced Allied
    casualties--Humorous incidents.

The great time for the German gas troops was undoubtedly 1916, and
from April to August of that year they carried out five big cloud gas
attacks on the British alone, not counting several on the French Front
and a number against the Russians.

During the interval from the December attack of the previous year
they had obviously been thinking hard and preparing lots of gas, for
the new attacks showed several fresh features both as regards extent
and tactics. Along the lines of making the gas more poisonous, using
greater quantities and higher concentration and the springing of
surprises, everything was done to make the gas cloud an even more
deadly affair than it had been in previous shows. That our own
casualties were much less than before, and that the boche in at least
one case had a lot more killed by his own gas than we had, were very
satisfactory results of all the labour and research as far as we were

For the same reason that the December attack had been reduced in
duration to half an hour, the new clouds lasted only ten to fifteen
minutes; thus once more multiplying the concentration by two or three.
On top of this the amount of phosgene was increased up to at least
twenty-five per cent and probably to about fifty per cent, so that in
this way also the cloud became much more deadly than before. It is
interesting to note that pure phosgene cannot be used, otherwise the
Germans would undoubtedly have employed it. Straight phosgene does not
come out of the cylinders satisfactorily--it must have a big proportion
of something like chlorine mixed with it to force it out and get it
into the air as quickly as may be.

All of this made the gas cloud a nasty thing to face. As it became
progressively more deadly it required less and less to kill. A couple
of breaths of the poisoned air became enough to kill a man; but as
our protection was good enough, it meant that the most important thing
for the enemy to do was to take us unawares by getting his gas over so
quickly or deceiving us in some other way that we should be down and
out almost before we knew it. This is where his surprise tactics came

These tactics consisted in attempting a great secrecy in the
preparations, in the use of smoke clouds to put us off the real track
of the gas, and the putting over of a number of different waves of gas
at varying intervals. The value of the last two will be more apparent
from the accounts of the individual attacks, but the importance of the
first-mentioned method must be emphasised a bit.

It must be remembered that the carrying in of the gas cylinders is the
work of the infantry and, as we discovered ourselves when we started
retaliation, is a very unpopular job owing to the difficulties of the
carry. Any carelessness in allowing the cylinders to clank by bumping
against each, other or against any other metal objects in the trenches,
or metallic sounds made by rather bored pioneers in unscrewing the
domes or attacking the pipes, are going to give away the fact to the
opposing side that something unusual is going on. And something unusual
going on or suspected generally spells g-a-s in the trenches.

In some cases, too, the opposing trenches can be seen from observation
posts--O. P.’s or O. Pips, as they are called in British Army
parlance--and in such cases if the carrying is started or the
installation of the cylinders is continued during the day there is a
good chance of the whole show being blown on by some watchful observer
with a telescope to his eye a mile or so away. All this the boche
realised and made his arrangements accordingly. But in at least one
case, in April, in his anxiety to get the cloud over without diminution
of strength and so that we should have little time for protecting
ourselves and spreading the alarm, he chose as his venue for the
attack a big portion of the line where the trenches were very close
together--seldom, in fact, more than fifty yards apart. Of course
it is just in such circumstances that secrecy of preparation is of
the greatest importance--but at the same time it is of the greatest
difficulty to maintain. As a matter of fact the Germans overreached
themselves by this choice of position, and little indications spotted
by our watchful sentries and patrols made us pretty certain that a
gas attack was impending, and our watchfulness and preparedness were
correspondingly increased and a constant state of “Gas Alert” kept up.

The first two attacks of the year were made against the 16th--the
Irish Division. This was the division in which Willie Redmond was a
captain, and it was composed of some of the best fighting material in
the world--all Nationalist Irishmen and anxious to get one over at
Fritz. Whether the Irishmen were chosen as a target with the foolish
idea of “putting the wind up,” or whether it was out of revenge for
their appearance in the British ranks after all the labour that had
been expended in trying to spread sedition in Ireland, we do not know.
Whatever the idea was it terminated in most abject failure, for the
Irishmen came through both attacks wonderfully well and absolutely
smashed up the German infantry advances which were attempted after the
passage of the cloud. Both attacks were made on that part of the line
near Hulluch running for about two miles south from Cité St. Elie.

The Germans opened the ball by letting our support and reserve lines
have a heavy bombardment of tear shells. Almost immediately after, in
the dim light of the early dawn, the first gas cloud floated over. It
was very thick and had been largely mixed with smoke in the hope of
leading our fellows to believe that it was terribly strong. It was not.
But the cloud was so dense that even at brigade headquarters, three
miles behind the front line, it was impossible to see across the road.
There was enough gas in this mixed cloud to make it very dangerous and
uncomfortable to unprotected men, but there were very few casualties.
The alarm was quickly spread, the men remained cool, and an attempted
attack by the enemy infantry to follow up the cloud was smashed up
without being able to get closer than our barbed wire.

After this first wave there was a tendency among the men to regard
the danger as over and to congratulate themselves on the apparent
and obvious boche failure. As they were prepared to go through with
anything the boche could put over, there was a natural tendency to
underrate the effects of gas, seeing it had caused them no losses.
It is undoubtedly true that a number of helmets were discarded
entirely--some of the soldiers thought they were useless after being
through an attack, and threw them away, depending entirely on their
reserve helmets. These they omitted to place in the “Alert” position,
pinned up on their chests ready for immediate use. In one or two cases
which came to my notice officers and men went off to the latrines or to
headquarters without helmets at all. This of course, was not general,
but it shows how some of our men fell for the boche ruse, which
consisted of putting over a second wave two hours later on exactly the
same Front.

The second cloud was a frightfully strong one, composed entirely of
gas in the highest possible concentration. It was this wave which
caused all our losses on April twenty-seventh, as it took a number of
men completely by surprise. But even so, the Irishmen were not a bit
dismayed, and when the Germans again attempted to advance--parties
of their bombers in some cases appearing immediately behind the gas
cloud--they were met by such a stout resistance that those who were not
shot down retired in disorder to their own trenches.

The intensity of the second wave can be gathered from the fact that
buttons and ammunition were quickly corroded and turned a villainous
green colour. In a few cases rifles stuck and Lewis guns jammed, owing
to the effects of the gas on the ammunition and the breach mechanism.
One good thing about the attack was that most of the rats in the
trenches were killed. In some parts of the line the trench rats are an
absolute plague. They eat any food or candles left lying about or kept
in cardboard boxes. They swarm in the dugouts and appear in all sorts
of odd corners. They disturb the little rest one does get; and I have
had them run all over me, even over my face, while lying in my dugout.
All attempts to clear them out were useless. But what ferrets and
terriers and virus could not accomplish the boche gas did. Mister Rat
cannot stand up to a strong mixture of chlorine and phosgene without a
gas mask, and so in this attack, as in others we experienced, he died
by hundreds; and nobody mourned him.

Curiously enough two kittens, which inhabited the dugout of the
commanding officer of one of the battalions of the Scottish Borderers,
who were in reserve, came through alive. The kittens were badly
gassed and lay breathing rapidly, suffering from spasms and with
profuse salivation. Possibly their fur helped to absorb some of the
gas, for five hours later the little victims were almost themselves
again, though they continued to cough occasionally and drank water
continually. The water they took in preference to milk.

The effects of the poison on the soldiers who were gassed were pretty
much the same as has been so frequently described in the press before.
In the lighter cases it was mostly severe and painful coughing and
bronchitis, with occasional retching and vomiting. The severe cases
had the frothing at the mouth, the painful fight for breath and the
blue face with staring eyes which are typical of severe gassing with
chlorine and phosgene. I was told that there were not many delayed
cases--that is, men being taken seriously ill hours after the attack,
though apparently unscathed before.

The casualties were really remarkably small in the circumstances, and
even despite the surprise tactics, were not as numerous as those of
the December attack. Apart from the men who were caught without their
respirators, most of the casualties were the result of some special
circumstances. The helmets themselves when properly inspected and
adjusted gave good protection. In connection with the laying aside of
the respirators after the first cloud a sergeant told me that when the
second wave came over he had seen two soldiers trying to get into the
same helmet. The humorous side of this had apparently appealed to him
even in the middle of the attack.

Of course with the trenches so close together a lot of men had
difficulty in getting protection in time. Parties of men in advanced
saps and listening posts had the greatest difficulty, and numbers
of these men were killed. One pioneer of a tunnelling company came
out of a mine gallery knowing nothing about what had been happening
aboveground, and walked straight into the middle of the gas cloud.

A man in one of the companies of the Irish Rifles was wounded in the
head by shrapnel through both his steel and gas helmets. In spite of
the wound and the hole in his gas helmet he held the latter close round
his mouth and nose and was not gassed at all--a clear case of presence
of mind saving his life.

One thing which impressed every one with the need for thorough gas
training at home, and which should be taken to heart by all men in
training at the camps or likely to go there, was the way in which
reinforcements and men who had recently joined up suffered. Their
casualties were out of all proportion to their numbers and were due
entirely to the fact that insufficient attention was given at that time
to the gas-defence training of the recruits. Many of them had never put
on a helmet before, and none of them had ever smelled gas.

In one particular instance a batch of twenty men had come straight over
from England and were in the gas attack the day after their arrival in
the trenches. The only training they had had was a lecture from their
own regimental officers, and consequently they knew little or nothing
about the use of their helmets. Every one of these men was gassed. It
is true that they had scrambled into their helmets somehow, and none
of them died; but the fact remains that absence of training at home
cost the fighting line twenty men in one company. In this company they
were the only men gassed. Largely as a consequence of this, gas-defence
training was taken up very seriously in the early training of recruits,
and big gas schools were established at all the camps both in England
and at the bases in France, so as to catch the young soldier early.

The boche made another gas attack on the Irish Division on the same
Front two days later. Once again he let off two waves--this time with
an interval of only a quarter of an hour. But despite his idea of
“mixing them up” he could not bring off that particular surprise again.

The second attack was one of the most interesting on record, for it
was here, near Hulluch, that the gas blew back on the Germans and
killed many more of them than our total gas casualties. The thing
happened in this way: The first gas wave was loosed off at three-fifty
A. M., opposite the celebrated Chalk Pit Wood. Fifteen minutes later a
heavy cloud was discharged on the Hulluch front. But the wind was too
light and variable. The cloud came over our line and then the gentle
wind first dropped altogether and then gradually veered round. The
gas hung on No Man’s Land and over both sets of trenches for a short
time, and then with increasing pace drifted back right over the German
position, just where Fritz had been seen massing for an attack on the
Hulluch sector. We did not see the confusion which reigned, but almost
simultaneously with the arrival of his own gas our barrage came down
and the German attack dispersed.

All that day our observers reported the carrying out of German
casualties from the trenches on stretchers and a constant stream of
ambulances coming up and then returning along the roads to the rear. We
surmised that the boche had swallowed some of his own poison, but it
was not until several months later, from some documents captured during
the Battle of the Somme, that we were able to appreciate his disaster
to the full.

The first of these documents was the diary of a soldier who had been in
the neighbouring trenches. It ran: “... We went along the trenches to
find the headquarters of the ----th. It was awful. Everywhere lay dead
bodies or men gasping for breath and dying from the gas. Somebody must
be to blame. At first I could not go on. One almost had to step on them
to get through. I asked an officer of the ----th what had happened.
They were going to be relieved....”

But the other documents were more explicit, as they happened to be the
official report on the matter from the war office in Berlin. It appears
that the Germans had eleven hundred deaths from their own gas. A most
rigid enquiry was held and it was found that many of the men were not
carrying respirators, either in the trenches or in the area immediately
behind the line. But this did not explain the extent of the disaster,
so eight hundred of the respirators collected from casualties were sent
to Berlin for examination and report. Even allowing for those which
might have been injured in transit, there were still thirty-three per
cent of the masks so defective that their owners were certain to be
gassed. To see whether this applied only to the area affected a large
number of respirators were collected from up and down the whole Western
Front, and it was found that even among those as many as eleven and a
half per cent were similarly at fault. It would seem that there had
been very poor inspection of the respirators both in manufacture and
after issue to the troops. Apart from the joy of seeing the boche hoist
with his own petard it was rather a relief to find that the efficient
German Army was not so frightfully efficient after all.

This matter of inspection is taken very seriously in the British Army.
Besides the rigorous factory inspection all respirators are inspected
thoroughly every day even in the trenches, and Tommy is expected to
look after his respirator just as he looks after his rifle. As an
official statement issued after the April attack said: “A defective
helmet frequently leads to the death of the wearer. Inspection of
respirators must be frequent and thorough.” A sergeant who was
notorious for his thorough dealing with recruits got away with it in
even better terms when addressing a squad on parade. In thundering
tones he said: “If you don’t look for the ’oles in your ’elmet, they’ll
soon be looking for a ’ole for you.”

Another thing that resulted from the attacks just described, and
from another similar attack shortly afterward in the salient, was
the putting on the screw with regard to the carrying of respirators
continuously by every one in the trenches. A very good and well-known
story on the British Army in this connection is that of a brigadier
general who was proceeding to the line for his daily inspection when he
discovered that he was minus a gas bag. He stopped the first orderly
he saw, borrowed the man’s helmet and serenely went his way with a
clear conscience. Arrived in the trenches, one of the first sights that
met his horrified gaze was a soldier without a gas mask. In virtuous
tones he demanded the reason for its absence, and then, waving aside
the halting explanation, went on loudly to assert his belief that the
soldier would not know how to use a respirator even if he had one.

“Here,” he said, “take mine and show me whether you can put it on in
quick time.”

The awe-stricken Tommy slung the satchel over his shoulder, and on the
word “Gas!” from the general thrust his hand into the haversack and
pulled out--a very dirty pair of army socks.

The fourth German attack of 1916 was made on June seventeenth in
Flanders, near Messines; in fact, just north of the Wulverghem-Messines
road. Like those of April, it was intensely strong, very short, and
sent over in successive waves at intervals of about twenty minutes.
There were really no fresh features about the show, but the cloud seems
to have been even stronger than before. I had no personal experience of
this attack, but the cloud must have been very strong, for it killed
animals at “Plugstreet”--the only name we used in the British Army
for Ploegsteert--three and half miles away, and was quite distinctly
perceptible even at Béthune. At the “Piggeries”--the remains of a
model farm in rear of Plugstreet Wood belonging to a notable French
sportsman, a place well-known to so many British soldiers--a calf was
found dead, after the passage of the cloud, with the body very much
blown out. Dead rats lay in close proximity.

Even farther back than this animals were seriously affected. The
army mules in the line of the gas were seized with fits of coughing
and kicked violently, making them even more difficult to handle than
usual. It is probably not realised that horse masks are now issued on
a scale sufficient to provide protection for all horses and mules,
such as those of the first-line transport and the artillery, which
have to approach anywhere near the lines. The present form of these
respirators is that of a big bag soaked in chemicals which fits over
the animal’s nostrils, leaving its mouth free so that the use of the
bit is not interfered with. When not in use the horse respirator folds
up very nicely and neatly into a canvas case which can be carried on
the breastband of the harness or any place from which it can be quickly
adjusted. Some of the animals take to these masks--“Horspirators,”
some wag called them--quite quickly, but others are strenuous
objectors; some of those hardened sinners, the mules, transforming
themselves into masses of teeth and hoofs whenever an attempt is made
to fix on the gas bags.

In one case where a horse and a mule in the same supply column were
fitted with their masks at the same time the difference was most
marked. The horse was dressed up without much trouble, though he did
not like it. He whinnied and sneezed, breathed hard and perspired
and looked rather pitiable, but stuck it out. The mule, on the other
hand, had to be roped to get the mask on at all. Then he danced about,
heels in the air and head down, and tried to rub off the objectionable
appendage against the rope, and then against a tree. This did not
effect its removal, and for a minute the cunning animal stood still
with his ears cocked at different angles. Then suddenly he put his
head to the ground and before anything could be done to prevent it put
his foot on the respirator, pulled his head up smartly and left the
respirator under his hoof.

These masks have proved of the greatest value and have saved any
number of horses’ lives. The cavalry are not provided with them, as
it is not anticipated that they will be near enough to be affected by
gas-cloud attacks, and when the cavalry are mounted and in action it is
unlikely that they will meet even poison-gas shells in large numbers.
Added to this is the fact that a horse can stand more gas than a man
without being distressed.

The casualties in the June attack were lower than in any one
previously. Indeed, it was a satisfactory feature of the whole gas
business that despite the increasing deadliness of the German clouds
the losses they caused became less and less. Of course the proportion
of severe cases in those gassed became greater, for with such strong
clouds it had become a case of hit or miss. Either a man was protected
completely or he was caught out badly; and this spoke well for the
protection supplied, for otherwise there would have been a much bigger
proportion of light cases.

Of the minor effects of these boche gas clouds, that on vegetation is
the most marked and gives a good idea of the strength of the gas. For
miles in the track of the cloud all green stuff is burned up or wilted.
Grass is turned yellow, the leaves of trees go brown and fall off, and
the garden crops are entirely destroyed. I have seen root crops in the
fields and garden crops of onions, beans and lettuce quite destroyed.
But curiously enough, farther back, in places where this still happens
to the garden crops, the cereals and the hedges seem to escape serious

Of course over a wide area all metal work is thickly tarnished, and
this might be a danger in the case of telephone instruments and other
delicate appliances, except that the exposed parts are always kept
slightly oiled and then cleaned thoroughly after the attack. The same
thing is done with rifles and machine guns and their ammunition, and
with the clinometres, fuses and breech mechanism of guns and trench
mortars. Since this war started very little difficulty has occurred
through corrosion, but the chief thing is to clean off the grease and
reoil all metal parts exposed to the gas immediately after the attack
is finished, otherwise the greasy surface seems to hold the gas or the
acid it engenders, and allows it to eat in at its leisure.

During the attacks of 1916 the alarm arrangements worked very well,
and the Strombos Horns in particular justified their use. Even above
the noise of machine-gun fire and the bursting of shells their shrill,
unmistakable note could be heard for long distances, giving warning to
all troops on the flanks and in the rear. There were very few instances
where they were not let off in time and the sentries posted over them
apparently knew their jobs better, for instance, than one man who
was questioned on the subject. This particular sentry was asked by a
noncommissioned officer going the rounds in the trenches what he would
do in the event of a gas attack being made. “Oh,” replied the bright
boy, “that’s easy. If any gas comes over it blows the horn and I call
the platoon sergeant and tell him about it.”

A much more conscientious sentry over a Strombos Horn had been told to
be particularly on the lookout for a gas attack, as one was expected
at any time. The officer on duty, going round about midnight, heard
a suspiciously regular sound coming from one of the fire bays, and
thinking that one of the sentries was indulging in a stolen forty winks
he cautiously rounded the traverse. Here he found the sentry lying
on the top of the parapet staring into the darkness and going sniff,
sniff, sniff with his nose.

Being asked more forcibly than politely what was the matter with him
the man replied: “I’m sniffing for gas.”

Sniff, sniff, sniff.

“Can you smell any?”

“No, sir; but I want to smell it if it does come, as I’m a gas sentry
and the leftenant told me always to keep smelling for gas.”

Sniff, sniff, sniff.

The job of seeing that the air cylinders of the Strombos Horns are
kept at their full pressure is intrusted to the divisional gas
noncommissioned officers, who go round periodically with pressure
gauges and test them out. If they fall below a certain pressure they
are replaced at once by fresh ones from the divisional store. Some
Australians going up the line one night were carrying a number of such
cylinders for replacement, when one of them got turned on accidentally
and they didn’t seem able to stop it.

A passing officer hearing the hissing noise called out: “What have you
got there?”

“Air bottles,” was the answer.

“What for?” persisted the officer.

A pause, and then out of the darkness: “Oh, hell! To put the wind up
the boche, of course.”

This story will probably be appreciated more by Britishers than
Americans, though I think the latter in many cases already know the
significance of the expressions “getting the wind up” and “putting the
wind up.” They refer of course to what official reports or newspaper
men would style as “reduction of morale.”


  The last German gas cloud sent over August, 1916--Its
    intensity--“Delayed” gases of phosgene gassing--Cigarettes as a test
    of gassing--Dangers of carelessness--The sprayer abandoned for Mrs.
    Ayrton’s fan--Responsibilities of the divisional gas office--Russian
    gas victims--The day of the gas cloud over.

The last German gas cloud to be discharged against the British Front
was in August, 1916. In every way it was the greatest test to which our
men had been put. It was the strongest cloud attack the Germans had
made--not only were the individual waves of only ten minutes’ duration
but the boche had more cylinders in his line than usual. According to
his own admissions the bottles were put in at the rate of three every
two yards and in some places two per yard. Added to this he had brought
up the proportion of phosgene to the maximum that can be used. The
circumstances, too, were very unfavourable to us. It must be remembered
that the Battle of the Somme was in full swing, and that for once in
its war history the Ypres salient, where the gas attack took place,
was a “quiet” sector where divisions used up in the battle went to
“rest” and reorganise. The result was that the divisions attacked were
composed very largely of fresh drafts. They had lost very heavily in
officers and most of the company noncommissioned gas officers had been
knocked out. Their gas training was therefore not at the high standard
that it had attained previous to the battle.

Added to this, a relief was going on in the trenches. This, by the way,
was the second time that our fellows were caught by a gas attack during
a relief. Whether it was that the boche intelligence was particularly
good or whether it was simply that his luck was in is not certain, but
it meant that our trenches, both the front line and the communication
trenches, had just twice the number of men in them that they would have
had normally. And every man, both incoming and outgoing, was carrying
his complete “Christmas Tree” rig--rifle, ammunition, full pack,
haversack, greatcoat, gas masks, and all the rest of it; in some places
hardly able to squeeze through the trenches in his bulky marching

Into this congestion the boche let off his gas on the eighth of August
about ten o’clock P. M. It says worlds for the steadiness of our
fellows that the total casualties from the three waves he sent over
remained at the same low ebb that they had reached in the June attack.
Of course but for the adverse circumstances they would undoubtedly have
been still lower. It is interesting to note that the position on which
the attack was made--namely, the line between Bellewarde Lake and the
Yser Canal--included much of the line over which the first attack of
all had been made a year and a half previously.

The intensity of the cloud can be realised from the fact that helmets
had to be worn at a division headquarters nine miles from the point of
discharge, and the gas was perceptible, though not so dangerous, many
miles beyond this point.

The most distinctive feature of the whole affair was the number of men
who suffered from the delayed action of the phosgene and collapsed
several hours after the attack, especially if they had taken any
exercise or eaten a heavy meal in between. The latter is not very
likely, though it does occur, for a man even slightly gassed with
phosgene feels very depressed--“fed up” and not particularly inclined
for a hearty meal. But the getting of the exercise is only too easy,
what with the necessary work in the trenches and the possible walk back
to the aid post or the march back to rest billets in the event of a
relief. It was men who had done this kind of thing who suffered most.

After the attack we received official orders that no man suffering
from the effects of the gas should be allowed to walk to the dressing
station, and that if possible after a gas attack troops in the front
trenches should be relieved of all fatigue and carrying work for
twenty-four hours. It was also ordered that during the passage of the
gas all movement should be reduced to a minimum and there should be
as little talking as possible. These were very wise orders, for there
had been too many officers and noncommissioned officers gassed through
moving up and down to control the positions of their men and from
shouting orders through their helmets. A certain amount of talking
is necessary, of course, but too much of it makes a man breathe more
deeply and may be just the added strain sufficient to affect his heart
and cause his collapse.

Of course after a gas attack there are always a certain number of
malingerers--“Skrimshankers,” as we call them--who affect to be gassed
in order to get away from the line for a bit. These are generally
spotted easily enough by the doctor men. One medical officer I knew,
harassed by the number of slightly “gassed” cases who would have to
be evacuated, and suspicious about the genuine character of some of
them, handed round cigarettes. All those who accepted and smoked their
cigarettes were kept back. Later examination showed that he was right
in every case.

A similar instance that I heard of, this time in a practice attack in
a camp in England, concerned a very poor specimen who pretended to be
badly gassed. He was taken to the orderly room on a stretcher; but
unfortunately for him the medical corps sergeant recognised him as a
man who had fallen out during a march a short time before, and knew all
about him.

Meantime the man was feigning unconsciousness, but the sergeant winked
at the medical officer and said: “It’s a pity that order about sick
leave prevents men from going home in a case like this unless they live
in London. What this poor fellow needs is a couple of weeks in his own

The corpse thereupon sat up and said: “That’s all right, sir. I live in
Bow. When can I go?”

As in all the previous attacks an analysis of the casualties showed
that where the helmets had been kept in good condition and had been
used properly and in time they had given perfect protection. The
casualties were all due to preventable causes--some of them lamentable,
others humorous, had it not been for their tragedy.

Many men were gassed through taking off their helmets too soon. It
is really up to the officers and noncommissioned officers who have
attended a course at a gas school to decide when the atmosphere is
safe, and it is not nearly so risky to do this as it sounds. All that
is necessary is to let a little air in from the outside by cautiously
opening up the face piece of the mask--or the skirt of the helmet in
the case of the old gas bag--and sniffing cautiously. Of course if it
is not done cautiously and there happens to be a lot of gas about, the
rash man suffers.

A number of men were gassed through going into unprotected dugouts
before they had been ventilated or through wandering into pockets of
the gas after the attack. They should have been on the lookout for
these patches, as the gas notoriously keeps close to the ground at
night, and sheltered places are bound to remain unhealthy for much
longer periods than the open. It is curious that by some vagary of the
wind the cloud farther back hopped over some houses that were used
as billets and affected neither the inhabitants nor the unprotected
animals on the ground, whereas some fowls that were roosting in the
trees and on the tops of the houses were killed.

One instance that shows how carelessness spells casualty in gas warfare
was that of a working party of thirty or forty men who were busy on
railway work a mile or two behind the line. They had taken off their
coats and gas helmets and placed them on some trucks, but when the
alarm was given and a rush was made for the helmets the trucks were
found to have gone.

One thing that was done after the August attack was definitely and
finally to withdraw the Vermorel sprayers for use for clearing the gas
out of the trenches and dugouts. These instruments, brought up for the
work of spraying fruit trees and vineyards, had done some first-class
fighting of the German gas, right in the front line, as long as the gas
was chlorine. But with the introduction of large quantities of phosgene
the work of the sprayers was gone. They could not touch the phosgene,
and consequently Tommy’s dependence on them was a snare and made things
more dangerous for him than if they had not been used at all. For a
dugout might be sprayed and thought, therefore, to be quite healthy to
sleep in and yet contain as much phosgene as would at any rate cause
minor and delayed effects.

To clear out the gas recourse was had to ventilation by means of fires
and by specially constructed canvas fans.

These fans were the invention of an English lady named Ayrton--the
widow of the physicist of that name--and were originally intended by
her for fanning back the gas cloud to the German trenches. Of course
they were quite incapable of doing any such thing, but during trials
with them it was found that they were quite good, after an attack,
for fanning the gas out of the trenches or creating such a draft of
air into a dugout or cellar as to force out the impure air from the

These anti-gas fans, or flapper fans as they were called, are made of
canvas supported by braces of cane and attached to a hickory handle
about two feet long. The blade of the fan, which looks like an immense
fly swat, is hinged in two places and measures about fifteen inches
square. When the fan is brought down on the ground it bends over on the
back hinge and produces a sharp puff of air, in just the same way that
the sudden shutting of an open book does.

By working the fans in series, one man behind another, it is possible
to keep a current of air going which will ventilate a room or clear
out a trench in remarkably quick time. In clearing out a trench the
fan is brought back over the shoulder, and this helps to “shovel” the
contaminated air out of the trench after it has been brought off the
ground by the lower stroke, which is more like a smart slap.

These fans are kept as trench stores, which means that they are handed
over on relief to the incoming unit taking over the line of trenches.
They have proved very useful, especially in skilful hands their chief
value being that, unlike the sprayers, they do not distinguish between
different kinds of gases and they will deal as unceremoniously with
tear gas and phosgene as they do with chlorine.

By the time of the last gas-cloud attack the organisation of the
British Army for defence against gas had been brought to a pretty high
state of efficiency. A special branch of the gas service had been
detailed for the purpose and special gas officers were appointed to the
staffs of the various formations, from army down to division.

The position of divisional gas officer is no sinecure. Besides having
the job of screwing up the gas discipline of his division and having
a general oversight of all gas-defence training and supplies, he is
responsible to the divisional commander for the preparedness of the
line to meet a German gas attack. He is the “intelligence” officer of
his general as regards all things pertaining to gas and has to be a
walking dictionary on the subject. He has to be a great part of his
time in the front trenches and it is up to him to see that all enemy
blind shells, and so on, are examined and brought in if they seem to
be anything new. As he must deal direct with the battalion commanders
he must know them and the senior officers of each regiment personally,
so as to smooth the way in getting things done. Then if a gas attack
or bombardment is made he must get there quick, so as to find out all
about it from personal experience.

Altogether he is a very important and busy person, and to those
acquainted with his work the following incident will appeal. I happened
to overhear part of a conversation between two Cockney Tommies on the

“What’s this ’ere divisional gas officer, Bill?”

“Why, he’s the bloke what goes round and blows up these observation

The divisional gas officer has a number of specially trained
noncommissioned officers to help him, and each company of infantry and
battery of artillery has at least one noncommissioned officer. It is
the first and most important job of these noncommissioned officers to
help the commander in everything pertaining to defence against German
gas. He assists at drills and inspections, help in the arrangement
and fitting up of alarms, in the taking of wind readings and the
protection of the shelters and dugouts. In his charge are placed the
gas fans and the sampling apparatus. A good company gas noncommissioned
officer is a real joy and can polish up the gas discipline of the
company tremendously, as well as take a lot of responsibility off the
overworked company commander’s shoulders. A bad noncommissioned gas
officer, on the other hand, can be the direct and indirect cause of the
loss of many lives when the gas attack does come.

This ended the British experience of German gas-cloud attacks, for
though the 35th and 36th Pioneers made three subsequent visits to the
Western Front it was each time to gas the French. The last cloud attack
of all was made near Nieuport, at that time in the French lines, on
April 23, 1917.

Since then the only cloud attacks have been made against the Russians
and the Italians.

Probably the chief reason that has caused the boche to hold back with
his cloud attacks has been his conclusion that they were unprofitable
against well-disciplined, highly trained and thoroughly protected
troops. With a limited amount of gas available he naturally chose the
method that would give him the best results. For the cloud attack
his cheapest target was the Russians, who were incompletely equipped
with gas masks of a modern kind and who for a long time were badly
disciplined in anti-gas measures. Against such troops the gas cloud
is just the thing, and the Germans have estimated that ten to fifteen
per cent of all troops exposed to a successful gas cloud would become
casualties. This was probably true on the Russian Front, but was
certainly not true in the West.

Then the gas cloud has almost reached its apparent limit of
development. There is a limit to the number of gases that can be used
from cylinders, and there is a limit to the number of cylinders that
can be discharged at one time. Besides this the gas cloud is largely
dependent on infantry labour for carrying and installation, and it is
mighty difficult to bring off a complete surprise owing to the time it
takes to prepare an attack.

On top of all this the whole procedure is wrong as regards efficiency,
for it puts up the highest concentration of gas where the boche does
not want it--just in front of his own trenches instead of in ours.

For all these reasons the boche during the past year has specialised on
the development of his gas shells. Of course he may come back with the
cloud again, and we do not relax our vigilance or it certainly would
reappear. But unless he discovers something new in the cloud line, and
if we keep up a high standard of training, he will not do much damage,
though for that matter the same thing is true about gas shells and
trench mortar bombs.


  The rising importance of the gas shell--The variety of gases
    practicable with the shell--The deadly Green Cross Shell--Risks
    of transporting “duds” for chemical analysis--Reduced Allied
    casualties--German blunders in shelling tactics--Importance of
    universal discipline.

One of the most interesting things about the development of gas warfare
has been the way in which the gas shell, from being the least important
method of poisoning the air, has become the chief gas weapon in the
German armoury.

The reasons for this extraordinary development, though various, are not
far to seek. They lie chiefly in the fact that unlike the gas cloud we
have not even yet approached the limit of the number or size of the gas
projectiles that can be used. Nor, which is even more important, is
there any limit to the variety of the poisons that can be used in gas

The fact of the matter is that the gas shell is not really a gas
shell at all. It is nearly always a “liquid” shell and sometimes even
a “solid” shell. The term “gas shell” is used because the liquid or
solid contents are atomised by the explosion of the bursting charge or
are distributed round in the form of such tiny particles or droplets,
as the case may be, that they act almost as a gas. In the latter
case they form what might be described as a mist or smoke, but with
this difference from ordinary smoke--that the gas mist or smoke is
generally, though not always, invisible.

Just imagine what would happen supposing a shell were filled with
water. Burst such a shell with a sufficiently big charge of high
explosive and all the water would be distributed into the air in the
form of such finely divided spray that it would form a mist. This mist
would either vapourise into the atmosphere completely or hang about
like a cloud, according as the air was dry or moist. In any case, if
the burster were big enough no water would be spread on the ground; nor
would any big drops be formed.

This is just what happens with any of the poisonous materials filled
into a shell. Indeed if the burster were big enough and carefully
chosen it would be possible to form a “gas” with treacle. With a
volatile material like gasoline on the other hand all that would be
needed would be a burster just big enough to open the shell.

It can be seen therefore that the choice of materials for gas shell is
practically unlimited and is governed only by their being poisonous
enough and by the ease of production.

Another thing in which the gas shell has the advantage over the
cylinder gas is in getting surprise, which is naturally much easier
to effect with shell. By the way, if the reader wishes to be counted
among those who knows, he will always speak or write the plural of
shell without adding a final “s.” To talk of a number of shells is very

As I pointed out before, we were expecting something new to happen in
the gas-shell line during the whole of 1916, and had an idea that the
new arrival would be something of a cyanide nature--possibly prussic
acid itself. When it did come, however, it proved to be a liquid
filling closely related chemically to phosgene and to the K-Stoff,
which I have previously described. These new gas shell were the first
of the present series of German gas shell, which are all distinctly
marked with coloured crosses and named accordingly. These particular
shell were the Green Cross Shell, a green cross being painted on the
base of the cartridge or on the side of the shell or sometimes on both.
They made their appearance on the Somme Front about a fortnight after
the battle had started--that is, about the middle of July, 1916--though
a few of them had been used against the French on the Verdun Front
sometime in June.

It was not long before blind or unexploded shell--“duds,” we call
them--were collected and sent back for examination. This is one of the
disadvantages of using gas shell--your opponent can always keep track
of what you are doing. Sooner or later a fuse will not function or a
bursting charge will not explode and your watchful enemy carefully
collects the shell, and has for examination a considerable amount
of the poison material. I say “carefully collects,” for it is no
child’s play dealing with shell which may go off in your hands on the
slightest provocation. However, it has to be done, and as it is the
gas officer’s pidgin he manfully shoulders his task and the shell and
has it brought in. Very frequently the fuse fails to act because a
powder pellet holding up the striking needle has not burned away; but
I remember one case where the gas officer of one of the armies took
back a big dud gas shell. It meant transporting the weighty souvenir
in a not particularly well sprung car over very bumpy roads, and he
was quite relieved to arrive at his destination--the field laboratory.
Here it was reverently taken to bits by the experts. Imagine the gas
officer’s horror to find he had been bumping along for several hours in
the company of a shell the powder pellet of which had burned away and
whose only safety device was the weakest of weak creep springs on which
the striker rested. A hard knock or a drop of six inches would almost
certainly have exploded it.

The laboratory officers, who are experts at the game, may have to go up
to the Front themselves to solve important duds which are regarded as
dangerous and require expert attention. In one instance the officer
concerned--in civil life a very celebrated professor at one of the
London colleges--went up to the salient and explored about a mile and
a half of trenches and finally located his prey--a fine dud 4.2-inch
howitzer gas shell--out in the open.

Though the place was pretty unhealthy he “climbed the bags” and made a
careful examination of the shell where it lay, finally bringing it back
in with him. I forget whether he drew its sting on the spot, but in any
case it was a pretty good effort, especially for a man no longer in his
first youth.

Chemical analysis of the blind Green Cross Shell showed the contents
to be a colourless liquid known to chemists by the extensive name of
“trichlormethylcholoroformate.” Its effects are just as ferocious
as the name implies, and experience showed it to be very poisonous.
Indeed it is as poisonous as phosgene itself. The Green Cross Shell
gas--“diphosgene,” to give it its short name--has many effects and
symptoms that make it a dangerous weapon. When dilute it has a peculiar
though not particularly nauseating smell, a smell variously described
as “earthy,” “mouldy rhubarb”--whatever that smells like--and damp hay.
Unlike the shell gases we had encountered before, it has very little
effect on the eyes and causes practically no lachrymation. And this
was a trap, because we had been used to lachrymators, so that many men
despite the obvious smell were not particularly quick in protecting
themselves because of the new symptoms.

Of course this applies only to such low concentrations as would take a
long time to gas a man. In the higher concentrations the Green Cross
very quickly asphyxiates--just as phosgene and chlorine do--and there
is no question of whether it is deadly or not. The old Army quip about
there being only two kinds of people in gas warfare, namely “The
Quick and the Dead,” certainly applies if you get a Green Cross Shell
bursting close to you. But even for gas shell bursting some distance
away immediate and complete protection is necessary because of the
delayed or after effects of the gas, which are exactly similar to those
of phosgene. Every care that is taken with regard to men poisoned with
phosgene has to be taken for men poisoned with Green Cross gas.

Those suffering from the effects of the gas are not allowed to exert
themselves at all or to take heavy meals. They are kept under close
observation for at least two days, and are treated, in fact, as
casualties even though they are not apparently ill. Before the need
for this was understood an officer I knew was slightly gassed with
shell gas but thought nothing of it. Later on he felt a bit queer,
and the regimental medical officer advised him to go down to the
dressing station. He walked the length of the communication trench and
then mounted a “push bicycle” for a mile’s ride to the aid post. The
exertion was too much, however, and he reached the aid post only to
fall dead.

The danger of not treating gassed men as casualties and resting them
for a couple of days, after which they would probably be fit for work
again, is shown by a case where forty men were lost to the line for
a considerable time, though fortunately none of them died. These men
were part of a working party engaged in the construction of dugouts.
They were caught in a surprise bombardment, but were apparently not
much affected. After completing their night’s work they marched back
to billets and turned in as usual. The next morning several of them
were so ill--nearly to the point of collapse--and the remainder were so
visibly affected that the medical officer ordered the whole party to be
sent down to the casualty clearing station, where they were evacuated
to the base.

In still another case I remember a sergeant and twenty men of a wiring
party engaged in the consolidation of a recently captured position
were similarly caught by a sudden and intense Green Cross bombardment.
A number of the men were gassed and felt pretty seedy, but continued
their work and then withdrew. The sergeant felt no ill effects until
an hour after turning in, when he woke with a bad cough and internal
pain and died two hours afterward. One private went to bed without
complaining at all and was found dead next morning. Another died soon
after getting up. A third reached headquarters complaining of shell
shock and died three hours later. I mention these cases so that my
reader will realise why such great care is now taken with men who have
been exposed to poison gas, and how by looking after them in this way
it has been possible to reduce the number of delayed cases of death or
serious illness to a minimum.

Talking of delayed effects of gas shell reminds me that at least
two documents were captured during the Somme--one of them I got
myself--which were obviously notes of lectures given to officers at
a German gas school or staff course. In both of these sets of notes
there were references to the Lusitania, showing that the German Higher
Command was trying to explain that dastardly act to its own troops by
making out that the Lusitania was sunk because it was carrying phosgene
shell for the Allies. This lie can easily be nailed to the board, as
not a single drop of phosgene--or any other poison gas or liquid, for
that matter--was shipped from America before this year, 1918. Both
of the paragraphs I refer to contained a double lie, for they each
asserted that the French started the use of gas shell. One of them
ran as follows: “The French first started the use of gas shell--with
great hopes, but with little success! The most striking result was that
experienced by the passengers of the Lusitania, whose rescued mostly
died later.”

But to return to the Green Cross Shell. These were used during the
Somme Battle in enormous numbers, far surpassing anything we had had
before in the extent of the bombardment. There were a great many new
features about these shell quite apart from the altered nature of the
gas. First of all there was the size. Until then we had had gas shell
of only two sizes--150-millimetre howitzer shell and the 105-millimetre
howitzer shell. The former contained from five to eight pints of liquid
according to the construction of the shell, and the latter about three
pints. To these longer shell were now added shell from the ordinary
field gun, or 77-millimetre gun--quite a small affair compared with the
others and containing only two-thirds of a pint of liquid poison. But
then, though so small, it could be fired more rapidly and accurately
and could bring off an initial surprise in a way that the bigger guns
could not do.

Shell of these three sizes were used then on nearly all occasions and
in very large quantities. One thing that made large numbers possible
was the simplicity of the shell compared with the old pattern. There
was no separate lead container and the “gas” was filled straight into
the body of the shell, as the new material was unacted on by iron or
steel. The head of the shell was screwed in and kept in position and
perfectly gas-tight by means of a special cement.

As very little explosive was needed to open them up and spread the
contents round the noise made by the burst of the Green Cross Shell
was little more than a pop--at any rate when compared with the
high-explosive shell or the old tear shell. The result was that at
first men were apt to regard them as duds and to delay the putting on
of respirators until it was too late.

These gas shell are supposed to make a peculiar wobbling noise in the
passage through the air because of the liquid inside them, and in
this way to be recognisable beforehand. Personally I cannot tell any
difference in the noise compared with H. E. or shrapnel of the same
calibre, though I have heard thousands of both kinds; but I dare say
some people can, as the belief is fairly widespread.

Of course Fritz’s liberality with his gas shell caused us a lot of
casualties, but not nearly so many as we might have had if he had known
how to use them. The fact was he had not at that time got hold of the
proper technic--developed later on by the French--of concentrating his
gas shell on special targets. By now, of course, he has; but at that
time he still clung to the idea of being able to poison big areas with
his shell gas by putting down a series of barrages over the country
to be attacked. Either he had not enough shell or he chose his areas
too big, for he did not produce effective concentrations anywhere but
locally. If he had, our losses might have been tremendous. As it was it
became rather a hit-or-miss proposition, and I have seen hundreds and
hundreds of these shell drop into absolutely unpopulated areas of the
devastated Somme battlefield.

In one case a battery of field guns came in for its share of one such
promiscuous bombardment while I was there. The number of shell coming
over was so great that it was like a magnified machine-gun shoot, but
only a very few got on to the battery and the casualties were only
two--both caused by a direct hit on one of the guns by a gas shell.
If the boche had been able to concentrate his shell on and round the
battery instead of giving it just the same amount as the unoccupied
surrounding country the effect might have been very different.

One possible reason for the promiscuous and sometimes very casual
shooting may have been the fact that the boche at that time had
practically no air observation. Our flying fellows had temporarily
chased his planes out of the skies and had shot down all his
observation balloons. This made it impossible for him to pick his
targets, and he either had to bombard the countryside or shoot “by the
map,” neither method being particularly conducive to good results with
gas shell.

On the other hand, one or two places that he knew were pretty certain
to be occupied by our troops were given their full dose. One such
place was Caterpillar Wood--a big narrow spinney running off from the
Fricourt Valley and so named because of its shape and the fact that on
the ordnance maps, on which the woods are colored green, it looks just
like a green caterpillar crawling over to the shelter of Mametz Wood.
This place was continually shelled with large numbers of the Green
Cross Shell, and as it stood in the side of a valley the gas persisted
longer there than elsewhere and built up a tidy concentration which
caused a lot of trouble.

The gunners were among our chief sufferers from these gas shell, as
their guns were so frequently placed in sunken roads and folds in the
ground for protection against explosive shell and aërial observation,
and these were just the kind of places that held the gas longest. In
the open much less damage was done. I remember one night the first-line
transport of a battalion of the Black Watch ran into a patch of country
into which the boche was raining 77-millimetre Green Cross Shell, and
came out with only three casualties, two of which were from a direct
hit on one of the wagons, the driver being killed instantly.

It seems particularly bad luck to be killed by a direct hit from a
gas shell, for the bits of shell that fly about don’t do much damage
in the ordinary way and don’t travel great distances. Indeed it is
remarkable, even in the biggest gas-shell bombardments, how very few
men are hurt by the fragments.

The first week or two after the advent of the Green Cross the toll of
gas-shell casualties was considerable if not alarming, but steps were
immediately taken to get the situation in hand. It is in a case like
this, where a surprise had been brought off, that Discipline, with a
very big “D,” counts for so much. Fortunately the gas discipline of
the British Army was pretty good, and it was not difficult to get new
instructions carried out and orders obeyed. Once they got going their
effect was most apparent and the gas-shell casualties dropped from week
to week until they approached a minimum.

Among the important steps that were taken were a revision of the
methods of spreading the alarm, and the protection and clearing out of
dugouts into which the gas had penetrated.

Mention has already been made of the slight noise caused by the
explosion of the gas shell, and instructions were accordingly issued
that all shell that sounded like duds were to be regarded as gas shell,
and the respirators adjusted accordingly. This got over one of the
elements of surprise.

A great many men, especially those in battery positions, had been
gassed in their dugouts before warning of the gas bombardment had
been spread. Numbers of these men were actually gassed in their sleep
and were awakened too late by the choking fumes themselves. What was
done was to post a gas sentry at every battery in just the same way
that it was done in the trenches. Special local-alarm signals were
arranged so that the sentry could wake every one in the neighbourhood
without having the alarm spread beyond the limit of the gassed area.
These alarms generally took the form of bells or of gongs made from
big shell cases; but later on policemen’s large rattles were found to
be the most effective “weapon” for the purpose, and numbers of these
were distributed up and down the line and in the battery positions. It
was feared at first that the noise of the rattles would be mistaken
for machine-gun fire and no attention be paid to it, but this did not
materialise and the rattles have done good service.

The only thing about them is that they are made of wood--and nicely
pickled, easily burning wood at that. In the trenches kindling chips of
any kind are eagerly sought after to make a miniature fire to warm tea
or cook an egg. When men will go the length of shaving the handles of
their entrenching tools to obtain dry wood it could hardly be expected
that policemen’s rattles would always be respected. I am afraid a
number of them disappeared. With the artillery things are not so bad as
fuel is easier to obtain and the rattles are therefore less liable to
get lost.


  The gas-proof dugout--First-aid methods of alarm--Von Buelow
    improves German gas tactics--Popular errors about gas--Effectiveness
    of new British respirators--Vomiting gas--Germans speed up their
    manufacture--Gas as a neutraliser of artillery fire--As a
    neutraliser of work behind the trenches--Raw recruits ashamed to
    wear the mask--Casualties resulting.

Probably the most important thing that was done as the result of the
Somme Battle experience was to insist on there being at least one
protected or gas-proof dugout at every headquarters, battery position,
signal station, aid post, or wherever gas shell were particularly
likely to drop.

I have deferred describing these protected shelters until now, but
as a matter of fact they had been devised and adopted nearly a year
previously, though not many of them had got into actual use. The
protection consists essentially of a damp blanket fitting closely over
the entrance to the cellar or dugout or emplacement, whichever it may
happen to be. The value of the blanket depends on the fact that if you
prevent the movement of air you prevent the movement of gas. That is
all there is to it. Stop any possible draft and you will keep out the
gas. In practice the blankets are kept rolled up out of the way and are
let down only when the alarm is sounded or when gas is about. In order
to get an air-tight joint the blanket is made to rest on a sloping
framework set into the entrance to the dugout. To make sure that the
blanket really does remain stretched out over the frame and does not
gape at all, two or three wooden battens are fastened across it at

Where space is available two such sloping blankets are used, at least
two feet apart and preferably far enough apart to allow a stretcher in
between. This forms an “air lock”--you must go into the lock and close
the outer blanket before going through the inner one--and not only
makes protection of the interior doubly sure but makes it possible to
enter the dugout even in the middle of an attack or bombardment. In the
old days the blankets used to be sprayed with the Vermorel sprayer
solution, but anything that will keep them damp and flexible will do.
In the early days, too, the companies or batteries used to do all their
own work on protecting dugouts, and it was always possible in cold
weather to obtain an extra supply of blankets on the plea that they
were required for making gas-proof shelters. Nowadays a close eye is
kept on these supplies, which are doled out by the engineers, and it is
seen that if blanket material is supplied for protected dugouts it is
going to be used for protected dugouts, and for nothing else.

Gradually all dugouts, cellars and buildings within the gas-shell
area--let us say up to three miles from the front line--are being
provided with blanket protection, which means a big decrease in
casualties, for once inside such shelters men can sleep in more or less
comfort until they again have to don their respirators and face their
tour of duty in the poisoned air outside.

It practically came then to this--that protection against the
poison-gas shell was a question of gas-proof dugouts on the one hand
and rapidity of spreading the alarm and quickness of getting protected
on the other. At the gas schools and in the regiments and batteries
men are trained to be so quick in their movements that they can get on
their masks in six seconds. They are also taught on the burst of a gas
shell in their neighbourhood to hold their breath at once. It sounds
easy enough to do this, but it must come to a man automatically in any
circumstances he may happen to find himself--and you can find yourself
in some queer circumstances in war--and to assure this a great deal of
training is needed. Anybody, however, can hold his breath for thirty
seconds, and with practice it is possible to go well over a minute.
During this time it is possible to make a fool of oneself in half a
dozen different ways in putting on a respirator, and yet get it on in
time in the end. But drill sergeants will stand for nothing less than
the standard time and the most meticulous accuracy. God bless these
tyrants--they must have saved a lot of lives! One of the difficulties
we began to encounter with regard to gas shell was the spreading of
the alarm among men on the march or in communication trenches where no
alarm devices are installed. In some battalions it was the custom to
teach men to spread the glad tidings by taking off their steel helmets
and beating them with their bayonets. This certainly makes a good old
noise, but unfortunately it is just when gas shell are coming over that
shrapnel is also likely to be in the air, and to deprive a man of this
tin hat at this time in order to provide him with a gas alarm is rather
robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The best way undoubtedly, and the one now taught throughout the British
and American forces, is to hold the breath, then put on the respirator,
and finally spread the news to everyone else by shouting “Gas shell!”
as loudly as possible with the mask on. In this way the information
can be spread throughout a big working party or from front to rear
of a column of infantry on the march in a remarkably short space of
time. Even in the trenches it is well to give word-of-mouth warning
as well as by means of the local-alarm devices, for a second or two
of absolutely invaluable time may be saved in this way. One soldier
questioned by an officer going the rounds as to what he would do in
the event of a gas shell bombardment replied nervously: “Put on my gas
mask and shout ‘Rattles!’”

For the remainder of 1916 the boche treated us with gradually
increasing numbers of Green Cross Shell. His tactics, too, got a
bit better--I mean for him--for he began to make more concentrated
bombardments on particular targets. Possibly this was because of
special orders that were issued on the subject. One of these was by
General von Buelow to the artillery of his army, in which he said:
“There have been many instances of Green Cross Shell being fired in
small quantities. This is a waste of ammunition, as with all gas shell
good effects are only obtained by using them in large quantities. The
firing of small quantities of gas shell has also the disadvantage
that the enemy is practiced in the use of his anti-gas appliances and
attains a higher degree of gas preparedness. For this reason the effect
produced by larger quantities will be reduced.”

This showed the increasing interest in the use of gas shell taken
by the German General Staff, and heavier and more concentrated
bombardments based on the above orders became more frequent. One of
these, brought off in unusual circumstances, occurred at Arras in
December, 1916. I say “unusual” because the weather was so cold at
the time that the Green Cross liquid did not evaporate so quickly as
usual but hung about in some places for long periods. The bombardment
occurred at night and about three thousand shell must have been fired
into one corner of the town--in fact, all round the old gateway through
which the whole of the transport from the St. Pol road would have to
pass. The surrounding houses and cellars got filled with gas, and in
such billets, especially where shell had actually burst inside a room,
the liquid soaked into the walls and floors and only evaporated the
next morning when the air grew warmer. A lot of men were gassed in this
manner on the following day, as they naturally thought the gas had
vanished, and were gradually overcome as things warmed up.

In the open, gas disappeared more at its usual rate, though it hung
about all during the bombardment and for several hours after, thus
forcing men in the neighbourhood to wear respirators for long periods.
Some of these men, overcome by fatigue, actually slept in their
respirators. I think this was the first time I had heard of its being
done, though it has been done often enough since.

By this time the British Army had been fitted out with the celebrated
box respirator--a respirator of particular interest to Americans, as it
was the type adopted for and at present in use in the American Army. A
short description of it will not be out of place. The principle of the
respirator is to have a box filled with chemicals and attached by a
flexible tube to a face piece or mask, which fits closely to the face.
All air breathed by a man must therefore pass through the chemicals,
and these are so chosen that they will absorb any and every poison that
may be present in the atmosphere at the time. In order to keep the air
pure in the mask and to have a double line of protection a man breathes
through a special mouthpiece and has his nose clipped. So even if the
face piece, which is made of rubber cloth, should be torn or damaged in
any way the soldier is perfectly safe as long as he does not attempt to
talk--that is, if he keeps his nose clipped and does not remove the
mouthpiece from his mouth.

The respirator is not only active against a diversity of poisonous
gases but it will keep out very high concentrations of gas for many

One of the most misleading statements made about gas masks--sometimes
by newspaper men and consequently given wide publicity--is that such
and such a mask will stand up for so many hours against gas. It is a
very natural thing to want to know or to state how long your respirator
will last, but without stating what concentration of gas is being
talked of it is impossible to give such definite information about
any mask. It simply depends on the amount of gas there is in the air.
But the box respirator if kept in good condition and properly used is
guaranteed to keep out German gas continuously for many hours, even in
concentrations which it is quite impossible for the boche to maintain
in the field. In the American modification of the box respirator the
absorptive power of the chemicals used is even greater than in the
British box, and this makes it the best respirator in the world, which
is very reassuring for those who have to make use of it.

The box respirator is contained in a haversack and is carried slung
on the shoulder until such time as the soldier comes into the forward
areas, where it must be carried tied up on the chest ready for instant
adjustment in case of need. As I mentioned before, it can be put on in
six seconds from the word “go,” and once a man is practiced in wearing
it he can walk, run, shoot, dig, speak or do anything but eat and smoke
in it; and this for long stretches at a time. I know many cases where
men have been forced to wear masks literally continuously for more than
eight hours; and much longer periods than this, with perhaps short
intervals of rest in protected dugouts or in unaffected areas, are

Of course the soldier has to be practiced in putting the mask on
quickly. It is not quite so simple as the old “gas bag,” about which
a drill sergeant said to a squad: “You just whops it out and you
whops it on.” But it does not take long to make men proficient with
the respirator, at any rate on the parade ground. It is making him
proficient under conditions of war that counts and all his instruction
is now aimed toward this end.

With the mask in position and a tin hat on top of his head a soldier
has a peculiar beetlelike appearance, which is not very improving,
though the following conversation was reported to have been overheard
by an officer about to enter a dugout:

“’Ere, mate, take yer gas mask off.”

“It is off.”

“Then for Gawd’s sake put it on!”

The Germans were much interested in our new respirators and their
development, and apparently had great difficulty in obtaining specimens
for examination. During the winter of 1916-17 German soldiers were
being offered a reward of ten marks for every British box respirator
that they brought in; but as we were doing most of the shooting at that
time I can hardly think that Fritz made a fortune out of his chance.

But to return to the gas shell. During 1917, it became apparent that
the Germans were placing more and more reliance on the use of gas shell
and were manufacturing them in enormous numbers. For a whole year after
the introduction of the Green Cross there was only one modification
of the chemicals used and that was the admixture with the diphosgene
of a material which has been called “vomiting gas.” This substance is
a chemical named chloropicrin, and it certainly lives up to its pet
name if you take a real good breath of it. The boche mixed it with his
diphosgene in order to make the latter more potent if possible, or else
because he was running short of diphosgene; but he still calls the
mixture Green Cross and uses the gas for its killing power.

The chief development, however, was rather in the tactics than in the
chemicals used. Gas shell were no longer thrown away; each target
or area was apparently considered separately and was given enough
shell to make certain of putting up a very high concentration of gas
on it. At this time the boche divided his gas-shell shoots into two
classes--those for “destructive” effect, and those for “harassing”

The destructive fire was intended to take on big targets, which were
not only definite but were known to contain living targets--for
example, concentration points where troops were bound to be gathered;
billeting areas, including well-known villages or towns; areas known to
have a number of batteries collected in them, and so on; in the latter
case the batteries themselves would be taken on individually if their
positions were known.

Apart from a number of fairly big bombardments, like that at Arras,
mentioned above, the destructive shoots were chiefly counter-battery
ones, intended if possible to “neutralise” our artillery while it
should be actively engaged in putting down a barrage, either to prevent
a German attack or in preparing the way for our own infantry when we
were attacking, which, of course, was much more frequently the case in
1916 and the first half of 1917.

This neutralisation business wants a bit of explaining. It will
have been realised that the Germans were and still are using two
very distinct kinds of gas shell--those which kill, like the Green
Cross, and those which only temporarily put a man out of action, like
the lachrymators and nowadays the mustard gas. Of course, the idea
underlying the use of gas shell in general--and the whole war for
that matter--is to put men out of action. The most effective way of
doing this is to kill, as that puts a man out of action for good and he
doesn’t return. But you can kill men with gas only by taking them by
surprise, because of the excellence of the gas masks.

After the surprise has been effected the chief use of the gas shell
is to force the opposing side to continue wearing their gas masks
and in that way to hamper them and reduce their fighting efficiency
for considerable lengths of time. This is where the lachrymators
and mustard gas and similar stuffs come in, because they are very
persistent, and a little goes a long way in forcing a man to keep his
respirator on. The quick-killing gases, like phosgene and the Green
Cross, are not very persistent, and it would be waste of material
to continue shooting them when you could effect the same thing with
another stuff, which would hang about for hours or perhaps for days.

Now see how this affected the German “fire for effect,” or destructive
shooting, as applied to a battery, and why the gas shell are so
particularly suited for taking on targets of this kind, which used to
be engaged only by high-explosive shell. Imagine a battery of, let us
say, field howitzers. Our men are making an attack. The howitzers are
busy pounding the German trenches to bits, and then they are going to
“lift” on to the support trenches when our men go in. The whole of the
success of the infantry assault may rest on the guns’ keeping up to
the program with the requisite amount of fire. The boche business then
is to try to put our guns out of action. If he can do this he has the
infantry--I won’t say at his mercy, but at any rate at such a serious
disadvantage that their losses will be tremendous compared with what
they would be under cover of a good barrage from the guns.

Now if the enemy uses high-explosive shell to take on our batteries
he can put them out of action only by registering a direct hit. If
the guns are well dug in in good emplacements with head cover it will
be possible for high-explosive shell to drop within a dozen yards
without doing anything but scare the gunners. Not so, however, with
the gas shell. Drop enough gas shell within a dozen or twenty yards
of the battery position and the gas will float down with the wind and
penetrate every nook and cranny. If the gunners are not quick some of
them may be gassed; and if, as is sometimes the case, the gun has been
worked short-handed this alone may throw down the rate of fire to a
very considerable extent. Add to this the fact that the remainder of
the crew will have to don their respirators in order to fight their gun
at all, and it can be seen that the rate of fire may be reduced to such
a low limit as to make it of little value for the time being; or the
gun may even be put out of action completely.

Once the first surprise is over and no more immediate killing can be
counted on, the bombardment may be continued with persistent gas shell,
which are just as effective in making the men wear masks.

From our point of view it all comes down to the ability of the gunners
to be quick enough at first in preventing themselves from being gassed;
and then later of their being capable of carrying on with their firing
while wearing masks. It means that gas training and discipline are,
if possible, more important for the artillerymen even than for other
branches of the service. This is realised to the full in all their
training and practice, for if they are not able to respond to an S
O S call from the infantry an otherwise abortive German attack may
be turned into a disaster. It is like everything else in this war--a
question of training and discipline.

The neutralisation of the infantry or the transport is conducted on
similar lines, and though it rarely reaches the point of being complete
a partial neutralisation of reserves which prevents their getting up
in sufficient numbers or in time, either for reinforcement or attack,
may have most serious consequences in an operation. The partial
neutralisation is attempted, just as for the artillery, by killing as
many as possible by heavy surprise bombardments with the lethal shell
and then continuing with persistent gas in order to force the remainder
to wear their gas masks.

Let me describe as an example a particular way in which the infantry
may be partially neutralised if they are not thoroughly steady,
well-disciplined and trained up to the final dot in gas-defensive
measures and the use of their respirators. Troops in the front line,
whether they are in settled lines of trenches or merely in temporary
positions, are absolutely dependent on their supplies. Supplies of
ammunition, barbed wire and, above all, rations must be brought up to
them constantly; otherwise they cannot continue to fight. All these
things are brought up at night. The motor lorries of the Army Service
Corps take the supplies up to selected points, where they are taken
over by the first-line transport--that is, the regimental transport,
which consists of horse or mule drawn general service or limber wagons.

As night approaches everything is loaded up and departure timed so that
the trysting place with the infantry carrying parties is reached after
dark. These meeting places are very frequently crossroads immediately
below the lines, and in position warfare are usually situated close to
the entrances of the communication trenches. Pass by such a place by
day and you will find it deserted, but as soon as darkness has fallen
it becomes a hive of activity--as busy a crossroads as you might
find in the centre of a big city. There is a constant movement in and
out of men, animals and vehicles. Unloading and taking over of the
supplies alternate with checking off the goods and the moving off of
the carrying parties. Military policemen direct the traffic and relieve
the ever-threatened congestion. Altogether it is one of the busiest and
most important phases of the routine side of war, and anybody there
without a special job is a nuisance and is not wanted.

Places like this of course are apt to be well-known to the boche, and
every now and again he will drop in some high-explosive shell or put
over some shrapnel in the hope of catching the crossroads at its busy
hour. But even if he is lucky and manages to get on to the spot it
hardly holds up the work at all. I have seen a big shell drop into
just such a place and make a huge hole in the road, killing men and
horses and smashing up a wagon. Half an hour later there was hardly a
sign that anything had happened. The hole had been filled in and the
material debris cleared away. The wounded of course had been looked
after first.

Now imagine instead of ordinary shell that a number of gas shell had
been dropped into this busy centre. On a dark night, probably very
muddy underfoot and with all the excitement of kicking mules, flares
going up and anything from machine-gun bullets at long range to shell
of every size dropping in or expected, things are difficult enough. But
with the advent of the gas shell every man must get himself protected.
It is now that the “hold the breath, and mask on in six seconds” stunt
is going to be of value. With well-trained troops the losses from the
gas may be negligible, and it is equally true that they will be heavy
if the discipline is poor. But whether one way or the other it means
that all the frightened horses and mules must next be fixed with their
respirators and the work in hand must be proceeded with by everybody
while wearing gas masks. This is the real test.

If the men are well trained the carrying parties--perhaps with loads
of barbed wire on their backs--will get away as before and proceed up
the filthy communication trench to the front line; swearing probably,
uncomfortable certainly, but safe. Similarly the drivers will be
able to get their teams away from the gassed area as soon as they are
unloaded, and the serving out of the supplies will go on as before,
though at a reduced rate. But if the soldiers were not able to carry
on in these terrific circumstances--could not wear masks for long
periods and could not do anything in them--confusion would undoubtedly
supervene and the work be brought to a standstill. If this happened
the men in the front line next day would be short of rations, of
ammunition, of wire. They would, in fact, be neutralised.

It is attempted neutralisation of artillery and infantry by methods
such as these, carried out over large selected areas and generally as
a preface to an attack--either their own or ours--which constitutes
the German “fire for effect.” The “harassing fire” is simply the same
thing on a smaller scale and with no immediate tactical reason at the
back of it except that of killing and general annoyance. As a rule a
sudden burst of a few shell will be landed on some likely place, such
as the entrance to a communication trench, a sunken road, a bridge or
an observation post. These small shoots were always causing us a few
casualties. There was no warning, or somebody was not quick enough, or
did not get his respirator on, or took it off too soon. There would
always be some reason--but in the end it would generally come down to
something that the disciplinary thumbscrew could cure.

It is almost unbelievable nowadays that at one time one of the chief
sources of these constantly occurring casualties was shame-facedness at
being seen in a mask. Men would not protect themselves until absolutely
forced to do so, for fear others would regard them as being too easily
frightened. This was especially the case with new comers, who did not
want to drop in the estimation of the older hands.

One case was reported where a corporal in charge of a small party of
men in passing along a communication trench ran into some pockets of
gas from a bombardment that had just stopped. He ordered his party to
don their masks and proceeded up the trench. A few yards farther on
they passed through the support line, which happened to be fairly free
from gas, and here they were met by jeers from some of the supporting
troops who shouted “Hello, got the wind up?” and in this way induced
the corporal, really against his better judgment, to order masks off.
Not more than twenty or thirty yards farther along the party ran into a
particularly bad pocket of Green Cross and the corporal and several of
his men were so badly gassed that they had to be sent to the rear.

The attitude of the officers is always reflected in the attitude of
the men. At that time you would sometimes meet young officers who had
either been on the outer fringe of a gas-shell shoot or had merely
smelled tear gas thinking they knew all about it and refusing to
believe in the extreme deadliness of the poison gas and the need for
enhanced discipline. They would damn the gas and the need for taking
precautions, and their men would consequently damn the gas and the need
for taking precautions. This of course would mean another batch of
casualties when Fritz did treat them to the real article.

Just to show how a small matter of indiscipline may result in disaster
I would instance the case of two men who took off their respirators
in a front-line trench. Their battalion was going to be relieved
that night and they took off their webbing equipment for the purpose
of fastening on the haversack and pack. Absolutely against orders
they also removed their box respirators, and of course it was just
that moment that the boche chose for dropping in half a dozen small
trench-mortar bombs filled with phosgene. These vicious little guns
are very accurate and most of the shell landed on or near the parapet
and filled the fire bay with gas. Both men dived at once for their
respirators and in so doing upset three other men in the bay. All five
were gassed and three of them died later.


  Mustard or Yellow Cross gas--Not deadly but a dangerous pest--Its
    troublesome persistence--Cleaning it out by fires--Sneezing or Blue
    Cross gas--Another pest--Its violent effect--The limit of gas shell
    effectiveness--The need for constant vigilance and disciplinary

This was pretty well the position of things in July of last year, when
the German use of gas shell underwent a radical development due to the
advent of the so-called mustard gas. So much has been written about
this gas and so many mis-statements have been made concerning it that
it is as well for the public to understand what mustard gas is, what
it can do and what it cannot do. On the one hand, it has been credited
with such impossible potency as would make it wonderful that any Allied
soldiers remain at all. On the other hand, it should be realised that
in mustard gas the Germans possess a very powerful weapon of war and
one which they are using to a very considerable extent.

In the first place let it be said that mustard gas is not a killing
gas like Green Cross, but that it is of the persistent type, like the
older lachrymators. Unlike the lachrymators, however, its effects are
not transitory and a man put out of action by mustard gas is going
to be a casualty for several weeks and perhaps longer. Mustard gas
principally affects the eyes and the lungs, but in a very strong vapour
or in contact with any of the actual liquid from the shell a man’s skin
may be burned very severely--even through his clothes. More attention
has been turned to this blistering effect of the gas than to anything
else, but as a matter of fact the blistering is of secondary importance
and in itself does not result in the loss of many men to the line. Of
course one has to be very careful. It is foolish, for example, to lean
up against sandbags that have been spattered with the liquid or to sit
in a mustard-gas shell crater. Sooner or later the skin underneath will
develop a severe and possibly extensive blister, which is very painful
and certain to last some time.

These burns are not dangerous, but they are most uncomfortable, to say
the least, especially as they are most easily produced on the more
tender parts of the skin.

Great excitement was caused at first among the Highland regiments
because the story was spread about that the Scots were particularly
susceptible to the mustard gas because of their attenuated clothing. As
a matter of fact the kilt doesn’t seem to be a source of danger at all,
and Highlanders are burned no more frequently than others. Possibly the
continued exposure of their legs hardens them.

The chief effects of the mustard gas are on the eyes and lungs. The
first thing you notice is the smell--which is slightly of garlic or
mustard--and irritation of the nose and throat. Neither effect is
enough to make you feel gassed, and the chief symptoms develop later
on. When the gas is strong it is apt to cause sickness and sometimes
actual vomiting. Later on the eyes inflame and get very sore, the lids
swell and blister, but no permanent injury to the eyes takes place,
though the victim may be temporarily blinded. The effects developed in
the lungs are equally painful and consist of severe inflammation and
bronchitis, which may take some time to get better and if not well
looked after may develop into pneumonia.

It will thus be seen that for a persistent gas, though not deadly
poisonous, mustard gas is a nasty proposition. First the gas does not
of itself force a man to protect himself. With the old lachrymators a
man either put on his mask or his eyes would smart and water so badly
that he could not keep them open. With the Green Cross and similar
gases a man either protects himself or dies. But with the mustard gas,
though the smell and irritation may be perfectly apparent, the effect
is not such as to force a man to don his mask. Yet if he does not do
so and continues to live in the vapour unprotected he will certainly
become a casualty. It may take half an hour, it may take several hours
to come on, but come on it will.

Another particular disadvantage of the mustard gas is its persistence.
It will hang about in shell holes for many hours and even for days. If
it gets into a dugout it is very difficult to get rid of it, and as
long as there is enough to produce the faintest smell or irritation of
the nose there is enough to bring on serious symptoms eventually. This
means that when it is used our fellows are forced to wear their masks
for very long stretches of time.

The mustard gas is known officially by the Germans as Yellow Cross
gas, and the shells are marked on the sides with bright yellow crosses
and bands. The paint used for these bands changes colour in contact
with the mustard-gas liquid, so that if a shell should leak it at once
becomes apparent and can be taken away and buried.

The Yellow Cross gas was first used at Ypres and bombardments there
were quickly followed by similar ones at Nieuport and Armentières.
Enormous numbers of shell of all calibres were employed, including a
new and larger size--the 8.3-inch howitzer shell, which holds nearly
three gallons of the liquid and can be fired a distance of six miles.

At Nieuport more than fifty thousand shell were fired in one night, and
equally large numbers were used in deluging the other towns. Since then
the numbers used have continually increased, especially when the boche
was preparing for an attack or expecting one of ours.

Duds that were collected showed that the mustard-gas liquid was a
chemical called dichlorethyl sulphide, a liquid that gives off its
vapour only slowly. The shell themselves were similar to the previous
gas shell except that the small one have a new type of fuse--a very
simple and quick-acting fuse which bursts the shell before it can get
into the ground, and consequently produces a very little crater. This
of course helps to spread the gas round more than if a big hole were
formed. The respirators keep out the Yellow Cross gas completely,
and the blanket protection of dugouts will also keep out the gas
splendidly. Of course if a dugout gets a direct hit with a mustard
shell there is nothing for it but to leave it empty for some days, as
the liquid cannot be removed by ventilation with either fans or fires.

A case that will illustrate what I mean was one in which a three-inch
mustard-gas shell got a direct hit on a doctor’s dugout and gassed
him and his orderlies. Some time afterward the remaining orderlies
thought they ought to send the doctor’s things down the line and went
in and got them out of the dugout. They noticed a faint smell but did
not worry about it, and soon afterward found themselves gassed in

A fire was then placed in the dugout to clear it. In the meantime
the medical sergeant secured another dugout by clearing out some
infantrymen. In the evening the infantry felt soul-sick and wanted
somewhere to sleep, so they went into the original gassed dugout and
slept there. In the morning they all went down, gassed.

Where there has been no direct hit and the mustard-gas vapour gets
into the dugout, it can be cleared out just like ordinary gas, by
ventilation either with fans or by means of fires. For clearing dugouts
a great deal of reliance is placed nowadays on building small fires
inside. A dugout with two entrances can be very quickly cleared by
means of fires, as a through draft is produced, which carries the
gas away with it; but difficulty is frequently found in getting the
necessary fuel for the fire and in keeping the stuff handy. Bundles of
firewood and kindling material are supposed to be kept in the dugouts
ready for use; but, as has already been explained, the Tommies are
always on the lookout for combustible materials for their own fires,
and continual inspection has to be made to see that the special
supplies for ventilation are kept available. One officer told me that
he always had the supplies of wood, paper and kerosene kept in an
army-biscuit tin which was closed and sealed; because, as he said,
no Tommy would ever investigate the contents of a biscuit tin unless
absolutely forced to do so for lack of other food.

It should be realised, however, that properly protected dugouts have
given perfect immunity from the mustard gas as long as the protection
has remained intact, and a great deal of attention is being paid to
increasing the number of the protected shelters in order to give the
men the necessary rest from wearing their respirators occasioned by
the extensive use by the boche of his Yellow Cross Shell. In Nieuport
a special gas patrol was instituted for going the round of the town
to see that blanket protection of cellars and shelters was kept in
good condition, as there was always a chance that they would not be
well looked after or that the blankets had been taken down by some
enterprising Tommy for his own personal use.

Round about battery positions the most annoying feature of the mustard
gas is the length of time it persists. In the shell holes it can at any
rate be partly destroyed by sprinkling with chloride of lime. It is
rather interesting to find that in some captured German instructions
great secrecy was laid on the use of chloride of lime for getting
rid of the effects of mustard gas. The boche kept boxes of chloride
of lime in all positions where the gas shell were stored, and issued
instructions to his own troops that “the use of chloride of lime for
the protection of our own troops against Yellow Cross liquid must not
become known to the enemy. Observation of the strictest secrecy is
a matter of duty just as much now as it was previously. The troops
will be thoroughly instructed in these precautionary measures, but
nothing will be taught them as regards the nature or composition of the
antidote employed.”

During the present offensive the Germans have used very large
quantities of mustard gas, generally for holding purposes and against
our rear lines, battery positions, communications and reserves. This is
kept up for many hours in order to wear out the patience of our fellows
and weaken them for the coming assault.

Strong points that the boche does not wish to attack are also swamped
with the gas, and when Armentières were evacuated by the British,
Yellow Cross liquid was actually running down the gutters. But in
places that he intends to assault he will complete the mustard-gas
bombardment against our troops some considerable time before he
advances; otherwise his own troops would run into it and be forced to
don their respirators.

The quantities of shell used in this preparation are enormous and
supplies of the mustard gas must have been accumulated during the
winter to an unexpected extent and their manufacture proceeded with to
full capacity.

Take it altogether, Yellow Cross gas is very much more than an
annoyance, but there is no question that good discipline and thorough
appreciation and carrying out of the orders laid down for the
protection of troops have reduced the losses in very much the same
way that the screwed-up discipline reduced the losses after the first
introduction of Green Cross Shell. One of the most objectionable
features of the mustard gas is the continual care that has to be
exercised to prevent casualties. It is so easy for a man whose clothing
is slightly contaminated with gas to enter a dugout and contaminate
the whole of the interior and all its occupants. Sentries also have to
be posted to warn troops passing through or into an area that has been
bombarded with mustard gas, so that respirators can be put on. After a
cold night the officers must be continually on the watch to see whether
the vapours that rise from the warming of the earth by the morning sun
are charged with mustard gas, and to take the necessary precautions on
the slightest detection of the characteristic smell. This smell to my
mind is much more like garlic than mustard, and the use of the term
“mustard gas” is purely the origination of the Tommies themselves. As a
matter of fact, so as not to confuse the Yellow Cross liquid with true
mustard oil, efforts were made at first to prevent the stuff from being
called mustard gas. But once the British Tommy decides on a name for
anything, that name it is bound to have, and as he adopted the name
“mustard gas” for it mustard gas it will remain for all time.

The other new material that was introduced by the Germans in the
summer of 1917 and which, like mustard gas, has been in use ever
since is the German “sneezing gas.” For a long time high-explosive
bombardments were reported on many occasions to be accompanied with
violent sneezing, which at the time was laid down to the presence in
the air of undecomposed explosive from the shell. As a matter of fact
the sneezing was due to the presence inside the high-explosive shell
of bottles containing chemicals the chief effect of which is to cause
violent sneezing when small quantities get into the air. This sneezing
material, or sternutator, to give it its scientific name, in this
case was a solid which is atomised into tiny particles when the shell
bursts. Chemically speaking, it is called diphenylchlorarsine. This
material is used embedded in the trinitrotoluene of the explosive shell
in most cases, and such shells are called Blue Cross Shell, and are
marked accordingly. This is the third of the present trilogy of the
German coloured-cross gas shell. The sneezing gas is also sometimes
mixed in with the contents of the Green Cross Shell in considerable

The idea underlying the use of this sneezing gas by the Germans was
apparently partly that of getting a gas which they thought might go
through our masks. In this of course they were disappointed, as the
respirator keeps out sneezing gas perfectly well. The other idea
underlying its use was apparently to cause such violent sneezing as to
prevent men from getting their masks quickly adjusted or to cause them
to sneeze them off if they had been put on.

This and all sorts of other tricks of the gas-shell business have been
tried out at various times by the Germans. While putting over Green
Cross or Blue Cross Shell, or both, they will suddenly accompany them
with violent bursts of shrapnel, the idea being that men will be so
busily occupied in putting on their masks or in sneezing that they will
not take the usual care in finding immediate cover from the shrapnel;
or that, on the other hand, in taking cover from the shrapnel they
will not get their masks on in the minimum time or will displace them
in their efforts to get away.

The sneezing caused by the Blue Cross Shell is a most peculiar and
violent kind. If you get the smallest dose of this stuff into your
lungs you start sneezing at once. You seem to sneeze from the very
bottom of your stomach upward, and feel as if the whole of your chest
were going to come out with it. This may continue almost continuously
for a short time; but there are apparently no after effects unless the
gas has been very strong indeed, in which case there is very painful
irritation of the whole of the throat and lungs which will produce

This is the present stage of development of the German gas shell.
Whether they will add another colour to their lot of Green, Yellow and
Blue Cross Shell we do not know, but we are prepared for it when it
does come, and in the meantime he is getting as good as he gives.

It will be news to most people to realise how the gas shell are
gradually dominating the field. Some bombardments are composed entirely
of gas shell. As many as a quarter of a million have been fired on
the attacking front during twenty-four hours, and probably at least
one-quarter of all German shell of all calibres are gas shell.

It must be remembered that there are certain things that gas shell
cannot do. They cannot replace high-explosive shell for the demolition
of fortified works, for example. Nor can they be used for cutting
barbed wire previous to an advance; and the creeping barrage that
preceded the assaulting infantry cannot be made up by gas shell. An
S O S barrage in No Man’s Land, to cut up an attack, also would have
to be shrapnel and H. E. so as not to gas the defending troops. When
all these are cut out it will be realised that the proportion of gas
shell that are used against living targets must be very big indeed. It
is hardly too much to assert that at the present day, of the actual
methods of attacking men direct gas is the most important. It must be
realised also that it can become, and is likely to become, still more
important, and that the fight between the offence and the defence on
both sides will continue until the end of the war.

Since December of last year the boche has been copying a method
invented by the British for firing a large number of big drums of gas
simultaneously. These drums are used chiefly against the front-line
troops and are generally filled with pure phosgene. As each bomb
contains a gallon and a half of liquid and many hundreds are fired at
the same moment a good high concentration of gas is produced. Warning
is given by the tremendous roar from behind the German lines when the
flock of canister or rum-jar bombs starts on its way. Every man who
hears the noise gets his mask on at once, even before there is any sign
of gas; and if he does this there is little danger, as the respirators
are quite capable of dealing with even the very high concentrations
of phosgene produced. If a man keeps his head and obeys orders there
is little to fear from gas. But discipline must be high. As one Tommy
said: “You must be so well disciplined that when the gas alarm goes you
will even drop the rum ration so as to get your respirator on in time.”
Beyond that it is simply a question of carrying on the work in hand
while wearing a respirator, and this is entirely a matter of practice.


  Liquid Fire--First used by Germans in July, 1915--A great
    surprise and success--German hopes from it--Construction of
    a flame projector--Flammenwerfer companies--Their perilous
    duties and incidents of desertion from them--Improved types of
    projectors--Co-operation of machine-gun fire--Failure of liquid
    fire--Its short duration and short range--Ease of escape from it.

When the German Army entered on its policy of frightfulness there was
none of its new and unprincipled methods which had more immediate and
striking success than the use of liquid fire. And there is now none of
all its methods of frightfulness which has fallen more into disrepute,
and which has had less success when once the first surprise was over.

A great deal of attention has been drawn in the newspapers to the use
of liquid fire, but the average man, even in the fighting forces,
knows very little about the German methods and the appliances for
its use. Yet Germany still has special troops trained in the use
of liquid fire, and seeks continually to alter and develop the fire
weapons and their tactical employment in order to take advantage of
the undoubtedly terrible appearance and destructive power of the high
temperature flames which can be emitted. This article is intended to
show the stage to which the development has attained and the reasons
for the relatively innocuous character of what is probably the most
terror-inspiring method of modern warfare.

Throughout 1915 England was pouring new divisions of its National army
into France. As with all new troops the procedure adopted at the time
was to bring these divisions by easy stages to within a short distance
of the front line, and then send them in by companies for a four day
“instructional tour” in the trenches to pick up all the wrinkles and
habits from the seasoned troops holding the line. After the whole
formation had been put through it in this way the division would be
allotted a definite part of the line, taking it over possibly from the
troops with whom it had been in for instruction and allowing the latter
to get out for a much needed rest, or to get “fattened up” for some
impending or progressing show elsewhere.

One such new division, absolutely fresh from England and with no war
experience whatever, was the target selected by the boche for his
new deviltry. The portion of line allotted to this division was on
the outermost part of the Ypres salient and included the ruins of
the little village of Hooge right at the point of the salient. This
position had always been a hot corner--“unhealthy” in the British army
parlance--and had changed hands several times. The trenches there were
poor as it was almost impossible to get effective work done on them
owing to their exposed position. Indeed there were many parts of the
line where no movement was possible by day and the men on the posts had
to lie “doggo” until night. The two lines were very close together--in
many places less than twenty yards--and it was quite possible to hurl
hand grenades from one set of trenches to the other. It was on this
position of the line, over a front held by two battalions, that the
attack was made.

After a bombardment of several days, a mine was exploded under the
front line and then immediately afterward, at 3:20 A. M. on the
morning of the 29th of July and without the slightest warning, the
front line troops were enveloped in flames. Where the flames came
from could not be seen. All that the men knew was that they seemed
surrounded by fierce curling flames which were accompanied by a loud
roaring noise and dense clouds of black smoke. Here and there a big
blob of burning oil would fall into a trench or a saphead. Shouts
and yells rent the air as individual men, rising up in the trenches
or attempting to move in the open, felt the force of the flames. The
only way to safety appeared to be to the rear. This direction the men
that were left took. For a short space the flames pursued them, and
the local retirement became a local rout. Then the flames stopped and
machine guns began to take toll of the fugitives. Only one man from the
front trenches is known to have returned. German infantry following up,
poured into the breach in the line, widened it, took our positions as
far back as Sanctuary Wood, and then consolidated.

Ten days afterward we counter attacked and won back the whole of
the line concerned but at very considerable cost. Incidentally, we
captured two of the German flame projectors, one of them complete, and
they proved to be of the greatest possible use to us subsequently for
educating the army in the new warfare, and for inspection by our own
experts with a view to their duplication for retaliation.

Any one attempting to blame the troops attacked for their retirement
can hardly appreciate the circumstances, and, I am convinced,
over-estimates his own capacity for resistance. This attack was an
utter surprise--the kind of warfare was unknown and unheard of. Imagine
being faced by a spread of flame exactly similar to that used for the
oil burners under the biggest boilers, but with a jet nearly sixty feet
in length and capable of being sprayed round as one might spray water
with a fire hose. Personally, I am pretty sure, had I been there, that
I should have hopped it if I had not been fried by the heat or frozen
with terror. Later, when we knew the limitations of these things it was
different, though even then it is a pretty good test of a man’s nerve.

The flame projectors taken by the 14th Division in the counter attack
were simple but very interesting in construction. The main part was
a cylindrical vessel of steel about two feet in height and fifteen
inches in diameter provided with straps so that it could be carried on
a man’s back. At one side about two-thirds of the way up was a filling
hole for oil, closed by a screw cap. Near the top was a pressure gauge
attachment and toward the base was a lock closed by a lever handle and
to which could be attached a long length of flexible hose ending in a
peculiar shaped nozzle.

On examination it was found that the body of the projector was divided
internally into two compartments which could be connected by opening
another tap. The upper compartment was the compressor and the lower
the oil reservoir. The compressor chamber was filled to a pressure
of twenty-three atmospheres with deoxygenated air or nitrogen. Air
itself cannot be used because of its oxygen content forming an
explosive mixture with the vapours from the oil, and any heating on
compression, or back-flash from the flame or fuse, might make things
very unpleasant for the operator. The nitrogen required for the flame
projectors is carried into the field in large cylinders about 4 feet 6
inches in length and 6 inches in diameter. Several of these cylinders
have been captured from the enemy since. These cylinders are actually
taken into the trenches and the flame projectors charged from them

The combustible liquid used in the flame throwers has varied in
source and composition from time to time, but it invariably has one
characteristic which appears to be essential for good results--it must
have light or easily volatile and heavy and less volatile fractions
mixed in carefully graded proportions. The heavy oil has sometimes
been a petroleum product and sometimes a tarry residual oil from the
distillation of wood. The light portion, which insures the jet’s
keeping alight was originally a light gasolene, but at one period,
whether from shortage of petrol or not I do not know, the place of the
latter in the mixture was taken by ordinary commercial ether.

The lighting device, fixed at the end of the flexible hose, is the
most ingenious part of the whole contrivance and is so made that the
oil ignites spontaneously the minute the jet is turned on, and is
kept alight by a fiercely burning mixture which lasts throughout the

The nozzle is about 9 inches long and detachable so that replacement is
easy. It clips into the end of the tube and is held in position by an
annular ring. When the oil with its twenty-three atmospheres pressure
behind it is rushed out of the jet, it forces up the plunger of a
friction lighter and ignites a core of a fierce burning fuse mixture
which fills the whole of the space between the central tube and an
outer casing. The latter consists of a thick wick soaked in paraffin
wax and fitting loosely into a thin brass case.

When the nozzle is in position all that is necessary is to turn on the
tap, and the stream of flame issues from the tube and can be directed
at will.

The official name for this instrument we discovered was the
“_Flammenwerfer_” (flame thrower) and it is now never known in the
British army by anything else than its German name. Indeed this is one
of the very few German words we have adopted as an outcome of the war,
the only others I can remember being “_strafe_” and “_Kamerad_.”

Flammenwerfer attacks are made by the 3rd and 4th Guard Pioneer
Battalions and by the Guard Reserve Pioneer Regiment--all of which
troops are specially trained in flame tactics. Each battalion is
composed of six companies and each company is equipped with 18 small
or portable projectors similar to that described above, and with 20-22
large projectors of greater range. The latter larger flammenwerfer are
built on the same principle as the former, but are too heavy to be used
as mobile weapons. They are consequently built in to the trenches at
about 27 yards from the opposing lines, and, if the trenches are not
close enough together for the purpose, special saps are pushed out
and the flammenwerfer installed at the end. The range of these large
projectors is 33-44 yards and they can cover a front of 55 yards with

It is probable that in the attack at Hooge that both large and small
flammenwerfer were employed.

It is possible with the above equipment for a flame company to cover a
total front of 1100-1600 yards.

Service in the Guard Reserve Pioneers is apparently a form of
punishment. Men convicted of offences in other regiments are
transferred either for a time or permanently, and are forced under
threat of death to engage in the most hazardous enterprises and carry
out the most dangerous work. The following incident will serve to show
how the German soldiers are hounded to their death in these engagements.

In the summer of last year a small flammenwerfer attack was made
against our line at a point near Monchy, south of Arras. Two boches
armed with flame projectors of a modified pattern were instructed to
attack one of our advanced posts which was at the head of a sap running
out toward the German trenches. In broad daylight and with no covering
fire worth talking about these two poor devils were forced over the top
with revolvers pressed into their backs. One was shot down immediately.
The other managed to get clear of his own barbed wire and then
discarded his apparatus, with the intention of crawling over to us and
deserting. By this time, however, he had been badly shot up--whether
by his own people as well as by us, I cannot say. His left arm and his
right thigh were both smashed, and he had two bullets in his abdomen.
Nevertheless this man managed to crawl into our lines and was taken
care of. He was sent down to a Casualty Clearing Station in a perilous
condition, but despite his terrible injuries I understand the doctors
managed to patch him up, and that he recovered completely.

The portable flammenwerfer used in the attack just described was
brought in by our patrols the following night, the spot where he
had left it being accurately described by the wounded prisoner. It
was found to be of a new pattern and other specimens of the same
construction have since been captured, chiefly in the neighbourhood of
Lens where they were employed by the boche in the course of abortive
counter attacks against the Canadians.

In this pattern, which is shown in detail in the photograph, the
compressed nitrogen is contained in a spherical-vessel which is
contained inside a ring-shaped oil container. The whole thing looks
like a life preserver and is mounted on a light frame so that it can
be comfortably carried on the back. For a man who may suddenly have to
get down on his stomach and crawl, the apparatus is much more compact
and better fitting to the body than the original type, but it has no
advantage over the older varieties as regards range or duration.

The flexible hose which carries the lighting nozzle is made of canvas
and rubber, and enemy documents which have been captured show that only
one tube is provided for each three reservoirs. After the discharge of
one apparatus the long tube is supposed to be fitted with a new nozzle
and handed on to the others in succession.

The flammenwerfer companies are divided into squads. Following the
German army habit of adopting contractions--a habit presumably forced
on them by their cumbersome word-building language, the squads are
designated _Groftruppe_ or _Kleiftruppe_, according as they are armed
with large or small projectors. The former is a contraction for
_Grosser-flammenwerfertrupp_ (large flame projector squad), and the
latter for _Kleiner-flammenwerfertrupp_ (small flame projector squad).

In the case of attacks with the large projectors, or a combined attack
with both sizes, the chief thing is secrecy of installation in the
trenches. If it was ascertained or suspected that flammenwerfer were
being put in, our gunners would open on the position in no time and
blow the apparatus sky-high. As it is necessary to sap out to within 27
yards of our lines in order to get in a “shot,” it can readily be seen
that the possibilities of using the large projectors are very limited,
and as a matter of fact little use has been made of them.

Attacks with the portable projectors are more possible owing to their
greater mobility. But here again the essential part of the tactics and
the most difficult thing to do is to get near enough the target to
make the shot effective. The range is only fifty to sixty feet. The
German idea is to cover the advance of the “_Kleif_” men by protecting
machine-gun fire.

In an attack, the advance of the company is covered by machine-gun fire
from each side, converging at a point on the opposing trenches. In the
triangle thus formed the attacking force, the “_Kleiftruppe_” in front,
then a party of bombers, and finally the raiding or attacking party
take up their positions in No Man’s Land and crawl as far forward as
possible in the “protected area.” As soon as the flame projectors are
within range, the machine guns switch outward to each side, the flame
is discharged and the bombers rush in and try their luck in the trench.
If things go well, the infantry follows the bombing party and proceeds
to its objective.

In an attack of this kind, or a less well-supported attack such as
that at Arras, mentioned above, the attackers suffer from two such
severe disadvantages that against well-disciplined troops they stand
little chance. These disadvantages are (1) the flammenwerfer carriers
have to get so near their objective that they are almost certain to be
shot, and they then become a source of danger to their own side; (2)
men in trenches know they are perfectly safe from frontal flame attack
if they keep well down and hug the parapet side of the trench. The
reason for this is that the flame will not sink down into a trench,
but having little force behind it at the end of its journey is curled
_upward_ by the rising currents of hot air. The result is that any
sort of head cover (unless made of wood) makes perfect protection, and
a man crouching in a trench or even lying prone in a shell hole, is
very unlikely to be more than slightly scorched at the very worst. I
can vouch for this, for I have lain at the bottom of a trench with the
flames playing over my head and have not been injured in the slightest,
though I confess to being very much relieved when the flame stopped.
The only danger in trenches to men who keep their heads is that of
“blobs” of burning oil falling from the end of the fiery stream, but
this is not a very serious chance.

Another serious disability in the German liquid fire is its very short
duration. The stream of flame from the portable flammenwerfer lasts
rather less than one minute. It is impossible to charge up again on
the spot, and the result is that once the flame stops the whole game
is finished and the operators are at our mercy. Without making the
apparatus of a prohibitive weight, the duration of the flame cannot be
increased. Even the heavy projectors give only a flame lasting at the
best one minute and a quarter.

It must be realised that it is discipline and coolness (if one may use
the word) which count, and that the moral effect on unsteady troops,
unaware of the fact that the appalling flames have little destructive
value, may be very great indeed. When men have bolted from the trenches
into the open they are an easy prey.

An enfilade attack, i.e., one made from a flank, would be much more
dangerous were it not for the difficulty of approach and the fact that
the traverses of a fire-trench are as good protection against flame as
the parapet. Only where the “_Kleif_” squad can approach under cover
and get in its shot at an exposed target is the flammenwerfer likely to
have much success nowadays.

A certain amount of value was obtained from their use in this way in
the attack on Verdun for reducing isolated strong-points, notably
fortified farmhouses and broken down cottages in the ruined villages.
In certain cases the flame projector carriers were enabled to approach
under cover or by crawling among the ruins and heaps of debris, to
within striking distance of the otherwise well protected machine-gun
emplacements and positions. By suddenly playing the fire jet into the
loopholes, enough flame penetrated into the interior of the emplacement
to put the machine-gun and its crew out of action--either temporarily
or permanently. This was the opportunity awaited by the covering party
of bombers who would rush the post the minute the flame ceased, having
made their approach while the projectors were in action.

But even for special cases like these the circumstances must be so
favourable and the inherent disadvantages are so great that the
flammenwerfer cannot be counted on to attain the required result.

The low value placed by the Allies on the German flame attack can
be realised from the fact that no special form of cover is provided
against it. There is no special form of fireproof clothing or other
protection issued to the troops, and the instructions for meeting the
attack may be summarised as “Shoot the man carrying the apparatus
before he gets in his shot if possible. If this cannot be done take
cover from the flames and shoot him afterward.”


  Italicized text is surrounded by underscores: _italics_.

  Obvious typographical errors have been corrected.

  Inconsistencies in hyphenation have been standardized.

  Archaic or variant spelling has been retained.

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