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Beryl McMullen

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Horrors of Gas Warfare
by Beryl McMullen   
Rated "PG" by the Author.
Last edited: Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Posted: Tuesday, March 18, 2008

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The haunting painting of John Singer Sargent shows the terrible state our Soldiers were in. In those days they had no communication with anybody other than these terrible letters home.



Trenches began to stretch from the Swiss border to the Belgium Coast, with the Kaiser’s army beginning to take up positions on the most advantage ground. The German army planned to be defensive in the west – defeat Russia and then turn to defeat France and Britain. Troops in the front line were subject to artillery and sniper fire. In March Canadians were ordered to exploit a possible British breakthrough at Neuve Chapelle. Canadian Ist Division troops were to create a diversions – the next assignment was to take over a dangerous sector of the Ypres salient, where some of the bloodiest fighting in 1914 occurred.

Eight days after the tour of duty a period of quiet that had settled was broken by an artillery barrage that began in the late afternoon – Historian Tim cook described what happen next in his book on Gas Warfare ‘Along with the shells came an ominous grey -green cloud four miles long and one mile deep which crept upon the 45th Algerian and 87 Territorial’s of the French army. One by one the French guns fell silent only to be replaced by screaming and choking Algerians running into and passed Canadian lines….. The victims of the gas attack writhed on the ground. Their bodies turned a strange gas-green as they struggled to suck oxygen into their corrupted lungs. The chlorine attacked the bronchial tubes, which caused the membranes to swell into a spongy mass and ever increasing amount of fluids to enter from the blood stream. The swiftly congested lungs failed to take in oxygen and victims suffocated as they drowned in their own fluids’

The Canadians were spared all but for the edges of the cloud and it was evident that they would be expected to launch a counter attack to check the expected German advance – they was much panic an indecision but the counter attacks by the 1st and 3rd brigades we carried out with skill and resolution

Early in the morning Canadian and British reinforcements struggled to build up new defenses – saw gas coming towards them – were urged to ‘piss on your handkerchiefs and tie them over your faces’ Urine the chemistry students in the army recalled contained ammonia and might neutralize the chlorine. Cook quotes Major Harold Mathews’ vivid memories: ‘It is impossible for me to give a real idea of the terror and the horror spread among us by the fifthly loathsome pestilence. It was not. I think, the fear of death or anything supernatural, but the great dread we could not stand the fearful suffocation sufficiently to be each in our own proper places and to be able to resist to the utmost to the attack which we felt must follow and so hang on at all coasts to the trench we had been ordered to hold’

Mathews’ emphasis on the duty of resisting ‘to the utmost’ and fears of failing to do ones duty may sound strange – but his contemporaries knew him well enough. Courage and determination were, however, no proof against a full force of gas. As the Canadians retreated wounded and severely gassed soldiers were abandoned to become prisoners to face death

Revisionist accounts of the war have sought to minimize German crimes – in 1914 -15 – but a letter from the front printed in a newspaper: ’ the dead are piled in heaps And groans of the wounded and dying never leave me. Every night we have to clear the roads of dead in order to get our wagons through. And on our way back to base we pick up loads of wounded soldiers and bring them back to dressing stations’

The censors did little to prevent the printing of such letters and were unable to control the content of articles on war – There was no doubt about the ugliness of war – but the effect of such accounts inspired young men to enlist.







The Horrors of Gas Warfare

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