My family mythology states that my great-grandfather was gassed in Flanders whilst serving with the 16th (Pioneers) Leicestershire Regiment. He was certainly invalided out of the army on demobilisation, dumped his family soon afterwards and was dead before war broke out again.
GAS ! A weapon we particularly associate with the First World War.
One of Wilfred Owen’s most evocative poems puts us there in the trench as we fit :
…the clumsy helmets just in time.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
We can visualise those famous lines of blinded soldiers, arm on shoulder, following the man in front like some nightmarish school yard game.
Man has a natural fear of the dark — it leaves us incapable of drawing the information from our surroundings, necessary to assess whether to follow one of our two primordial instincts: fight or flee.
Blindness, further robs us of our ability to do either with ease.
Gas, was the horror story of this war. Even the bravest of men feared being incapacitated by something without real substance, borne on the wind. To be reduced to one of those poor souls, writhing in anguish and pain; the cause of their suffering only detectable when it was already too late.
And yet the various forms of gas used by both sides only accounted for about four per cent of the battle deaths. That said, the question remained: how many had their lives shortened by tissue damage in the years that followed.
Although gas is a fearful weapon it does have a weakness – it can be countered.
When the Germans released thousands of tons of chlorine gas against French troops on the 22nd April 1915 the effect was devastating. Two days later, against the Canadians, the effect was not so stunning. The gas had been recognised and chemists realised that a simple pad or handkerchief soaked in water over the mouth and nose would counter act most of the effects.
A war between chemists began. For every new gas released, a new respirator was created or an old one upgraded.
Gas in the context of the First World War also conjures up one particular name – Mustard Gas (Ypérite – after the town of Ypres).
Introduced later in the war it was deadly, but only useful on a strategic level. Clinging to everything for weeks it put any area doused out of bounds to both sides.
In fact most of the gases used were less harmful, all be it that if inhaled in large enough quantities they could prove lethal.
An artilleryman whose eyes are streaming from tear gas cannot work properly. If he fits his respirator he cannot take in enough oxygen for the heavy manual labour he needs to undertake. In either event he cannot service his guns properly.
A financial thought entered into waging war : wounding your enemy’s soldiers would cost him more than simply killing them.