IWM’s Voices of the First World War
Here is the thirteenth in a series of podcasts that delve into the IWM’s Sound Archive to bring you the voices of those who lived through the First World War. Find out what a huge range of people felt, experienced and witnessed during 1914–1918, and the impact the events of those years had on their lives.
In the spring of 1915, a new weapon of war was first seen on the Western Front. The use of poison gas against Allied troops caused panic and a high number of casualties. Listen to some of those who witnessed the gas at Ypres – and how it affected those who couldn’t escape it.
Podcast 13: Gas attack at Ypres
But I could hardly believe my eyes when I looked along the bank. The bank was absolutely covered with bodies of gassed men. Must have been over 1,000 of them…
On 22 April 1915, German forces launched a renewed offensive against the Ypres Salient. Their attack featured a weapon that had not been used before on the Western Front – poison gas.
Archibald James, an observer in the Royal Flying Corps, saw it being used for the first time.
I witnessed from the air the first gas attack when the Germans used chlorine gas in the Ypres Salient. Suddenly we saw to the north of us in the salient this yellow wall moving quite slowly towards our lines. We hadn’t any idea what it was. We reported it of course when we landed. And an hour or so later the smell of chlorine actually reached our aerodrome.
Other attacks soon followed. British officer Martin Greener watched as one gas cloud approached his position.
Just at dawn they opened a very heavy fire, especially machine-gun fire, and the idea of that was apparently to make you get down. And then the next thing we heard was this sizzling – you know, I mean you could hear this damn stuff coming on – and then saw this awful cloud coming over. A great yellow, greenish-yellow, cloud. It wasn’t very high; about I would say it wasn’t more than 20 feet up.
Nobody knew what to think. But immediately it got there we knew what to think, I mean we knew what it was. Well then of course you immediately began to choke, then word came: whatever you do don’t go down. You see if you got to the bottom of the trench you got the full blast of it because it was heavy stuff, it went down.
Prolonged exposure to the gas could be fatal.
But British private George White recalled how unconcerned he felt about it.
Well, we weren’t in the thick of it but we were in the tail end of it so that we could smell it. So what we used to do was to wet a piece of implement and wear that across your mouth while the gas attack was on. That’s how it was.
I don’t think there’s anything worse than gas. But it never seemed to occur to me about getting killed or anything of that sort. You just went about the job and that was that.
When the gas approached Allied lines, many of the troops understandably fled from it.
Bert Newman of the Royal Army Medical Corps remembered this in particular.
And when this gas came over you could see on the brow all these Algerians running from this gas. Of course, the Canadians were there also and they got badly gassed. In the end you could see all these poor chaps laying on the Menin Road, gasping for breath. And the thing was it was no gas masks then, you see, and a lot of these chaps just had to wet their handkerchiefs and put it over their mouth or do what they could, you see. Well, we had a sergeant major with us called Bright who served in the South African war. And he thought to himself, ‘Well, I don’t know, I must try and relieve them somehow.’ So he got two or three big jars of Vaseline and he put it in the throats of these poor chaps to try to relieve them a bit, you see. There was no treatment for them but that’s what he did to try to stop them from gasping with this gas you see.
British NCO Alfred West recalled another way in which troops tried to counter the effects of the gas.
I remember them coming back with their handkerchiefs putting them in the water but a lot of them were… And the wounded – these French Algerians, I saw some of those. They were trying to drink some water out the side of the road. And they were almost visibly blowing up – their bodies were going coloured, but they were blowing up.
You could put your finger and make a little hole, almost, in them. And ’cause all the roads there were, instead of hedges it was water channels – most of the roads round there – and there was plenty of water, you see.
But the water wasn’t good and they were lying down, getting down and drinking it but that was the worst thing they could do. But there was nothing else they could do.
Jack Dorgan, of the Northumberland Fusiliers, suffered from the poison gas. He explained how he and the other British soldiers were affected.
Our eyes were streaming with water and with pain. Luckily again for me I was one of those who could still see. But we had no protection, no gas masks or anything of that kind. All we had was roll of bandages from our first aid kit which we carried in the corner of our tunic.
So we had very little protection for our eyes. And then you had to be sent back. Anyone who could see, like I was, would go in front. And half a dozen or 10 or 12 men each with their hand on the shoulder of the man in front of them and lines – you could see lines and lines and lines of British soldiers going back with rolls of bandages round their eyes going back towards Ypres.
Beryl Hutchinson, a member of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, helped treat gassed soldiers. Afterwards, she was summoned to British General Headquarters.
So we went and climbed that long hill at Montreuil and got to the holy of holies, and were duly admitted. And sent in to an enormous room – yards of room – it was under the castle there, you know what these French castles are. And at the far end was this enormous table with officers dotted all around as though it was a stage set. So we trotted up, our knees shattering not knowing whether we were going to be executed as spies or not! And it appears they hadn’t had any real word about the gas attack and the effects. And they started asking us about it, ‘Were our respirators any good?’ And we said no, they weren’t, they were just little bits of wet cotton wool. And all those sorts of questions as they had no idea about what the gas attack was.
Stretcher bearer William Collins described the primitive means of combating the gas that soldiers were supplied with.
About midday that day, supplies of the first so-called gas masks came up. And all it consisted of was a pad of wool covered by gauze with an elastic band running right round and about four inches by two. It fitted over the nostrils and mouth and then the elastic went up over the head. But I found that in using it in the gas cloud that after a couple of minutes one couldn’t breathe and so it was pushed up over the forehead and we swallowed the gas. And could only put the thing back again for very short periods. It was not a practical proposition at all.
The Germans followed up their gas attacks with infantry assaults on the Allied front line. Signaller H Williams remembered how his regiment responded.
The gas came over; we could see this yellow thing coming over. But it was… we didn’t get the full benefit of it; it went sort of diagonally, we got just a little. Then just after that we saw the Germans beginning to attack – they were coming over in masses. Well we got up there and we’d always been trained to fire 15 rounds rapid per minute, it had always been impressed on us. And it jolly well paid off then because we had no artillery counter-fire from our batteries. This attack was stopped just by rifle fire. We were thoroughly enjoying ourselves to get our own back, blazing away. You couldn’t have missed them! They were all close together.
The Second Battle of Ypres continued until late May. Earlier that month, British private Harry Cox found a novel way to evade a gas attack.
Well then on the 5th of May the same year, they gassed us. And how I got out of it, I went up a tree. All the others – you know gas being heavier than air – they all went down in the shallow in the trenches of course there they all laid out all sprawled out and suffering agonies. Of course a lot of them ran away. Actually the battalion was wiped out – there was only five really fit men left.
The Germans failed to exploit the success of the gas attacks, but Allied casualties were still high. British sapper, Lendon Payne, witnessed this at first hand near the Yser Canal.
When the gas attack was over and the all clear was sounded I decided to go out for a breath of fresh air and see what was happening. But I could hardly believe my eyes when I looked along the bank. The bank was absolutely covered with bodies of gassed men. Must have been over 1,000 of them. And down in the stream, a little bit further along the canal bank, the stream there was also full of bodies as well. They were gradually gathered up and all put in a huge pile after being identified in a place called Hospital Farm on the left of Ypres.
And whilst they were in there the ADMS came along to make his report and whilst he was sizing up the situation a shell burst and killed him.
Edgar Huggins of the Durham Light Infantry described the impact the battle had on his battalion.
Well I don’t know if there was a lot of gas I mean, I lived through it but there’s a lot I’ve seen that either didn’t live or they got felled by it. Because after we’d been in there five days we got relieved and when we got back to brigade headquarters the other side of Ypres, there was only 200 of us answered roll call.
I’m one of them that answered roll call. I can’t tell you what happened, because I mean we were full strength – there was a body of a lot of men you know. I wouldn’t like to estimate but about six or seven hundred men was lost, either gassed or fell. I don’t know if a lot of them was killed, I couldn’t say.
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Listen out for Podcast 14: Gallipoli