THE FIRST GAS ATTACK WW1
THE FIRST GAS ATTACK
Poison gas was probably the most feared weapon in WW1. An attack could leave a victim in agony for days and weeks before dying. Poison gas (chlorine) was used for the first time at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915.
Chris Hossack’s father, Anthony R. Hossack, was there in the Queen Victoria Rifles. He wrote:
“We had had a gruelling time, and had left many of our comrades on the slopes in the fight for Hill 60. We survivors were utterly spent and weary; but we felt in good heart, for only an hour ago we had been personally congratulated by Sir John French, also the Army Commander, General Smith-Dorrien.
Our cooks were preparing a meal, and on our right a squad of Sappers were busily erecting huts in which we were to sleep. Alas! We never used them! As the sun was beginning to sink, this peaceful atmosphere was shattered by the noise of heavy shell-fire. A mile away on our right a 42-cm shell burst in the heart of the stricken city of Ypres.
As we gazed in the direction of the bombardment, where our line joined the French, six miles away, we could see in the failing light the flash of shrapnel with here and there the light of a rocket. But more curious than anything was a low cloud of yellow-grey smoke or vapour, and, underlying everything, a dull confused murmuring.
Suddenly down the road from the Yser Canal came a galloping team of horses, then another and another, till the road became a seething mass while over the fields streamed mobs of infantry running.
Plainly something terrible was happening. In the northerly breeze there came a pungent nauseating smell that tickled the throat and made our eyes smart.
“Fall in!” Ah! we expected that cry; and soon we moved across the fields for about a mile. The battalion is formed into line, and we dig ourselves in.
It is quite dark now, and water is being brought round, and we hear how the Germans have, by the use of poison gas, driven a French army corps out of the line, creating a huge gap which the Canadians have closed for the time being.
About midnight we withdrew from our temporary trenches and marched about for the rest of the night, till at dawn, we were permitted to snatch what sleep we could under a hedge.
About the middle of the morning we were on the move again, to the north. By this time we had joined up with the remainder of our Brigade, the 13th, and, after a meal had been served, we were ordered to dump our packs and fall in by companies. Here our company commander, Captain Flemming, addressed us.
“We are,” he said, “tired and weary men who would like to rest; however, there are men more weary than we who need our help. We may not have to do much; we may have to do a great deal. Whatever happens, fight like hell. I shall at any rate.” A few moments more then off we go again towards that incessant bombardment, which seemed to come closer every minute. We were now in the area of the ill-fated French Colonial Corps. Ambulances were everywhere, and the village of Brielen was choked with wounded and gassed men. We were mystified about this gas, and had no protection whatever against it.
Shortly after passing through Brielen we turned to the left down a road which led to the Canal, along the south side of which ran a steep spoil bank, and, as the head of our battalion reached this, we halted. We could see nothing of what went on on the other side, but knew by the rattle of musketry that there was something doing.
So there was, for when we finally crossed the pontoon we found that the Jocks had met the Germans on the north bank and had bundled them helter-skelter up the slope to Pilckem. This saved us any dirty work for that day, so we spent the rest of it till midnight in carrying supplies and ammunition to the Jocks and Kents, and afterwards lay in reserve on the Canal bank. It froze hard that night, and after the sweating fatigue of carrying boxes of S.A.A. all night we were literally aching with cold.
Next morning about 12 o’clock the Adjutant, Captain Culme-Seymour, was chatting to Captain Flemming when up rushed a breathless despatch rider and handed him a message, which he read aloud to Flemming.
I caught three words, “Things are critical” .Then the Colonel had the battalion on the move, but a shell burst in the midst of “D” Company, making a fearful mess.
We moved on quickly, like a gigantic serpent, with short halts now and then. As we skirted Ypres there was a roar of swift-moving thunder and a 17-inch shell, which seemed to be falling on top of us, burst a quarter of a mile away, covering us with dirt.
Over meadows and fields green with young crops which would never be harvested, past cows peacefully grazing that had had their last milking, we went, passing curiously unperturbed peasants, who watched us from the farms and cottages.
Then the shells begin to fall about us in quantities, and gaps begin to appear in our snakelike line. We pass a field battery; it is not firing, as it has nothing to fire. Its commander sits weeping on the trail of one of his useless guns. We quicken our pace, but the shelling gets heavier. It seems to be raining shrapnel. Captain Flemming falls, but struggles to his feet and waves us on with encouraging words.
We double across a field, and in a few moments come on to the road again. Here was action indeed, for barely had we reached the road and started to work our way towards St. Julien, than we found ourselves amongst a crowd of Canadians of all regiments jumbled up anyhow, and apparently fighting a desperate rearguard action.
They nearly all appeared to be wounded and were firing as hard as they could. A machine gun played down the road. Then comes an order: “Dig in on the roadside.” We all scrambled into the ditch, which, like all Flanders ditches, was full of black, liquid mud. We started to work with entrenching tools – a hopeless job.
A woman was bringing jugs of water from a cottage a few yards away; she had just completed her week’s washing, for a line of garments fluttered in the garden.
“Dig! Dig, for your lives!” shouts an officer. But, dig! How can we? ‘Tis balers we need’.
A detonation like thunder, and I inhale the filthy fumes of a 5.9 as I cringe against the muddy bank. Their last shell has pitched on our two M.G. teams, sheltering in the ditch on the other side of the road. They disappear, and all we can hear are groans so terrible they will haunt me for ever.
Another crash and the woman and her cottage and water jars vanish and her pitiful washing hangs in a mocking way from her sagging clothes line. More and more of these huge shells, two of them right in our midst. Shrieks of agony and groans all round me. I am splashed with blood. Surely I am hit, but no, I appear not to be, though all about me are bits of men and ghastly mixtures of khaki and blood.
For perhaps half a minute a panic ensues, and we start to retire down the road. But Colonel Shipley stands in the centre of the road, blood streaming down his face. The gallant Flemming lies at his feet, and the Adjutant, Culme-Seymour, stands in a gateway calmly lighting a cigarette.
“Steady, my lads!” says the Colonel. “Remember the regiment.” The panic is ended.
“This way,” says Seymour. “Follow me through this gate here.” As we dash, I catch a glimpse of our M.O. working in an empty gun-pit like a butcher in his shop. Many were the lives he saved that day.
Once through the gate we charge madly across a field of young corn. Ahead of us is a large farm, and advancing upon it at almost right angles to ourselves is a dense mass of German infantry.
We are carrying four extra bandoliers of ammunition as well as the rest of our equipment. The inspiring figure of Seymour urges us on, yet even he cannot prevent the thinning of our line or the gaps being torn in it by the German field gunners, whom we can now plainly see.
At last we reach the farm, but the roar of enemy machine guns rises to a crazy shrieking. With a sob of relief we fall into the farm’s encircling trench.
Not too soon either, for that grey mass is only a few hundred yards off, and “Rapid fire! Let ‘em have it, boys!” and don’t we just. At last a target, and one that we cannot miss. The Germans fall in scores, and their batteries limber up and away. At last we have our revenge. But the enemy re-form and come on again, and we allow them to come a bit nearer. Then we fire till our rifles are almost too hot to hold, and the few survivors of our mad quarter of an hour stagger back. The German attack has failed, and we have held them. Our next order tells us, “This line must be held at all costs. Our next is the English Channel.”
And hold it we did, through several more big attacks, Thirty-six hours later, we were relieved in a misty dawn, and we crept back through burning Ypres for a few hours’ respite.
Anthony R. Hossack joined the Queen Victoria Rifles at the beginning of the War and served with them on the Western Front from early 1915 till after the Battle of Arras, where, in July 1917, he was wounded, returning to France at the end of February 1918, when he was attached to the M.G. Battalion of the 9th (Scottish) Division, and, after coming through the retreat from St. Quentin, was taken prisoner in the battle for Mt. Kemmel.