et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.-
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
This was the first use of poison gas in the war (however it was reported that the Germans had used some sort of lachrymatory substance earlier that month at Hill 60). That its use was forbidden mattered little to the Germans, for they violated practically every rule contained in the Conventions and Declarations respecting the laws and customs of war (1899 Hague Convention), however its success was undoubted, however the Germans at the time were uncertain of the usefulness of this new weapon and therefore slow to act on its benefits.
The Commander of the German forces, noted in his memoirs that, "I must acknowledge that the plan of poisoning the enemy with gas just as if they were rats affected me as it would any decent soldier: it disgusted me."
With eyes streaming, lungs bursting, those of the Tirailleurs and African Light Infantry who were not already dead, fled. The Canadians watched the yellow cloud roll over them. The Germans followed under artillery support and took possession of the successive lines of trenches, "tenanted only by the dead garrisons, whose blackened faces, contorted figures, and lips fringed with blood and foam from their bursting lungs, showed the agonies in which they had died" (from The British Campaign in France - A C Doyle).
A gap in the Allied lines of over 4 miles was created between the original Canadian left flank to the canal and the door to Ypres was firmly opened to advancing German Army, however due to over caution by the Germans and excellent work by the British and Canadians troops at the front (High Command had very little idea of the of what was taking place in all the confusion), the gap was gradually filled during the night, although the defensive line remained far from continuous.
Counter attacks made against the new German line during the 23rd were unsuccessful and early on the 24th a further German gas attack was made, this time against the 1st Canadian Division who, despite fighting gallantly were forced the yield ground on the Gravenstafel Ridge.
Now the site of the "Brooding Soldier" at Vancouver Corner, near St Juliaan, bearing the plaque:-
THIS COLUMN MARKS THE BATTLEFIELD WHERE 18,000 CANADIANS ON THE BRITISH LEFT WITHSTOOD THE FIRST GERMAN GAS ATTACKS THE 22-24 APRIL 1915 2,000 FELL AND LIE BURIED NEARBY.
A British counter attack directed at St Juliaann failed in the face of enemy machine gun fire, sustaining heavy casualties.
On 27th April, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, advised Sir John French that a tactical withdrawal of the area to new lines nearer Ypres was essential. French did not like Smith-Dorrien, took this opportunity to relieve him of his command and replace him with General Sir Horace Plumer. A few days later French ordered Plumer to withdraw troops to new postions nearer Ypres as suggested by Smith-Dorrien. This took place on the night of the 3rd May. It was during this frantic period that 7 VC were gazetted for bravery in the field, these went to:-
Fischer, F near St Juliaan 23rd April
Hall, F.W near Ypres 24th April
Bellew, E.D near Keerselaere 24th April
Scrimger, F.A.C. near Ypres 25th April
Mir Dast near Ypres 26th April
Shmeilowitz, I (Issy Smith) near Ypres 26th April
Lynn, J near Ypres 2nd May
See Victoria Cross holders buried in cemeteries or commemorated on memorials in the Salient. for accounts.
Map showing extent of German gas attacks during the Second Battle of Ypres. Numbers show area in which respective VC's were won.
The Germans were to use gas several more times on the Ypres Salient during the Spring of 1915, the last on 24th May, in their final thrust, they released gas over a front of four and half miles and took the Bellewaarde Ridge and mouse trap Farm, thus gaining almost all the high ground around Ypres. This was to be the shape (more or less) of the Salient over the next two years, for what was the become known as the "Quiet Years".
The British made their first use of poison gas at the Battle of Loos, which started 25th September 1915.
On the night of 12-13th July 1917, the Germans released an even more deadly gas, that of "Mustard Gas" (also known as H, yperite - probably from the place of first use, sulfur mustard, Kampfstoff Lost). In one of the supreme ironies of the history of chemical warfare, the British had tested mustard during the summer of 1916, but the developers had been unable to convince the military of its utility. Meanwhile, the Germans began developing mustard in September 1916, and first filled shells with mustard in the spring of 1917. The Germans waited to introduce mustard to the battlefield until they had accumulated a large supply, knowing that it would be difficult for the Allies to catch up; indeed it took the French 11 months and the British 14 months before they were able to use the agent on the battlefield.
Mustard was first synthesized by Meyer in 1886, although it had been produced in very poor yield by Guthrie some 25 years previously (had Guthrie's preparation produced a higher yield, he likely would have been severely injured). When pure, H is a colorless and odorless liquid. Agent grade material is typically yellow to dark brown; the odor is variously described as "similar to that of burning garlic," "a characteristic sweetish odor," and "a weak, sweet, agreeable odor." It is a strong vesicant (causes blistering).
"... The mustard gas cases started to come in. It was terrible to see them. I was in the post-operative tent so I didn't come in contact with them, but the nurses in the reception tent had a bad time. The poor boys were helpless and the nurses had to take off their uniforms, all soaked with gas, and do the best for the boys. Next day all the nurses had chest trouble and streaming eyes from the gassing. They were all yellow and dazed. Even their hair had turned yellow and they were nearly as bad as the men, just from the fumes from their clothing" Account from nurse at No.11 Casualty Clearing Station near Godewaersvelde British Cemetery.
Real Player audio link to where World War One veterans talk about the terror and impact of gas attacks.
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