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Death’s Men – D. Winter

August 7, 2017

The strain of battered nerves on sleep-deprived, poorly-fed, lonely, cold, and mud-encrusted men under weeks of attack without rest in some cases, permeates this grim but not wholly forlorn account. Winter extracts the telling entry from dozens of published and unpublished memoirs.

Chapters take you through the call-up for “Kitchener” recruits, the training of “Other Ranks,” how soldiers had to adopt to the Army; officer training; shipment to France; trench life, weaponry used there, and the strain; rest and home leave; battle and its aftermath; attitudes towards the Germans and to the war itself; and what happened after the war. The mass of information can overwhelm you, and this may be an advantage for those wishing to immerse themselves as if in the trenches, but others may prefer to take chapters in smaller sections, given their intensity of topic and treatment. There are no cross-references, nearly no endnotes, and surnames follow each other as if imitating how soldiers speak of each other by surname.

We are shown the surprising tedium of trench life and stoical adherence to routine and order. Boredom and death, with no way to procure absolute safety, is the reality of existence for weeks and months on end. Home leave may be years in the coming and provide cold comfort, while for Other Ranks, “rest” is back-breaking labour, but a release from the tension. Hard work but not without distractions; in 1917 the complaint most likely to hospitalise a man, not involving enemy action, was V.D.

On joining his regiment the recruit received 11 weeks “basic training” which had nothing to do with the war at all. Its purpose was to “instill discipline”. Disobeying orders resulted in bread and water in solitary confinement, loss of pay and leave and field punishments No.s 1, 2 or 3—lashed to a gun carriage wheel for so many hours.

The army regulations were substantially the same as those drafted by Wellington for the Spanish campaign. The bayonet drill, charging a sack of straw and sticking a 15-inch bayonet into it was a relic of the times when an infantryman might be attacked by horsemen. It was a defence against cavalry and part of the British army tradition from the Colonial wars in Africa and India, Bayonet inflicted wounds in the Great War were .03 per cent of all casualties.

Most of the High Command were cavalry officers from the colonial campaigns—French and Haig from the North West Frontier in India and Kitchener from the Sudan. They regarded motor engines and aircraft with grave suspicion, revelling in the memory of the Charge of the Light Brigade. One General said he had “little time for machine guns”. They were military Luddites, dumbfounded when men and horses were mown down like ripe corn by the accurate German machine gun fire.

Officers’ pay was ten times that of privates. They could spend their more frequent leaves in towns where privates could not afford to go, even if allowed to. And after all this—for those lucky enough to get back home—what was the glorious Hero’s reward? Full disablement pension for a permanently incapable invalid was 25/- (£1.25) a week. Soldiers with one arm missing at the shoulder received 16/- (80p) weekly; above the elbow 14/- (70p); below the elbow 11/6d (57p); a left arm was paid 1/- (5p less). Legs were similarly assessed.

The author rightly says that the  books on the war were written by poets, journalists, politicians and, above all, Generals trying to explain away their crime. Robert Graves, J. B. Priestley, Harold Macmillan and Rudyard Kipling to name but a few. The impression is left that the great mass of common soldiers just didn’t think at all. But Winter has tried to find out what “Other Ranks” felt about it all. He frequently refers to the simple triviality of their gripes and complaints—such things as whether the rations had arrived, how soon they would be relieved in the line and so on.

32 monochrome photos suffer from their printing in a mass-market paperback,.

Only one in ten days were spent in the trenches and only one in ten men were killed – so this book puts to bed certain myths about World War One. But it graphically describes it.

I am aghast at the misuse of science nd human ingenuity put into weapon-making.

Also at public schoolboys watching, from a distance, ‘the enemy’ being blown up and declaring it a ‘good killing’.

The author has over-romantic and sentimental notions about the ordinary ‘Tommy’.

House (Bingo) had/has only 90 numbers so the author is wrong to talk about 99.

Quotations:

The reaction of the country appears to have been as bemused as that of the Cabinet. A survey of newspapers of the time gives a uniform impression on this point The Bradford Daily Argus, on 4 August, the day that war was declared, suggested that ‘it will be in the kitchens that the pinch will be chiefly felt but that difficulty may be overcome by deleting the more dainty dishes’. Just ten days later the Catford Journal announced that ‘what with the war and the rain, last Saturday was a most depressing day for the Catford cricket club’. The next day the Sphere counted 7,000 spectators at the Canterbury cricket festival, and in its section on fashion predicted that there would be a taste for military braid on coats and for cava­lier capes with Napoleonic collars; ‘rich though sober materials will be in the vogue with red the popular colour’.

There was certainly, little hostile feeling towards the enemy. The Sphere on 8 August advertised a trip to Hamburg at 45s. return and a week later was still advertising German cameras. -Germans were even allowed to return to Germany to join their army. On 4 August a Greenwich magistrate discharged a. drunken and disorderly sea­man to the latter’s evident surprise, saying: ‘I suppose you were thirsting to get back to Germany for a fight’ The Lutheran com­munity of Dacres Park in South London were photographed three weeks after our declaration of war returning to Germany…

Abraham Josephs of Hackney, ‘a tall, musailar fellow’, swore he was forty-one-until examination at Somerset House revealed his true age to be thirty-one, and so a fine of L2. A Leeds man claimed exemption because he had to bring his wife tea in bed and had just started a course of hair tonic which would require three months to show results. An eighteen-year-old carrier from Hackney- claimed exemption on account of ‘expansion of the lungs’, until Captain Fisher told him to expand his chest to fit his lungs (laughter in the tribunal). ‘I don’t mind if I do,’ said the carrier, laughing as well.

If there seemed to be many young men still in England despite the demands of the war, there must have been explanations other than shirking, given the relatively few scoundrels caught by the tribunal net. Despite 2+4 separate circulars sent to these tribunals to close every conceivable loophole, they were obviously unable to find as many recruits as people thought were-still at large. In the end Bottomley thought typical recruits from the tribunals to have been of no value even as agricultural- manure. The bottom of the barrel had been reached much earlier than expected, in fact.

The two reasons for retaining so many men of military age in England were unexpected even by military men. The first was economic. Mining, farming and transportation all needed able-bodied men. Thus 1,670,788 were kept in these reserved occupations to back the front line. The French had shown us the way here when they called up initially one-third of the Le Creusot ironworkers and had to send them back again when production slumped disastrously. The second reason was to do with health. A check on conscripts in 1916 found that, of every nine men examined, only three were Ai fit. Two were of inferior health, three incapable and one a perma­nent invalid. Overall 41 per cent of young males were given the bottom health classification of C3. All this reflected a state of affairs which a hundred years of health legislation and prosperity was supposed to have changed. Malnutrition was part of the cause. A diet of bread and margarine, tea and condensed milk conspired to produce state-educated children five inches shorter than their public-school leaders. In Leeds in 1904 a check found 50 per cent of the schoolchildren -suffering from the malnutrition disease of rickets. Squalid living conditions reinforced the effects of poor diet. Twenty per cent of babies in 1914 Cornwall died in their first year

As with so many serving soldiers after the war, very few of these rich young men examined in detail their reasons for joining up, or felt the need of .a post-Freudian generation to look for the worm in the rose. Nevertheless two ideas seem to stand out from the writings of those who did reflect on the earliest days. The first was a sense of adventure. Wrote Harold Macmillan: ‘The general view was that it would be over by Christmas. Our major anxiety was by hook or by crook not to miss it.’ ‘What fun we meant to have,’ wrote Andrews in that public-school way, which made a jest of the serious and reduced all, conflicts to the scale of a house rugby match or steeplechase.

The second impulse of the rich was patriotism of the Rupert Brooke kind. To serve one’s country was to make a free choice untrammelled by a sense of duty or obligation, for the generosity of the gentleman was that of medieval knight or Athenian freeman: they considered the privilege only. Carver wrote to his brother:

The grand obstacle hun hunt is now open. There is no charge for entry. At present we are sitting and looking dubiously at the first obstacle. It’s a devilish stiff one and lots more like it to follow. However, if one does take a nasty toss, there’s always the satis­faction of knowing that one could not do it in a better cause. I always feel that I am fighting for England – English fields, lanes, trees, good days in England, all that is synonymous with liberty.

After his death in 1917, the parents of Subaltern Jones noted that the words ‘honour’ and ‘sacrifice’ were the most frequent words in his letters home.

Reading through the letters and memoirs of the well-to-do, one has the strong impression of men oriented in the past and respond­ing in the style expected of the -country houses of England, leading their tenants into battle with the ethics less- of-the-chivalric knight than of the Cambridge undergraduate doing a vacation stint in the

college boys’ club in London’s East End;

A vigorous response, if not relatively as great, came from the bottom of society. The first historian of the Kitchener armies thought that men joining early on were of the same social class as those who had joined the Regulars in the past.

Once a raid was mooted, volunteers were called for.- Cooper remembers his colonel addressing the men and offering two weeks’ rest- and the chance of decorations. Ignorance, a desire for excite­ment in an action over in minutes, a ruthlessly short-term view or close links between pals never failed to fill the quota. Once gathered, the men would all adopt the uniform of privates, concealing rank badges beneath the coat collar. Faces were blackened so as- to be able to tell friend from foe, then coshes, knives, sharpened bayonets, pistols and haversacks of bombs filled the hands of the gangsters.

Early raids were organized more like night raids on dormitories in public schools than serious exercises of war. In -the collected papers of staff officer Major Barber, a raid on the Somme in Febru­ary 1916 was planned on three sides of paper- in a -field notebook. The simplicity could be alarming. Cloete remembered men being sent on a night raid with a harvest moon shining. Feilding described a similar piece of lunacy at Kernmel in February 1917: At 7.17 am three parties containing nine officers and 190 Other Ranks made a wild dash across-no-man’s-land without any pre­liminary bombardment. At the same moment our artillery opened up with a box barrage round the selected trench section to cut off reinforcement& But the wire was not cut. Private John Collins rushed recklessly towards the German trenches, shouting, ‘Come on the Connaughts’ – a cry which the enemy took up. Sergeant Elwin stood up and fired his rifle at the enemy until he fell shot through the neck.- The enemy now began freely to expose- them­selves. After two hours’ firing, all was quiet.

What is harder to grasp is that so many men voluntarily placed themselves in danger unnecessarily. Sometimes it might be sheer devilment. Cook described a sign ‘Gott strafe the Kaiser’ being erected at Louvain corner within sight of the enemy line. Result – eight men died in the ensuing mortar shoot. Hutchison’s men sig­nalled-snipers” hits and misses by waving their Glengarries, and two of them blew themselves up, carrying an-explosive-packed dummy into no-man’s-land. Feikling once heard a band playing ‘Die Wacht am Rhein.’ When the Germans shouted to demand an encore, a fusilade of grenades was thrown across with inevitable mortar retaliation.

 

Civilians contemplating trench war today would tend to think of it largely in terms of artillery and sniping action, raids and patrols. When the old soldier looks back over the years to his trench duty, however, he remembers clearlyhow seldom these actions interrupted the prolonged inactivity. To him, the real enemy was the weather and the side-effects of living rough.

Cold was perhaps the greatest enemy. A man: might wear long-johns, thick socks, wool vest and greyback, knitted cardigan and sheepskin jerkin, but still the cold seeped through. Though a man doubled his vests and added newspapers and oiled waistcoats, it seemed to make no difference All winters were longer than city men could grasp and all nights colder just before the dawn than they would ever have guessed, judging by the physical distance from the south of England. During the winter of 1917, when there was one degree of frost in London, there were fifteen in Arras. Hot tea froze in minutes and bully beef became chunks of red ice. Bread acquired a sour taste and boots froze solid in seconds if they were taken off. Ellison felt after that winter that he would never be warm again: ‘The cold crept under our clothes, our fingers and joints ached with it; it seemed to congeal our blood and kill the very marrow of the bones. Fires of any kind were impossible so we were

obliged to rely on stamping and arm flapping. It was several weeks before I fully regained conscious possession of my toes.’ Rickson during 3rd Ypres, like Ellison, wrote that he thought he would never be warm again, likewise Bartlett, crossing the old Somme battlefield during the winter of 1918.

Though these winters gave the men the most prolonged experi­ence of cold, each night tested the men. Wrote Drinkwater: ‘Any­one who has not stood all night in a muddy trench with sodden clothing cannot know the sheer ecstasy of the first gleam of sunshine. To feel its warmth penetrating one’s chilled bones is something beyond my power to describe.’

Mud, like cold, enveloped men of the front line. As a farm labourer at `Akenfield’, Davie was a man used to hardship, but he was in no doubt about the importance of mud. ‘Did you kill men, Davie ?”I got several.’ What was the worst, Davie?’ ‘Why, the wet of course.’ Where rain met bare earth or shelled earth, it spawned feet of mud. Boyd Orr reckoned that forty Englishmen a night were drowned in it. Nicholson on the Somme saw a man stuck fast for sixty-five hours, with two men pulling on ropes finally freeing him though with his clothing sucked down by the mud. Against mud of this quantity and depth, little could be done. Smith lamented: `Puttees do not prevent mud from getting into your boots if you sink in ten inches or so. Mackintosh and overcoat get saturated with mud, both inside and out. My writing paper and shirt are the only dry things I possess.’ Perhaps the best counter-measure was the boot, gum, thigh. The drawback was that it gave little grip on duckboards, while it steamed and wrinkled the skin in preparation for trench feet.

Living next to the earth and the mud, vermin were inescapable. There were beetles, ants, caterpillars, greenfly and mosquitoes which could blow up a man’s face to the size of a football, but lice were the greatest tribulation. Writing during a European war 300 years earlier, Simplicissimus had described soldiers seizing handfuls of lice from their bodies. In the Great War lice were the common possession of all. Sitting on a box latrine in rest, Abraham once counted 103 on his clothes and body. They looked like little trans­lucent lobsters and fed twelve times daily by holding onto clothing…

to stretcher-bearers. In terms of numbers, there were thirty-two bearers per 4000 men, whose task was to deal with the 6o per cent of the fighting force estimated likely to become casualties during any battle. Usually about 3o per cent of these would be walking wounded. The restwould lie, pinioned by the weight of their equipment. Their orders were to take the less badly-wounded. In the same spirit, priority-of movement in the trenches went first to ammunition, second to reinforcements, third to the wounded. In battle all had to be sacrificed to the immediate purpose of winning.

The Great War was the first war in which there was no close season. In the-war zone, noise was incessant. From distant base camps men might hear the dull boom of the howitzers if the wind was in the right _ quarter. Then conversation -would abruptly end as men listened anxiously. Their awareness was more ofa-compressed air punch on the ear drum than of a sound, the source distant as fear in childhood memories. Later, as men went up to the front, so the minor parts in the great orchestral show would be filled in pro­gressively and added to the bass of thehig guns. First would come the tenor of lighter artillery pieces assorted in drum fire. Then in the front line the typewriter clacking of machine-guns, the bonfire crackling of rifles and the hacking cough of grenade& Infantrymen would survey the panorama of sound with an attitude mixed with one part of curiosity, one of despair and eight of anxiety. They well knew that each sound could be translated into personal mutilation, and they grappled endlessly with a calculation of probability that never resolved itself except in doubt.

The, infantryman’s defences were limited-to two personal weapons – the rifle and the grenade.

The Lee Enfield tifle was much valued as a symbol ofseeurity, an assurance that a man’s fate was to a degree in his own -_hands. Veterans today still remember their rifle numbers, inscribed on a brass plate in the stock. The greatest taboo-of all in the front line was against taking a rifle or rifle bolt whatever else might be ‘won’. The fmal version of the Lee Enfield_was a fine piece o€ engineer­ weighing just over q, lb and fitted with magazines of ten bullets, reliable enough to carry on through the Second World War though conceived basically as a cavalry carbine during the Boer war. With careful handling, such a rifle might well have seen a man through his war service. Indeed careful handling was almost guaranteed by the frequency and rigour of rifle inspection. Since the weapon was composed of 131 separate parts, a soldier was under the strictest orders to touch no part of the body of the rifle, just to keep the barrel dear. The twin dangers here were that trench mud might get baked hat-din the bore or that-the bolt might become overheated and seize up. For this reason men would cover the muzzle and bolt with customized canvas, a sandbag or even an old sock. Rifle oil carried in the stock would be applied constantly, with bacon fat used if oil was not available. What most interested an NCO in rifle inspection was fouling white streaks from the bullet or pitting by heat erosion. To combat this wear, boiling water would be poured from breach to muzzle, followed by oil eased through by the four-by-two-inch rag pulled through by the weighted coil stored in the butt. This would also be done ideally after every use, to deal with combustion soot while the barrel was still warm.

Used by an expert, the rifle was a precision tool. The amateur soldier Cloete reckoned himself able to hit a five-centime piece at thirty yards with six bullets in ten at rapid fire, while official ballistic ranges thought distances up to 600 yards close fire – up to 1,400 yards effective fire.

There were several good reasons, however, for the ineffectiveness of most rifle fire at any distance. Firstly, the traditional policy of the army had been devised for colonial conditions, in which rapid collective fire to produce a wide beaten zone was the best counter to running hordes of Sikhs or Ashantis. Where the Germans attacked in that manner, ist Ypres for example, they had been shot down as effectively as third-world warriors. Therefore the aim of producing men who could fire eighteen rounds in a minute like the men of the old expeditionary force was long pursued. The concept of accuracy was secondary.

Secondly, the mental and manual skills to fire as complex a weapon as the Lee Enfield would be thinly distributed in a ran­domly selected group of civilians. Oil in the barrel would throw the first shot wide. In still air a bullet would drift to_the left, up to seven feet at 1,400 yards. The lightest breeze would add sib feet at Imo yards, while rain would make the bullet fly high. Then there was the problem of range. Instructors laid down that, at fifty yards, mouth and eyes could be seen; dots for eyes at 100 yards; faces indistinct at 300 yards; head and hat seen separately at 500 yards, and so on. Few German heads ever presented themselves for long enough to judge whether head and hat were separate, and if the sights were set meanwhile it was an unusual and indiscreet head which appeared again at the same spot to be shot at.

Finally, the conditions of trench warfare (which stuck men in holes for long periods, limited training sessions and hid the enemy in his role as a target) tended to-produce a generation of riflemen who, in the opinion of Croft, would have been outshot by the archers of Crecy. Beetle at 200 yards he considered pretty safe except in the early days of the war.

The infantryman’s experience of rifle fire came largely from sniping and was the more alarming because no evasive measures could be taken. The bullet came at a speed of nearly a–mile per two seconds, twice the speed of sound, so, if heard, the danger was over Men might learn not to duck, but this only seemed to produce a worse feeling of danger. And what a range of sounds there were .From the longest range they made a buzzing sound as if someone had thrown a spinning safety match. In the open a bullet made a steady phew-phew-phew sound. If the bullet flicked foliage, men would gasp at, the sensation of speed and wonder what it would be like to be in the bullet’s path. Swishing meant crossfire-; whining a spinning ricochet The most dangerous was the brief roar of a near miss. It was just like a violin string breaking, followed by the report of the rifle firing it, like a popping champagne cork.

If a man was hit, there was often little bleeding, just a bluish aperture with spots of blood. Spin would produce much bruising and contusion but again little bleeding, for shock reduced =blood pressure and crushed blood-vessels would be self-sealing. The irregular motion of ricochets, the long-range wobbles of spent bullets or snipers’ close-range work were a different matter. The British Medical journal already in the first month of the war was noting five-by-three-inch entry holes made by sniper bullets. The wounds of such bullets could break the nerve of orilookers. Carting-ton tells: Pratt was hopeless. His head was shattered. Splatterings of brain lay in a pool under him, but he refused to die. Old Corporal Welch looked after him, held his body and arms as they writhed and_fought feebly as he lay. It was over two hours before he died, hours of July sunshine in a crowded place where perhaps a dozen men sat with the smell of blood while all the time above the soothing voice of the corporal came a gurgling and moaning from his lips, now high and liquid, now low and dry – a death rattle fit for-the most bloodthirsty novelist.

In battle the twenty-one-inch sword bayonet would be added to the rifle. It had been conceived in the seventeenth century in case cavalry should get near the rifleman, whose musket in those days had too slow a rate of fire to stop enemy at close range. For most of the Great War it was simply an anachronism, useful as a toasting, fork, biscuit slicer or intimidator of prisoners. In the confined space of a trench it was as likely to wound friend as enemy. Attached to a rifle, its additional weight made fire calculations more difficult. General Harper at the time and Brigadier Essame today insist that `no man in the Great War was ever killed by a bayonet unless he had his hands up first’. This was not just a matter of clumsiness for, if there was a chance of escape, few would fight at close quarters with cold steel. The imagination was too lively to contemplate, coolly a stand-up with bread knives at close quarters. But the memoirs of front-line men give the lie to the confident assertions of generals: At night, in fog, in a wood or whenever surprise and difficulty of escape coincided, bayonets were used and often. Depth of incision left few survivors, though, if a man was not killed initially, he stood a fair chance of surviving if a dry bandage was applied. Letter-writers describe the sensation of bayoneting as being like inserting a knife point first into butter, the only problem being that of extri­cating the blade, since skin and muscle closed on the knife. Thus the half twist which men in training were taught.

The other weapon available to the front-line soldier was the grenade. Much used by the British army up to the 1870s, grenades had then been phased out so that, when the Great War began, men had had to improvise grenades from jam tins – ‘Tickler’s artillery’ – or from slabs of guncotton wrapped around detonator and six-inch nails – ‘the hairbrush bomb’. But after the Heath Robinson days came the Mills grenade in late 1915. By the end of the war some seventy-five million of these had been thrown, and they had come to replace the rifle in the infantryman’s mind as the chief offensive weapon. With a range of forty yards at most, a German seen in the open a hundred yards off was more likely to have a grenade thrown at him than a rifle bullet, for so long a period of trench and hole fighting produced a howitzer rather than a horizontal mentality.

Though all men in action could stuff tunic pockets with grenades, the specialists were hand-picked. The chief criterion seems to have been the nuisance these men would have been if left in the ranks. Parkes recalled being enrolled after he had used a bomb bandolier as a windbreak while drumming up tea. Initial training was to throw jam tins of mud while others were doing fatigues or rifle began to mutter uneasily. We shook him and cursed him and even threatened to kill him if he did not stop. The shaking brought him back.’

Moran summed up the inevitability and tragedy of shelling on brave men when he wrote:

At the time of this bombardment I was not too much fright­ened. I was too stunned to think. But it took its toll later. I was to go through it many times in my sleep. I used to hear all at once the sound of a shell coming. Perhaps it was only the wind in the trees to remind me that war had exacted its tribute and that my little capital was less than it had been. There were men in France who were ready to go out but who could not meet death in that shape. They were prepared for it if it came cleanly and swiftly, but that shattering, crudely bloody end by a big shell was too much for them. All their plans for meeting death with decency and credit were suddenly battered down. Self-respect had gone out of their hands. ‘They were no longer certain of what they would do. It frightened more men away from the trenches than anything else.

The only retaliation against enemy artillery available to the front­line soldier was from his own distant artillery. But, whatever they did, he would be pretty certain to disapprove of it. If British guns were active, the retaliation came down on infantry rather than artillery; if they were passive, then it would be bitterly noted that the Germans were being allowed to get away with it. Anyway artil­lery fire was always a speculative business. Gun wear, map inaccur­acy, changes of temperature, wind and pressure as well as casing and powder charge differences made accuracy at any distance im­possible. Apparently identical shots from a sixty-pounder at io,000 yards might fall within a zone z,000 yards long and about too yards wide. Little wonder therefore that artillery were sometimes erratic in responding to a front-line SOS flare, might kill their own men following close to a creeping barrage and would need roo rounds to be certain of hitting an enemy pillbox once. Infantrymen knew nothing of the mathematical complexities of firing an artillery piece; they knew only the fragility of the human body compared with a shell charge and could but count the number of dud shells, which litter the old battlefields even today.

Physical distance also drove the infantryman’s sympathy from his gunners. Field artillery was tolerated, since it lived round a the support line, but siege artillery was another species, beit almost as remote as red-tabbed staff officers or official journaliS Their guns came and went like woodcocks in the night, stara infantrymen with their thunderous reports and flashes from ruin buildings and camouflaged sites. The self-contained batteries , eight guns had their own supply and signal system and travelle about with not just telescopes and switchboards, OP maps and t. electrics needed to illuminate their sighting posts, but also wi armchairs, well-stuffed valises and, extra blankets. To watchin infantry, all their worldly possessions on their backs, such super numerary comforts were a source of cynical comment. They were not to know how seldom gunners enjoyed rest so that, when a siege artillery observer appeared in the front line, even so conservative a soldier as Subaltern Feilding welcomed the chance to be rude.

If men got talking in estaminets behind the line, the gunner’s outlook was seen to be very different from the foot soldiers’. The combination of public-school understatement and childishness with murder at long range produced a jaunty sang-froid which jarred on men who smelt their fear and danger at close quarters. Odd phrases litter the memoirs of, gunner subalterns: ‘quite the most interesting experience I have ever had’, ‘wonderful shooting’, ‘an amusing day’, and so on. Fraser-Tytler commended his colleagues as ‘good partners in the game of hun-killing’ and described a ‘gor­geous killing’ when thirty Germans had been spotted going into a barn and were killed with a salvo, followed a quarter of an hour later with a second salvo which added sightseers and medical officers to the tally. Little wonder therefore that Casson and his men watched an artillery position burning for an hour with the most complete detachment, for all infantrymen knew that gunners fought a cushy war, distant from the action and with extra pay and rations.

What no foot soldier knew was the danger, particularly in the last three years when aerial photography, flash spotting and echo location made a distant gun position as vulnerable as a man moving in no-man’s-land. Andrews tells us succinctly of No. 199 siege battery during 1918. During the first four days of the Germans’ March offensive the battery lost nine dead, eleven wounded, one shell-shocked and one prisoner. The forward-observation man went into battle with the third wave of the attack. During a gas attack layer and setter could not wear masks. A hit on the position could ignite all the shells, while defective shells could blow up in the breech, or partially engaged breech-blocks would blow back. None of this was visible from the front line.

All men feared artillery. Gas was their other great fear. Allen tells us:

With men trained to believe that a light sniff of gas might mean death, and with nerves highly strung by being shelled for long periods and with the presence of not a few who really had been gassed, it is no wonder that a gas alarm went beyond all bounds. It was remarked as a joke that if someone yelled ‘Gas’, everyone in France would put on a mask. At any rate, the alarm often spread over miles. A stray shell would fall near a group at night. The alarm would be given. Gas horns would be honked, empty brass shell-cases beaten, rifles emptied and the, mad cry would be taken up. It sounded like the Chinese trying to chase off an eclipse. For miles around, scared soldiers woke up in the midst of frightful pandemonium and put on their masks, only to hear a few minutes later the cry of ‘All safe’. Then they would take them off again amidst oaths and laughter. Two or three alarms a night were common. Gas shock was as frequent as shellshock.

With such dyestuff giants behind them as Beyer and Badische Anilin, the Germans led the way in every type of gas technology. Tear gas came first in January 1915, followed by the killing gases: chlorine in April 1915, phosgene in December 1915 and mustard in July 1917. The mode of despatch was from cylinders in clouds up to July 1916, and then in shells and mortar canisters.

Chlorine was an inefficient gas compared with those that came later. Easily smelt and visible to the eye, men could usually avoid its full blast. Even in the first attack Cook noted that, if a man put a handkerchief in his mouth and kept his head above the trench parapet, he survived with few side-effects. Men feared it neverthe­less. Thirty parts of gas in, a million of air caused coughing, while i,000 brought death by destroying the alveoli of the lungs and the smaller bronchial tubes. A man would thus find himself unable to absorb oxygen and drown in the water generated in his own tortured lungs. Sixty per cent of the Canadians who took the full weight of the first gas attack at Ypres had to be sent home, half being still fully disabled at the end of the war. The faces of those who died where they fought were characteristically blue, their arms vn in terror as they ran out of air.

Phosgene, a derivative of chlorine, had eighteen times its pow and could not be seen. The insidiousness was that, even when inhaled in fatal doses, it was not immediately irritating, just smell’ faintly of mouldy hay and producing a slight sensation of suffocation. (The inventor of the gas was able to enjoy a late-night out ‘ after first sniffing his creation and before dying from it.) Then: would come shallow breathing and retching, pulse up to izo, an ashen face and the discharge of four pints of yellow liquid from the, lungs each hour for the forty-eight of the drowning spasm. Belhaven remarked laconically that phosgene casualties were dreadful to see.

Mustard represented a new concept in gas warfare, in that its aim was to harass rather than kill. To the chemist it was ethylene in a solution of sodium chloride; to the soldier it was an oily brownliquid which looked like sherry, and smelt of onions, garlic or radishes. Its power was such that small quantities in a shell could destroy fighting soldiers for days. If there was no sunlight and the soil was dry, in deep trenches or woods the liquid evaporated slowly, lying in wait as it were like a self-cocking man-trap.

The effects of the gas would be felt only two or three hours after exposure. Sneezing and copious mucus would develop as if a dose of flu were on the way. Then the eyelids would swell and close, with an accompanying sensation of burning in the throat. Where bare skin had been exposed, moist red patches just as in scarlet fever grew, the patches becoming massive blisters within twenty-four hours. Thereafter there would arrive severe headaches, rise in pulse rate and temperature, pneumonia. All this would follow from exposure to just one part of the gas in ten million parts of air. In more severe exposures men might cough up a cast of their rhucous mem­branes, lose their genitals or be burnt right through to the bone.

Men recalled slight brushes with mustard vividly. Fleming-Bernard wrote of blistered lips, loss of taste and his pipe tasting beastly for a week. After drinking shellhole water with mustard in it, Hewitt remembered his wrists swelling and eyes bulging, as well as the prophylactic treatment of Guinness and milk pudding in

hospital. Ashmead-Bartlett slept inadvertently on a pile of leaking gas shells and felt very slack and tired for days. Chandos wrote of sneezing for half an hour, contracting blisters a foot long and of blindness for three days. The problem in all this was the difficulty of detecting mustard amongst the odours of the battlefield unless a man had the good luck to see iridescent stains on the ground. A soldier might then try and avoid it, for he could do nothing to counter the gas. Counter-measures were never found. The nearest soldiers came to applying counter-measures was when the Scots wore ladies’ knickers over their bare legs at Nieuport.

Fuller observed once that mustard was a humane weapon. Only 2 per cent of those visited died, and then by pneumonia from secondary infection. But humanity, unlike death, admits of degree. A six-foot man has 3,000 square inches of skin, and it was on this that the vapour worked. Consider two reports, one from Nurse Millard, the other from a doctor.

Gas cases are terrible. They cannot breathe lying down or sitting up. They just struggle for breath, but nothing can be done. Their lungs are gone — literally burnt out. Some have their eyes and faces entirely eaten away by gas and their bodies covered with first-degree burns. We must try to relieve them by pouring oil on them. They cannot be bandaged or touched. We cover them with a tent of propped-up sheets. Gas burns must be agonizing because usually the other cases do not complain even with the worst wounds but gas cases are invariably beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out. One boy today, screaming to die, the entire top layer of his skin burnt from face and body. I gave him an injection of morphine. He was wheeled out just before I came on duty. Where will it end?

The official medical history of the war gave: Case four. Aged 39 years. Gassed 29 July 1917. Admitted to casualty clearing station the same day. Died about ten days later. Brownish pigmentation present over large surfaces of the body. A white ring of skin where the wrist watch was. Marked super­ficial burning of the face and scrotum. The larynx much con­gested. The whole of the trachea was covered by a yellow mem­brane. The bronchi contained abundant gas. The lungs fairly voluminous. The right lung showed extensive collapse at the base. Liver congested and fatty. Stomach showed numerous sub-mucous haemorrhages. The brain substance was unduly wet and very congested.

Were there any threats to make bombers do such monotonous work, the reply would be fumbled or dropped grenades, with officious NCOs beating a rapid retreat. The final touches to thy craft of throwing, grenades would be imparted in a five-day cottueto Astonished men found out that an explosion represented the tr formation of a solid into a gas occupying greater space, that ammo was bullet proof, and so on. Grenade care was more practical. ‘MS bomb was to be held in the left hand and the base plug unscrewed to be put in the trouser pocket. With detonator in hand, the pin was to be checked for rust then oiled. Detonator was then to be held between thumb and trigger finger, clasped by the fuse and put gently into its small hole, the cap fitted, then the base plug returned to its place. This action always remained tricky, so men worked it, small groups with plenty of space or deep trench bays between them. Greenwell records an RSM blown up by a grenade which detonated instantly. Fielding saw a man with his forearms blown off take twenty minutes to die. Parker wrote of Private Hoare dropping a grenade while adjusting his puttees and wounding forty men. Such .a weapon was not to be taken lightly, and fighting soldiers always counted precisely the five and a half seconds taken to detonation after releasing the lever.

With this limited hitting power in his hands, the infantryman was further supported in the front line by Lewis guns, machine-guns and trench mortars.

Weighing just twenty-six lb, and fifty inches long, the Lewis gun was more a rifle than a machine-gun. Light in weight, compact and without recoil, a strong man could fire it from the shoulder. If the trigger was quickly squeezed, one shot was fired. If the trigger was held, it fired, just so long as ammunition was left in the magazine with its forty-seven-shot capacity. In skilled hands, and with no jamming, 550 rounds could be fired  a minute. With four of these weapons per company by 1917, such a weapon gave great stopping power to the front line. The amount of confidence it gave to foot soldiers was another matter. In some ways it was a good enough piece of engineering to last to the Second World War. With just half as many parts as the rifle, it needed no adjustment. Being air-cooled, it required no spare barrel. The trouble was that the gun jammed alarmingly easily if there was mud about – and mud was not altogether unknown on the west front. Furthermore the weapon required great stocks of heavy ammunition. Six men with great bags of the cartridge pans were needed to keep the gun operational in action. These were considerable handicaps.

The standard machine-gun was a very different weapon. Its firing team would have carefully tested its springs before action, packed each of the 250 bullet belts by hand and fired one belt into a shellw hole to test both ammunition and gun, so that the gun could be brought into action within four seconds of an alarm. Once on its tripod, the brass tag of a belt would be pushed through the feed block, the crank handle twice pulled, the rear sight flicked up, then continuous action would begin. Graphs would previously have devised the cone of fire, quadrant elevation tables would have been applied together with slide rules by the machine-gun officer, so that the pre-set weapon would sweep an enemy parapet like a broom, or pile lead into a pre-arranged gap in the wire. This rather than speed of fire was the trump card of the machine-gun – accuracy. On its tripod the machine-gun became a nerveless weapon; the human factor of chattering teeth, dripping sweat and faeces in a man’s pants was eliminated. A terror-stricken man could fire his machine-gun accurately even by night. Moreover the weapon, though with the fire power of fifty riflemen, occupied a front just two feet in length, and thus presented a minute target to enemy snipers or batteries. The end product was indisputable. Six machine-guns could hold up a brigade; one gun could halt two battalions before they had got 200 yards from their front line. In Liddell Hart’s opinion it was the machine-gun above all other weapons which held the armies fast.

Certainly there were drawbacks. The weapon was costly in both money and men, for it cost £30 a minute to fire and needed sixteen men to sustain it. Its weight made it dangerously immobile, so that two guns had always to be working together, protected by infantry and with noise and flash muffled as well as possible. Ile problems of keeping up steady fire were substantial too. In practice the barrel needed to be changed after two belts unless the gun was to be sacrificed in an emergency. At any time faulty ammunition might jam the mechanism. The charge had to be precisely right to overcome the friction of the working parts, eject the empty case and reload the chamber. A fraction too much charge and the extractors were broken. Wet belts, badly filled belts, broken lock springs, broken condenser tubes, a sinking tripod, were all hazards to this intricate and temperamental weapon.

But the chief drawback from the English point of view was the lead that the Germans maintained in machine-gunnery throughout the war. After German observers had seen the power of this new weapon in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, the Kaiser had ordered one gun per regiment and donated fourteen million marks to further research. Our Treasury in contrast had turned the weapon down in 1907 and, when a special school was established in 1914, the man in charge, Baker-Carr, admitted that he ‘frankly and cordially disliked the weapon’. Even after the Somme the machine-gun never quite penetrated GHQ_thinking. Booklets treated the Vickers and Lewis guns as synonymous and decided that both were ‘weapons of oppor­tunity’, whatever that might mean, apart from being a reason for leaving automatic weapons out of all calculations. The machine-gun officer remained ‘an adviser’ in the division, and the machine-gun corps ‘attached’ men in excess of establishment. Meanwhile German guns cut our men down like swathes in a cornfield, sounding as harmless as the seeng-seeng-seeng of a canary, a curious metallic chirping.

The final weapon which assisted the front line from the front line was the mortar. Five hundred and forty-five mortar shells were fired by our men in 1914, six and a half million during 1916. The largest were ‘toffee apples’, spherical charges on a steel shaft three feet long and two inches thick, which came back like a boomerang when fired. The main ones, though, were Stokes mortars, named after the inventor, who had produced his weapon with a L20,000 grant from an Indian prince via Lloyd George. Costing only £40 per weapon, the mechanism was supremely simple. All a man had to do was to select a shell with a ballastite cartridge of the right colour, green for 30o yards and red for 450, drop it onto the spike at the base of the firing tube and his job was done. Such was the speed of fire that twenty-two shells could be fired in a minute, with eight in the air at any moment – pocket artillery indeed.

The mortar teams were taken from the odds and ends of the infantry and tended to get better rations with easier discipline.

Luxuries could be hidden in the battery’s handcart at the rear of a marching troop column. To be set against this were the dangers of crimping fuses in the early model of the gun, and the high priority which mortar teams enjoyed in the eyes of German artillery once they showed their hand. Their chosen positions were usually cut in the shape of an inverted E, with only two of the six in the team exposed at any moment in one bay with the gun. The gun would be laid with map and compass, a man glancing over the top to spot the ranging burst. Their position was most often in the support line, and their action initiated by a front-line request to pinpoint suspected sniper or machine-gun nests. Their relationship with the infantry were therefore close despite suspicions that mortar men blasted the enemy then scampered off, leaving infantry to sample any retaliation.

The chief drawback of the mortar was that the enemy’s version seemed more potent. Certainly, it was larger in calibre. The German projectile was the size of a two-gallon oil drum loaded with 200 lb. of a wet, yellow paste, which smelt like marzipan and burst wit force that sent a wave through the soil for a mile, as if the soil had been water. The range was over 1,000 yards, and the crews we itinerant specialists. A typical mortar shoot from the enemy line would lay down one missile per ten yards at three-minute intervals. Sharp ears were needed for the whistles from the German line, which indicated firing preparedness. Then the canister would come, turning over and over in the air and making a ‘woof, woof’ sound. The leisurely descent was demoralizing, as observers shouted out their warnings and men made rapid dashes for safety before the final swerve to the right and a crater the size of a large living-room at the end of it.

Cooper echoed the feelings of most front-line men when he wrote that he never got used to mortars. ‘I don’t know why Pm shaking. I just can’t help it.’ Gillespie’s mind went back to school cricket fields when he recalled fielding deep and waiting for skyers. Even when swallows swooped over the trench, he would duck, calling the reflex ‘sausage eye’, and involuntarily seeing his past life rising before him with every enemy shoot. Though there were a dozen bombardments for every mortar shoot, it was the feeling of exactness combined with the huge amount of explosive in each canister which triggered the fear. On the one hand was the sensation of cat playing with mouse; on the other, vivid images of bodies bursting and disintegrating.

Mortars completed the battery of offensive resources open to the front line. But surviving accounts of infantrymen mention them less frequently (or the enemy’s counterpart) than shells and gas. In his own mind the soldier could never see his side making any impact on the war with their own front-line resources. The infantryman was object not subject. He saw himself as the rodent occupier a pockmarked, grassless zone, whose forward limit was deter­mined by the very limit of human endurance. What was he but the counter in a game, pushed this way or that according to the fluctuat­ing balance of the explosives equation as if on a games board. Never was a man more aware of being that counter, that regimental num­ber, whose reality he had never really accepted in training however much he might outwardly conform. To a greater degree than even in his youngest childhood, the order of life seemed beyond the com­prehension of a soldier under barrage of gas and shells, the future greyer and more unthinkable, even if a man could gather himself to contemplate anything beyond survival.

The artillery, which destroyed the body and mind of the front line, was of two types; the gun, with its high muzzle velocity and flat trajectory, and the howitzer, firing a larger shell more slowly in a stately arc, niblick to the gun’s driver. The early success of ,the German 5.9-inch howitzer, set against the superiority of the French 75 gun to the German 77, led to our men sampling the howitzer most frequently throughout the war. Since the keynote of the Great War was its static quality, a much heavier concentration of big guns was obtained than in the Second World War, where more rapid advances made heavy artillery pieces always liable to capture. Thus, for these two reasons, footsoldiers often came under the fire of guns of massive proportions. The German 420 (about x7 inches) gives an idea of what this might mean. The whole piece weighed twenty tons and was moved by nine tractors. The cutting and steel lining of the gunpit took four days. The gun itself took twelve men five minutes to load and fire, a light railway and crane getting the one-ton shell into position. Each shell went at 1,700 mph to a height of Mont Blanc, covered a distance of about six miles horizontally and made a crater large enough to enclose a house – as some of them still would on the Verdun battlefield, the large battlefield retained as a war memorial. The gun in comparison was a scalpel. Not until the instantaneous fuses of 1918 could it do the damage of a howitzer in a war of trenches. Instantaneous detonation with low lateral spread of fragments over 1,000 yards then solved the problem of mud. Before that, the gun was feared chiefly as a dispenser of shrapnel. With a puff of white smoke and a violent tearing sound, a cone 200 yards deep and thirty yards wide would smash over a line of men if the timing of the air burst had been judged correctly. Those Hadfield shrapnel helmets which lie today on Somme fields inch-square perforations show that shrapnel, was always a clang and that the inclined head against a close shrapnel burst gave insufficient protection.

Artillery could be used in several patterns. The least feared were those shells which came over in bunches on the hour just to warn that the enemy was on his toes. A stage higher came those isolated shots intended for a particular spot. Aerial photography and balloon observation meant that each side had detailed maps of the other side which noted every sandbag, pump nozzle, mortar pit and latrine. If hostile action was suspected, then these sensitive spots would be saturated. At the highest level were the great barrages. One field gun per ten yards, and heavies every twenty, was found to be the soundest all-purpose concentration by the middle of the war – used again by the Russians in the battle of Berlin in 1945.

The agony of the men being shelled began well before the explosion. The skilled ear picked out each gun, noted its calibre, the path of its shell and the likely explosion point. The small field gun went off with a crack like a fat man hitting a golf ball. The shell took off like a jet plane and arrived with a screaming shriek. A keen pair of eyes might pick out the fifteen-foot gunflash, blinding even as a flashlight in daytime. The medium artillery piece sounded like a giant newspaper being torn, its shell a farmcart coming down a steep hill with its brakes on. The heavy gun rapped a man’s head with a heavy cane then rolled in a leisurely arc across the sky, a man on a bicycle whistling slowly and pensively. For a time the listener felt he could run beside it. Then it speeded up like an express train rushing down a tunnel. Shells passing over woods and valleys echoed. Shells falling in enclosed places came with a double bang and no warning. A near miss would whistle or roar, with debris raining down long after the burst. The strain of listening for all these, sounds did something to the brain. A man could never be rid of them.

The effects of the explosion were bewilderingly varied. Keynes survived an eight-inch shell bursting ten yards away. Fleming-Bernard saw an eight-inch shell land on a waggon. Limber and horse were undamaged though the driver, a Bermondsey milk-float driver, went off his head. The battery papers were found zoo yards away in one direction, the case 150 yards away in the other direction.

Nicholson writes of the 51st on one occasion belaboured by 104 shells arriving at four per minute but only wounding one man.

Every soldier could tell such stories. The cushioning of mud, the petal-shaped blast pattern of shells, the fact that most gunners searched a map square blind rather than aim their fire accounted for many quirks. Nevertheless all men who nervously told such stories with a tone of calculated whimsy well knew how explosive and jagged shell casings tore the bodies of men. Almost three-quarters of wounds by the end of the war were shell wounds. Men knew too how enduring were the effects. The wounds almost always went septic because of the foreign matter taken into the body with the splinters. Low-velocity missiles like these fragments also caused more severe tissue damage than bullets, making a survivor vulner­able to gangrene. Even if a man avoided missiles, blast would cause death by concussion at ten yards. Kidneys and spleen would be ruptured, though there would be no surface marks on the body. Men who escaped scotfree would be left with souvenirs. Chandos injury recalled a near miss driving the air from his lungs, while face and hands felt chapped. Ernest Atkins wrote of nose and ear bleeding from a near burst, with earth particles driven into his skin.

There was infinitely more to shells than their capacity to do physical harm, for, according to almost every memoir of the Great War, shelling was the greatest inducer of fear. A night raid might pump more adrenalin into the blood, while soldiers new to the front might regard a shellburst as an exciting and interesting experi­ence with an element of danger for others not so divinely favoured as themselves. Nevertheless the cumulative effect gave a ‘man the quickest test of how well he was wearing.

If a man were unstable and ill-suited to war, whatever he might consciously think, a shellburst would most effectively prick the lie. Drury remembered an eighteen-year-old trembling for twenty-four hours after a dud dropped ten yards from him. Fielding recalled a young, keen and loquacious sniping officer clutching his arm by reflex, just like one of his own children might have done, as a shell passed close over head. Close bursts would with more reason shake a man’s confidence in his invulnerability. There might be blackouts, blankness in willpower, numbness, a desire to sleep, an overwhelming need for a cigarette. Even the best-adjusted men might have trembling eyelids, shaking hands, nightmares or black moods to show the price they were paying for their self-control.

`I spent an hour or so dozing after putting my company into p tion,’ wrote Christie. ‘I woke up when our bombardment start and came out of my dugout trembling and able to talk only wit difficulty.  For a few minutes I was quite unable to control nerves. Very curious as quite honestly. I was not in the least frigh ened. If I could have moved I would probably have been cured at once. I felt a fool but it was purely outward and not inward. Any­way, it suddenly stopped.’ It is worth noting that Christie’s body was a shrewder judge than his mind, since he was shortly to work for a passage back to England.

The real test was the barrage, the continuous stream. There was no time for a man to compose his mind. It was like a dentist’s drill endlessly in a sensitive tooth without anaesthetic. Wrote Allen: `A damnable night. About the worst I have ever known. Not for a single moment has the shelling stopped. Everyone is badly shaken and every line down.’ Grant remembered smoking eighty cigarettes between 5 am and 11.30 pm during a June day near Ypres in 1915 when German gunners shot continuously except for a break of ninety minutes for lunch. In another barrage Burrage felt every blow as a punch to his solar plexus, shivering and whimpering, ‘Oh, Christ, make it stop. It must stop because I can’t bear it any more.’ With the loth Londons at Ploegstraat in 1916, and for the first time in the line, Bradley lay down on the duckboards and sang, ‘Oh, for the Wings of a Dove’ at the top of his voice. He believed that he was never so afraid again. Official historian Bean saw the Australians, toughest of soldiers, shaking like leaves and weeping at Pozieres on their introduction to west front shelling after Gallipoli.

No one was immune. Some stared at their hands clasped on their knees in a state of catatonic fear. Some hid their heads in their greatcoats in a state of torpor. Others, would sit in certain positions, touch particular objects, whistle so many bars of a particular tune to ward evil off with ritual. Some wept; others joked hysterically, But all shook and crawled, white-faced in dull endurance, ‘How long? how long ?’ men would ask themselves again and again. Men had no choice but to last out, nerves pared to the bone. Griffith described experience under .a barrage. ‘After a thunderous crash in our ears, a young boy began to cry for his mother in a thin, boyish voice. “Mam, main .” He had not been hit but was frightened and crying quietly. Suddenly he started screaming again, screaming for his mother with a wail that seemed older than the world. The men began to mutter uneasily. We shook him and cursed him and even threatened to kill him if he did not stop. The shaking brought him back’

Moran summed up the inevitability and tragedy of shelling on brave men when he wrote;

At the time of this bombardment I was not too much fright­ened. I was too stunned to think. But it took its toll later. I was to go through it many times in my sleep. .I used to hear all at once the sound of a shell coming. Perhaps it was only the wind in the trees to remind me that war had exacted its tribute and that my little capital was less than it had been. There were men in France who were ready to go out but who could not meet death in that shape. They were prepared for it if it came cleanly and swiftly, but that shattering, crudely bloody end by a big shell was too much for them. All their plans for meeting death with decency and credit were suddenly battered down. Self-respect had gone out of their hands. They were no longer certain of what they would do. It frightened more men away from the trenches than anything else.

The only retaliation against enemy artillery available to the front­line soldier was from his own distant artillery. But, whatever they did, he would be pretty certain to disapprove of it If British guns were active, the retaliation came dawn on infantry rather than artillery; if they were passive, then it would be bitterly noted that the Germans were being allowed to get away with it. Anyway artil­lery fire was always a speculative business. Gun wear, map inaccur­acy, changes of temperature, wind and pressure as well as casing and powder charge differences made accuracy at any distance im­possible. Apparently identical shots from a sixty-pounder at Io,000 yards might fall within a zone z,000 yards long and about ioo yards wide. Little wonder therefore that artillery were sometimes erratic in responding to a front-line SOS flare, might kill their own men following close-to a creeping barrage and would need too rounds to be certain of hitting an enemy pillbox once. Infantrymen knew nothing of the mathematical complexities of firing an artillery piece; they knew only the fragility of the human body compared with a shell charge and could but count the number of dud shells, which litter the old battlefields even today.

Physical distance also  drove the infantryman’s sympathy from his gunners. Field artillery was tolerated, since it lived round abou the support line, but siege artillery was another species, beings almost as remote as red-tabbed staff officers or official journalist& Their guns came and went like woodcocks in the night, startling infantrymen with their thunderous reports and flashes from ruined buildings and camouflaged sites. The self-contained batteries of eight guns had their own supply and signal system and travelled about with not just telescopes and switchboards, OP maps and the electrics needed to illuminate their sighting posts, but also with armchairs, well-stuffed valises and, extra blankets. To watching infantry, all their worldly possessions on their backs, such super­numerary comforts were a source of cynical comment. They were not to know how seldom gunners enjoyed rest so that, when a siege artillery observer appeared in the front line, even so conservative a soldier as Subaltern Feilding welcomed the chance to be rude.

If men got talking in estaminets behind the line, the gunner’s outlook was seen to be very different from the foot soldiers’. The combination of public-school understatement and childishness with murder at long range produced a jaunty sang-froid which jarred on men who smelt their fear and danger at close quarters. Odd phrases litter the memoirs of gunner subalterns: ‘quite the most interesting experience I have ever had’, ‘wonderful shooting’, ‘an amusing day’, and so on. Fraser-Tytler commended his colleagues as ‘good partners in the game of hun-killing’ and described a ‘gor­geous killing’ when thirty Germans had been spotted going into a barn and were killed with a salvo, followed a quarter of an hour later with a second salvo which added sightseers and medical officers to the tally. Little wonder therefore that Casson and his men watched an artillery position burning for an hour with the most complete detachment, for all infantrymen knew that gunners fought a cushy war, distant from the action and with extra pay and rations.

What no foot soldier knew was the danger, particularly in the last three years when aerial photography, flash spotting and echo location made a distant gun position as vulnerable as a man moving in no-man’s-land. Andrews tells us succinctly of No. 199 siege battery during 1918. During the first four days of the Germans’ March offensive the battery lost nine dead, eleven wounded, one shell-shocked and one prisoner. The forward-observation man went into battle with the third wave of the attack. During a gas attack layer and setter could not wear masks. A hit on the position could ignite all the shells, while defective shells could blow up in the breech, or partially engaged breech-blocks would blow back. None of this was visible from the front line.

All men feared artillery. Gas was their other great fear. Allen tells us:

With men trained to believe that a light sniff of gas might mean death, and with nerves highly strung by being shelled for long periods and with the presence of not a few who really had been gassed, it is no wonder that a gas alarm went beyond all bounds. It was remarked as a joke that if someone yelled ‘Gas’, everyone in France would put on a mask. At any rate, the alarm often spread over miles. A stray shell would fall near a group at night. The alarm would be given. Gas horns would be honked, empty brass shell-cases beaten, rifles emptied and the mad cry would, be taken up. It sounded like the Chinese trying to chase off an eclipse. For miles around, scared soldiers woke up in the midst of frightful pandemonium and put on their masks, only to hear a few minutes later the cry of ‘All sate’. Then they would take them off again amidst oaths and laughter. Two or three alarms a night were common. Gas shock was as frequent as shellshock.

With such dyestuff giants behind them as Beyer and Badische Anilin, the Germans led the way in every type of gas technology. Tear gas came first in January 1915, followed by the killing gases: chlorine in April 1915, phosgene in December 1915 and mustard in July 1917. The mode of despatch was from cylinders in clouds up to July 1916, and then in shells and mortar canisters.

Chlorine was an inefficient gas compared with those that came later. Easily smelt and visible to the eye, men could usually avoid its full blast. Even in the first attack Cook noted that, if a man put a handkerchief in his mouth and kept his head above the trench parapet, he survived with few side-effects. Men feared it neverthe­less. Thirty parts of gas in a million of air caused coughing, while I,000 brought death by destroying the alveoli of the lungs and the smaller bronchial tubes. A man would thus find himself unable to absorb oxygen and drown in the water generated in his own tortured lungs. Sixty per cent of the Canadians who took the full weight of the first gas attack at Ypres had to be sent home, half being still fully disabled at the end of the war. The faces of those who died where they fought were characteristically blue, their arms wide in terror as they ran out of air.

Phosgene, a derivative of chlorine, had eighteen times its power and could not be seen. The insidiousness was that, even when inhaled in fatal doses, it was not immediately irritating, just smelling faintly of mouldy hay and producing a slight sensation of suffoca­tion. (The inventor of the gas was able to enjoy a late-night party after first sniffing his creation and before dying from it.) Then would come shallow breathing and retching, pulse up to 12o, an ashen face and the discharge of four pints of yellow liquid from the lungs each hour for the forty-eight of the drowning spasm. Belhaven remarked laconically that phosgene casualties were dreadful to see.

Mustard represented a new concept in gas warfare, in that its aim was to harass rather than kill. To the chemist it was ethylene in a solution of sodium chloride; to the soldier it was an oily brown liquid which looked like sherry, and smelt of onions, garlic or radishes. Its power was such that small quantities in a shell could destroy fighting soldiers for days. If there was no sunlight and the soil was dry, in deep trenches or woods the liquid evaporated slowly, lying in wait as it were like a self-cocking man-trap.

The effects of the gas would be felt only two or three hours after exposure. Sneezing and copious mucus would develop as if a dose of flu were on the way. Then the eyelids would swell and close, with an accompanying sensation of burning in the throat. Where bare skin had been exposed, moist red patches just as in scarlet fever grew, the patches becoming massive blisters within twenty-four hours. Thereafter there would arrive severe headaches, rise in pulse rate and temperature, pneumonia. All this would follqw from ex­posure to just one part of the gas in ten million parts of air. In more severe exposures men might cough up a cast of their mucous mem­branes, lose their genitals or be burnt right through to the bone.

Men recalled slight brushes with mustard vividly. Fleming-Bernard wrote of blistered lips, loss of taste and his pipe tasting beastly for a week. After drinking shellhole water with mustard in it, Hewitt remembered his wrists swelling and eyes bulging, as well as the prophylactic treatment of Guinness and milk pudding in hospital. Ashmead,Bartlett slept inadvertently on a pile of leaking gas shells and felt very slack and tired for days. Chandos wrote of sneezing for half an hour, contracting blisters a foot long and of blindness for-three days, Theproblem in all this was the difficulty of detecting mustard amongst the odours of the battlefield unless a man had the good luck to=see iridescent stains on the ground. A soldier might then try and avoid it, for he could do nothing to counter the gas. Counter-measures were never found. The nearest soldiers came to applying counter-measures was when the Seats wore ladies’ knickers over their bare legs at Nieuport.

Fuller observed once that mustard was a humane weapon. Only 2 per cent of those visited died, and then by pneumonia from secondary infection. But humanity, unlike deaths admits of degree. A six-foot man has 3,000 square inches of skin, and it was on this that the vapour worked. Consider two reports, one from Nurse Millard, the-other from a doctor.

Gas cases are terrible. They cannot breathe lying down or sitting up. They just struggle for breath, but nothing can be done. Their lungs are gone – literally burnt out Some have their eyes and faces entirely eaten away by gas, and their bodies covered with first-degree burns. We must try to relieve them by pouring oil on them. They cannot be bandaged or touched. We cover them with a tent of propped-up sheets. Gas burns must be agonizing because usually the other cases do not complain even with the worst wounds but gas cases are invariably beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out One, boy today, screaming to die, the entire top layer of his skin burnt from face and body. I gave him an injection of morphine. He was wheeled out just before I came on duty. Where will it end ?

The official medical history of the war gave: Case four. Aged 39 years. Gassed 29 July 1917. Admitted to casualty clearing station the same day. Died about ten days later. Brownish pigmentation present over large surfaces of the body. A white ring of skin -where the wrist watch was Marked super­ficial burning of the= face and scrotum. The larynx much con­gested. The whole of the trachea was covered by a yellow mem­brane. The bronchi contained`abundant gas. The lungs fairly voluminous. The right lung showed extensive collapse at the base. Liver congested and fatty. Stomach showed numerous sub-mucous haemorrhages. The brain substance was unduly wet and very- congested. From the battle of 3rd Ypres in autumn 1917 to the end of the war, mustard produced 90 per cent of gas casualties and 14 per cent of all battle casualties. Lung weakness remained with the men. How many veterans alive today do not cough badly? Eye weakness might develop only years later. In 1990 there will still be 400 men alive blinded by mustard. Perhaps the fear of gas was not as irra­tional as many observers thought.

The British response to gas had been surprisingly rapid. Within a week of the first use of chlorine, a third of a million gas helmets had been made. They were made of black gauze rags tied at the back of the neck, held between the teeth and soaked in sodium thiosulphate. An improved version two months later was of army shirt material covering the head, using mica for eyepieces and a remarkable nosepiece-cum-tube for the mouth. The eyepieces soon broke or steamed up, while sweat caused the chemicals to run and sting before their effectiveness expired. Men generally thought it better to urinate on a spare sock rather than use the helmets. Indeed Rees observed his sergeant-major, who throughout the war believed that so long as he kept smoking his pipe he was safe from gas. Only in 1917 did the definitive article appear, invented by a man who had joined the Sportsman’s battalion at the age of forty-seven – the box respirator. The chemicals neutralized all gases while the cheese­cloth filter dealt with the arsenic particles of the sternutators in their blue-crossed shells. Protection was complete but never comfortable. As Hanbury-Sparrow noted, ‘We gaze at one another like goggle-eyed, imbecile frogs. The mask makes you feel only half a man. You can’t think. The air you breathe has been filtered of all save a few chemical substances. A man doesn’t live on what passes through the filter – he merely exists. He gets the mentality of a wide-awake vegetable. You yourself were always miserable when yiru couldn’t breathe through your nose. The clip on the gas mask prevents that.’

Counter-measures were not limited to masks alone. Notice boards twelve miles from the front reminded, at five miles they cautioned, and at two miles they alerted. All along the front were empty shellcases serving as gongs if there was a suspicion of ‘a gas attack – the French 75 half a tone higher than the eighteen-pounder. The compressed-air-fired strombus horns, which warned siege gun­ners, could be heard for nine miles, distributed at twenty-eight to the mile and were alerted by twenty-four-hour weather reports.

Men were trained in gas schools with one week on theory, one hour immersed in cloud gas, and exposed to raw tear gas for thirty seconds, with just six seconds allowed for getting the mask on. It was a brisk business, which sent men back to the front with an aggrieved feeling of the unfairness of gas and with tarnished green buttons.

The BEF thus came a long way fast from early 1915, when counter-measures seriously considered included the use of ioo,000 fans, setting fire to a cloud of coal and carborundum dust, issuing divers’ helmets to three men in every 10,000 and pumping air through a zoo-foot line, so that these armed divers could stay in the front line and repel the enemy. By mid-1916 the new establishment at Porton was keeping pace with German developments and briefing the front line through divisional gas officers, those quiet, civilian-mannered specialists with their dark-green hat bands, trusted by the men.

The success of all counter-measures was indisputable. After 1916, when accurate figures began to be kept, it Was found that just 3 per cent of gas casualties died, under z per cent were invalided, while 93 per cent returned to duty. Overall 7o per cent were deemed cured within six weeks. Nothing was said of die impaired efficiency of these men, or their fears. So long as they could move arms and legs without actually collapsing, the army deemed them fit for duty. Nevertheless the power of the gas mask is reflected in the lightness of the doses men got. The absolute numbers of those involved are equally impressive. The official figures are as follows:

casualties : 1915 12,792 deaths : 1915 307
1916 6,698 1916 1,123
1917 52,452 1917 1,796
1918 113,764 1918 2,673

Infantry were not affected only by the enemy’s gas; British counter-gas work involved the foot soldier in a way he might have expected – as a beast of burden. Cylinders holding 6o lb. of chlorine weighed 190 lb. and needed the shoulders of two men. When phos­gene ‘mice’ replaced chlorine `oojahs’, the burden was slightly easier, for a 5o lb. ‘mouse’ could be managed by one man with a shoulder sling though both were regarded with equally profound distaste and suspicion. Nor was it not just a matter of weight in a long haul. Once in the parapet, waiting for a favourable wind, there was a constant feeling of danger. If a prisoner gave away the news, if alert sentries saw the exodus of rats from leaky cylinders, then a bombardment made mental balance the more difficult for t who slept next door to gas day and night.

Gas supremo Foulkes later pointed out that in the six m after June 1916 some zo,000 cylinders had been kept in the fr line with only twenty-five burst by shells, and thirty-one men dyi as a result; that in I Io cloud attacks there had been driftback once, with just nineteen dead as a consequence. Even had this publicized at the time, no doubt it would have been treated with same suspicion reserved for all divisional news. When the chirru sound of gas shells and the smell of an apple loft replaced the of the cylinders, infantry felt a change for the better, one burd less. They couldn’t see the danger, didn’t need to carry it and noted retaliation coming down in back areas. That the gas in shells could, be dropped on a sixpence regardless of wind and kill a man at a cost of sixteen shillings they would not be likely to notice. Unreason­able assumptions were, after all, almost as destructive in chemical warfare as the chemical itself In this it was not far removed from shell warfare. Moran wrote: ‘After July 1917 gas partly usurped the role of high explosive in bringing to a head a natural unfitness for war. The gassed men were an expression of trench fatigue, a menace when the manhood of the nation had been picked over.’

There were weapons apart from artillery shells and gas, weapons which had not been used in earlier wars. Since men could not fit them into any frame of reference, they tended to draw the worst possible conclusions.

The flame-thrower had been invented in 190o. Nitrogen and carbon dioxide threw oil twenty-five yards which had been ignited at the nozzle. Huge noise and vast black clouds hid a jet which swelled to an oily rose six feet in diameter at its burning end. Though men lying flat usually escaped, they were terrified nonetheless. The inflammable mixture would soon give out even if it were not hit by a sniper, but this was scant comfort to men near the receiving end.

Where chalk lay beneath the front, mining would be constant. In 1916 alone, the British had 25,000 men digging towards the German line to blow 1,500 mines. Listening posts warned trench reliefs of enemy counter-measures. When sounds of mining ceased, it was sure sign that the explosive was in place, tamped with sandbags and ready to be detonated electrically when the storm troops were ready to seize the crater lip. No threat could give the men a greater feeling of helplessness. When the explosion came, all the sound would be absorbed underground. Men would just feel the vibration rushing towards them and through the soles of their feet, then a great pressure on the chest if they escaped fast enough. If not, they would die without trace. It was the impression of vast power, greater than any shell, combined with the lack of warning which men could not accept.

No weapon was newer than the aeroplane. The first demonstration to the War Office had been in 191o, when a 51b. bag of flour had been dropped within a thirty-yard circle. Only when Grierson in the manoeuvres of 1912 captured Haig’s army by means of aerial observation was progress considered sufficient for the BEF to be

able to take seventy planes to France – including Bleriot’s venerable channel flier. Most generals regarded planes like machine-guns, as weapons which would have little place in the coming war. Field-Marshal French told his men that ‘should it appear inevitable that an aeroplane flying low must strike any individuals, they should lie down in order to avoid being struck by the propeller’. By the end of the war it was clear that the aeroplane could kill men without necessarily hitting them with its propeller. By then the British had 22,000 planes, including bombers capable of flying at 25,00o feet to Berlin and back with bombs as large as most of those used in the Second World War. As Grierson had whimsically and perceptively observed to George V before the war; ‘I think, sir, that those aero­planes are going to spoil the war. When they come over, I can only tell my men to cover their heads and make a noise like a mushroom.’ Here was the novelty – a new dimension had been added to war within which little could be kept secret and even less kept from aerial attack.

The impact of planes on the infantryman came in three ways. He was not at first aware of the aeroplane’s potential. Cloete found all planes terrifying and wanted to run away, bewildered by the noise and the inhuman, goggled figures at the wheel just forty feet up. In addition to terrifying men, the planes could also kill. Though crudely dropped over the side of the plane, the aerial bomb was as dangerous as the shell and more likely to be dropped over a specific area. The British Medical Journal in August 1916 remarked that a typical missile was zo lb. of explosive in quarter-inch steel dropped from 4,000 feet. Its noise was a hissing shriek, it had a danger zone of fifty yards radius and fragments up to two feet square. Symons, an eyewitness, wrote: ‘Bombs dropped from aeroplanes do great damage. One was dmpped -thirty yards from our HQ Two fellows near by saw the plane coming and one said to the other, “Wouldn’t it be a bugger if they dropped the bomb here.” Drop it they did and he had his leg blown off. I saw it hanging across his chest like a leg of beef. All he said was “Dear me. Dear me,” about a hundred times and said the Lord’s Prayer over and over. He died in the night. It then dawned on me what war was.’

Least sensational and most dangerous of the aeroplane’s uses was in making up maps for artillery largely from aerial photos. No machine-gun-bay, no latrine avoided detection. Trenches were over­printed on 1/10,000 maps with news imposed when only thirty minutes old; just so long did it take to bring the plane down, develop and dry the plates with burning meths. A gun cast a shadow, the gunpit broke surrounding lines with tracks leading to it or with blast marks etched more lightly. Newly dug earth, reflect­ing white light, glinted. Early in 1917 a camouflage officer was sent to each corps, but the plane supplied an-all-seeing eye.

This full arsenal of weapons, which was orchestrated on a Great War battlefield, reflected the two -most magnificent centuries of social development in European history. No other continent except North America could have supplied and gathered so many men at such a distance from their homes in so confined an area. No other continent could then have killed and broken so many in so many ways. The engineering required to encapsulate poison gas securely in a metal case, the mathematics required to propel that case a precise- distance, the chemistry needed to produce both gas and propellant, the organization required to bring all the components together, the medicine needed to mend the man who was in the path of the gas shell represent the highest achievement of modem man. Later wars could only scatter the destruction more fairly be­tween those on the battlefield and those left behind. The front-line soldier of the Great War saw little of this progress, for intensity of feeling precludes that state of calm leisure in which there is detach­ment to discuss and compare. Survival within the arsenal became a full-time occupation, so that experience regressed to a state of heightened awareness, non-verbal emotion. In this way the artefacts of the twentieth century commingled with the thought processes of prehistoric man. Infantry became merely hunters and hunted, while technologists in khaki manipulated the primitive cutting edge of their sophisticated back-up tools.

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