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Gas and Flame in World War I: The New Weapons of Terror

Relatively few Americans directly experienced trench warfare and poison gas, innovations that rendered war newly terrible and fearsome. One such participant was William L. Langer, later a historian of the war, Harvard professor, and president of the American Historical Association. Langer served as an engineer in Company E of the 1st Gas Regiment, Chemical Warfare Service, of the U.S. Army. In this taut account, fromGas and Flame in World War I, he described a harrowing mission to move supplies and munitions near enemy lines, in preparation for a machine gun and gas attack. Langer noted that his story was probably the first published by an American unit after the war; four hundred copies were printed for the members of the 1st Gas Regiment.

During the first half of the week following our return to the line we spent the nights in carrying guns and ammunition to the position. It was planned to dig in sixty projectors (forty for chlorine gas and twenty for T.N.T.) as well as to operate six Stokes guns, the latter to shoot gas as well as thermite and smoke. At this particular time the enemy line ran east and west parallel to and not very far north of the road from St. Juvin to the town of St. Georges. As it approached this last place it made a dip southward to include the town. The gun positions were all in the vicinity of this bend, perhaps two and one-half kilometers east of St. Juvin and one kilometer west of St. Georges. The projectors, which, like all our material had to be carried several kilometers along the road or over the shell torn open hills, were planted in a patch of bushes that ran from the road to within two hundred to three hundred yards of the enemy lines.

The work was fraught with danger and difficulty, because of the fact that the enemy suspected an attack and kept his Very lights up, at the same time harassing our operations with machine gun and artillery fire. We were on the outpost line, the first concentrated line of infantry being along the road in the vicinity of St. Juvin, where the men had dug themselves into the bank along the road. As for the Stokeses, they were to be operated in two batteries of three each, one of the three to be located in a reinforced shell crater some fifty yards from the road and fifty yards west of the bushes. The other battery was also located in a reinforced crater, some hundred yards beyond the bushes toward St. Georges and perhaps another hundred yards off the road in a southerly direction.

Those were anxious nights, the ones in which we covered the road from St. Juvin to the position, carrying heavy projectors, mortars, or bombs. The awful quiet that usually prevailed, the enemy’s lights, and the difficulty of the work were enough to keep us on our toes at all times. It was on these trips that we first made use of two small rubber-tired handcarts. They saved us considerable work, but were very dangerous because of the occasional squeaking of the wheels. All told, it was very likely the hardest work we did on the front, carrying those large stores of material over kilometers of uphill into the very face of the enemy, and they were weary feet, indeed, that, sometimes at 2:00 or 3:00 am., started on the long ten kilometer hike back to Cornay.

At last the night for the attack came - October 31. The Stokeses were dug in that same night, and the sandbag reinforcements in the shell holes were completed. We went up that night somewhat anxious and uncertain. Among other things we had twenty-five new men with us, who had just arrived from Q Company and most of whom were new to fire. And several of us, I think, had a presentiment of an awful ordeal to come. The enemy’s continued shellfire convinced us again and again that we were bucking a consolidated line of resistance.

Our zero hour was to be 3:30 a.m., and ours was to be the honor of opening the attack in that particular sector, for the artillery Barrage was not to start until 3:37 and the first wave of the infantry was to go over at 5:30. By midnight all preparations were completed. Only the men who were actually to operate the guns were kept on the positions. Besides these, there were two parties of twenty men, each with a sergeant in charge, which were held in reserve some two hundred yards west of the positions. They were to act as carrying parties in case it should be necessary to follow the infantry immediately. The operation opened promptly at 3:30 with the explosion of a battery of projectors with high explosives and another battery with chlorine gas. Shortly after, the Stokeses opened fire, while at 3:37 the artillery behind us began laying down a terrific barrage on the enemy’s lines and the back areas. But the attack was not to prove a one sided affair. Our Stokeses had fired only 41 gas and 24 thermite bombs when the hostile machine guns, which had located our emplacements, covered the entire position with such an intense fire that further operation of the guns was not to be thought of. Moreover, the enemy’s artillery replied to our own almost immediately, bombarding in a systematic fashion the entire ridge and particularly the road. The shells literally rained about, high explosives varying with gas and occasionally shrapnel. How shall I adequately describe our experiences during those five horrible hours, as we lay in shell holes or on the road—those dreadful, endless hours of paralyzing uncertainty and suspense, during which machine guns united with shellfire and gas to make death seem ever so much closer than life? For a time it seemed likely that the enemy’s infantry would attack before our own, and so we lay there, huddled together, nerves tense, weapons ready, determined, if the occasion should arrive, to sell our lives as dearly as possible, for I hardly believe there was one of us who expected to get away alive.

It would be useless to tell in detail of all the narrow escapes, of all the minor happenings of those hours, but it does seem to me that at least one act of heroism deserves special mention. As I said before, the enemy was throwing over considerable gas. Still there was a fairly good breeze, and in most cases it dissipated quite rapidly. It was with some surprise, therefore, that the men became aware of an ever-increasing odor of phosgene. This in itself was strange, for the enemy was shooting almost exclusively sneezing gas. On investigation it turned out that a fragment of one of the numerous shells that struck close by had torn open one of our own phosgene bombs, and that the gas was rapidly escaping in our very midst, causing a terrific concentration. It was then that, without a moment’s hesitation, the sergeant, not stopping to put on his mask, seized the broken bomb and carried it out of the hole, where, under the most intense fire of the enemy, he buried it and returned, safe in spite of all.

With the reserve parties, meanwhile, things, to say the least, were no better. To keep out the chill night winds the men had spread their shelter halves over the foxholes which had been dug into the side of the bank. When the enemy’s barrage opened it was directed particularly at this spot, where he believed the infantry was lying in readiness to go over. It was not surprising, then, that the entire vicinity was thoroughly bombarded. In quick succession the shells struck, many of them so near that they blew men to pieces less than ten feet from us and peppered our shelter halves with stones and lumps of mud, leaving many of them perforated like sieves. Had the enemy used shrapnel most probably not one of us would have survived. As it was we managed to escape injury until 8:30, when, the fire increasing in intensity, we left our holes and covered the distance to St. Juvin, a good part of it on our hands and knees. It was without one of our dearest comrades, however, for at 6:30 a.m. Private Robert Mayne had been struck in the back by several shell fragments, one of them finding the heart and causing instant death. On the following day we buried him close by where the shell fell, and later on erected a wooden cross over his grave. In addition to his death we had another casualty that night. It was that of Private Alterici, who was affected by gas more seriously than the rest of us and who was sent to the hospital from where he was not released in time to rejoin the company.

A weary, exhausted, nerve racked group of men it was indeed that, about noon November 1, assembled in a gully north of Sommerance to rest and dig in for the night. The artillery was still firing furiously, but the enemy’s barrage had ceased very suddenly about 10:00 a.m. and now only occasional shells from long-range rifles would explode in the vicinity. The weather was gloomy and the moist air chilled one to the bones. Yet it was with that meticulous care that is characteristic of worn-out men, that we prepared our foxholes, carrying boards and iron sheeting from abandoned machine-gunners' dugouts in order to make our “houses”as comfortable as possible, even though only for one night.

And in truth we left the next morning, setting out in two sections, as had become our custom of late. The first section, under Lieutenant Le Veque, started from the old positions with guns and mules, and, following the road from St. Georges, passed through Imecourt to Sivry-les-Buzancy, which is less than three kilometers south of Buzancy itself. The second section, under Lieutenant Thompson and Cobern, started across the battlefield with guns on one of the handcarts, while the men carried the ammunition and their packs.

That, too, was an extremely disagreeable trip, over the shell-torn fields where the dead lay strewn about and one’s feet sank continually in a gluelike mud such as France only can boast. We kept on as fast as we could, trudging towards Alliepont, and from there to Imecourt. I think by far the most redeeming feature of the trip was the opportunity it gave us to see at first hand the terrible havoc wrought by our own artillery. The German Barrage had been very heavy, but had consisted mostly of shells of smaller caliber, while our own guns had been, to a great extent, large-caliber howitzers, etc. The enormous craters and the incredibly large number of them convinced us that if being under the German barrage had been hell, being under our own must have been worse than hell.

We stopped a few hours in Imecourt, and later went to Sivry, where we found the first section already lodged. The enemy was retreating much more hurriedly than had been expected, and the town was filled to more than its capacity by troops, guns, field kitchens, etc. Many of us had to sleep in stables that first night. Under the circumstances, however, we were glad to find shelter anywhere and to enjoy a full night’s rest without being called out. It had been a real job to drag the heavy cart through the soggy mire for the many miles we had covered that day.

On the next day, November 3, the advance continued. Buzancy had been occupied by one battalion of infantry, which, passing through, had found only two Germans. There seemed little chance of our being really useful while things progressed so favorably. Still, it was necessary to be on hand in case we were needed. So the first section started out late in the afternoon and, marching with heavy packs, overtook the infantry just south of Sommauthe. Here they dug in and spent the night in the rain and mud. On the following days the infantry continued its rapid forward movement, while our men kept as close to the advancing battalion as possible. The weather continued miserable, and above Sommauthe the roads were unspeakably muddy, until finally it was barely possible for traffic to make any headway. The section eventually reached the hamlet of Warniforet, where it was held by orders pending a divisional relief.

Source: William L. Langer,Gas and Flame in World War I, (NY: Knopf/Borzoi, 1965), pp. 73–83.

See Also:"His Car Is His Pride": Ode to a World War I Ambulance
"This Is How It Was": An American Nurse in France During World War I
"Bombed Last Night": Singing at the Front in World War I
Hot Chocolate: A World War I "Canteen Girl" Writes Home
"No Negroes Allowed": Segregation at the Front in World War I