Document 5: "Personal Glimpses: German Gas-Attacks," Literary Digest (14 July 1917), pp. 37-38.
This Literary Digest article, published after the United States entered the World War in April 1917, describes the horror of chemical warfare to a nation that would eventually send millions of young men to war in Europe. The article especially emphasized both the unpredictability of gas warfare, the danger to civilians and military personnel miles behind the front lines, and the difficulty of recovering from inhalation of gas. Articles like this one helped stir up war fervor by implying that willingness to use poison gas on the battlefield reflected the inhumanity and barbarism of the German people.
MORE than shells, torpedoes, or hidden snipers, the soldiers in the French and British trenches dread the German gas-attacks. The latest and most deadly variety--the composition of the gases is often changed in the search for a more “killing” mixture--has no odor and scarcely any color. Its victims are not aware that they are breathing it until a sweet taste is noticed in the mouth, and this warning is usually too late. Those in the trenches, or close behind, who have filled their lungs with the gas have dropt dead. Sterling Heilig, in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, tells of this new sort of vapor, called “rotten-egg” gas, that has killed or disabled thousands.
A young lieutenant was riding toward the front in a closed automobile. His chauffeur, who was outside, suddenly turned an with a grimace held his nose. The Lieutenant made the man stop and put on his gas-mask. And then--
Half a mile on they found two soldiers, without masks, unconscious, in the road. They dragged them into the closed auto and continued. Around a bend they came on two officers and a chauffeur without masks (it was two miles behind the front), dazed and incapable. They packed two into the closed auto, with the soldiers and a cylinder of comprest air sizzling, while G------ masked the chauffeur and held him on the front seat. As they rushed out of the zone they met four others, whom they simply could not take. It was a dull, damp day, with a faint wind from the Germans, deadly favorable to the “rotten-egg” gas (then new) even at four miles’ distance, where it held together like chunks of gray-yellow fog, almost invisible in the damp haze.
All depends on the dilution of it in the atmosphere. Those who got full lungs of it in the trenches or close behind, fell dead. Those who caught it well diluted, four or five or seven miles from its emission (when the chance of winds held it sufficiently together) went sick, with anything from temporary anemia to wasting weakness. But those who breathed the stuff behind the trenches, were mostly mysteriously affected.
Brought to near-by hospitals partially unconscious, they seemed to recover rapidly. Lying flat in their cots, they sipped nourishment and passed the night comfortably. In the morning, on awakening, they declared themselves cured. “Tiens! I’m all right,” they would say, and slip out of bed. The moment they were on their feet, they swayed, staggered, and fell dead. The sudden acceleration of heart action in a standing position made the signal for this inhibition or blood-clotting or whatever.
Army Dr. A. E. Mellion, a sturdy mountaineer of the Alpine Chasseurs, thoroughly experienced in gases and air-cures, and who has helped to save the lives of hundreds of victims, was himself twice overcome by the gas and narrowly escaped death. The doctor is well known to many Americans. His family is wealthy and owns a string of hotels.
He tells the story of his experience to the writer of the Times-Picayune:
One day I was superintending a necessary little building of sand-bags in a trench-entrance. Some one had to do it. Suddenly a squall of shells fell all around us. One burst in the pile of sand-bags, with the noise of a failure--plump! like that--I thought it just fallen and refused to explode. I said: "I am safe. It does not burst!" And I foolishly stayed a few moments till the squall was over. Then I began to cough terribly. It was probably a shower of new gas-shells with just enough explosive power to spread the gas and mixed with high-explosive shells to disguise them.
I coughed for four hours, always worse; and then the coughing stopt, and I began to suffocate. The suffocations, fever, and crazy headache continued and continued. Oxygen? Yes. Remedy vapors? Certainly. And, especially hypodermic injections of certain substances. I was congratulating myself that I had no flow of blood from the lungs, when hemorrhages of the intestines began. During the first month in hospital I had five or six crises of suffocation per day, of, say, half an hour each. A bad business.
Of another experience--both were on the Somme--Dr. Mellion said there were many shells exploding, but he had so much to do that he did not pay sufficient attention to the danger. He adds:
We wear the mask continually, but when you have delicate work to do on a suffering man you have got to see clear and have the finesse of your hands. You lift your mask a little and breathe whatever air there is.
In this case the doctor pushed up his mask at a time when the enemy was throwing gas-shells mixed with the others. He says:
That time is not much more than bronchitis and enteritis; and I had a strong constitution, so it disappeared rapidly, with a few injections of--of--the remedy. (I could not ask him to disclose the nature of the "remedy." All will be told after the war. At present, even the medical journals are not always accurate--for reason.)
The soldiers, Dr. Mellion says, were formerly careless about gas, but now they have standard masks, furnished by the Army, which are frequently inspected and kept in condition. Of the remedy which is now used, and of which the doctor may not speak in detail, the Times-Picayune correspondent says:
They seem to be great bags full of medicated air or laughing-gas or what you please. Suspended from rescuers' shoulders, they have several rubber-tube mouthpieces for victims to suck on while being led or dragged out.
| Documents Projects and Archives | Teacher's Corner | Scholar's Edition | Full-Text Sources | About Us | Contact Us |