The Gas Attack

By Eugene Szatmari
(Lieutenant in the Austrian Army)

[The New York Times/Current History, August 1916]

This description of a battle between Austrians and Russians, in which gas played a leading part, was written by an Austrian officer on the southeastern Front.

The night is starlight, not pitch dark, as in the dreary month of January, but of a strange, weird, dark blue, but of a strange, weird, dark blue, and the shadows are long, scattered, and charming. This lukewarm night is restless. Bright flashes from field rockets rip the dark blue velvet curtain asunder, and hardly hs the glare died away, hardly have quiet, invisible caterpillars sewed the curtain together again when the shining finger of a searchlight begins to feel its way through the blue night. Rifles crack and cannon roar at us from the east. Since an early hour in the morning the guns have been thundering toward us from the north, and the lazy rattle of the distant drumfire penetrates with difficulty through the trees of the shot-torn forest. Now they have begun here, too. Heavy shells crash through the trees with deafening roars, severed branches fall slowly, but noisily, rifle bullets come whistling along and rattle through the leaves. My ten telephones hum and sing like mad. But my batteries are silent. We do not waste our shots in the air.

Now a rocket goes up. It goes high, very high, and sends down its colored stars in a crackling rain of fire. There is another, and still a third and the cannon fire becomes still heavier, the shrapnel crashes like mad, and shell after shell whizzes toward us in a howling arch, to burst as it falls. We know what all this means, the sign that has just been made; short and sharp comes the message hissed over the telephone: "A gas attack!"

On comes the poison wave—we are armed for it. Gas masks to the front! In the twinkling of an eye we have transformed ourselves into masked robbers and are waiting in curiosity, braced for the battle with the unknown weapon, against the invisible, creeping, and, up to now, to us unknown enemy. What is it like, this gas?—and we await the coming wave almost with longing. Is it really coming after all?

It is coming. Something creeps into my eyes and I buckle my mask on again. So it is here, then, the sneaking enemy, the poison wave that we cannot destroy, the opponent wearing the cap of invisibility. Now it sweeps over us, overwhelms us; we are in its power, and our lives are dependent upon the potash tube that gives us air. We stand in the midst of its infected air, and its dragonlike breath toys with our clothing. What a frightful yet miserable enemy! The guns continue to roar in its neighborhood, and the charging enemy's cries of, "Hurri, hurri!" are smothered in the furious rattle of the machine guns. They don't need any masks, nor do the cannon that are now spewing death in a hundred forms upon the enemy from the hidden depths of the forest, barking and howling like ever faithful iron dogs. They are armed against the gas, for they need no air; and they stretch their bronze bodies out in the mad fire as they run back and forth on their carriages. What a mean weapon, what a wretched enemy is this invisible opponent!

I feel a strange weight on my chest. The air I am breathing is heavy and oppressive; I have to swallow at every breath I draw. The mask lies on my head like lead, and its big glass peepholes make my eyes ache indescribably. I feel as if I stood in a leaden diving suit at the bottom of the sea, with the weight of the whole ocean upon me. Air! I must have air, and I loosen the straps of my mask, but a terrible shooting pain grips my temples, and instinctively I haul them tight again. With the telephone in my hand, with the leaden weight of the mask on my head, half unconscious, I shout orders into the instrument. The great glass eyes with which I am now looking bore dully into the roaring, rattling, flashing, glaringly convulsive night, the night that only an hour before was a quiet blue velvet curtain and that now has become a mad monster, spitting poison and death. I try to go to the telescope, and I step on something soft. I bend down. It is a dead mouse. It didn't have any mask. What a fearful opponent, this sneaking, invisible enemy!

I can stand it no longer. My temples thump like mad and I feel my blood course wildly through my veins. I tear apart the straps of the mask and take a breath of pure, fresh, good air! There is a light breeze from the south. It has blown away the poisonous waves. The battle dies down; the rattle of shots begins to become weaker and the cannon, are steadily becoming quieter. The flashing lights that pierced the night are extinguished. It becomes calmer. I breathe, breathe deeper, while once more the dark blue velvet curtain of the night slowly and softly settles down over us.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury