The Gas Attack
By Emmanuel Bourcier
[The New York Times/Current History, September 1916]
Emmanuel Bourcier is one of the most successful of the younger French writers. His experience in the present war is typical of the upheaval wrought in the lives of French men of all stations by the mobilization of 1914. From a position of prominence in the literary life of Paris he was called to the trenches, and for three years gave loyal service to the Allied cause, participating in numerous actions, among them the defense of Verdun, during which he was wounded.
After several months as a common soldier Mr. Bourcier took up telegraphy, later became a mechanical expert in the telephone and wireless sections, and finally a master of the liaison—the co-ordination of movements of airplanes, artillery, and infantry.
War was not a new thing to Sergeant Bourcier, for, as a boy of nineteen, he had enlisted in the army and had spent ten years in the service, taking part in campaigns in Indo-China, China (Boxer Rebellion), Madagascar, Sahara, and Morocco. Mr. Bourcier took up literary work in 1909, and in the following five years moved to the forefront of French authors. He was a frequent contributor to leading periodicals, and wrote eleven novels, most of which appealed in magazines. His works published in book form include "Les Visages de Pierres," "La Rouille," "La Rizière en Feu," "Les Reportages," "Gens de Mer," "Gens du Front." He has twice received the prize of the Société des Gens de Lettres, and in 1916 the French Academy awarded him the Montyon prize.
When the United States entered the war Mr. Bourcier was sent to America as a member of the French Military Commission, and was assigned to Camp Grant, Rockford, Ill., as an instructor of liaison.—George Nelson Holt.
The severe winter ran its course. We had worked incessantly. We had a whole sector to ourselves. First, there was the tangled network of barbed wire, a piece of work in which we all had a share. Each evening, as night fell, a company of men went out on No Man's Land, to work in the thick, treacherous darkness. One gang dug holes and put in the posts, another stretched the parallel wires, and another attached the transverse wires. As this required great blows of a mallet, it made considerable noise, which drew down the enemy's gun-fire. As they gained experience the men went out rapidly, worked swiftly, and returned to our trenches only when their task was accomplished. At dawn the Boches tried to destroy our work of the night before by firing many volleys into the network. The damage was never considerable, and they stopped that game when, imitating them, we cut their barbed wire to pieces.
Under that efficacious protection we contrived openings for listening and firing trenches. At the first, two men alternated in a constant lookout, with ear quick to catch any sound, with eye strained to observe the most minute sign. Behind them, on the benches,* [* The trenches were about seven feet deep. On the forward side was a step, or ledge, on which the men could stand when shooting.—TRANSLATOR.] entire sections, with guns poised in the loopholes, waited and watched from twilight to dawn, while the others slept, down in the shelters underground.
This organization constituted the first lines, in the spring of 1915, when we hoped for an early victory. So temporary did the work appear to be, we spent no more time and effort on our trench systems than seemed necessary for immediate purposes. The dugouts were of the most limited dimensions—really kennels, large enough for two men to sleep fairly comfortably, but which usually housed six, no one knows how. One came there overcome by sleep. One threw himself on the ground without removing his accoutrement and was asleep almost before touching the earth. To afford some protection against the bitter wind a cloth was stretched in front of the opening. While this shut out the unwelcome breezes, it also shut in a concentrated hot and malodorous steam, composed of the mouldy moisture from the earth itself, of human perspiration and panting exhalations, of wet leather and clothing. However, one breathed somehow. When the time was up and one went out to resume work or watching, the icy air enveloped one like a sepulchral winding-sheet, and the night blinded one's eyes. One followed the communication-trench, took up gun or shovel, as the order might happen to be, and became either soldier or laborer; or, more often, both at once. Everything was done at night. Everything was dismal, dangerous, frightful. There was no real repose, no relaxation. The incessant shell-fire added its horror to our other discomforts and dangers. The shell—that insensate creature of chance which bursts over the innocent, scatters its fragments over the plain, and in stupid indifference crushes a clod of earth or snuffs out the lives of a hundred human beings! The shell—that monster which comes with a moaning wail, invisible as a beast of darkness, and dies in a shower of fire!
One easily becomes familiar with its sound. At first every shot was terrifying. Then we learned to know approximately what course a shell would follow, at what point it would fall. Then we ceased to listen to or fear any but those coming our way. No others counted. They were non-existent.
Before we reached this point of familiarity the salvoes of that plaything the 75 made us shudder. They came so fast that we scarcely had time to distinguish the individual shots. Immediately the deadly whistling object skimmed the ground, and the explosion resounded. Some men turned pale, others paid little attention.
Berthet and I found much in this life to interest us. We ran about to see whatever could be seen. As soon as a cannonade began we went in that direction for the pleasure of observing it. We volunteered for all sorts of difficult tasks, tempted by the risk, enticed by the eternal charm of adventure. He was brave, was Berthet, but knew not how brave he was. Sometimes I sought to restrain him, at which he was always astonished. "I wish to know," he said, "if I will be afraid." And he had his way. He went out on the embankment, where he inspected the horizon regardless of the projectiles which saluted his silhouette as soon as he appeared.
We had some magnificent spectacles. One evening there was a bombardment followed by infantry attack. The German uneasiness had been evident in the morning. It expressed itself by a storm of projectiles which fell aimlessly and did little damage. The shells cut the grass, exploded like a sheaf of fireworks, sent the dirt flying high into the air. It worried us at first; then, as we found ourselves safe in the shelter of our deep trenches, assurance returned. Each man went about his business. Some were detailed to dig a tunnel, one must go to the kitchens to fetch soup and bread, another cleaned the arms, rusted during the night by the fog or in the morning by the dew. All the same, this violent bombardment troubled our officers not a little; they feared a surprise.
We had a visit from our general toward evening. He gave some orders, took a look at the loopholes of observation, and went away apparently content. His calm was most reassuring.
Calm is not everything, in war. The plans of the enemy must also be taken into account. The Boche artillery became violent. Over our trenches streamed a fire of shells of all calibres mingled. They fell, tearing away whole banks of earth at once; they exploded thunderously, in a cloud of dust and stinking smoke. We looked for the worst; we suspected a close attack, a hand-to-hand clash. Suddenly a great cry rang out:
It was true. Over there, from the enemy's lines, came great greenish balls, rolling close to the earth, rolling deliberately yet swiftly, rolling straight toward us. Gas! That horrible thing, still almost unknown, which had been used for the first time only recently on the Yser. It was coming with deadly surety amidst a tornado of artillery. Orders were shouted back and forth:
"The gas! Put on the masks!"
Each man spread over his face the protecting cloth. The shelters were closed. The telephone, whose wires ran the length of the communication-trenches, gave the warning: "Look out! The gas!"
We did not yet know what manner of horror it was. None of us had experienced an attack of the sort. We ran to and fro like ants whose hill has been molested. Some, fired their guns at random, others awaited orders. The frightful, livid thing came on, expanded to a cloud, crept upon us, glided into the trenches. The air was quickly obscure. We were swimming in an atmosphere stained a venomous color, uncanny, indescribable. The sky appeared greenish, the earth disappeared. The men staggered about for a moment, took a gasping breath, and rolled on the ground, stifled. There were some knots of soldiers who had been asleep in their beds when overtaken by the gas. They writhed in convulsions, with vitals burning, with froth on the lips, calling for their mothers or cursing the German. We gathered them up as best we could; we took them to the doctors, who, thus confronted by an unknown condition, found themselves powerless. They tried the application of oxygen and ether in an effort to save the lives of the victims, only to see them die, already decomposed, in their hands.
The masks had not yet been perfected and were a poor protection. Some ran about like madmen, shrieking in terror, the throat choked with saliva, and fell in heaps, in contortions of agony. Some filled the mouth with handfuls of grass and struggled against asphyxiation. Others, down in the shelters, sprinkled face and neck with brackish water, and awaited a death all too long in coming.* [* It has been found that water must not touch the skin for many hours after suffering a gas attack. The chemical action of the water rots the flesh. For the same reason the poilu is now clean-shaven: the poison of gas remains in a beard for days, and perspiration add to the dangers of inhalation.—TRANSLATOR.] Over all this the artillery shrieked in unchained madness. The sky was of steel, quivering and molten. There were no longer any distinctly heard shots, but a storm of fire. It roared, it whistled, it exploded without respite, as if all the furies of hell were yelping, in a thick, metallic sky. At the left, little by little, an ever-reddening glow showed the neighboring city of Reims, which the Boches were bombarding in a mad rage of destruction. We saw the flames leap up, the houses kindle like torches and throw toward the sky clouds of sparks and streams of black and red smoke. Everything seemed flaming and tottering and falling in a wild delirium. The earth itself opened to swallow the last survivors. In the trenches the bodies of the dead were heaped, and twisted or bleeding corpses choked the passageways.
Fiercely, convulsively, desperately, the comrades who were unhurt fought at their loopholes. Reinforcements came from the rear in haste, and took their places. Their eyes were those of madmen, their breath was panting.
"The assault will be here in a minute, boys," I said to my nearest neighbors. "Look out for yourselves. Have your cartridges ready. You, there, lift your gun higher, or you will fire badly! And you, aim toward that corner you see over there!"
Berthet helped me, with a tragic manner of responsibility; the under-officers ran from one man to another, crying: "Keep cool! We will get them! Just let them come on!" Then the action rushed on even more furiously, more demoniac. In the midst of the increased cannonade the gun-fire rattled. It commenced at the left, gained the centre, reached the right. The whole line crackled like the beginning of a roll of thunder. We could no longer see ahead of us. We fired as fast as possible, without knowing where, cutting into space.
"Here they are! Keep cool!"
In the dim light a gray mass was oscillating. As it rapidly advanced we could distinguish small objects on the plain, like moving blades of grass. We fired; cries could be heard. We fired more rapidly. The gas was dissipating, but the night was becoming thick. Our only light was the blazing city of Reims and the glow of shells. The pandemonium increased. One could distinguish only his immediate neighbor, lifting his gun, firing, recoiling from the discharge, replacing the spent cartridge with a full one. The pungent taste of burnt powder penetrated the throat. We sweat. We no longer feared. We pulled the trigger; we were fighting, we were defending the soil, the trench, the sector, in a blind rage. They should not take it! They should give up; they should fall back. We would kill them all rather than permit their feet to contaminate the spot we were guarding.
This endured for more than an hour, this insane uproar of shrieking voices, crashing cannon, cracking rifles; while Reims, in flames, threw to the wind her streamers of light. We had no accurate idea of the battle as a whole. Each man acted for himself, for the little corner of ground in range of his rifle, for the piece of trench which he was holding. At one side the Boches jumped into the trench, cut the throats of the nearest men, then fell, themselves stabbed by bayonets. At another point they penetrated the barbed-wire entanglements, remained caught there, struggling to free themselves, and were cut to pieces by our fire. Farther on our shells crushed hem. We were scarcely conscious of it. We elbowed our neighbors, we exchanged encouragement, we shrieked when we would speak. We were so intense, so full of fury, that many were frothing when commanded to desist. The under-officers exhausted themselves in crying halt, and had to shake each man to awaken him, to bring him to himself, to make him understand. We felt exasperated.
However, the cannonade was decreasing in violence. The gun-fire ceased, reviving only at intervals. The stretcher-bearers ran up, took away the wounded, picked up the tortured gas victims, whose lungs creaked like the bellows of a forge. The battle was over. The Boches were repulsed. In spite of their gas, in spite of the surprise, in spite of their cannon, they left on the field before us almost a battalion: sprawling corpses, dismembered like broken puppets; dead men who gaped at the stars; wounded, who soon were dead. Our losses were considerable, theirs were much greater. Twenty of their number remained with us as prisoners. Haggard and stunned, they were led to the rear for the interrogatory.
"Well, how has it been?" I asked Berthet, as I gripped his hand. "It was superb," he responded. There was a hole in his coat. "Not touched?" "No, a ball just missed taking me off." He said it with a calm which I admired. He concealed from me the fact that he had breathed the abominable vapors.
After all, it was only a local action on our line. It was not, in the generally accepted sense, a battle. All of us have seen much greater since then. However, on account of the gas, this first engagement is vividly present in our memory, a recollection never to be effaced. It was an encounter so strange! That foul vapor which enveloped the earth, which ate its way into the fibre of the clothing we wore, corroded and withered the leaves on the trees, and changed the aspect of God's sane creation into a distorted image of hell, will remain forever one of the deepest infamies of the Germans. After contact with this poisoned cloud nothing retained its original appearance. The arms were red without being rusty, the color of uniforms was changed. There were very few of our men suffering from gun or bayonet wounds, but whole mounds of those who died in convulsions: poor, twisted dead, who agonized in dying, so disfigured their own mothers could not have recognized them. "Some of them were wringing their hands, others were swallowing stones, others seemed to be rammed into the earth like stakes. This was not war; it was worse. This was not the rain of bullets which pierce the flesh, or break a skull in passing. This was not the brutal shell, which bursts to fragments, scatters in a thousand directions, and mows down a group of men as gayly as a child knocks down a house of cards. This was another matter. It was the very air turned accomplice of the enemy: blinded eyes, frothing mouth, rotted lungs, a breast on fire; every effort exerted redoubling the torture; the rescuer struck down above the man he attempted to save; the officer suffering like his men; the telephone-operator seized in his shelter; the courier arrested in his course—all alike smothered and struggling with death. This was a breath from the depths of hell, this diabolic invention, which that monster, the German Junker, forced men to choose: weapon of meanness and treachery, which sets at naught the valor of both defender and assailant!!
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald