GAS ATTACK 1916
Arthur Empey was an American living in New Jersey
when war consumed Europe in 1914. Enraged by the sinking of the Lusitania and
loss of the lives of American passengers, he expected to join an American army
to combat the Germans. When America did not immediately declare war, Empey
boarded a ship to England, enlisted in the British Army (a violation of our
neutrality law, but no one seemd to mind) and was soon manning a trench on the
Emprey survived his experience and published his
recollections in 1917. We join his story after he has been made a member of a
machine gun crew and sits in a British trench peering towards German lines.
Conditions are perfect for an enemy gas attack – a slight breeze blowing from
the enemy’s direction – and the warning has been passed along to be on the
“We had a new man at the
periscope, on this afternoon in question; I was sitting on the fire step,
cleaning my rifle, when he called out to me: ‘There’s a sort of greenish, yellow
cloud rolling along the ground out in front, it’s coming —‘
But I waited for no more,
grabbing my bayonet, which was detached from the rifle, I gave the alarm by
banging an empty shell case, which was hanging near the periscope. At the same
instant, gongs started ringing down the trench, the signal for Tommy to don his
respirator, or smoke helmet, as we call it.
Gas travels quietly, so you
must not lose any time; you generally have about eighteen or twenty seconds in
which to adjust your gas helmet.
A gas helmet is made of cloth,
treated with chemicals. There are two windows, or glass eyes, in it, through
which you can see. Inside there is a rubber-covered tube, which goes in the
mouth. You breathe through your nose; the gas, passing through the cloth helmet,
is neutralized by the action of the chemicals. The foul air is exhaled through
the tube in the mouth, this tube being so constructed that it prevents the
inhaling of the outside air or gas. One helmet is good for five hours of the
strongest gas. Each Tommy carries two of them slung around his shoulder in a
waterproof canvas bag. He must wear this bag at all times, even while sleeping.
To change a defective helmet, you take out the new one, hold your breath, pull
the old one off, placing the new one over your head, tucking in the loose ends
under the collar of your tunic.
For a minute, pandemonium
reigned in our trench, – Tommies adjusting their helmets, bombers running here
and there, and men turning out of the dugouts with fixed bayonets, to man the
Reinforcements were pouring out
of the communication trenches.
Our gun’s crew was busy
mounting the machine gun on the parapet and bringing up extra ammunition from
German gas is heavier than air
and soon fills the trenches and dugouts, where it has been known to lurk for two
or three days, until the air is purified by means of large chemical sprayers. We
had to work quickly, as Fritz generally follows the gas with an infantry attack.
A company man on our right was too slow in getting on his helmet; he sank to the
ground, clutching at his throat, and after a few spasmodic twistings, went West
(died). It was horrible to see him die, but we were powerless to help him. In
the corner of a traverse, a little, muddy cur dog, one of the company’s pets,
was lying dead, with his two paws over his nose.
It’s the animals that suffer
the most, the horses, mules, cattle, dogs, cats, and rats, they having no
helmets to save them. Tommy does not sympathize with rats in a gas
At times, gas has been known to
travel, with dire results, fifteen miles behind the lines.
A gas, or smoke helmet, as it
is called, at the best is a vile-smelling thing, and it is not long before one
gets a violent headache from wearing it.
Our eighteen-pounders were
bursting in No Man’s Land, in an effort, by the artillery, to disperse the gas
The fire step was lined with
crouching men, bayonets fixed, and bombs near at hand to repel the expected
Our artillery had put a barrage
of curtain fire on the German lines, to try and break up their attack and keep
I trained my machine gun on
their trench and its bullets were raking the parapet. Then over they came,
bayonets glistening. In their respirators, which have a large snout in front,
they looked like some horrible nightmare.
All along our trench, rifles
and machine guns spoke, our shrapnel was bursting over their heads. They went
down in heaps, but new ones took the place of the fallen. Nothing could stop
that mad rush. The Germans reached our barbed wire, which had previously been
demolished by their shells, then it was bomb against bomb, and the devil for
Suddenly, my head seemed to
burst from a loud ‘crack’ in my ear. Then my head began to swim, throat got dry,
and a heavy pressure on the lungs warned me that my helmet was leaking. Turning
my gun over to No. 2, I changed helmets.
The trench started to wind like
a snake, and sandbags appeared to be floating in the air. The noise was
horrible; I sank onto the fire step, needles seemed to be pricking my flesh,
I was awakened by one of my
mates removing my smoke helmet. How delicious that cool, fresh air felt in my
A strong wind had arisen and
dispersed the gas.
They told me that I had been
‘out’ for three hours; they thought I was dead.
The attack had been repulsed
after a hard fight. Twice the Germans had gained a foothold in our trench, but
had been driven out by counter- attacks. The trench was filled with their dead
and ours. Through a periscope, I counted eighteen dead Germans in our wire; they
were a ghastly sight in their horrible-looking respirators.
I examined my first smoke
helmet, a bullet had gone through it on the left side, just grazing my ear, the
gas had penetrated through the hole made in the cloth.
Out of our crew of six, we lost
two killed and two wounded.
That night we buried all of the
dead, excepting those in No Man’s Land. In death there is not much distinction,
friend and foe are treated alike.
After the wind had dispersed
the gas, the R. A. M. C. got busy with their chemical sprayers, spraying out the
dugouts and low parts of the trenches to dissipate any fumes of the German gas
which may have been lurking in same.”
Empey, Arthur Guy, Over The Top
(1917); Lloyd, Alan, The War In The Trenches (1976)