Today marks the 100 year anniversary of the start of the 2nd battle of Ypres, the first use of poison gas on the Western front. It also would have been my mother’s 63rd birthday. These two anniversaries, an important date in my own past, and an important date in the past I am currently researching, are linked together in my mind, in a way I think my mother would have understood.
I’ve been looking at primary accounts of this first encounter with poison gas and what strikes me most is the lack of comprehension with which witnesses described both the gas and its devastating effects:
But more curious than anything was a low cloud of yellow-grey smoke or vapour, and, underlying everything, a dull confused murmuring.
Suddenly down the road from the Yser Canal came a galloping team of horses, the riders goading on their mounts in a frenzied way; then another and another, till the road became a seething mass with a pall of dust over all.
Plainly something terrible was happening. What was it?
The first-hand accounts on the Spartcus article are particularly harrowing:
We didn’t know what the Hell gas was. When we got to Ypres we found a lot of Canadians lying there dead from gas the day before, poor devils, and it was quite a horrible sight for us young men. I was only twenty so it was quite traumatic and I’ve never forgotten nor ever will forget it.
-Private W. Hay
Stephen Graham, who returned to Ypres in 1920, wrote:
One is tilted out of time by the huge weight on the other side of the plank… There is a pull from the other world, a drag on the heart and spirit. One is ashamed to be alive.
Very Shakespearean, isn’t it? It reminds me of Hamlet:
I am thy father’s spirit,Doomed for a certain term to walk the night
Is there a happy ending? After the First World War, chemical warfare was largely regarded as unacceptable in public opinion and it has been rarely used in conflicts since. For what it’s worth in a world with increasingly effective and distant methods of killing.