Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The AEF Meets the Gas

The U.S. Army Is Gassed—26 February 1918

by Dr. Thomas I. Faith 

U.S. Marines Under Gas Attack Near Verdun

Before dawn on 26 February 1918, in a wooded area at Bois de Remieres, France [St. Mihiel Salient, north of Seicheprey], the U.S. Army suffered its first major chemical weapons attack. Over the previous several days, soldiers in the trenches there had noticed noisy hammering and other unusual activity on the other side of No Man’s Land. Their German opponents were building Livens projectors, rows of large metal tubes embedded in the ground at an angle. Shortly after 1 a.m. the projectors fired two separate bursts of hundreds of canisters of lethal phosgene and tear gas. The canisters quickly sailed through the air and exploded above U.S. soldiers in the 18th Infantry of the 1st Division, releasing a toxic cloud. The gas was accompanied by high-explosive mortar fire intended to cause additional confusion and panic. 

Most of the soldiers were able to place their gas masks over their faces and adjust the straps, nose clip, breathing hose, and filter box in time, as they had been trained. Some, however, breathed in the gas while putting their masks on and had to be treated for asphyxiation. Private Mowren, for one, was asleep in a dugout when the attack occurred and he inadvertently breathed the gas in the moments it took him to wake and don his mask.

Private Beddell was on duty at a listening post when the gas canisters exploded practically on top of him. The force of the explosion knocked down a man beside him, and Beddell was gassed while trying to put a mask on the fallen man before he had put on his own. Private Liton, a telephone operator in the Signal Corps, managed to put his mask on in time after the concussion from the projector burst blew in the window and door of the dugout he was in, but another soldier in the dugout “went wild” with fright. Liton and a lieutenant attempted to restrain the man and mask him, but Liton’s gas mask was torn off in the struggle and he became sick from the gas as a result. 

U.S. Sentry Mans His Post During Gas Attack
Most of the U.S. casualties, however, were men like Corporal Saukey who removed their masks too soon, believing that the gas had dissipated. Saukey was on a patrol during the attack and got his mask on in time, but he took it off after only half an hour and found that the gas in the area was still strong enough to smell. Approximately 225 U.S. soldiers were in the vicinity during the attack and 85 of them, more than one-third, were injured or killed by the gas. 

As World War I continued and as more new soldiers from the United States continued to arrive at the Western Front, such episodes were unfortunately common in the American Expeditionary Force. Over the course of the First World War, U.S. Army units suffered a proportionately higher percentage of gas casualties in battle than their French, British, and even German counterparts. The American Expeditionary Force sustained over 70,000 chemical warfare casualties, representing nearly 30 percent of the total U.S. casualties in World War I. All the soldiers who were exposed to poison gas on the battlefield, whether injured or not, would long remember the anxiety of their first experience with chemical warfare.

Dr. Faith is a historian at the U.S. Department of State and the author of "Behind the Gas Mask: The U.S. Chemical Warfare Service in War and Peace". His article was made available through the World War I Centennial Commission. Sentry photo from Steve Miller.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting article. I think, however, that Dr. Faith must mean the 18th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Division. Interested readers should check out the series of monographs on varous AEF units and their experiences with gas attacks, written by Dr. Rexmond Cochrane. Most of them are available on-line via the Combined Arms Research Library at Fort Leavenworth. Try a web search for CARL Library to get to their "card catalog" or try searching Rexmond Cochrane.