George Gallie Nasmith would never have qualified to be a soldier. A condition called achondroplasia had stunted his growth and he stood just four-foot-six. But as a sanitation expert with the City of Toronto’s medical department of health, he believed he could help the Canadian Army. Minister of Militia Sam Hughes agreed and appointed him to organize a mobile laboratory in the field to test and supply safe drinking water for the soldiers. The plan was to attach him to the medical corps, but because Nasmith wasn’t a doctor, Hughes created a new unit to accommodate him — “Canadian Army Hydrological Corps and Advisers on Sanitation.” Nasmith joined the unit in September 1914 with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.
|Lt. Col George Gallie Nasmith|
Nasmith was in Ypres with a colleague on 22 April 1915, when the Germans first unleashed chlorine gas on the Allied lines. With his expertise in water purification, he was well acquainted with chlorine. “Looking towards the French line we saw this yellowish green cloud rising on a front of at least three miles and drifting at a height of perhaps a hundred feet towards us,” Nasmith wrote in his memoir of the war. “The gas rose in great clouds as if it had been poured from nozzles, expanding as it ascended; here and there brown clouds seemed to be mixed with the general yellowish green ones. ‘It looks like chlorine,’ I said, ‘and I bet it is.’ ”
Later in the day, he saw victims of the attack at a Canadian field ambulance: “Lying on the floors were scores of soldiers with faces blue or ghastly green in colour, choking, vomiting and gasping for air, in their struggles with death, while a faint odour of chlorine hung about the place.” Nasmith reported directly to headquarters with his diagnosis that the mysterious gas was chlorine, possibly mixed with bromine. He recommended a mask soaked in hyposulphite of soda to protect soldiers. The Canadians adopted it as their first rudimentary gas mask.
On 24 April British commander Gen. Henry Rawlinson summoned Nasmith to explain what he thought happened at Ypres. “The General smiled a smile of appreciation as he thanked me for the assistance that our laboratory had given in helping to diagnose and combat this new mode of warfare, and I left his office feeling that we had been of some real use in the war even if we never did anything else.”
Military officials turned to Nasmith’s lab for help with several experiments and tests aimed at protecting soldiers from gas attacks. For his contributions to the Allies, Nasmith was named to the British Order of St. Michael and St. George.
— Stephanie MacLellan
Sources: The Toronto Star WWI Encyclopedia; On the Fringe of the Great Fight, by Col. George G. Nasmith; No Place to Run, by Tim Cook; War Story of the Canadian Army Medical Corps, Vol. I, by J. George Adami