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

Friday, December 11, 2015

Images of Gas Warfare

Haunting, absurd, inhuman, looking like B-movie science fiction, the images of gas warfare still pack a wallop 100 years later.

Photos from Steve Miller and Tony Langley


  1. My paternal grandfather served in France with the US Army. He was gassed and spent several years in a VA hospital during the 1930s. There was no social security or other "safety nets" at that time. My grandmother had to work as a cleaning lady in other people's homes. No child care was available, and she did not have extra house keys. My father and uncle stayed outside on the streets of Brooklyn, NY, after they came home from school. When WW II started, my father enlisted in the Navy. My grandmother accompanied him to the recruit depot when he left for boot camp. When she tried to kiss him goodbye, he squirmed, saying "Gee, Mom, not in front of the guys!!" The next time he saw. her was when he went to her funeral. She collapsed and died while waiting in line to purchase sugar with ration coupons; he had asked her for some of her home-made cookies. Grandpa died in 1969.

    On Christmas Day, 2007, I was helping my parents prepare for my brother's funeral. Steve was the first of Grandma's 13 grandchildren that she was able to "meet" (my cousin Peter joined them in 2015). While sorting through family pictures, I found a letter that was written to Grandma, dated "August 31, 1918, somewhere in Belgium". The writer was a cook named Fredrick. He had seen her brother Paul sometime earlier and stated that Paul looked good, just as if he were at home with his family (Paul was KIA 27 Sep 1918). Fredrick described coming under artillery fire while taking rations to front line troops. "Someone must be praying for me pretty d___ hard."

    I had no other information about his identity. He was probably assigned to the 27th Division, as was Paul. No last name was on the letter. In the course of my research, I found another cook named Frederick Schmelz, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Frederick Schmelz was KIA on 27 Oct 1918, while taking hot food to troops who had not had any for three days. For a while, I thought he might have been the man who wrote to Grandma; I connected with Frederick Schmelz's brother's grandson and we compared notes. Frederick Schmelz was not the man who wrote to Grandma, but I am glad that I found out about him. Cooks never get the credit they deserve.

    Merry Christmas in heaven to Steve (who worked in a pizza parlor), Peter, Fredrick and Frederick.

    1. Hi Maria,
      I would be interested in contacting Frederick Schmelez's brothers grandson. You and I have shared emails several years ago. I have an original filed message from 10/27/1918 sent to my great uncle 1st Sgt. George Hedges / Co. C / 114th Inf informing him that his commanding officer Captain Doremus was KIA. In the same message it request" food be sent up as the man have not had a hot meal in 3 days.

  2. It would be interesting to contrast eastern and western front images of gas warfare.

  3. My grand uncle was an artilleryman. Wounded and gassed on the Somme

  4. Ms Schnell,
    My Granfather too was in the 27 Inf Div-107th Ing Reg.In Aug thru late Sept he was engaged in combat near Mt. Kemmel in Flanders. Two of the 27th's Brigades were engaged during this time with notable casulaties in the 27ths assault of Ronnsoy. Of my Grandfather's company of 170 men on the 27th of Sept, only 46 answered the roster on 30 Sept.
    I have some unit histories of the 27th written in 1920. If you care to share your grandfather & Uncles names or units I'll see if I have any information on them.
    A tale about eating in the front lines: "...while on that detail they located several potatoe patches,abandoned because they were under direct obserbations by Germans on Kimmel Hill...regardless of the danger, they crawled out, especially Pvt. Dreichler, untill sufficient "fruit of the earth" had been gathered to feed their squad." This went on for three days.

  5. My grandfather's brother, Walter Phillips, was gassed and spent the rest of his life partially disabled from it. I met him briefly when I was a kid in the mid-1950's. He enlisted somewhere, I surmise, in one of the mill towns in western Pennsylvania or eastern Ohio. Where would I begin to look for a record of his service?
    The comments above by others who mention their relatives are very affecting.

    1. You may wish to search the Pennsylvania State Archives for his Bonus Record. You can do it via computer. That may give you a starting point.

  6. My cousin Al Scanlon was an Army cook at a camp in New Jersey. He never went overseas. He later became a prominent newsman/editor in Lakewood NJ. It was a family joke that Al could only cook for no less that 200. Of course he could whip up a tasty dish with ease for a small family gathering. I enjoyed Maria's comments.

  7. My father was a chemistry student at Liverpool University, England, when, in the spring of 1915, his professor asked him join the army for a special secret mission; his king and country needed him. My father took the train to London and, Mother said, was in France three weeks later in what was to be known a the Special Brigade of the Royal Engineers. He and the others were told that they were going to gas Germans, and if they had any conscientious objections to such uncivilized warfare they could ask for and receive reassignment. About half a dozen did so promptly. In the last months of the war, my father managed to lose his corporal's stripes and add a red cross on his sleeve. He was assigned to a hospital research laboratory near Boulogne. He worked with Alexander Flemming, who discovered penicillin in 1928.

    When my father met my mother in 1919 he said that, if they got married, they would leave England. Why? Because there will be another war in twenty years, and I don't want my sons having to fight Germans. They did marry. They did leave England. The war came right on schedule.

    Between the wars, as reported in a newspaper article, the courageous Dr. Buck worked on cancer treatments that were so toxic he had to wear a gas mask. When I read that, I figured it was penance. My father wanted to help his adopted country, the USA, during WW2, but he didn't want to kill anyone. He developed mosquito repellents for the Marines and manufactured pharmaceuticals. I don't know if he kept in touch with Flemming. Perhaps it was coincidence, but he ended up manufacturing penicillin.