Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!

A painting and a poem depict two of the most enduring and recognisable images of the Great War, they reinforce our cultural memories of the conflict’s horrors, when chemistry had been turned into weapons.

At the age of 62, American artist John Singer Sargent had travelled to France in the summer of 1918, accompanied by physician-artist Henry Tonks, at the behest of the British Government.  Sargent had received a letter from Prime Minister David Lloyd George urging him to do “a work of great and lasting service to the nation” by executing a large painting in which “British and American troops are engaged in unison“.  It was commissioned for a Memorial Gallery in London, which was never built.


In a case of art imitating life, or at least life on the Western Front, Sargent had found his subject on August 21st, when he and Tonks witnessed the scenes at a dressing station after mustard gas had been used against advancing American and British troops.  His near life size painting was of epic proportions, some 7ft 6 inches by 20ft, and came to have the one word title “GASSED”.  Completed around March 1919 and first exhibited at the Royal Academy soon after, it was not liked by all.  Criticised by some as being too heroic, too beautiful even, it evokes both sympathy for the men’s suffering and revulsion for its cause.  It is very reminiscent of photographed episodes of other gassed casualties, and while the trauma of blinding should never be underestimated, mercifully for many victims this was only temporary.


Battle of Estaires. A line of British troops blinded by tear gas at an Advanced Dressing Station near Bethune, 10 April 1918.© IWM (Q 11586)

Another, less well known, painting held by the Imperial War Museum was commissioned by the RAMC whose members were only too familiar with the suffering of the victims of chemical weapons during the Great War.


Gassed. ‘In Arduis Fidelis’© IWM (Art.IWM ART 3819)

In this grim painting, the stark depiction of death is a shocking reminder of the squalor of the Great War, we are in the realm of Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est”, possibly the most widely read description of the horrors of war in the English language.

In just twenty lines of prose, Wilfred Owen’s graphic description of death by gas poisoning has come to represent everything bad about the Great War.  Written in the style of a first-hand account, it should be noted that although the poem may accurately describe the effects of chlorine gas, it was written in 1917 when the far deadlier phosgene gas was in use and the standard-issue gas mask – the “small box respirator” – provided good protection against chlorine and phosgene.


It was the Germans who had first used chlorine gas on the Western Front in the Spring of 1915, beginning a new chapter in the history of warfare.  Whatever the outrage, or moral and ethical scruples held at the time, the British would soon respond in kind.  Its use as an offensive weapon was carried out by the officers and men of the Royal Engineers Special Brigade.

Our use and development of chemical weapons was not widely acknowledged or talked about and remained a sensitive issue even after the war as the Special Brigade’s commander Maj-Gen C.H Foulkes found out when writing the unit’s history published in 1934.  His attempts to include photographs of a base visit by King George V were blocked on the grounds that associating any royal with “frightfulness” was unacceptable. Some of those same photographs can be readily viewed today at the Imperial War Museum.


King George V and Edward, the Prince of Wales, watching a gas mask demonstration at the Gas School, Helfaut. 7 July 1917 © IWM (Q 5610)

The German use of gas on 22nd April at Langmark near Ypres against unprotected French troops caused panic and wide spread casualties.  Facing a cloud of yellowish-green choking gas, the French withdrew in confusion leaving an undefended gap in the line which was partly held by men of the 1st Canadian Division.  Chemist soldiers at the front had quickly recognised the gas as chlorine, which is water soluble, and improvised a basic form of protection by urinating on, or soaking in water, any rag or cloth that could be held over the nose and mouth.  The Canadians had arrived in Ypres with little training and were poorly equipped, their dogged and fierce resistance in appalling conditions saved the Allies from a possible disaster in the immediate days following the 22nd April 1915.

There was a predictable reaction in the British press to the news that the Germans had released clouds of poisoning gas, supposedly prohibited by the Hague Treaty of 1899. The “Devilish Hun” was the general reaction, as typified by this Daily Mirror headline:


It was a sentiment shared by those on the spot, one Tommy serving in the Dorsets was quoted as saying:

“Clean killing is at least comprehensive but murder by slow agony knocks me. The whole civilised world ought to rise up and exterminate those swine across the hill.” (From Donald Richer, Chemical Soldiers: British Gas Warfare in World War I)

In late April 1915 and early May, the first priority was to devise a defence and the War Office turned to Chemistry experts in the academic community for analysis of the gas used and methods of protection.  But military minds soon contemplated the offensive use of gas.  Sir John French, C-in-C of the B.E.F. in 1915, had implored Lord Kitchener: “I strongly urge that immediate steps be taken to supply similar means of most effective kind …”.  A number of committees sprung up to co-ordinate the efforts of the War Office, Ministry of Munitions and leading academics.

As early as 28th May 1915, the War Office had prepared a form for circulation that appealed for men with chemistry training to join the Royal Engineers for service overseas with the offer of immediate promotion to Corporal, with pay of 2/6d a day, plus 6d Engineers pay. The forms were distributed to Universities and Technical Colleges, and were accompanied by newspapers adverts.  After reporting to their local recruiting office, fit volunteers were given a travel warrant and asked to report to the Central Recruiting Office, Scotland Yard, Whitehall, London, for enlistment where they would then be dispatched to the Royal Engineers Depot at Chatham.


For some, there was the sense of adventure, as early recruit Ernest Worth (106239 Cpl E. Worth, initially 187th Coy RE, later Sgt.“P” Coy 4th Bn. Special Brigade) admitted when interviewed years later by the IWM, others put any reservation to one side and regarded volunteering as a patriotic duty.

By August 1915, London University undergraduate student Percey Elmer Axten from Wimbledon, and science schoolmaster Charles Harold Honess, with family in Raynes Park, had made the decision to volunteer …


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