There should be beautiful flowers here.
Staring across the Ypres River, I can’t help but imagine how this area must look when there is no war on. For the past three weeks artillery, gas, aerial bombs, and field guns ravaged the banks of this, probably, once beautiful riverbank, turning a natural environment to shell-hole mud-filled pits of despair, and the soft sloping banks of the river into a no-man’s land littered with the blood soaked broken bloated bodies of the dead and dying.
The Huns are not only killing us, they’re killing Spring.
There is no life here, only death.
No hope here, only hardship
No future here, only the slow silent spread of greenish yellow clouds across a corpse strewn landscape between two masses of to be slaughtered men.
My battalion arrived yesterday, relieving what was left of a unit of French Colonials from Senegal, on this part of the line. The Hun have been attacking since late April, using a new and terrifying method of death, Gas.
When we arrived we were met by around 30 bedraggled and utterly broken colonials; all that was left alive of over 4,000, from what I heard and can see. Bloated bodies of thousands of the fallen litter the near bank of the Ypres River, where it looks like many died trying to drink water to relieve the asphyxiation caused by gas.
We were issued masks made of a sheet of cotton sewn under a coarse fabric, connected to an elastic band that wraps over the ears.
The Colonials didn’t have masks.
Are we better off than they were?
We’re crouched down in the reserve trench, about fifty yards from the front-line trench, hiding our bodies from the roving eyes of German snipers and artillery spotting planes.
Behind us lays the remnants of what was once a collection of trees. All of the branches are bare of leaves, but a few branches still remain. Besides the lice, and rats, these trees are the only life in my whole field of view.
Did the animals leave, or were they killed? Do any still live nearby? If so, how?
“Batterson, stop daydreaming and get your kit, we’re going on patrol!” Sargent Goodale barks in his high pitch.
“Yes Sargent!” I reply.
Without standing up to my full height, I slowly move my bent body toward my pack.
Just as I’m putting the straps for my pack over my right shoulder someone screams out “GAS, GAS, coming across the river!”
“MASKS ON MEN” Goodale barks again, in an even higher pitch.
I reach into the sack now strapped to my left side where we were told to put our mask, pulling it out in one smooth movement of my wrist.
Good thing I practiced!
I quickly plant the cotton against my mouth, pulling the elastic band around my left ear, then my right. Other men are fumbling with their masks, knocking helmets off, dropping the white cotton filters into the sticky mud.
Thank God I practiced!
“Everyone down, the gas will float over us” Goodale yells through his mask, the high pitch dampened because his mouth is covered in cotton and cloth.
In talking with the Colonials, I heard that the gas stayed low and filled in the trench and river between the banks.
I look up, exposing my head, to see the gas approach. Across the river now, the yellow-green cloud doesn’t seem to be moving, but rather simply expanding. Air only littered with mud, dirt, and the grime of war is consumed by the ever enlarging cloud of split pea mixed with mustard colored chemicals. The cloud of gas continues expanding up the river bank, but does not seem to get above two meters in height.
“Sargent, instead of staying low we should seek high ground!” I yell through my mask.
“Batterson, shut it and stay down, they’ll be attacking behind the gas.” His high pitch muffled even more by the tilt of his head cutting some of his airflow.
Looking around I can see the whole company laying low.
“The Colonials said that the gas stayed low, it’s doing that now, we need to get up high!” I yell again.
“Damn it Batterson, you insubordinate slime. You stay down or I’ll shoot you myself.” Sargent Goodale blurts as he fumbles to remove his sidearm from his prone body.
The whole unit lays in wait as the gas expands to where we are.
“Aaaarrrgghhh, aaaarrrgghhhh” gurgling and chocking sounds emanate from the front line trench.
The gas must be sinking into the trench.
“Rise out of the trench, come up and out, stand above the gas!” I yell at the top of my lungs.
“That’s it Batterson, one more peep out of you and it’s a bullet through the . . .” his words cut short by the approach of the gas.
I’m not getting caught in this!
Just as the cloud expands to occupy the space of my prone unit, I jump into the air. As I turn, I can make out the sound of coughing, choking, and gagging from the men of my unit, but I’m not listening or looking at anyone. Without a second thought, I run from the line toward one of the trees still visible.
If I can get up the tree I may stay above the cloud.
Scurrying as fast as my legs can pump, I approach the naked, and bullet or shell splintered, tree.
Up, quick before the cloud arrives!
My arms strain, flexing more than I’ve exerted in the past months in Army training, to launch myself up the tree faster than I ever achieved as a boy. Legs scrambling to find footing, I simply race up the trunk as if I had squirrel claws on my hands and feet.
I’ve never climbed a tree this fast before.
My life has never before depended on climbing a tree.
Below me the pea-mustard cloud envelopes the base of the trunk as it moves west toward the rear of the line.
I can no longer hear the gurgitations of the men in the front trench, but those of my battalion are nearby. What sound like muted screams, metal scabbards falling, and men moving quickly in many directions comes through the cloud, but I cannot see anything inside.
“Glad these trees are here!” some guy calls out from another tree just a few meters away.
I don’t recognize him.
“I didn’t know anyone else knew to do this.” I reply just loud enough for him to hear me.
“What do you mean, you told everyone to get up!” he retorts.
Looking harder at him, I cannot make out his name, and can only see his eyes under his helmet and behind his gas mask.
“Did anyone else get up?” I ask.
“I didn’t see anyone. Looks like it’s just the two of us.”
In the spring of 1915 the Germans began the first mass use of Chlorine Gas in warfare at the 2nd Battle of Ypres. Initially those who first experienced it did not know what to do. French Colonial troops were the first victims, losing thousands of men who attempted to wash away the gas by drinking from the Ypres River’s gas tainted waters, thus worsening their condition and bringing on a more painful death than had they simply ran away. What remained of these men were replaced on the front by British troops supplied with rudimentary, and ineffective gas masks. Those who could speak French talked to the Colonials, learning from them that the gas tended to stay low to the ground, filling shell holes and trenches. They shared this information, but it went against what commanders knew at the time about war, which was that you stay down so you don’t get shot. When the British units were gassed in May they donned their gas masks and laid low, except for a few who chose another option. Of a Battalion of over 1,000 men deployed along the River in one attack, five survived by climbing a few remaining trees. Weeks later, not even these trees remained. Over the course of the war gas masks were made much more effective through intense scientific study and experimentation, eventually being supplied for men, horses, and other animals necessary for the conduct of the war.