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History of the First World War in 100 moments

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: An eye-witness account of the first gas attack

De Panne, 22 April 1915: Anthony R Hossack, of Canada’s Queen Victoria Rifles, was near the Ypres front line when the Germans unleashed a terrible new weapon: poison gas. This is his eyewitness account of the deadly effects of a monstrous military innovation

It was Thursday evening, 22 April 1915. In a meadow off the Poperinghe-Ypres road, the men of the Queen Victoria Rifles were taking their ease. We had just fought our first big action in the fight for  Hill 60. We had had a gruelling time, and had left many of our comrades on its slopes…

Now some of us were stretched out asleep on the grass…  As the sun was beginning to sink, this peaceful atmosphere was shattered by the noise of heavy shell-fire coming from the north-west…

As we gazed in the direction of the bombardment, where our line joined the French, six miles away, we could see in the failing light the flash of shrapnel with here and there the light of a rocket. But more curious than anything was a low cloud of yellow-grey smoke or vapour, and, underlying everything, a dull, confused murmuring.

Suddenly, down the road from the Yser Canal came a galloping team of horses, the riders goading on their mounts in a frenzied way; then another and another, till the road became a seething mass, with a pall of dust over all.

Plainly something terrible was happening. What was it? Officers, and staff officers, too, stood gazing at the scene, awestruck and dumbfounded; for in the northerly breeze there came a pungent, nauseating smell that tickled the throat and made our eyes smart. The horses and men were still pouring down the road, two or three men on a horse, I saw, while over the fields streamed mobs of infantry, the dusky warriors of French Africa; away went their rifles, equipment, even their tunics, that they might run the faster. One man came stumbling through our lines. An officer of ours held him up with levelled revolver.

“What’s the matter, you bloody lot of cowards?” says he. The Zouave was frothing at the mouth, his eyes started from their sockets, and he fell writhing at the officer’s feet.

“Fall in!” Ah! We expected that cry; and soon we moved across the fields in the direction of the line for about a mile. The battalion is formed into line, and we dig ourselves in. It is quite dark now and water is being brought round, and we hear how the Germans have, by the use of poison gas, driven a French army corps out of the line, creating a huge gap which the Canadians have closed pro tem…

About midnight we withdrew from our temporary trenches and marched about for the rest of the night, till at dawn we were permitted to snatch what sleep we could under a hedge. About the middle of the morning we were on the move again, to the north, and were soon swinging along through Vlamertinghe. About two miles out of that town we halted in a field… Here our company commander, Captain Flemming, addressed us. “We are,” he said, “tired and weary men who would like to rest; however, there are men more weary than we who need our help. We may not have to do much; we may have to do a great deal. Whatever happens, fight like hell. I shall at any rate.”

A few moments more, then off we go again towards that incessant bombardment, which seemed to come closer every minute.

The Scottish Borderers led the brigade, followed by the Royal West Kents, then ourselves, all with bayonets fixed, for we were told to be prepared to meet the Germans anywhere on the road.

We were now in the area of the ill-fated French Colonial Corps. Ambulances were everywhere, and the village of Brielen, through which we passed, was choked with wounded and gassed men. We were very mystified about this gas, and had no protection whatever against it.

Next morning, the adjutant, Captain Culme-Seymour, was chatting to Captain Flemming a few paces away from where I was lying, when up rushed a despatch rider and handed him a message, which he read aloud to Flemming. I caught three words: “Things are critical.”

In about five minutes the Colonel had the battalion on the move. We moved off in double file by companies, our company leading; as we did so a big shell burst in the midst of D Company, making a fearful mess. We moved on quickly, with short halts now and then. As we skirted Ypres there was a roar of swift-moving thunder and a 17-inch shell, which seemed to be falling on top of us, burst a quarter of a mile away, covering us with dirt.

It seems to be raining shrapnel. Captain Flemming falls, but struggles to his feet and waves us on with encouraging words. We double across a field, and in a few moments come on to the road again.

We found ourselves amongst a crowd of Canadians of all regiments jumbled up anyhow, and apparently fighting a desperate, rearguard action. They nearly all appeared to he wounded and were firing as hard as they could. A machine gun played down the road.

Then comes an order: “Dig in on the roadside.” We all scrambled into the ditch and started to work with entrenching tools… A detonation like thunder, and I inhale the filthy fumes of a 5.9 as I cringe against the muddy bank. The German heavies have got the road taped to an inch.

More and more of these huge shells, two of them right in our midst. Shrieks of agony and groans all round me…  The road becomes a perfect shambles. For perhaps half a minute a panic ensues, and we start to retire down the road. But not for long. Colonel Shipley stands in the centre of the road, blood streaming down his face. The gallant Flemming lies at his feet, and the adjutant, Culme-Seymour, stands in a gateway calmly lighting a cigarette.

“Steady, my lads,” says the Colonel. “Steady, the Vics. Remember the regiment.”  The panic is ended.

“This way,” says Seymour. “Follow me through this gate here.” As we dash through the gate, I catch a glimpse of our medical officer working in an empty gun-pit like a butcher in his shop. Many were the lives he saved that day.

Once through the gate we charge madly across a field of young corn. Shrapnel and machine-gun bullets are cracking and hissing everywhere. Ahead of us is a large farm, and advancing upon it… is a dense mass of German infantry.

At last we reach the farm, and we follow Culme-Seymour round to its farther side. The roar of enemy machine guns rises to a crazy shrieking, but we are past caring about them, and fall into the farm’s encircling trench. Not too soon, either, for that grey mass is only a few hundred yards off, and: “Rapid fire! Let ’em have it, boys!” And don’t we just! At last a target, and one that we cannot miss. The Germans fall in scores, and their batteries limbered up and away.

At last we have our revenge. But the enemy reform and come on again, and we allow them to come a bit nearer, which they do. We fire till our rifles are almost too hot to hold, and the few survivors of our mad quarter of an hour stagger back. The attack has failed, and we have held them.

Tomorrow: The start of the Armenian genocide

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar