Often when the casualties of the Great War of 1914-1918 are mentioned one’s first thoughts turn to the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916. Or maybe the thoughts of people with an interest in a specific regiment focus on their casualties in that, or any other, theatre of the war. For example, according to Terence Denman the casualties for 16th (Irish) Division for September 1916, including the Battles of Guillemont and Ginchy, were 643 deaths, 2851 wounded and 859 missing. For August 1917, including the Battle of Langemarck, there were 563 deaths, 2883 wounded and 779 missing. Dr Denman compiled casualty figures on a monthly basis from January 1916 when the first units of 16th (Irish) Division arrived in France until its demise in March 1918.
However, what of casualties for actions that were not “battles”? I raise this because the little known casualties for 16th (Irish) Division during two days of chlorine gas attacks, while in the front line trenches of the Loos sector at the end of April 1916, are comparable to their well known later battle losses. Denman’s figures for that month are 538 killed 1526 wounded 64 missing. The Official History (for the two days only) are 570 killed (232 from shelling, 338 from gas) 1410 wounded (488 shelling, 922 gas) but no figure for missing. There is no definitive answer to the question of how many casualties were sustained from the gas attacks, each source consulted varies from the one before, e.g. Captain J.H.M. Staniforth of 7th Leinsters, refers in his diary to evacuating 440 men killed by gas.
I have an interest in these chlorine gas attacks because a long account was written of them, shortly after they occurred, by someone I have researched, one of the Division’s padres, Fr William Doyle, SJ who was attached to 8th Royal Irish Fusiliers, 49th Infantry Brigade at that time.
This battalion was situated on the left of the 16th Divisional front line on 27th April 1916, facing Hulluch. Their brigade colleagues next to them 7th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and, especially the other centre battalion, 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers of 48th Brigade, took the brunt of the two attacks. (There were some casualties in other parts of the line, including 15th (Scottish) Division on the left).
On 27th April 1916 chlorine gas was emitted from 3,800 cylinders from the trenches of the 5th Bavarian and 5th Bavarian Reserve Regiments of the German 4th Infantry Division. The enemy penetrated the 16th (Irish) Division’s line, gaining entry to trenches, before being driven off by machine gunners; there was also bloody hand-to-hand fighting and Fr Doyle administered the last rites to a young officer fatally wounded by a bullet to the stomach.
Major General William Hickie, Officer Commanding 16th (Irish) Division, later wrote: “It is suggested that the Germans, knowing they were attacking an untried Division in not very good trenches, hoped to clear those trenches with gas and by the bombardment.”
8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers’ war diary notes on 27th April 1916 that “a dense cloud of black gas and smoke was between us and the sun and gradually spreading over our lines”, commencing at 4.45 a.m. driven by an almost imperceptible breeze from the east. Thirty-five minutes later there was a heavy bombardment on their trenches and “heavy rolls of whitish gas was seen to come from all the sap heads in front of Hulluch sub-section and the Posen crater and pass over 49 Infantry Brigade on our left”. The bombardment then lifted and under cover of the gas the Bavarians (protected by superior gas helmets) entered a section of the 8th Dublins’ trench and nearly all the Dubs there were killed or wounded. The enemy was beaten out by “the remnants of the two companies reinforced by B Company from the reserve trench and later (at dark) by A Company of 9 Dublins from Gun Trench”.
The diary notes a strong barrage from their own guns late in the afternoon and the night “passed in evacuating the wounded and burying dead, identifying where possible”. The following day there was intermittent shelling but some repairs to the trenches was possible and during the night the evacuation of the dead continued. In the early hours of 29th April, at 3.20 a.m. the gas signal was given again. There was no wind and a gas cloud settled over their trenches. Although there was no artillery bombardment or enemy advance, the 8th Dublins’ diary says “scarcely a man could survive this attack … The casualties from gas poisoning were more severe than on 27th owing presumably to the gas clouds meeting and remaining stationary and concentrated over trenches”.
The casualties recorded for 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers were 3 officers killed, 5 wounded, 3 gassed (named) plus several others (unnamed) wounded or gassed, 102 personnel were missing and total casualties for other ranks was 368, leaving a battalion strength of 578. See images from the war diary for details of casualties, listed as killed, wounded, died of wounds, gassed or missing.
7th Royal Inniskillings’ war diary says casualties were 10 out of 24 officers (2 gassed and later died, 4 gassed, 1 gassed but remained at duty, 1 wounded, 1 wounded at duty, 1 missing) and 253 out of 603 other ranks, but no details. However, the history of that battalion records 66 killed, 52 wounded, 8 missing, 137 gassed totalling 263.
Fr Doyle conducted the burial service on 1st May of many of those killed. As for the chaplain’s own battalion, 8th Royal Irish Fusiliers’ losses were 25 killed, 45 wounded and 66 gassed, including himself. Fr Doyle was one of 20 men, from a private to a major, highlighted in Lieutenant Colonel S.T. Watson’s report for performing acts of initiative and bravery.
Casualties formed one element of the flood of reports spawned by the chlorine gas attacks. All reports had one or more of the following elements: a narrative of events; how the British responded to the German attack; how the whole gamut of equipment used (ordnance, protective and preventative gear, communications) responded to the proximity of gas; what intelligence was gained from German prisoners; what lessons could be learned; recommendations and the casualties.
There were preliminary reports, reports, and recommendations of reports; reports at battalion level, yet more reports at Brigade, Division, Corps and Army levels and from the Field Ambulance Service. There were unofficial reports which were included in immediate personal accounts (such as Fr Doyle’s) and, later on, in memoirs. Amongst this plethora of reports that mushroomed like the gas clouds there was some suggestion that, whilst the Irishmen had undoubtedly conducted themselves in a courageous manner, it was their lack of discipline which led to such horrendous casualties e.g. lack of gas drills. After the war this viewpoint was driven by other political factors, but at the time it provided a focus away from any possible defects in equipment, particularly the gas helmets.
Lieutenant A. Bowen of the Royal Army Medical Corps attached to 16th Division concluded on 1st May 1916 that there was a: “want of drill in the use of the gas helmet and not to any defect in the helmet.” On the other hand 8th Royal Irish Fusiliers, Lieutenant Colonel Watson, reported:
“When gas was detected helmets were adjusted with promptitude and all men rearmed. This action prevented any casualties occurring from gas with the exception of a few men who, subsequent to the attack, drank tainted water.”
Lt Bowen asserts that: “Some men stated they never had a gas helmet on before… One officer was reported to have been seen walking about with his helmet pulled on and no attempt made at tucking it in.” However, he also stated: ”Another officer reported that he put on the ‘P.H.’ helmet and being alarmed at the choking sensation changed it for his old helmet, which he stated was perfectly efficient. Several men stated on pulling on their helmets, they were alarmed by the sensation of choking and pulled them off again.” On the other hand: ”One man admitted to No.112 Field Ambulance, suffering from Grenade Wounds, received subsequent to the gas attacks, was [sic] through both gas attacks and was in no way affected, only one helmet being used by him, which is apparently still quite effective.”
There were incidents of men who either didn’t get their helmets on in time or took them off too early. Men emerged from mines to find a gas attack in progress; men in forward saps and listening posts, or men caught in latrines, who could not get their helmets on in a timely manner. Lieutenant General L.E. Kiggell, Chief of the General Staff, First Army, in his report on the first gas attack on 27th April, noted the ruse played by the enemy in first delivering an innocuous, mostly smoke cloud, ahead of a very strong gas cloud, by which time a few men had been fooled into taking their helmets off. Fr Doyle initially mistook the beginning of the first gas attack as being shell smoke and he later misjudged discarding his helmet prematurely because he felt hindered by the helmet.
Fr Doyle had struggled in assisting a gassed officer, who had his helmet on (see below) but was trying to tear it off because he was choking. Perhaps he was one of those officers who had tried to assist his men before getting his own helmet on first. This phenomenon was noted in several reports, along with the fact that some officers removed helmets in order to deliver orders to their men. 49th Infantry Brigade, Major Rudkin, said “It is feared the lives of Officers and N.C.O.’s were lost owing to the fact that they moved along the trenches giving instructions to the men during the gas attack, and in doing so removed the tube from the mouth. The necessity for no talking during a gas attack should be impressed on all ranks and also for as little movement as possible”.
Several official reports conceded that there were issues with gas helmets such as: “a prickling irritating sensation is to be expected in the eyes, nose and throat” thus: “causing a man’s field of vision to be very limited and his hearing to be dulled” and: “the difficulty of seeing owing to gas helmets and goggles becoming blurred with moisture.” Therefore, some men had no choice when it came to properly executing their duties; for example the men of Machine Gun 9 were slightly gassed owing to removing their goggles in order to remedy stoppages when the gun over-heated. They had no other option in view of the fact that three of their fellow Machine Gun teams had been killed, and their guns knocked out.
Quite evidently there were inconsistencies in the performance of P.H. helmet then in use i.e. a flannel hood, impregnated with anti-gas chemicals Sodium-Phenate and Hexamethalyne-Tetramine, with two round glass eye pieces, a flat breathing tube to go in the mouth, connected to a rubber valve on the outside of the helmet. The bottom of the helmet had to be tucked in the top of the tunic for the helmet to be effective, with the wearer breathing in through the fabric and out through the mouth via the tube. This crude, clumsy arrangement demanded practice, but use of the helmet during practice, as well as waiting for and during a gas attack, diminished the level of protective chemical. The satchel in which the helmet was kept was designed to keep the helmet lubricated by the protective chemicals. There was a fine balancing act to be achieved between being prepared quickly enough for an attack and being prepared for an attack with a helmet that was not compromised. However, Major General O.H.D. Nicholson of the General Staff, First Army complained: “The helmet was not put on quickly enough. This was probably the result of the helmets being carried in the satchels, instead of being rolled up on the head”. 48th Infantry Brigade reported gas helmets being too dry and four authentic cases of men gassed dead with their helmets on after the attack of the 29th April.
Whilst there were variations in the performance of the gas helmets, the one other simple reason for the high number of casualties for 16th (Irish) Division is where troops were located in relation to the release of a high concentration of gas from cylinders. First Army reports were adamant that the P.H. helmets functioned properly when used correctly. This initially seems to be borne out years later in the history of The Special Gas Brigade, which states that the helmets “gave absolute protection against much higher concentrations of gas than could be experienced from a gas cloud, provided that they were in good condition and properly adjusted in time.” Curiously, however, the words ‘absolute protection’ later gave way to noting that none of the P, P.H. or P.H.G. helmets were “as efficient as the box respirator which was introduced later”.
Conclusions drawn post war by an official Historian of the Great War, Brigadier General Sir James E. Edmonds about the issue of alleged bad gas discipline at Loos were “All units practised gas alerts daily… The gas alert, for which everyone was ready, was given … It was light when the gas clouds were released, and the men of the 16th Division had full warning and were ready – not a dead man was found without his helmet properly on – yet the gas casualties were somewhat heavy. Although it was not admitted at the time, and the casualties were unjustly attributed to the bad gas discipline of the 16th Division, the helmet was obviously insufficient protection against the strong concentration of gas which the enemy was able to produce, the heaviest incidence of casualties and the highest mortality occurring at those parts of the front line nearest to the enemy’s trenches. The manufacture of the gas respirators, therefore, was pushed on with all speed”.
Unfortunately, inflammatory statements post-war, along the lines of “wild Irishmen” completely losing their heads and severe casualties due to the “Irish temperament”, had already been made by former personnel of 12th and 15th Divisions and I Corps. Nevertheless, at the time, the Commander-in-Chief of British forces, General Sir Douglas Haig, visited the 16th (Irish) Division on Friday 5th May 1916 and observed that the gas attacks: “seem to have been the most severe which we have yet encountered. The Irishmen did very well.”
The report of 49th Infantry Brigade gives a picture of German losses after the first attack. Over one hundred fresh German bodies were counted in No-Man’s-Land between the Kink and Smith’s Crater, some of which were lying in, or near, British barbed wire, but the majority were lying about mid-way between the opposing lines.
It was asserted that the enemy must have suffered severely from artillery fire aimed into their trenches and from gas blowing back. About forty or fifty large German motor ambulances were seen to come up rapidly to Bois Benifontaine in the afternoon and, after a short time, go slowly away. The 15th Division’s history notes “In connection with this attack on the part of the enemy, it is interesting to note that in October 1918, at the commencement of the ‘Advance to Victory’ an officer of the 15th Division saw, in the German cemetery at Pont-a-Vendin, [approximately three miles from Hulluch] the graves of 400 Germans killed on April 27 and 29, 1916, ‘gassed with their own gas’.”
Finally, a quote from Fr Doyle’s account in his letter to his father dated May 1916:
“As I made my way slowly up the trench, feeling altogether ‘a poor thing,’ I stumbled across a young officer who had been badly gassed. He had got his helmet on but was coughing and choking in a terrible way. ‘For God’s sake’ he cried ‘help me to tear off this helmet – I can’t breathe, I’m dying.’ I saw if I left him the end would not be far, so catching hold of him I half carried, half dragged him up the trench to the medical aid post. I shall never forget that 10 minutes, it seemed hours. I seemed to have lost all my strength: struggling with him to prevent him killing himself by tearing off his helmet made me forget almost how to breathe through mine. I was almost stifled though safe from gas, while the perspiration simply poured from my forehead. I could do nothing but pray for help, and set my teeth, for if I once let go he was a dead man. Thank God we both at last got to the aid post and I had the happiness of seeing him in the evening out of danger, though naturally still weak.”
Sources: Denman, Terence Ireland’s Unknown Soldiers, Irish Academic Press, 1992; Edmonds, Brigadier-General Sir James E., History of the Great War, Military Operations, France and Belgium 1916, MacMillan and Co. Ltd., 1932; Staniforth, J.H.M., private papers, IWM reference 14337; Cooper-Walker, G.A., The Book of The Seventh Service Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Brindley & Son, Printers, Dublin, 1920; Foulkes, Major-General C.H. ‘Gas!’ The Story of the Special Brigade, William Blackwood & Sons Ltd, 1934; Stewart, Lieutenant-Colonel J, D.S.O., and Buchan, John, The Fifteenth (Scottish) Division 1914-1919, William Blackwood and Sons, 1926.
Letter dated 3rd May 1916 from Fr William Doyle, SJ to his father Hugh, in descendants’ family archive.
WO 158/269 various First Army Reports concerning gas attacks at Hulluch, 5th May 1916; WO 256/10 Sir Douglas Haig diaries; WO 95/1978 8th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers War Diary including 16th Division Report No. D.S. 1182, Major General William Hickie; WO 95/1976 49th Infantry Brigade War Diary; WO 95/1977 7th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers War Diary; WO/1974 8th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers War Diary.