Tag Archives: gas

1st Hampshires – The Ypres Salient, Summer 1916

The next day the Battalion went into the front line, relieving the 1st Grenadier Guards. It was very hot and the trenches in most part were dry, unusually for Flanders, which normally had a very high water table. The spell in the line was relatively quiet, with the only interruptions being Trench Mortars and mainly snipers. Enemy Machine Guns were also more active at night.

On the 28th Major Armitage of the West Yorkshire Regiment arrived to take over command. It was most unusual for an officer from outside the Regiment to be posted, especially to take command. The losses on the Somme had been so great, however, that it is likely that the usual tribal considerations had fallen by the wayside.

On 31 July the Battalion was relieved, and went back into support at Elveringhe. The time in support, and the men found time to bathe in the lake at Elveringhe Chateau. Some training was carried out, as well as providing fatigues for night work. On 4 August the Battalion went back into the line. It was still extremely hot, but the men were able to get on with work to improve their trenches.

The quiet was shattered, however, on the 8th. A warning was issued the day before that the enemy might use gas, as the wind was from the north east. Sure enough, at 10.30pm on the 8th the Germans discharged Gas. 10 minutes later a raiding party of 20 to 30 enemy was spotted, but was beaten back by rifle fire and grenades. An artillery barrage was called up, which effectively cleared no-mans land in front of the Hampshires sector.

The day afterwards Major Armitage submitted a detailed report of the incident. The numerous anti-gas devices, such as ‘gas gongs’ and klaxons, had not worked. 3 men had been killed, 14 wounded and 8 missing. 3 men were killed by gas, 37 suffering from the effects of gas, and 1 from shell shock. 1 officer had been wounded, and 1 affected by gas.

The Battalion went back into support for some much-needed rest, but D Company in particular were still feeling the effects of gas. Working under the threat of gas not only caused horrific casualties, it also seriously hampered the ability of a unit to resist attack – men wearing gas masks found breathing, moving and fighting much more difficult.

Among the dead during this period were Lance Corporal Wilfrid Cox (18, Copnor) who was killed on 4 August 1916, Private Albert Harris (29, Fratton) who was killed during the Gas attack on 8 August 1916, and Sergeant H.W. Doige who died on 10 August 1916. Cox and Harris are buried at Essex Farm Cemetery, and Doige at Lijssenthoek.

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Special Companies of the Royal Engineers inWW1

The First World War witnessed the first use of Chemical Weapons in armed conflict. Chlorine Gas was first used on the Western Front by the Germans against French units in the Ypres Salient in 1915.

Special units of the Royal Engineers were established to use chemical weapons. They were wholly a wartime innovation – prior to 1915 the British Army had no capability for using Gas. In retaliation for the use of Chlorine by the Germans at Ypres, retaliatory measures were authorised by Lord Kitchener.

The British Army first used Gas in the preliminary stages of the Battle of Loos in September 1915. Although it had a very limited effect at Loos, the decision was taken to formalise the special Engineer units. A Special Brigade was formed, containing 4 Battalions, each of four companies. These would handle gases discharged from cylinders. Four other special companies were also formed to fire gas shells from Stokes Mortars, and four special sections to use flamethrowers. The total establishment of the whole Brigade was 208 officers and 5,306 men.

So far my research has found 3 Portsmouth men who died whilst serving in the Special Brigade.

Corporal P.J. Aspinall, of the 1st Special Battalion, was killed on 26 June 1916. He is buried at Aveluy Wood Cemetery in France.

Sapper George Coster, 35 and from Landport, was killed on 24 May 1917. He is buried at Ferme-Olivier Cemetery in Belgium. He was serving with Q Special Company.

Pioneer James Cawte, 27 and from Stamshaw, was serving with C Special Company. He was killed on 8 August 1917, and is remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the missing of the Ypres Salient.

None of the men above died during any recognised Battles. Whilst their exact causes of death are unknown, it seems that they either died of illness, or were among the ongoing casualties of over 4 years of trench warfare.

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