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.