By 1918, the war in Europe had become a bloody stalemate.
In 1916 alone, battles at Verdun and the Somme each resulted in nearly one million killed and wounded.
World War I brought a modern military technology – airplanes, heavy artillery, machine guns, tanks, gas warfare, etc. Yet battles were still conducted by foot soldiers and on horseback. Casualties from a battle could number in the tens of thousands.
The Western Front
After four years of fighting, an extensive series of trenches stretched from the English Channel to Switzerland. This Western Front separated the Allied armies from the Germany and the Central powers.
The trenches provided protection for the armies of each side. But neither could advance across no-man’s land.
The Eastern Front
The Eastern Front separated Central powers and Russian troops.
In 1917 the Russian Czar Nicholas was overthrown, and late in the year another revolution led to the Soviet government of Vladimir Lenin.
In March 1918, the Soviets negotiated a peace with the Central Powers, and ended Russian participation in WWI.
America Enters the War
In April 1917, the United States entered the war against Germany. But training and transporting men and material into fighting position was slow.
For 1917 and the first half of 1918, American forces were assigned to French divisions and fought under French command.
German Advances in 1918
With the Eastern Front no longer a threat, Germany launched major offensives on the Western Front in spring 1918. They hoped to achieve victory before American forces arrived in numbers too great to overcome.
These advances posed the greatest threat to the Allies since 1914.
A.E.F. – American Expeditionary Force
General Pershing led the AEF, the American Expeditionary Force. It was his goal to create an independent American Army instead of assigning American units to fight under French divisions.
Along with the 89th Division arriving in June, many other units were arriving from the U.S. By July 1918, there were 1.2 million American troops in France, with 250,000 more arriving each month.
Pershing and French General Foch agreed that it was time for a stand-alone American Army, which would be responsible for a part of the Allied front line.
Toul Front, Lucey Sector
Finally, in early August, it was time for the 89th to move up to the front.
The 89th Division was assigned to move to the Toul Front, and to relieve the 82nd Division to hold a sector just north of Toul.
On August 6, the men began loading into a convoy of trucks and buses. Men were crowded, jammed, and packed into each truck. Convoys ran day and night.
By August 10, the relief was completed and the command of the sector passed to the 89th.
They were assigned the Lucey Sector, a section of the front line about 16 km long.
The sector itself was covered with wire entanglements, dugouts and trenches. For four years, the Germans had built multiple lines of defensive fortifications.
The 354th Infantry was assigned the west half of the line. When they made their relief on the left flank of the division sector August 7th, the front line battalions of the 354th and 355th were caught in a severe gas attack and suffered many casualties.
Ben’s 353rd Infantry was assigned the east half of this line.
On August 21st, enemy artillery shelled the members of L Company. The first and second platoons were caught in the woods. Gas sentries were on the alert, and soon detected small clouds arising slowly from places where the shells were striking. The odor of gas was present. Gas alarms sounded throughout the sector.
The next night, August 22, Ben’s Company M was in the front line near the village of Limey with L Company to the left. The Germans began a barrage of artillery, machine gun and gas equipment. Some of the platoons were caught in “No Man’s Land”.
The skirmishes continued over then next several weeks. But at higher command levels, the firsts major battle of the AEF was being planned. And the 89th Division was going to be in the thick of it.
Nibbles Extra Credit
In 1899 and again in 1907, all of the European powers had signed the Hague Declaration that forbade the use of poison weapons.
But once Germany used gas on the battlefield in 1915, all other armies began to use it.
By 1917, one third of all artillery shells contained gas. And gas caused one-third of all casualties of American soldiers.
Chlorine gas, when it contacts tissue, dissolves in water to form hydrochloric acid. Its primary target is the lung, and death usually results from inhalation injury.
Phosgene was introduced in late 1915. It was used extensively, frequently combined with chlorine.
Phosgene may not show major symptoms for up to 48 hours. It causes pulmonary failure and heart failure. Death is usually from lung failure.
The Germans introduced mustard gas in July 1917. Mustard gas caused more casualties than all the rest put together. And mustard gas was the most feared by allied troops.
Mustard gas could also penetrate skin, so gas masks weren’t complete protection.
Mustard gas is a vesicant, causing severe blistering of the skin, and attacking the respiratory tract and the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, and mouth. While most patients recovered their vision, a significant number remained permanently blind.
After gas was used in 1915, there was a flurry of activity to produce an effective yet portable gas mask.
Gas masks first used an absorbant pad treated with chemical absorbing fabric. More elaborate sorbent compounds were used to defeat other respiratory poison gases used such as phosgene, diphosgene and chloropicrin. Charcoal was found to be an effective filter.
Later versions used a separate canister worn on the belt that held the filter media.
Special masks were made for dogs and horses, as they were used on the front lines.
About all the medical services could do for chlorine and phosgene gas victims was to put patients on bed rest, and hope that severe symptoms didn’t emerge.
Mustard gas was another story. The casualty had to be stripped, and completely washed. The eyes had to be washed out completely to avoid late damage.
Although it acted more slowly, mustard also attacked the lungs, especially the lower respiratory tract, causing a refractory kind of pulmonary edema.
Psychological damage to soldiers was commonplace in WWI, including brain trauma, shell shock and PTSD.
But perhaps more than any other factor, the gas attack was most feared by soldiers. It couldn’t be seen or heard, so it must always be watched for and detected by gas sentries. And if a person didn’t have gas masks at hand, the soldier feared certain death. Unlike shrapnel or a bullet, poison gas couldn’t be treated or removed.
Even after separation from military service, many soldiers claimed the effects of gas later in their lives.
The AEF had about 1,500 deaths from poison gas, out of 52,000 battlefield deaths.
But the total number of gas injuries was estimated at 90,000 to 100,000, or 30% of all casualties.
Overall, there were 1.3 million gas casualties during the war, and about 90,000 deaths. About half of the deaths were among the Russian army, which was notably slow in providing protective gear to its soldiers.
Another Agreement in 1925
After the war, an international agreement – the 1925 Geneva Protocol – was signed, with all nations swearing never to use poison gas.
Gas was not used during World War II. But it has been used in lesser conflicts since, notably the Iran-Iraq war.
The US has maintained stocks of poison gas, but has never used them on the battlefield since World War I.
Newer poison gases, such as the organophosphate nerve agents sarin, soman, tabun, and VX, are much more potent. They cause death from pulmonary edema and respiratory failure, and are more lethal than the gases used in World War I.
And scientists today are working to make fabric coatings for uniforms that can rapidly neutralize some of the deadliest poisons – nerve agents. Read more here.
- Much of the information and photo of Mort Mare Woods – History of the 353rd Regiment, 89th Division, National Army, by Capt. Charles F. Dienst et al. – 1921
- Much of the information – Official Brief History of the 89th Division USA – 1917-1918-1919 – Maj. C.J. Masseck
- Gas Warfare information – http://www.kumc.edu/wwi/medicine/gas-in-the-great-war.html
- Photo – Soldiers with gas masks – U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center
- Photo of Edward Harrison gas mask – Smithsonian Magazine – https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/man-who-invented-first-gas-mask-180963073/
- Article – Cloth Destroys Deadly Nerve Agents – Wired – https://www.wired.com/story/this-cloth-destroys-deadly-nerve-agents/
- Photo of uniforms treated against poisons – PHOTOGRAPH: BO ZAUNDERS/GETTY IMAGES