I was snatching a few winks, curled up in the mud, when a mad clanging jerked me awake. Up and down the trench, gongs were sounding which signaled a gas attack. Your instinct is to grab your gun first, and yet you must train yourself to pull your mask from its cloth bag and put it on before anything else. Gas is silent and quick; it seeks the low ground, slithering and rolling along and then curling down over the parapet into our midst. The first time, our outfit had been ill-prepared; men fell, choking and gasping, and the horses and mules wheezed or screamed or fell to earth kicking and convulsing. Since then we had all been issued masks, even the animals. They were awkward, and hot, and foul smelling within, but better than the horrible burning and suffocating stench of the chlorine. The masks were no guarantee, however; sometimes they were ill-fitted, or shredded by shrapnel, or torn loose in the ebb and flow and close quarters of combat.
Our artillery lobbed shells into No Man's Land in an attempt to disperse some of the gas. The rest were trained beyond onto enemy trenches, as a gas attack was inevitably followed by hordes of Jerries coming across to break our lines.
The word came down that we would be going over the top; it was determined that the artillery barrage had been effective in destroying most of the enemy barricades and barbed wire, giving us a chance to overrun them rather than sit and wait.
At the signal we scrambled up and over, our own guns barking and shrapnel bursting overhead. The gas helmet was close and restrictive, like fighting with a burlap sack over your head. We were met by a moving wall of Germans, the rising sun glinting from bayonets, muffled thumps and screams, bodies falling and replaced by still more. The enemy gas masks had huge eyeholes and cannisters jutting from the front, like monstrous anteaters. As if the common sights of war were not horrifying enough.
Now that I am an old man, it seems as though dreams torture me more than ever. The blankets creep over my head and I awaken, clawing at my own face. My throat feels a little dry on a summer's day and I must call for someone to bring me cool clean water to drink. Sometimes I pour it over my head, which makes the children giggle. Never mind, I tell myself. At least you have lived long enough to hear these little ones.
I turn my blind eyes to the warmth of the sun.
*Today's fiction features the poison chlorine gas. On April 22, 1915, German forces fired over 150 tons of lethal chlorine gas at Ypres, Belgium. This was the first major gas attack by the Germans, and decimated the Allied troops.
As chlorine enters the body (by breathing, swallowing, or skin contact) it reacts with moisture and produces acids. Acids, as you probably know, are corrosive. Most deaths are caused by pulmonary edema - essentially, your lungs fill with leaking fluid and you drown internally. Some survived but suffered permanent damage to airways, skin, mucous membranes and/or eyes.
Protective masks and gear were initially fairly crude but effective; unfortunately, many times soldiers had only seconds to get the mask in place. In addition, any tear or damage to a mask from bayonet, shrapnel, or wear-and-tear made them essentially useless.
In 1925, the Geneva Protocol of 1925 banned the use of chemical weapons in war but did not outlaw their development or stockpiling.
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