Words, weapons, and WWI No.3: Gas! Gas!

gas warfare
Gas Warfare in WW1. Attack photgraphed from the air. Imperial War Museum. Copyright Free Access – Rights Reservedhttp://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205288286

In the Words in War-Time archive, gas is yet another word for which linguistic productivity – and the potential for wide-ranging physical assault – would disturbingly unite in 1914-15. Written before war began, the relevant entry in the OED had documented modern uses in which gas was used to light domestic space and gas-engineers were ‘engaged in the making of gas, or in regulating its supply’ — ‘especially in theatres’, the Dictionary added. It tracked, too, industrial, as well as medical and scientific applications. The diction of war and conflict was, however, absent. The familiarity attested by Wilfred Owen’s ‘Gas! Gas!’ (in his ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ of 1917), and the salience of gas as a weapon of attack, remained unknown. Only in 1933 was the entry changed and the Dictionary brought firmly up to date. ‘First used in the war of 1914-18 by Germany on April 22, 1915’, the 1933 Supplement states with striking specificity; gas, it confirmed, now signified asphyxiating gas and poison gas. A range of collocations – gas shells, gas mask, gas bomb (among others) – all attest to the legacies of a changing langscape of war.
The Words in War-Time archive offers its own narrative of this transition from innocence to the realities (and diction) which came to accompany this particular facet of ‘modern war’. If anxieties were expressed about gas and the effects of war in August 1914, these could, for example, centre on an envisaged disruption in the supply of gas mantles (another form which, as the archive confirms, was as yet unrecorded in the OED). As a headline in the Evening News announced on 8th Sept 1914, ‘A famine of gas mantles is threatened’:

Mr. J. Thacker stated that one could hardly prophecy what would happen next .. Seventy-five per cent of mantles were imported from Germany

Nevertheless, language can also offer interesting correctives to the image of gas in WWI as a defining aspect of German frightfulnessper se. The use of asphyxiation of a method of attack – here, however, as deployed by Allies against Germans — was, for instance, part of popular comment in August and September 1914. ‘The war is beginning to give birth to legends, as all wars do’, an extract from the Star explains: ‘One of these is the Turpin Powder, which is supposed to asphyxiate the Germans by companies and battalions’. Turpin powder, or turpinite, was an explosive charge (and another eponym, deriving from the name of its French inventor); it released a strong odour on use and was, as such, easily mistaken for gas. If asphyxiation in this context indeed proved part of ‘myth’ rather than reality, one might note the equanimity with which warfare of this kind is contemplated, at least when directed at the enemy. The Star is by no means a lone voice in this respect.
More typical, at least in terms of prototypical readings of gas as weapon in WW1, are the cluster of usages which instead appear in the wake of the first gas attack when over 150 tons of chlorine was released against French, British and Canadian forces at Ypres in April 1915. Gas as modifier in the archive assumes a striking productivity. New compound nouns such as gas offensive, gas attack, and gas-cloud, all of which appear in late April/ early May 1915, confirm its assimilation into the strategic diction of conflict. Other patterns of modification – poison gas, asphyxiating gas — draw attention to its intended effects, and the inhumanity (and malevolence) that this revealed.
As the archive attests, forms on this model were widely used as adjectives as well as nouns; see e.g. poison gas action, poison gas advance, poison gas shells, poison gas bombs, poison gas atrocity, all of which appear in in May 1915. Gas, as in the Daily Express on 17th May 1915, was comprehensively redefined. It is, the article states, ‘a new form of murder which has been siezed by the enemy as a last resort’. Attack of this form is ‘worthy of the new Apostles of Kultur and its concomitant frightfulness’, the Scotsman elaborates on June 1st 1915, here in an article headed ‘The German Gas Poison’. Terms such as gassed – frequently used as a passive adjective – conversely stress the Allies’ role as victims rather than perpetrators. “Two of the “gassed” victims I saw to-day were almost fit again, and were able to relate what they remembered of their experiences’, a report in the Scotsman on May 2nd 1915 explains.

Some poor fellows who were badly “gassed,” … were found dead almost bare to their waists, with their shirts in shreds, with their struggles in the death agony of suffocation (Scotsman, 15th May 1915)

If gassed had existed in pre-war circumstances, inverted commas — as in the examples above– carefully signal the departures which recent usage brought. Being gassed in pre-war days was ‘To be poisoned by a gas’; illustrative quotations in the OED entry of 1898 were drawn from industry and manufacture, from accident and inadvertance. Yet, as the Words in War-Time archive confirms, a second sense was required by 1915 – one which was distinctively linked to the circumstances of war, and the deliberate rather than untoward effects which could result. ‘To be subjected to a gas attack’, a later revision of this entry adds. New blends such as gasphyxiation (used in the Echo on April 18th 1915) present, in this light, a striking conjunction of cause and effect. Gassing as another new form is equally worthy of comment, being poised between agency and accountability as in the gassing outrage described in the Scotsman in June 1915 alongside gassing trick and gassing process (all of which describe the enemy in profoundly negative terms), and gassing as experiential process, with the horror and pathos which this evokes when seen from the other side:

‘Those who have witnessed actual cases of “gassing” are unable to express in words the resentment and indignation they feel at all practices contrary to civilised law” (Scotsman, May 17th 1915).

As in a range of other instances across the war, language could, as here, be deemed an all too inadequate vehicle for representation, and the narration of on-going events. Writing war in early summer in 1915 could present unforeseen challenges, for which words (and meaning) might – like war itself – have to be wrenched out of their habitual configurations. Words, of course, can nevertheless play an equally tactical role in this respect, strengthening resistance as well as preparing the ideological ground for similar retaliatory attacks on the part of the Alllies. As in an article in the Scotsman in May 1915, images of suffering are juxtaposed with the logic of revenge: ‘Brave fellows’ arrive at an ambulance station at the Front, with ‘heaving chests and choking throats’ after suffering an attack of this kind. ‘It is a sad picture’, the article states:

‘it makes one hope that the enemy will shortly experience the effects of the deadly gas they themselves invented’.

The stage is set for another phase in modern war, though – as later posts will explore – the play of meaning can be rather different once gas is in Allied hands and directed at what is widely depicted as an all too deserving enemy.


3 thoughts on “Words, weapons, and WWI No.3: Gas! Gas!

  1. A couple of quick comments

    Interesting that you mention Owen, Stuart Lee of this parish has now made a convincing case that at the time of writing ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ Owen had not personally experienced a gas attack. That perhaps should have been obvious, the poem clearly describes an attack with chlorine, but by the time Owen arrived at the front the Germans had stopped using chlorine gas in favour of phosgene. There is no gas attack on Owen’s battalion of the Manchester’s during his first tour. So this either is based on Owen’s conversation with those who had served earlier or is imagined on the basis of press reporting.

    I think the gas mantles mentioned in 1914 were probably for gun crews in battleship turrets.


    • Owen refers to this as his ‘gas poem’ and its the imaginative (re)creation which is probably of most interest. Just as Shakesreare doesn’t have to be a mass murderer to explore the nature of death, so Owen can — convincingly — explore the experiential realities of gas as weapon. Many of the details he uses were widely available in press accounts of death by gassing in 1915 — see the next post!


      • Entirely agree – Owen does present an extraordinary imaginative (and convincing) artistic response to a gas attack based on what he has read or heard.
        But that is very different from the way the poem is usually understood. No one has ever believed that Shakespeare suffocated his wife with a pillow or initially seduced her in the presence of her ex-father in laws dead body, whereas I suspect until recently no one had ever doubted that Owen had experienced a gas attack himself. Would the poem be on the school syllabus if it had been written by a civilian? Of course other elements of the poem are probably drawn from experience.


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