Gas-fighting: from gasphyxiation to gaspirators

gas attack on western front
A German Gas Attack on the Western Front, photographed from the air. Imperial War Museum. Rights © IWM (Q 12286). Copyright Free Access – Rights Reserved.http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205247812;#sthash.t4RMRguA.dpuf

Gas-fighting was another new form which appeared in the wake of events in April 1915 when over 150 tons of chlorine was released by German troops at Ypres. Over  the spring and summer of 1915, language would, in turn, neatly construct what we now term chemical warfare into both offensive and defensive processes.These were aligned with equal neatness onto enemy and ally, perpetrators and victims. Only in September 1915, at the Battle of Loos, would the British appropriate gas-fighting as an offensive strategy (at which point, as we will see, the diction of gas, gas war, and gas-fighting would all shift in interesting ways).

Between April and June 1915, a range of new-forged compounds in the Words in War-Time archive such as gas-poisoners (used in the Scotsman in May 1915) and poison-dervishes (located in the Echo in April 1915) firmly draw attention to German agency, and the barbarism and immorality which this, by implication, involved. Dervish, seen from modern perspectives, offers a particularly loaded model of civilisation and otherness while collocations such as scientific savagery, scientific murder, and scientific torture confirm the departures at stake in rendering chlorine, documented  by Humphry Davy in 1809, into a lethal weapon. Here, too, meaning came to change under pressures of war. The OED‘s original entry for chlorine restricted comment to its chemical properties, rather than commenting on chlorine gas as lexical compound and its military use in WW1.

Neologisms such as gasphyxiation — a portmanteau word used in describing German soldiers near Dixmude –  can likewise present chilling images of deliberation and intent. Portmanteaux of this kind originate in the markedly innocuous environment of Through the Looking Glass, written by Lewis Carroll in 1871. Referring to his own coinage of slithy as a synthesis of  ‘‘lithe and slimy’, Carroll explained that “it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word’. Meaning hinges, in effect, on a form of visual metaphor, deriving from the physical portmanteau as a hinged leather bag or case which opens into two equal parts. For portmanteau words, if each half of the lexical ‘case’ is occupied by a different form, these meld once the ‘case’ in closed. In gasphyxiation, gas and asphyxiation hence provide the component halves, dividing cause and effect until the ‘portmanteau’ closes — at which point weapon and its lethal effects merge. Air-hunger, anther coinage unrecorded in the OED, could, as the Words in War-Time archive records, be used in evoking the fundamental deprivation which warfare on this level brings.

If soldiers in air-hunger die of a famine of breath, other images of being gassed are far more graphic. As the archive often illustrates, gas-fighting can be rendered offensive in more ways than one.Those who become gas cases, in another new locution of the war, can, for example, be made a focal point for a new imaging of atrocity (and, by extension, its own propagandist value). “There is no chance of doing more there than to …give some of the gas cases ammonia and brandy”, as an article headed “With our Army in Flanders. The Effect of Gas Poisons”  stated in the Scotsman in June 1915:

The intensity of the pain robs a man of all ability to do anything but suffer. Past and future are alike blotted out in the surge of fiery agony which eats at every second deeper and deeper into the heart and lungs.  At every step of his bearers there seems to be born within him some new stab of burning pain

While death on active service is, across the war, habitually obscured by abstractions such as wastage and attrition, or  euphemisms  by which gaps in the line are readjusted or puttied up, gas-fighting can, as here, prompt a very different approach. ‘THE CORPSE OF YPRES. GRAPHIC PICTURE OF THE RUINED TOWN. KILLED BY THE HUNS. HOW THE POISON GAS VICTIMS DIE’, announces the headline of an article by Percival Phillips in the Daily Express in May 1915. ‘SUFFERINGS OF GAS VICTIMS. TERRIBLE SCENES IN HOSPITALS’ appears as a similar heading on 7 May 1915. Authenticating devices such as the ‘Letter from the Front’ (and the direct testimony of those who act as witnesses to war) assume particular value. Words are often wrenched out their habitual associations, while description is brutally vivid:

There is practically nothing to be done for them except to give them salt and water to try and make them sick. The effect the gas has is to fill the lungs with a watery, frothy matter which gradually increases and rises until it fills up the whole lungs and come up to the mouth; then they die; it is suffocation; slow drowning taking in some cases one or two days (Daily Express, 7 May 1915)

In order to demonstrate to me clearly the exact effect of the vapour on the lungs, the doctor showed me lungs which had been removed from one of the victims. The whole organ was soddened, and weighed about four times its normal weight’

Definitions of drown in OED1 (and OED2) stress the salience of immersion; one must be ‘submerged’ or ‘under water (or some other liquid)’. Drowning is ‘perishing from suffocation in water’ or ‘suffocating or destroying by submersion in water’. Drowning in descriptions of the gas attacks in WW1 conversely takes place on dry land; it is an internal phenomenon, a drowning by degrees within the lungs in reaction to chlorine, presenting a peculiar horror through such transgressive and unnatural shifts of sense.

Gas-fighting as deployed by the British was, of course, entirely defensive at this point. While, as indicated above, this plays its own role in the polarisation of victims and perpetrators, defensive fighting (and resistance) would, of necessity, exhibit its own patterns of lexical (and semantic) productivity. ‘A Walk down Regent Street’,  described in an extract from the Daily Express on June 9th 1915, brought one face to face with an exhibition in Harrods’s windows in which the (highly alliterative) ‘military mica medicated mask’ for gas-fighting was prominently displayed. Advertisements for respirator gas pads likewise swiftly appeared in April 1915. These were yet other commodities which friends and family were urged to send to the Front. ‘Various firms [are] very prompt to turn incident to account’, as Andrew Clark noted against one such advertisement in the archive, here from the London firm of A. W. Gamage,  ‘SAVE OUR BOYS AT THE FRONT FROM THE DEADLY EFFECTS OF THE ENEMY’S LATEST WEAPON’, the heading announced in late April 1915.. As Gamages added in a moment of transparent self-praise:

we have once more demonstrated our readiness to grasp the situation of the moment, and in response to the latest appeal of the WAR OFFICE have already had made some thousands of RESPIRATOR GAS PADS.

Presented as a dutiful response to national need, a calculated exploitation of fear — and the heightened sense of vulnerability which results — is equally in evidence. ‘it is in your power to prevent others becoming victims’, the emboldened text makes plain: ‘According to medical evidence many men have already lost their lives by inhaling the fumes of the poisonous gases now being used by the Germans’. Readers were urged to send orders in as soon as possible.

Gas pads and respirator gas pads could, as a result, become new locutions of modern war in WW1. If still absent form the OED, they are carefully documented in the archive as part of the ephemera of Words in War-Time – constituting  a topical response to a highly topical issue. As war advanced, gas masks, gas goggles, gas helmets, hypo hoodsrespirators, and gaspirators  — the latter as a further portmanteau in which gas and respirator (and the continued ability to breathe) neatly  counter the kind of  gasphyxiation intended by the enemy — were all to beocme part of the wide-ranigng diction of defensive warfare.

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2 thoughts on “Gas-fighting: from gasphyxiation to gaspirators

  1. ‘Poison dervishes’ and ‘scientific savagery’ are particularly interesting in the context of a war of words about civilized values. German propagandists attacked the use of Indian troops by the British and African troops by the French as a war crime on the grounds that barbarous people would be unable to obey the rules of war. To which Entente writers responded by pointing to the still greater ‘scientific’ barbarism of the Germans. To quote G.Valentine Williams writing in the Daily Mail, ‘His methods of warfare do not bear comparison with those of a savage but high minded people such as the Zulus…It is the cold blooded employment of modern science, asphyxiating bombs, incendiary discs and the like’ (cited in Gregory, Last Great War, p.60)

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