George Oswald Mitchell and the Royal Engineers Special (Gas) Companies

George Oswald Mitchell and the Royal Engineers Special (Gas) Companies at the Battle of Loos
Account written by Jeremy Mitchell about his father George Oswald Mitchell (G.O.M.) and adapted from Shrapnel and Whizzbangs – A Tommy in the Trenches 1914-18).

It describes the personal account of George at the Battle of Loos in September 1915 when the British fIrst employed gas as a weapon of war.

On Saturday, 18th September 1915, G.O.M. and his comrades in the Royal Engineers Special (gas) Companies went up long communication trenches nicknamed Gordon Alley and Border Lane to the front line in preparation for the first British gas attack, planned for a week later. This was to be a response to the first ever use of gas in warfare, by the German army at Langemark five months earlier, when they had nearly broken through the allied lines. Some of the Royal Engineers gas specialists had been recruited from university chemistry departments. Others, like G.O.M., were transferred from the infantry. In fact, G.O.M., who had been mobilised in the 1/6th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment on the day that war broke out, had already experienced intensive front line fighting in the Fleurbaix and Ypres sectors.

On their way up to the front line in the Loos sector, each of the ‘gas specials’ carried a full petrol can of solution weighing 30 lbs as well as a 56 lbs pack. A new front line had been dug, just 300 yards away from the Germans. At intervals, emplacements – disguised as fire steps – had been dug for the gas cylinders that were to feature in the attack. Each emplacement was designed to hold 12 cylinders.

Detailed organisational planning and immense human effort were involved in getting more than 5,000 of these gas cylinders, weighing some 300 tons, up to the front line. After being filled with chlorine gas at the Castner-Kellner factory at Runcorn, in Cheshire, the cylinders were shipped by boat to Boulogne. There, they were transferred to a train for the 25 mile journey to a depot at Audruick. From Audruick, the cylinders were taken up to the front line in three stages. First, they were taken by train to a railhead near Béthune, where G.O.M. and his comrades took the cylinders out of their boxes, loosened the dome caps which protected the gas valves, and then put the cylinders back in their boxes, refastening the box lids with a single screw. Next, batches of cylinders were taken in horse drawn wagons from the railhead to various local dumps positioned at intervals behind the front line. Finally, the cylinders were taken at night by parties of soldiers from the dumps to the front-line emplacements. Each full cylinder weighed at least 120 lbs – 60 lbs for the cylinder itself and 60 lbs gas – and was carried by poles or ropes slung through two carrying handles. Two men carried each six feet long cylinder up the saw tooth shaped communications trenches, taking care to keep below the parapet so that they were not seen by the enemy. They stumbled along in the dark without any light. G.O.M. was up until three in the morning for the next few nights organising his emplacement, with its twelve cylinders and other equipment. When he was able to snatch an hour or two’s sleep, it was in a trench or dugout.

Thursday, 23rd September was a long and arduous day. It started back at the chicory factory forward base at Gorre, near Béthune, with many hours spent examining and tying up the iron connecting pipes and parapet discharge pipes. In the evening, G.O.M and his friend Rob set off towards the front in a horse drawn wagon with all the cumbersome apparatus. They travelled to their forward dump through heavy thunderstorms and pouring rain. Unloading the pipes, spanners and nuts and bolts, they set off on foot with other comrades – in G.O.M.’s words ‘after the usual confusion’ – at 9 pm. Their heavily laden trek took four hours, stumbling along in the dark without any light. For G.O.M.:

It was a terrible journey. The pipes (some ten feet long) were very awkward round the traverses, and the trench itself was muddy and as the district was chalky we were all over the place. We arrived, nearly all of us in a very exhausted condition, about 1 am…

He finally got to sleep at 3 a.m.

The following morning, Friday, 24th September, was spent preparing the emplacement for the launch of the gas attack, while the rain continued. Some trenches were one or two feet deep in water. There were two engineers to each emplacement and G.O.M.’s partner was:

…Griffiths whom I knew at [Bradford] Technological College and came from the ‘Bradford Pals’ (16th West Yorkshires). After we had got everything fixed up to our mutual satisfaction, we went back to our dugout. During the course of the day, I watched the bombardment of the German front line from a very favourable position. Our heavy and field artillery were blasting their barbed wire and front line off the face of the earth. It was a fine but terrible sight, the accuracy of our fire being remarkable. This has been going on for three days! Stopped for the night in our emplacement.

Six infantry divisions were in place to attack across a front six miles wide, with a further three divisions in reserve to follow through the assault once the German lines had been broken. In the front line, there were nearly 1,500 officers and men of the RE Special Companies ready to discharge 5,500 gas cylinders and countless smoke candles. G.O.M.’s emplacement was virtually in the centre of the British line of attack, just north of the Vermelles-Hulluch road.

That night, with the artillery bombardment apparently successful and everything set for a dawn attack, indecision and uncertainty prevailed at General Haig’s headquarters. Early on, the hourly meteorological reports showed a slight bias towards a favourable wind speed and direction, but the wind speed was dropping as the night went on and the direction became variable. One of the Special Companies’ officers, J W Sewill, writing in the Special Brigade Newsletter (no 7, April 1962), said that just one hour before zero hour the wind had dropped to practically nil, with continuing drizzle making the conditions unfavourable. He telephoned Brigade Headquarters to say that conditions were so unfavourable that he would not hold himself responsible for the effect of the gas on British troops. He was given the order to carry on as planned: the gas should be turned on at 5.50 am and that the infantry should go over the top at 6.30 am.

The timetable for the crucial 40 minutes of gas and smoke discharge is set out in the written orders preserved by Colonel Ernest Gold (reproduced in Special Brigade Newsletter no 41, May 1977):

0 Start the gas and run six cylinders one after the other at full blast until all are exhausted.

0.10-0.12 Start the smoke. The smoke is to run concurrently with the gas if the gas is not exhausted by 0.12.

0.20 Start the gas again and run six cylinders one after the other at full blast until all are exhausted.

0.32-0.40 Start the smoke again. The smoke is to run concurrently with the gas if the gas is not exhausted by 0.32.

0.38 Turn all gas off punctually. Thicken up smoke with triple candles. Prepare for assault.

0.40 ASSAULT!

The simple phrases ‘start’ and ‘turn off’ the gas conceal a frenzy of activity with spanners, nuts, valves, connecting and discharge pipes, mixed in with lighting smoke candles – all carried out wearing gas helmets with limited visibility. Inevitably, there were many leakages of gas. G.O.M’s diary gives a graphic account of the first day of the Battle of Loos, as seen by a corporal in the RE Special Companies, one of those responsible for launching the British Army’s first gas attack:

The day [Saturday, 25th September, 1915] broke dull and a slight breeze was falling. The wind was blowing about a quarter left from us at about 5 mph. The South Staffordshire Regiment (7th Division) was occupying our part of the line. We received our orders and zero times fairly early on. Zero was 5.50 am. We started our performance on the minute. I got a big mouthful [of gas] with the first cylinder and then, of course, pulled my helmet down. We had only two pipes for twelve cylinders and had to change over when one was empty. The rotten apparatus they had given us was leaking all over the place and we were working in a cloud of gas. We sweated ourselves to death and only got eight cylinders off.

G.O.M.’s experience of the faulty equipment and chaotic conditions is echoed in the diary kept by R B Purves, also a member of G.O.M.’s ‘M’ company, published in the Special Brigade Newsletter (no 6, February 1962):

Leaks of chlorine came out at the joints, but after some struggle, got things going…went at it as best I could, choking, coughing, half-blinded, and feeling as if last moments had come. It’s impossible to put any of the sensations on paper; but I shall not forget it…A hail of shells, both British and German, were landing all around, and a rattle of machine guns was everywhere…our smoke helmets were practically useless.

Syd Fox of ‘C’ Company tells a similar story in his History of the Special Brigade RE.:

… in those unfortunate areas where the released gas was blown back into our own lines, the cylinders were quickly turned off, though too late to avoid gas entering portions of our front line; serious casualties were caused among the infantry assembled there, as well as among our own Companies.

After 40 minutes of this turmoil, G.O.M.’s diary records:

All gas had to be turned off at 6.28 am. At 6.30 the infantry had to go over the parapet. We finished on time. The Staffordshires [1st Bn South Staffordshire Regiment, 7th Division] went over where we were as if they were on parade, at the slope and by the right. There was very little rifle fire but it was an inspiring sight. Pretty soon the German artillery opened up. Their fire wasn’t particularly heavy, but they were sending over some heavy stuff and I had a few near squeaks.

In fact, advancing through the clouds of gas and smoke generated by G.O.M. and his colleagues in the RE Special Companies, the infantry were taking heavy losses, especially from German machine gun fire. The 1st Bn South Staffordshires, whose discipline G.O.M. had so much admired, suffered 448 casualties in the attack.

Not long after the start of the infantry assault, casualties started streaming back towards G.O.M. and his comrades. In his words:

Soon the wounded began to come back and we saw some horrible wounds and bandaged up a good number. All at once a number of men (unwounded) came back with a tale that they hadn’t been able to get through the barbed wire. My opinion was that they had ‘got the wind up’. Soon an order came ‘Every man stand to – German counter attack!’ My feelings can be imagined, but it was only a rumour! The only Germans coming over were prisoners under escort. There were a few young lads among them, but the majority looked no different in age and appearance to our lads. A goodly number looked as if they had suffered from our little effort. About 11 Griffiths and I decided to push off, as we could do no further good by staying. I was in a very exhausted condition, couldn’t breathe properly and had a deuce of a headache.

By this time, G.O.M. saw growing evidence of the number of casualties suffered in the initial assault:

Going down the communication trench and across the fields near Vermelles were streams of wounded of all descriptions, a sight I don’t want to see again but will have to I’m afraid. We were a terrible time getting down the trench owing to the wounded,

especially a badly wounded sergeant on a stretcher: a chaplain was acting as stretcher bearer. The Huns were sending over occasional shrapnel and just after we got out of the trench, over came some 5.9 inch shells. We got back. I was absolutely done when we reached the village and fell out. Griffiths went on and brought back one of our lot to give a hand with my equipment etc. We joined up just before the company moved off and then we had the deuce of a march back to the chicory factory [the Special Companies’ forward base near Béthune]. After having something to eat and drink…slept until Sunday, 26th September.

So ended, for a fortunate survivor, the first day of the Battle of Loos. However, fierce fighting continued until 28th September. The ground gained initially in the advance was soon recovered by the Germans. There were over 60,000 British dead, wounded, taken prisoner of war and missing: German casualties were probably about half this figure. Some units were virtually wiped out. For example, of the nineteen officers of 6th King’s Own Scottish Borderers, twelve were killed and the remaining seven wounded: all but one of its sergeants and corporals were cut down and over 600 privates. 70 per cent of the 2nd Bn Royal Warwickshires were mown down before they reached the enemy front line. To the north, it was the same story with the 5th Bn Cameron Highlanders: out of 800 officers and men, only two officers and 70 men were left standing. Even some of G.O.M’s comrades in the RE Special Companies were killed or wounded by shelling though they had never left their own front line. Others were gassed by their own gas cylinders.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Battle of Loos was a grisly rehearsal for the Battle of the Somme in July the following year.