|Second Battle of Ypres, Richard Jack.|
by Zach Neal
Ultimately heroes are not born, not made, but manufactured. I won the Military Medal at Ypres. April 22, 1915. I was one of the few left standing with a rifle in my hand when
relieved. Almost everyone else was dead, wounded, missing, gone insane, or had run away.
Can’t say as I blamed them, wish I had run myself.
I recall standing on the parapet, looking through our set of periscope binoculars.
The horror sticks in your mind forever, it’s a gift that keeps on giving. Having joined the Royal Army, and then finally transferred back into the Canadian Army, having luckily gotten into a good unit, the strange thing is that I had become somehow comfortable.
The Brits are all right, don’t get me wrong, but it was good to be back with Canadians.
We had a different outlook, there wasn’t such a great gulf, neither social nor intellectual, between officer and enlisted men. Having discovered incompetent officers in every army, ultimately, what difference does it make? A truly competent officer is a rarity.
My platoon was fortunate enough to occupy a very small rise in the earth. We were close to the French Colonial troops; when we heard yelling and looked to see what was what.
And there it was, the first gas attack in history.
A sickly, yellowish cloud, a hundred yards high, and a half a mile long, was being slowly pushed by the light breeze towards us. The Germans had waited a long time for the wind to be just right, but at first, there was only an uneasy feeling. It just seemed to spring up out of the ground over at the enemy side of the lines; long, thin streamers merging into one hellish, foul, fog.
While it was certainly far from benevolent looking, there was a little sense of dread.
But we also wondered, “What’s the big deal? Smoke is just smoke.”
Dread, fear of the unknown, a queasy, sinking feeling in the guts. A watery, gassy feeling in the guts…
Firing reached a crescendo as the rising cloud of bilious, horrid gas rolled over the French, and the Canadians on our left.
We could see the tops of heads bobbing along in a traverse behind us and off to our left.
“Where the fuck are they going?” someone asked even as the sound of shouting, screaming, yelling came to us; and more of that terrifying cloud obscured our view.
Darker now, blocking out the sky, cutting off the light. Behind us.
Confusion. Had they been ordered to retreat? What were our orders? We began to shoot into the front of the cloud as it rolled onwards, coming inexorably towards us.
A faint smell…like a public swimming pool? Household cleaner? Horrible recognition, that we are all about to die. Like a hammer in the guts. Heart pounds, out of control. A smell like really bad medicine.
The sounds of rifle and machine gun fire beside us reached a peak, then rapidly began to drop. Nowadays, just doing a little house-cleaning can bring back that day in a strange, fragmented clarity.
There was a huge, great silence to our left, as our own fire slackened…
Whoever was retreating along that trench, they were screaming in mad panic now.
A sense of dread. Hell is upon us.
Certain death looms before us, we know that now.
The man beside me dropped his rifle, the was shooting quite far away, on our left.
He got up, and tore at his straps, the nearest escape trench only five yards away.
He took off down the trench, and I stared at his back, bemused by this strange and bizarre sight. Coughing, off to the left. A half a dozen black troops, in their colourful kepi or fez hats, the bright uniforms, staggering along, clutching, tearing at their throats.
They shouldn’t have come this far into our area…were they lost? I remember that thought.
A couple of more guys got up and ran, but took their guns with them. The black men were falling down in the trench twenty yards from my position, eyes bugging out, choking, coughing, retching, and the smell was stronger. A wisp of foggy, dense vapour. The view to the left was blocked, and thank God.
In those few short seconds, I saw more than enough to last me a lifetime. A lifetime of nightmares.
I could hear our Colonel shouting something incoherent.
Don’t remember going there, but I found myself and a half a dozen other men in a field, shooting into the flank of the German advance. Huge clogs, bulky gobs of mud made it hard to run. My feet felt like lead, my heart pounded in my throat. It was hard to get enough air…fear almost overwhelmed me.
The sheer horror of the unknown.
This is when I learned that fear turns a man’s guts into a liquid.
I have no idea how I survived that day. The gas must have been thinner, for I only gagged once or twice, feeling the sharp tang in my throat. Holding my breath, I just tried to sidestep around the wispy patches as they passed around our little clump of men, busy loading and firing, loading and firing. Some guy beside me, hoarse with fear…
A man I had never seen before, but wearing my unit’s patches, falling down.
Writhing in agony, again the tearing at the throat.
The look, as he stares in my eyes, he wants me to help him, help him, and there is nothing I can do, just load and fire, load and fire. A cloud envelopes me, and I stagger out of it, eyes running with tears, nose and mouth burning…I puked up, it was all over me; I don’t think it was much gas, I think it was sheer horror, fear, the fear of breathing.
I have never known anything like it, before or since.
Cursing, quavering, quacking in sheer terror, stuttering and stammering out defiance and loathing, as my shaking hand rams another clip into place…my left arm so tired the rifle kept lowering itself against my will. Puking and crying and trying to stay upright.
Firing down into Germans…must have been another little piece of high ground, this time about twenty of us, load and fire, load and fire…the Boche scream and shout and we just ignore the pleas and keep on firing…
I have no idea of how I survived that day.
I have no idea why they gave me that fucking medal.
But I will say this: Don’t use our pain to justify your degeneracy, don’t defile our graves with your lousy posturing, and don’t use our sacrifice to back up your mealy-mouthed fucking hypocrisy.
I heard a man say once, “The press takes a photo of a burning village, and it gives ‘destroy’ a bad name…”
The press is not entirely useless, it seems.
Someone, some men led me to a rear area.They pried the gun out of my hands.
They cut my clothes from my body, led me to a field shower, and scrubbed me with rough brushes in the bitterly cold water. There was some pain as the dried shit pulled some of the hair off my legs. And then they put me on a stretcher.
Someone gave me an injection.
I was asleep in about four seconds.
I think I’d had enough, for one day.