The artillery had being shelling the German front line for four days, as a half-moon cast a dull light over the impending battlefield. All the preparations were finalised; wills had been written; tobacco and rum distributed to the men. The officers had received their briefing and returned to their sections, ready for the off. Men wait, as man always wait before battle, deep in their own thoughts. Captain Huffington, his Company Sergeant Major and his personal squad were sitting on the fire step, quietly smoking through cupped hands and writing letters to loved ones. CSM Price was a giant of a man and had survived in Flanders for a year now. Nobody had more experience of war than James Price and they were very glad to have him with them. When push came to shove, Charles would bow to his knowledge and delegate strategy to him. Charles worried. He was very fearful of his flamethrowers, which were a magnet for drawing enemy fire, due to their potential devastating power. He worried about the weather forecast, which was predicting a frosty, clear dawn with heavy showers in the late morning. He worried about the performance of the men, as yet untested. Then never had to crawl out to the edge of an artillery barrage before and you cannot train for such an experience. He never worried about his own ability to perform and to survive.
They were due to move out at 0300 hours and CSM Price reminded him when it was ten minutes before. The clergy were moving through the troopers, dispensing blessings and reassurance. The rum ration had been passed out and some men had augmented it with whisky. The first scouts filled out past Huffington and he wished each good fortune as they passed. They crawled out through the gaps created in the British wire for this purpose and disappeared into the mud beyond. Everyone begged, prayed and pleaded for surprise. No whistles were to sound, as silence was essential to get them into position, before the artillery lifted their sights to the German’s support trenches. Charles moved up the trench ladder and looked left and right. Men stared back at him from both directions. With a quick prayer for their salvation he hand signaled the advance. This was not the slow march across fields awash with enemy machine-gun fire, but a quiet crawl through mud and more mud to their allotted places to await the start of the shelling to lift at 04.00. The darkness of the moonless night helped them, although the German sentries were used to spraying no man’s land on an off-chance. This night they did not fire, although their sporadic flares kept the British soldiers on edge. These flares did not help the Germans to see what was forming under their noses. Huffington got his men up to their scouts undetected. The scouts had laid down tape, whose coordinates were known to the artillery brigades and were being double-checked by Royal Engineer spotters in front line positions. The silence was almost too much to bear. Soldiers wanted to smoke and, despite it being strictly banned, NCOs had to be alert to men trying to light up. The striking of a match might directly lead to the death of numerous soldiers, just another chore for the ordinary squaddie to suffer. Exactly on time, 4am arrived and the artillery changed their shelling to the system of support trenches, letting the British occupy the first trenches unopposed.
For inexperienced troopers, their own artillery barrage could be as terrifying as for the enemy. There was also the very real fear of friendly shells falling short and everyone who had survived such an event had terrible stories to recite. Instinctively, his men hugged the earth even closer, and waited for the order to charge. It took three seconds for the order to reach them. “CHARGE” was accompanied by the blast of numerous whistles, along the line in both directions. Charles rose, whistle in his mouth and revolver at the ready, urging his men forward. Thousands of soldiers rose out of the wet mud to rush the Germans. The surprise had succeeded in catching the German sentries off guard and, where the wire had been properly destroyed, the British quickly got into the trench. Charles was delighted with this initial success. He immediately fanned his men along the trench with mills bombs, to consolidate their gain. When they had barricaded both junctions with the nearest support trenches, he walked their section to see what it held. Groups of soldiers were gathered around the three dugout entrances that they had discovered. Charles knew that they were deep; about forty feet deep, and containing anything from one to two hundred men each. They would emerge to join the expected counter-attack that the German second trenches would certainly launch. Charles Huffington did not hesitate to display the character that would so influence his future. He told the men that they were in too precarious a position to handle prisoners. He explained that they had to concentrate on the imminent German counter-attack. He excused them of any responsibility for his decision to destroy the dugouts and their contents. He called for the flamethrowers.
The massacre was total. Mills bombs were thrown into each opening, followed by oil-fuelled fire. In one dugout a machine-gun opened fire, but its rat-tat could not be heard above the screams of men burning to death. Only a handful of German soldiers attempted to exit the dugouts, and they were put to the bayonet. The men were ecstatic with their work and took a cigarette break, as they assumed their defensive positions for the expected German attack. Charles was satisfied with how his men had fought and started scribbling notes in his field book, which would help form his official battle report. What Captain Charles Huffington MC had, however, completely failed to remember from the officers’ briefing that he had attended yesterday, was what was now happening back at their British trenches. The second waves of British troops were climbing out of the trench, to begin their walk to catch up with Charles’s advance party. Before they started their walk, however, they were to be given the extra security of following a British gas attack. It was even written in Charles field book. He and his charges all had gas masks, but he never ordered them to wear them until it was much too late.
All along the sector of the British attack, Royal Engineers opened the pressurised containers of chlorine, called mustard gas. It hugged the ground like a dawn fog, until the wind caught it and blew it into great off-white clouds, rising to a height of fifty feet or more. The soldiers walking through this gas had their gas-masks on and, despite the horrible discomfort, remained uninjured by the gas mist. For the advance party it could not be more different. The chlorine rolled along the ground; fill each shell hole before reach the first German trench. It rolled through the German wire, collecting at the sandbag firing step, until it had grown sufficiently dense to seep over the top, flowing down to the trench floor. It spread in three dimensions, filling each nook and cranny, slowly rising higher. Nothing creates panic in soldiers like a gas attack. Men working on moving the bodies of dead Germans onto their makeshift barricades had some protection from the gas, because they had tied handkerchiefs over their mouths because of the smell from the burnt bodies. However, no one was wearing eye protection. They started to cough severely, and had the sensation of their throats burning. They stopped what they were doing and started to gasp for breath. Their eyes burnt and they automatically closed them tightly, blinding them in the process. Charles was attracted by the commotion and knew immediately that it must be gas. He screamed, “GAS! GAS! GAS!” and swore later that he could see the gas filling the trench. He and his soldiers frantically tried to extract their masks from their bags. The first fatalities were falling down into the gas, dying from asphyxiation. “GET OUT! GET OUT NOW!” shouted Charles, pushing soldiers ahead of him. He had his mask in his hand but could not get the straps over his head. Up they went, back the route from which they had entered the trench. He turned his head to the trench again, urging them to hurry back towards their original British trenches.
He struggled for a few steps, but his eyes burnt so badly that he had to squeeze them closed. He groped forward, direction unknown. Suddenly an arm hit against his and a hand held his shoulder. He grabbed the man in turn and, still holding his gas mask to his mouth, he organised his troopers to gather around him, holding each other so as not to get lost. Some of the men had gotten their masks on correctly, and were able to see. One of them shouted that British soldiers were emerging from the gas clouds and everyone started shouting for their attention. Soon the second wave of the proposed attack were opening their canteens and giving the gas victims water to drink and wash with. Little lines of victims were formed, supported by health soldiers and started to slowly make their way back to their starting position and medical help. The resulting weakly defended British force in the first German trench was forced out by the German counter-attack and the offensive came to nothing. Charles and his line were eventually seen by medics, Charles Huffington being treated personally by the company doctor. He could not see at all by this time and was breathing very shallowly. A continuous stream of yellow-green mucus flowed from his nose and mouth and his speech was very unclear. Severe headaches reduced this group to muttering, dribbling idiots and they clearly had to be evacuated quickly, to let the firing trench be repopulated by health soldiers. The pain caused by attempting to eat or drink anything added to the inability of the medics to issue any successful treatment. With defending their lines from attack taking priority, Huffington and his men were formed into new lines of fifty men in each, with a healthy soldier injected between each group of ten. A medic was added to the front and rear of each line and they then had to slowly walk back through British IV Corp territory, until they reached the town of Vermelles. They lost five on the march, and the remaining men could add exhaustion to their miseries.
There they were divided by rank, so that Captain Huffington was found a cot indoors, in the town hall. A batman was appointed to moisten his face and neck, while a doctor bandaged his eyes tightly shut. There he lied, unable to find any comfort until the evening. The doctor returned with news that they were transporting him to the Lahore British General Hospital, in Calais.
“You are lucky, Captain Huffington,” explained the doctor. “They medical corp. is extremely interested in treating your symptoms of gas attack. If you are fortunate, they may be able to save your eyesight. Anyway, you’ll be better treated there and safer too. ” A stretcher team was standing by already to load him into the ambulance, stuffed with seven other patients and two orderlies. It was a vile journey through the night, made tolerable only by the direction of travel, away from the trenches.
to be continued