Witley, May 26, 1917

Saturday          Weather is great, heard today about 5 of the old lads being gassed I think we can consider ourselves lucky for still being here am well

News like this brings a different perspective to men of the Fifth Division. They are “fed up,” though the life is pleasant enough with sports and entertainments (1).  Impatience begins to appear in Archie Wills’s diary: “It’s some war,” he says, writing of food restrictions (2). And yesterday, at the end of a day spent whitewashing huts, repairing windows, digging up weeds, and cleaning harness, he had to trade in his blankets “for some dirty old rags.”  His assessment? “This is a hell of a war.” (3)

The real hell of the war is casting its shadow over Percy today.  Some of the men from Percy’s old 48th Battery have been gassed.  Maybe Witley is not such a bad billet after all.

sargent gassed.jpg

Humour is one of the ways the soldiers deal with it all. To be gassed, they say, is to be “overcome from the fumes of German poison gas, or the hot air of a comrade.” (4)

(1) Ives, Raymond Ellsworth. Memoir (manuscript). Available from the Canadian Letters and Images Project.
(2) Wills, Archie. Diary. 4: 63. May 23, 1917. Archie Wills Fonds, University of Victoria Archives. Copyright 2007, University of Victoria.
(3) Wills. Diary. 4: 66. May 25, 1917.
(4) Empey, Arthur Guy. Over the Top by an American Soldier who Went. 1918. 293.

The painting (IWM ART 1460), by John Singer Sargent, shows soldiers being led toward a dressing station (its guy ropes are on the right of the painting) after being affected by mustard gas. Mustard gas is still four months away from being introduced to the battlefield, so its particular horrors are still unknown.

Copyright 2017. See “More about this project.”

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