American troops first faced poison gas on February 2, 1918. German artillery units used the cover of a heavy afternoon fog to lob shells filled with phosgene and diphosgene on men serving in the 1st Division of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). The attack proved ineffectual.
A single canister of mustard gas—the “king of all gasses,” according to one U.S. official—harmed a handful of soldiers four days later, but a February 26 night attack proved the real baptism by fire, as unidentified chemical agents injured or killed more than a third of the 225 members of the 1st Division in the vicinity of the action.
The U.S. Army had trained its soldiers in gas warfare. The training no doubt prevented even greater numbers of casualties. The soldiers, unfortunately, faced the usual “seasoning” period hazardous to new front-liners throughout history. Furthermore, as Thomas I. Faith explains in his new book Behind the Gas Mask: The U.S. Chemical Warfare Service in War and Peace, doughboys depended on anti-chemical equipment that, while often effective, did not invite enthusiastic use:
The Department of War had decided to purchase and issue British small-box respirators (SBRs) after it became apparent that U.S. masks could not be manufactured in time. SBRs were reliable and had a filter that lasted many hours, but the soldiers found them extremely uncomfortable. The straps that held the mask in place were reported to cause headaches. The SBR had a nose clip inside the rubber face piece that held your nostrils shut while you wore it. Breathing was accomplished through a hose with a mouthpiece that had to be held in place between your lips. Saliva tended to accumulate around it, and long periods of wear would irritate a soldier’s lips and gums.
The mask was so uncomfortable that in September 1918, officers in the [Chemical Services Section of the Army] complained that “a rumor has reached this office that a few commanding officers are compelling men to wear the SBR as punishment for minor offenses.” The CSS asked that this form of punishment end, “for it makes the men look upon the SBR as an instrument of torture, and it may thus defeat the purpose for which the SBR is intended.”
Assistant Secretary of War and Director of Munitions Benedict Crowell wrote that, in sum, “the word discomfort is a weak description of the feelings of a man wearing one of our masks for that period.” A more dangerous problem, however, was the tendency for moisture to dim, or fog, the eyepieces. “Reports from the war-front have indicated that the most serious difficulty in the modern gas mask, aside from its general discomfort, results from the moisture which collects on the eyepiece and obscures vision. In action the vision is often impaired that the soldier is compelled to lay aside his mask, or else lose efficiency as a fighter. If he chooses the former course, he can almost certainly be counted as a casualty.”