September 1916

Ypres Salient

Flanders, Belgium.

G-A-S, that terrifying three-letter word, feared and hated by every front line soldier in the Great War, was being pounded out in Morse code: _ _. ._…; _ _ . ._…; _ _. ._ … over the telegraph key at Advance Battalion Headquarters, and the urgent alarm was coming through the headpiece of my D Mark III telephone…

Was this dreaded G-A-S alarm real, or was I dreaming? Was I in a trance, frozen by fear, or was I really alive and hearing the repeated ticking-out of the letters _ _. ._ … coming over my wire? Yes, it was coming in with unmistakable clarity - and I knew it only too well! I believed I was awake, because I could hear the familiar voices of my buddies outside my dugout, standing alert on the firestep manning the parapet. The staccato dot-and-dash letters, G-A-S, beat a macabre dance tune on my ear-drums. I seemed unable to arouse myself from a gripping lethargy. I could not come to my senses; my mind refused to function; and my cramped, cold body was powerless to respond.

In my near delirium I could see line upon line of haggard, terrified men falling like unripe grain before a monstrous green scythe wielded by cruel, invisible hands. Before the engulfing gas clouds, mouths frothing and gurgling and bodies writhing in pain - all because Signaller Wheeler "B" Company had failed them in that moment between life and death.

Was it my subconscious mind conjuring up those unforgettable days, 22-24 April 1915, that opened the Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge, in this same Ypres area? On the first day, the valves of more than 5,000 cylinders, containing 160 tons of chlorine gas, had been opened by the Germans, sending greenish clouds of poison gas across No Man's Land to burn, suffocate, torture and incinerate alive hundreds of French Colonials (the 45th Algerians) and our men of the 1st Canadian Division (3rd Brigade) in front of St. Julien.

Victor W. Wheeler, The 50th Battalion in No Man's Land (Calgary: Alberta Historical Resources Foundation, 1980), pp. 11-12.