June 15th 1915

JBS Haldane

Lieut. JBS Haldane (Black Watch)

If anyone could be said to be enjoying the war, it is Jack Haldane. For him, life in the trenches is apparently “an enjoyable experience.”

Having joined the Black Watch, he has discovered the joys of bomb-throwing. His detachment have been allowed to roam along the line, firing off trench mortars and experimental devices at will. Such visits are not always popular with those around them at the time, as Charlie Childe, now a lieutenant in the Gloucestershire Regiment, told me.

“These trench mortar people are a little tribe of pariahs, who stalk up and down other people’s trenches, drink their whiskey, and make themselves quite pleasant. Meanwhile their satellites stealthily fire the beastly things, knock in some Hun dug-outs, put out a few of their cook-houses (you can see the smoke coming out of their trenches here and there), and thoroughly annoy the Hun over his lunch – a most ungentlemanly thing to do. Fritz then urgently telephones to his gunners, and the creators of all the fuss have meanwhile gone away somewhere else.”

Jack’s previous experiences helping his father, John Scott Haldane, understand the dangers of gases in mines, have turned out to be of particular help to our war effort.

When on April 22nd 1915, the Germans released a gas attack allied troops at Ypres, it was not surprising that Lord Kitchener should turn to the good Dr. for advice. JS Haldane went straight over to France to investigate the situation personally, returning with the lung of one of the dead to investigate in the laboratory at his home, ‘Cherwell’. It was imperative to confirm the exact nature of the gas and develop an effective respirator as soon as possible. Here, aided by a long-standing family friend, Aldous Huxley, taking notes for him, he carried out numerous tests on the effects of chlorine gas on himself and other volunteers.

Last month JS Haldane was back in France, where he set up a laboratory in St Omer. Jack was summoned from his bombing duties to assist him. The Professor could think of no-one better than his son to have in his gas chamber, reporting on the effects of the gas he was inhaling.

“We had to compare the effects on ourselves of various quantities, with and without respirators. It stung the eyes and produced a tendency to gasp and cough when breathed. For this reason trained physiologists had to be employed.”

But why did it have to be him in the gas chamber? Jack continued:

“An ordinary soldier would probably restrain his tendency to gasp, cough and throw himself about if he were working a machine-gun in battle, but could not do so in a laboratory experiment with nothing to take his mind off his own feelings. An experienced physiologist has more self-control.

It was also necessary to see if one could run or work hard in the respirators, so we had a wheel of some kind to turn by hand in the gas chamber, not to mention doing 50 yard sprints in respirators outside. As each of us got sufficiently affected by gas to render his lungs duly irritable, another would take his place. None of us was much the worse for the gas, or in any real danger, as we knew where to stop, but some had to go to bed for a few days, and I was very short of breath and incapable of running for a month or so.”

Jack, on learning that his troops were about to go into an attack, returned to the trenches. Here he suffered wounds from shell fire and found himself being given a lift by the Prince of Wales to the Casualty Clearing Station. “Oh, it’s you.” The Prince is reputed to have said. They had met in Oxford before the war, where one of the Prince’s tutors was another OPS Old Boy– Lionel Smith.

Jack’s wounds were “blighty” ones and he is now back here in Oxford at ‘Cherwell’, recovering from an operation to remove a shell splinter.

The sounds of our old colleague Blair Watson, firing off blanks from his revolver on the school fields for the boys benefit, were resoundingly defeated by Jack exploding German bombs along the road at Cherwell.  He is clearly on the mend!

Indeed, together with his sister (Naomi) he is now going to set this term’s General Paper, to be undertaken shortly by our 5th and 6th forms.

June 3rd 1915

Lieut. Treffry Thompson (RAMC), having been looking after the wounded in the Ypres ‘horseshoe’ with the 18th Hussars, has now himself been wounded, although thankfully not seriously. The circumstances of his injury are most distressing however, and he was extremely lucky not to have been killed.

24/5/15. “At 2 .30 a.m. we were awakened by one of the subalterns who was blue and coughing madly, dashing into Teffrey Thompsonthe cellar shouting ‘Gas! Gas!’ We nipped up and shoved on our respirators and put on our kit. The captain of one of the squadrons came down with his respirator on, looking very bad and said the men were retiring. The colonel immediately sent a telephone message along the trenches to say that they were not to retire, with what result I do not know.

We all went outside and immediately got our first impressions of gas; even through the respirator there was a sense of fearful choking suffocation…

The gas was awful and gave one a feeling of absolute terror and helplessness. We went outside the chateau ruins and, just as I got beyond the wall, there was a loud crash just in front of me and I thought my arm had gone and had to look down to see that it was still there.

The whole place was a hell of shrapnel and rifle and machine-gun fire. I got in a blue funk and bolted, still however holding on to my mackintosh with my left hand. I fell into various ditches and lines of trenches, got tied up in the wire, fell again into the trenches where the Territorials were and was promptly kicked out on the farther side.

Beyond this was a long open slope, swept by shrapnel fire and thick with gas. I fell into a shallow ditch and fainted. Somebody came and pulled me out by my wounded arm, which brought me to my senses. I made for the dug-outs down by the stream; there some men tied up my arm and I became less of a raving lunatic.

When the shelling quietened down a bit, four of them put me on a stretcher and carried me down to the Menin Road, where we failed to find the dressing station; so they carried me along the road towards Halte. Just before we got there, some reinforcements were coming up and the Germans, spotting these, began to make Halte a hell of shell-fire. I made the men put me down and we took shelter in the ditch under the embankment on the south side of the road. The road itself, just over our heads, soon became plastered with ‘fizz-bangs.’  

The reinforcements went up the ditch safely where we were and about 30 or 40 wounded collected there. We stayed there for about two hours. K______, the new machine-gun officer, was lying beside me dying from gas. He was a ghastly sight, turning from white to blue and back again. He had been caught asleep in his dug-out by the gas without a respirator on.

The Germans started to shell the south side, so we cleared off into the GHQ line of trenches, which were already packed with reserves. There, some brilliant fellow gave me a drop of water and, after recovering my breath for about half-an-hour, I looked at my watch expecting it to be p.m. and found it was 8 a.m.

We then heard that the infantry on the left of the Menin road were all retiring and, as it looked as though the GHQ line was going to become the fighting-line, I thought this was no place for me and made off towards west of Ypres. Avoiding the railway cutting, which was buzzing with shells, I crossed the Zillebeke road and, taking a separate course through the corn-fields, got on to the railway south of Ypres.

There I found a battery and asked for a drink. While drinking some red wine, which made me sicker than I ever hope to be again, a ‘crump’ fell beside one of the guns and killed two men. I again thought it was no place for me and went along the railway towards the Lille gate. I was staggering along when a subaltern in charge of a working party saw my condition and helped me along to his medical officer, who made me lie down and finally packed me off in a motor ambulance to the dressing-station.”