March 29th 1916

Lieut. Jack Haldane (Black Watch) has recovered from the wounds he suffered last May and since August has been training soldiers in the use of hand and rifle grenades. It is not surprising to learn that some of his methods have been, shall we say, unorthodox.

JBS Haldane“Among the things which we occasionally did as demonstrations was to catch lighted bombs and throw them back, or more accurately, sideways, out of the trench.

I had a one-eyed and rarely quite sober corporal who used to do this, but I sometimes did it myself. I admit that we used to lengthen the time fuse beforehand. Provided you are a good judge of time, it is no more dangerous than crossing the road among motor traffic, but it is more impressive to onlookers.

Some idiot asked questions about it in Parliament and got an army order issued forbidding the practice.”

* * * * * * *

In the next edition of the Draconian we will be publishing this poem, which Jack has kindly sent us for publication:

An Intense Bombardment.
The earth is burning; through her smoke there looms
The wreckage of the immemorial years;
The fruit of all that labour, all those tears
Now in an hour collapses and consumes.
Those monstrous masses of black oily fumes
Are so much vaster than the men, whose cheers
In this apocalyptic din none hears,
They seem like angels who fulfil God's dooms.
The breastwork there, that with its long brown wave
Threatened the cities that we die to save
Boils as a cauldron, its defenders hurled
To darkness and confusion and the grave,
And overhead great black clouds densely curled
Hide from the sea the anguish of the world.
                               "Safety-catch."

 Jack was nick-named “Safety-catch” by his men, as he was always saying “Remember your safety-catch” when with the Black Watch in the trenches last year.

 

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.

April 30th 1915

Readers of the Times yesterday will have seen the letter written by our neighbour Dr. JS Haldane to Lord Kitchener, in which he confirms that the gas used by the Germans on our troops at Ypres last week was almost certainly chlorine or bromine.

Having witnessed a post mortem at a Casualty Clearing Station at the Front, he has returned with one of the man’s lungs for further examination in his laboratory at his home, ‘Cherwell.’ He is now involved in experiments to find an effective respirator for the troops. Apparently, so his daughter Naomi tells us, the ideas given in the press for various home-made appliances are totally ineffective.

As for Dr Haldane’s son Jack, who was the first of my boys to win the top scholarship to Eton, he is now Lieut. JBS Haldane of the Black Watch, improvising bombs to lob into enemy lines, so I am told.

* * * * * * *

We have further news from Ronnie Poulton. No sooner than troops are out of the trenches and they are put to hard work. It does seem right to call it “Rest.”

Saturday 24th April. “We came out after four days in last night, and immediately went off digging, after ¼ hour’s RWPP profilerest.

The whole thing as a war is an absolute farce. This is honest fact. We went up to part of the line near here, which has a gap of 200 yards in it. Here Territorial Engineers are building a magnificent breastwork and parados and Territorials supply working parties. The joke is we are 120 yards from the German trench and about 80 from the German working parties. And we make a hell of a row, laugh, talk, light pipes etc and sing and nobody fires a shot, except one old sniper who seems to fire high on purpose; and yet when the flares go up, we stand stock-still so as not to be seen!!”

The period of so-called rest being over, Ronnie Poulton returned to do another spell in the trenches on April 27th, but he was only there for a day before going back into reserve for three days.

Having told us that snipers were not a thing to worry about at night, I cannot help but feel they should not be underestimated. Snipers are an ever present threat, clearly:

Thursday 29th April. “It is quite absurd to see the quite immovable landscape, with no movement of any kind on it and yet to hear the most accurate shots on our parapet, shots which have killed two men dead in the last two days, who foolishly put their heads up carelessly in a low part of the parapet to look back. Don’t worry about me in this respect.”

This is easier said than done. Parents, family, schoolmasters on the touch line of any rugger match – we  are always more nervous than the players, who are wrapped up in the game.