When I was in 8th grade, my English teacher asked everyone in the class to come up with parts of a story, a character’s name, a setting, and something else which I can’t remember. Anyway, I picked some generic name, but my setting was “3rd Ypres, Passchendaele 1917.” The teacher then split each of the items up, put them in a hat, and had people pick from this random assortment to put together a story. I still remember the look on the one girl’s face who had to try to figure out what to do with my setting…
Aerial photos of the village of Passchendaele, Belgium, before and after the Third Battle of Ypres, 1917:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; But someone still was yelling out and stumbling And floundering like a man in fire or lime.– Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,– My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.
-Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen
Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Harrison (1869–1918) was a British pharmaceutical chemist who gave his life in the First World War to save troops from gas attacks. He tried to join up when war broke out, but was refused as he was in his forties at the time. Later, however, he was accepted into a Pals Battalion. Chemical warfare surfaced after Germany first tested chlorine gas in Ypres in 1915, and when the British War Office gathered a team of chemists to research the threat, Harrison was a key member. In 1916, he produced the first box respirator, and he and his team tested it themselves—they locked themselves in a room with lethal chemical agents to prove the mask’s efficiency. The development and perfection of the mask led to promotions and distinctions for Harrison, but after working tirelessly and exposing himself to horrific hazards, he died from pneumonia only a week before the Armistice was signed. Winston Churchill wrote to Harrison’s widow offering his sympathies and his deepest admiration—because although it cost Harrison his own life, his invention saved millions more.