By mid 1918, Army regulations required that every soldier shipping out to France have a certificate that indicated he had successfully completed gas training. Unfortunately, this requirement was usually ignored and men continued to arrive ‘Over There’ with only the bare minimum of gas training. A partial solution was that part of the time spent onboard the transport ship crossing the Atlantic was devoted to anti-gas instruction. Therefore, the average enlisted man arrived overseas with around 18 hours of gas defense training under his belt. This is why something known as “gas jitters” became a chronic problem for rookie Doughboys at the front. Until such time as the men received additional gas training or gained complete confidence in their respirators through actual experience, panic was the effect most often produced when the gas alarm was sounded. The terror described in this letter written by the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 18th Infantry, which seized 1st Division troops shortly after they entered the line in the Ansauville sector in January of 1918, is a testament to the AEFs lack of gas training during the first few months of the war:
One man in a panic stampeded and knocked down two others adjusting their masks. He rushed down the trench screaming and made no attempt to put on his respirator. He died shortly after reaching the dressing station. Another man threw himself into the bottom of a trench and began to scream. Two others trying to help him adjust his respirator had their own pulled off and were gassed. He was finally carried out of the area but died not long after. Another private couldn’t find his respirator and became panic stricken. When it was found and finally adjusted, he claimed it was broken and changed into his French mask, breathing in gas while changing. On the way to the dressing station he repeatedly pulled the French mask away from his face and breathed the gas laden air and died shortly after reaching the station
Lieutenant Colonel H.G. Shaw, CO 3rd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, AEF
Another eyewitness account conveyed the bedlam and apprehension experienced by poorly trained Doughboys after they had been awoken by the sound of a gas alarm:
Now the camp is a seething confusion. Pistols klaxons, wash pan drums, shouts, shrieks, prayers, groans, and curses contribute to the din, “Gas! Gas! Gas!” Now and then from the mélange of sounds comes a coherent cry: “Where the hell’s my mask? I can’t find my mask – lemme take yours?” – this latter a crazed, anguished shriek. Then the smothered reply: “Go to hell.”
Someone dazed and half asleep crawls out of his pup tent and looks around. Suddenly realizing the import of the racket he dives back in. Blankets, clothes, and general equipment comes flying out in rapid-fire disorder, accompanied by shrieks which grow steadily in volume. “I can’t find it!” “I’m gassed!’ “I’m dying!” The pup-tent is suddenly uprooted and kites upward into a tree “It’s gone!” I’m gassed!” I’m gassed!’ A member of the masked rabble stops his rush through the woods long enough to point out … the missing mask. It had been under his knees since the search began. He claps it onto his face, sticks his nose into the clip and faints. He has had too much for one night’s entertainment.
It was a false alarm. There was no gas. The only casualties are barked shins and bruised heads. The men are coming sheepishly back to their wrecked shelter tents. But the alarm has had its wholesale effect. The gas mask has ceased to be an incubus. It has assumed a personal relationship.
Captain Robert Joseph Casey, Battery C, 124th Field Artillery Regiment, 33rd Infantry Division, AEF
Still another Doughboy made the following entry into his diary on September 30, 1918. It described the inability of one of his tent mates to cope with finding and donning his gasmask in a timely fashion during an alleged gas attack:
Charley McQueen, Allgret Johnson, Irwin Lindsey and I pitched out tents together. We made our bed in there for the night. We were still on the front, yet not quite so near the front lines that old Jerry wouldn’t shell us once in a while.
That night the gas alarm rang and Johnson grabbed my gas mask. We had an augment [sic] for awhile, and I said it might be his so I gave it to him. He was gone to put it on when he found his own tied to his chest, he hand it back again. I made up my mind that I would never give up my mask again. There was no gas anyhow that time. We hadn’t more than went to sleep when the gas alarm sounded again. Johnson grabbed my haversack out [from] under my head and tried to put that on for a gas mask. It’s a wonder he was killed. He was always complaining about getting killed anyhow.
Private First Class William A. Livergood, Company E, 305th Ammunition Train, 80th Infantry Division, AEF
Meanwhile, a combat officer noted how one of the untried men in his command reacted in the confusion of a dimly lit dugout during the regiments very first gas attack:
We had been assigned to Gen. Liggett’s First Army Corps. Gas masks and helmets were issued to us here. Gas drills were held under Capt. Ballman, the regimental gas officer, who later distinguished himself in the Chemical Warfare Service. Owing to the shortness of our stay here thorough gas discipline was not attained until after actual experience … The first time one of the companies was under a gas concentration, one of the soldiers who could not readily find his mask in the darkness of the dug-out held his tin cup over his nose and mouth and clapped his mess pan on his head. Some protection!
Major Chester W. Davis, 1st Pioneer Infantry Regiment, AEF
Photo No. 03: This cartoon drawn by Captain Alban Butler of the 1st Division, from his book titled Happy Days, published in 1920, is a humorous depiction of the fear and anxiety that took place in any trench, camp or dugout when the gas alarm sounded.