A Small Bell With a Very Big Story
A small and unassuming bell can be found at the Museum.
Likely to have been requisitioned from a Church, the bell had been used by German sentries to warn of the imminent arrival of poison gas, that most appalling and indiscriminate of weapons used in the Great War. After its capture by men of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire during the Battle of Arras in April 1917 and until the Armistice, the little bell continued to have the same important function, only this time being rung to warn men from the two counties to protect themselves.
For its final job, the little bell was saved by the Reverend Edward Montmerency Guilford M.C., Chaplain to the 2nd Battalion, The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, who used it for a very much more peaceful purpose when calling the men to church parades and evening services. Before his death in 1971, the old Padre generously presented the bell to the Regiment where it has quietly sat in retirement these many years.
Poison Gas Warfare in the Trenches
Poison gas was probably the most feared of all weapons in the Great War because it was so indiscriminate. A gas attack meant soldiers having to put on crude masks that if they were not quick enough, could leave them in agony for days and weeks before many finally succumbed to their injuries. Many times the delivery of gas was followed by an attack by the enemy that added to the terror as soldiers tried to fight and survive whilst trying to look through small eyeholes.
Once the conflict stagnated into trench warfare, all sides looked for any way possible to bring movement back into their campaigns. One of the more obvious was to develop a weapon that was so appalling that it would destroy not only an enemy frontline but also the will to maintain troops there or even provoke mass mutiny. The use of poison gas was seen as a way to break the stalemate but failed due to the resilience of the soldiers and the development of countermeasures.
Poison Gas Warfare in the Trenches
British, Dominion and Empire troops suffered over 188,000 non-fatal casualties and over 8,000 deaths directly attributed to poison gas attacks with Germany and France suffering similar casualty rates. However, these figures do not take into account the number of men who died from poison gas related injuries years after the end of the war; nor do they take into account the number of men who survived often with lasting pain, discomfort and disability including permanent blindness. Many were so badly incapacitated that they could never return to civilian employment.
The development in the use of poison gases led to both phosgene and mustard gas being used. Phosgene was especially potent as its impact was frequently felt only 48 hours after it had been inhaled and by then it had already bedded itself in the respiratory organs of the body and little could be done to eradicate it. Mustard gas caused both internal and external blisters on the victim within hours of exposure. Such damage to the lungs and other internal organs were very painful and occasionally fatal.
When the Bell was Captured: The attack 28th April 1917
The Battle of Arras was an offensive in April and May of 1917 involving British, Canadian, New Zealand, Newfoundland and Australian troops against the German trenches. The objective was to break the stalemate and to force the numerically inferior German Army into a war of movement where it could be defeated. Although the Canadians had successfully taken Vimy Ridge on the12th of April, the south-eastern flank remained vulnerable. To help rectify this threat, the soldiers of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry attacked the German trenches between the village of Arleux and Oppy Wood at 4.25 a.m. on the 28th April with Highlanders to their south and Canadians to the north. The Battalion attacked in two waves; on the left a company under Captain Giles and on the right a company under Captain Barnes. Both commanders were only 21 years old. Two further companies attacked in the rear, led by Lieutenants Whitehead and Dowson, who were both wounded.
The left and right companies discovered that the artillery barrage before the assault had been weak and that only one proper gap existed in the barbed wire on the right with a poor single gap on the left. The Light Infantrymen forged through the gaps reaching the second objective at a cost of 200 killed, wounded and missing. The troops found that the German trenches were very much shelled and badly provided with dugouts. A number of men were buried as the enemy continued to shell the position but no infantry counter-attack matured. The Light Infantrymen were relieved on the night of the 30th by two composite companies made up of regimental and highland reserves. By the end of the offensive on the 16th May, British and Dominion troops had suffered more than 150,000 casualties, gaining little ground since the first day and the situation reverted to stalemate.
You hear the Gas Warning Bell being rung frantically by the Sentry.
You scrabble for your gas mask; you hope it fits properly; you are having difficulty breathing and you are having difficulty seeing through the eye holes as you rush and stumble to the firing step with your friends.
You wait in fear for the gas to arrive and you hope that the enemy troops are not going to attack your trench today.
You hope you will survive to get home to your family.