Private George Mitchell – Died of Gas Poisoning 30th April 1916

George Henry Mitchell was born near the Blue Ball pub in Walton on the Hill on 19th March 1896. He was the third of eight children born to John and Susan Mitchell.

John was born in Banstead and worked as a labourer. The family moved around with his work, living in Mogador, Shoreham, Walton on the Hill, Epsom and Ewell before settling in Oatlands Road, Burgh Heath.

They lived at number 22 (now numbered 44), a semi-detached house on the south side of the road (the houses on the north side of the street are post-war). George’s grandmother moved in too and there were 11 people crammed into a 3-bedroom house, typical of the overcrowding that was rife in the area at the time.

The boys attended the Wesleyan School on the Green, where the older boys were taught gardening and woodwork in addition to the usual Three Rs. John lied about their ages so that they could finish their schooling earlier and go to work. George left school aged 13 and became a labourer, probably working with his father and an elder brother on a local farm.

George enlisted for long-term service with the Army in late 1914/early 1915 rather than just signing on for the duration of the war. He was posted to the 8th (Service) Battalion of The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment) and arrived in France on 23rd December 1915.

The Queen’s were resting and refitting, recovering from their bloody baptism of fire at the Battle of Loos, and George was one of many amongst the drafts of reinforcements that arrived during the winter. As well as training, sporting competitions were held, a cinema was set up and Christmas dinner was laid on. It must have been a happy time for them all after the disaster of their first battle.

The Queen’s returned to the trenches near Ypres in the New Year, the Battalion rotating with other units so that they spent a few days in and then a few days out of the line, resting during the day and building defensive works at night. It was cold but quiet.

In mid-April it became apparent that the Germans were up to something. British shells landing in the German trenches caused a cloud of yellow-green fumes to erupt and deserters and prisoners reported that a gas attack was imminent. The Queen’s were put on permanent Gas Alert.

In the early hours of 30th April, under cover of the noise of machine gun fire, the Germans turned on their gas cylinders. The first sign was the smell. The gas alarms were rung but were drowned out by artillery and gunfire in many places. Very lights now lit the billowing gas cloud in brilliant colours.

Under cover of the gas, the Germans probed for gaps in the wire and were driven back as the cloud blew rapidly on, over the British front line trenches, the support trenches, through two lines of strong points, a rear defensive line and beyond, scorching the grass, destroying crops, withering leaves, killing cows as they lay in their fields and still dangerously strong six miles from the front.

The gas was switched off. The Germans attacked in small groups over a two-mile front, covered by snipers hiding in the long grass of No Man’s Land. The defenders were fighting at a huge disadvantage, unable to see their enemy properly through their gas masks’ goggles. Seeing that the Germans were not wearing masks, many British ripped theirs off too so as to fight on equal terms, some too soon, with fatal results.

The Germans were now using a new gas, phosgene, mixed with chlorine. It had first been used in December 1915 and had not been stopped by the old model gas helmets. The Army, fully aware that a deadly new chemical was responsible and investigating the possibilities of what it might be, had reassured the men that the soldiers who died had just not put their helmets on correctly.

Chlorine gas immediately caused coughing fits as it irritated the throat and upper lungs, and brought on headaches and vomiting. Men would struggle to breathe, often collapsing into pools of the heavier-than-air gas that were collecting at the bottom of a trench. Phosgene, on the other hand, could be inhaled unnoticed (except for the slight whiff of rotting hay) but even brief exposure could do serious internal damage, especially to the lungs, often being symptom-free until hours later (some men that were apparently unaffected being reported to have dropped dead unexpectedly up to 12 hours later). Phosgene could incapacitate a man from an exposure lasting just a few seconds, at one-tenth the concentration of chlorine required for the same effect.

Gas helmets were having to evolve as each model’s weakness was exposed in turn. The standard model issues at the time were the P (phenate) or P.H. (phenate-hexamine) helmets; a hood made from two chemically-impregnated flannelette bags with glass eyepieces and a tube-shaped valve to breathe out through. The P helmet was better than its predecessor (the Smoke Helmet) against chlorine but only partially effective against phosgene and so it was replaced by the P.H. Helmet, a similar design but with a more potent mix of chemicals (hexamine, thio-sulphate, sodium carbonate and glycerine). The main drawback of this type of helmet was that visibility was very poor (especially at night) and that they were difficult to put on quickly.

A German grenade party snuck through a crater between the two lines of trenches, where No Man’s Land was at its narrowest. Their first grenade wiped out the 1st North Staffordshire men holding the nearest trench bay and the Germans dropped into the British trenches. Unnoticed at first, they started bombing down the trenches in both directions from the salient. A chain of men across No Man’s Land passed grenades to the raiders and carried prisoners, wounded and “loot” back in the other direction. Perhaps 80 men were involved in all.

The Staffordshires’ machine guns kept the Germans from moving northwards and they set about bombing the Germans out from the south. The Queen’s kept them well supplied with grenades. The Germans were driven out before they could complete their demolition of a mine shaft that seems to have been the objective of their attack.

The fighting was all over by 2a.m. The British had held their line. But then men making their way out of the trenches towards the regimental first aid posts, field ambulances and casualty clearing stations started dying from the effects of the gas.

Vomiting and uncontrollable coughing set in, the men lost their pallor as the tissue of the irritated lungs started filling with fluid, swelling and reducing the efficiency of oxygen transfer to the blood, and the small tubes in the lungs filled with mucus. The most badly affected frothed at the mouth, their faces turning blue as their bodies were starved of oxygen.

Over 500 men were gassed, of whom 89 died, and there were 312 other casualties due to the fighting. Most gas casualties were thought to be the result of men not getting their gas helmets on in time or taking them off too early. Those units that had worn their helmets rolled up on their heads rather than carrying them in satchels were less affected and those specialists, such as the machine gunners, who wore the latest “box” respirator were not affected at all. The men of The Queen’s had kept their gas helmets in their satchels and suffered 122 casualties, a quarter of their fighting strength at the time, mostly due to gas.

George died from gas poisoning. He was 20 years old. He is buried in the Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension and is commemorated at All Saints (Banstead), St Mary’s (Burgh Heath) and in the Burgh Heath War Memorial Hall.

George was awarded the British War Medal, the Victory Medal and the 1914-15 Star.

The war years were especially tough on the Mitchells: two of George’s brothers were killed during the war, his youngest brother died from illness in 1917 and his father died soon afterwards.

George was commemorated at All Saints’, Banstead, on the 100th anniversary of his death. A memorial service was held during which a bell was rung 100 times at 11am.

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