September 1

This Day in History

World War I

Sep 1, 1917:

Soldier recounts brush with poison gas

On this day in 1917, American soldier Stull Holt writes a letter home recounting some of his battlefield experiences on the Western Front at Verdun, France.

Born in New York City in 1896, Holt served during World War I as a driver with the American Ambulance Field Service. He later joined the American Air Service, receiving his pilot commission as a first lieutenant.

"Dear Lois," Holt began his letter, written while he was in Paris on leave, "enjoying the luxuries of life including ice cream, sheets, cafes and things." The bulk of Holt’s letter discussed his experiences at the fortress city of Verdun, where French and German troops had battled for an excruciating 10 months in 1916 and where fighting continued throughout the following year. "The French have a saying to the effect that no one comes out of Verdun the same. As the fighting is stiff there always the statement is probably true for all times, it certainly is true of Verdun during an attack. It would take a book to tell about all that happened there and when I try to write, little incidents entirely unconnected come to my mind so I don't know where or how to begin."

Holt described the ruined countryside and villages around Verdun, as well as the sights—and stench—of constant battle. "Besides the desolation visible to the eye there was the desolation visible to the nose. You could often see old bones, boots, clothing and things besides lots of recent ones." The letter’s most vivid passage, however, recounted his own experiences under fire, including an incident in which he was struck by a shell containing poisonous gas.

"Something hit me on the head, making a big dent in my helmet and raising a bump on my head. If it hadn't been for my helmet my head would have been cracked. As it was I was dazed, knocked down and my gas mask knocked off. I got several breathes [sic] of the strong solution right from the shell before it got diluted with much air. If it hadn't been for the fellow with me I probably wouldn't be writing this letter because I couldn't see, my eyes were running water and burning, so was my nose and I could hardly breathe. I gasped, choked and felt the extreme terror of the man who goes under in the water and will clutch at a straw. The fellow with me grabbed me and led me the hundred yards or so to the post where the doctor gave me a little stuff and where I became alright again in a few hours except that I was a little intoxicated from the gas for a while. I had other close calls but that was the closest and shook me up most. I think the hardest thing I did was to go back again alone the next night. I had to call myself names before I got up nerve enough."

Holt’s letters were later published in The Great War at Home and Abroad: The World War I Diaries and Letters of W. Stull Holt (1999).

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