Mustard gas – a delayed killer

Mustard gas is possibly misleading in this piece about the deaths of two Cumbrian First World War soldiers. Chlorine gas and phosgene were also used as chemical weapons. Which somehow have always seemed more repugnant than conventional battlefield weapons like mowing men down with machine guns or blasting them to pieces with shells.

I don’t know if it was mustard gas that led – eventually – to the deaths of Cumbrian soldiers Allan Rigg and/or Lawrence Little. But, according to an article online:

Mustard gas caused the highest number of casualties from chemical weapons—upward of 120,000 by some estimates—but it caused few direct deaths because the open air of the battlefield kept concentrations below the lethal threshold.

Anyway, any piece such as this needs a keyword, and ‘gas’ alone isn’t much use! So, ‘mustard gas,’ it is.

Mustard gas – and Wilfred Owen

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling…

Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum Est is one of the ‘classics’ of the First World War, with its vivid imagery of a chlorine, rather than mustard gas attack victim ‘flound’ring like a man in fire or lime’.

The soldier, in the poet’s dreams: ‘plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning’.

But gas was, it seems rarely an ‘instant’ death sentence.

Sometimes, it proved more of a long-term killer. As was the case for two of ‘our’ Penrith Congregational Church war memorial men. Both of whom died after the war had ended.

A quick recap

Penrith Congregational Church unveiled a memorial tablet on September 26, 1920, ‘in grateful memory of the men of this church who fell in the Great War’. I have been looking into the stories behind the names carved on it, with previous posts here and here.

Private Allan Rigg

Private Allan Rigg died two days after Christmas 1918, aged 21. He’d ‘cheated’ death a few times during the course of the war.

The 1911 census tells us Allan Taylor Rigg was born at Patterdale and, aged 14, was living with his widowed mother and two older brothers at 3 Pattinsons Yard, Friar Street, Penrith. Mother Susannah was a washer in a laundry. father Thomas had been an iron ore miner.

He joined the Border Regiment in February 1916, and was soon on the Front Line in France. 

Penrith Observer: August 29 1916.

Mrs Rigg, Friar Street, Penrith, has received an intimation that her son, Prt Allan Rigg, has been wounded in the back and head and is now in hospital. Before enlisting, he was an apprentice with James Irving, baker, Penrith. (James Irving will feature in another post on the church memorial men, as the father-in-law of one of the victims).

Wounded twice

He was wounded at Etaples, but the injuries can’t have been too serious because he was able to rejoin his regiment on September 15, 1916.

Only to be wounded again on October 7 – shellshock putting him out of action until October 28.

When he was gassed, on July 19, 1917, he didn’t report sick. Presumbably he didn’t think he had been affected badly enough.

However, in February 1918, he began to lose weight and feel weak. He finally reported sick on April 22.

He was discharged from service on June 6, 1918, disagnosed as having tuberculosis.

His condition on discharge was ‘sparsely nourished, pale and weak.’

He was recorded as disabled due to war service (gas), degree 100%, permanently unfit, and ‘sanatorium recommended’. 

Private Lawrence Little

Private Lawrence Little also died of the effects of gas poisoning. He was 20, and the date was May 10, 1919.

In 1911, aged 12, Lawrence Little and his mother Mary Emma Blaylock, 28, her husband Thomas, and three Blaylock children were living with Mary’s father, James Little, in three rooms in Grub Street, Penrith. James was a general labourer, Thomas was a carter.

Tom Blaylock was a boarder in the Little household when Mary Little was 18 and her son Laurie was 2.

Lawrence Little joined the Border Regiment (11th Battalion) initially, but was later transferred to the 257th Company of the Labour Corps.

His war record lists him as a farm servant, with grey eyes, light brown hair. His address is given as10 Duke Street, Penrith, and his conduct said to be honest and sober.

He was discharged unfit on September 9, 1918, due to severe TB – due to gas.

 Full military honours

The Penrith Observer, on May 20, 1919, reported that the funeral took place on the 14th with full military honours and a large attendance of family and friends. 

The coffin was draped with the Union flag and a soldier’s cap and belt, and was taken to the cemetery on a draped lorry.

It was escorted by a firing party of 12 from Carlisle Castle, and a large body of memobers of the Penrith branch of the Federation of Discharged Soldiers and Sailors, who sent a wreath. 

The firing party fired three volleys over the grave and a trumpeter sounded The Last Post. 

At Christ Church on Sunday morning, the Rev RH Law (who’d conducted the funeral) expressed his sympathy with the family and hoped he would prove to be the last of the local war victims.

Sadly, the Reverend Law’s hope was not fulfilled.

The image is an original postcard from a family album

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