My grandfather, Arthur “Geoff” Christie, fought in the First World War, in France, as a member of the cycle-mounted infantry . He was a victim of early chemical warfare, a mustard gas attack in 1918. He spoke little of his wartime experiences. As a child I thought it funny when he shouted in his sleep. Now I know better.
Mustard Gas, 1918
It’s a small, sepia photograph, tucked into a plastic sleeve alongside others like it. Three people sit at a card table outdoors, surrounded by bushes and a lawn. They are taking the convalescent air, Queen-King-Ace fans at the ready. Their faces show the smiles of laughter, a woman’s head reared slightly with her mouth wide open. Sprawled on the grass beneath the table, the fourth rests his chin on his fists, elbows to the ground, grinning. He is the joke.
Opposite the laughing woman my grandfather beams, his horseshoe of hair jet-black, not white as I know it. He is lean and fit from a life lived physically, hauling rocks and climbing ladders – not corporate, but real ladders – to fix things that need repair. His glasses sport cardboard flaps protecting his gassed eyes from the burning sunlight.
To my mind, generations away, mustard has always meant hot dogs, hibachis, summertime. The mustard of 1918 was deadly, nearly took him, blinded him for months – maybe forever, but only months, thank god.
“I wish those people who talk about going on with this war whatever it costs could see the soldiers suffering from mustard gas poisoning. Great mustard-coloured blisters, blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.”
So said Nurse Vera Brittain*.
I was born more than forty years later, and I remember him smiling always. He never told of his blindness, of his mustard-coloured blisters, of the things that caused him to shout in the night. And I never did know him to eat mustard.
11 November, 2011
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(*Brittain, Vera (1933). Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925.)