Editor’s Note: Imagine Nashua: Then & Now is a weekly photo column by Don Himsel. Each week, he will feature an old photo within a more recent photo and an explanation of how he got the shot.
If you look closely enough you could see it, and Tia Phillips was going to show me.
Walk along the front of the former Nashua Manufacturing Co.’s Mill 1, which most people now know as Clocktower Place, and you can see the faint, white letters that spell out “Nashua Manufacturing Company” neatly filling the space between long sets of windows. Tall and wide, once designed to bring light in on workers in the former textile mill, they now bring the sun into apartments.
I stopped in to see if the building’s management had any information I could cross-reference, as I was pretty sure the original photo was taken in front of one of their entrances. Phillips, the senior property manager for the building, walked with me along the railing separating the sidewalk from the now grass-covered lawn below that was once part of the canal system. When the light was just right, variations on the building’s facade revealed the letters. Mystery solved.
During World War I, Nashua Manufacturing Co. made dugout blankets to protect soldiers from gases.
Although gas as a weapon wasn’t necessarily used to kill during World War I. It could, and it did. The thought and application of gas worked against soldiers’ minds as much as their bodies.
It was a vicious, ghastly, nasty way to die. Its effects were brutal. Skin blistered, eyes burned and lungs filled with fluid. Jennifer D. Keene wrote in her book titled “World War One” about a group of soldiers who spent a night in holes created by exploded mustard gas shells. The next morning, some found their backs burned and blistered. Some thirsty troops drank from stagnant water in the shell hole and were poisoned.
What was then known as The Great War had its unique characteristics. Tank and aerial warfare were introduced but trench warfare remains the iconic image in our collective mind representing the battles in Europe. Soldiers lived, and died, in massive, snaking lines of fortified trenches. Some became small subterranean communities complete with support services. Others were smaller. All featured dugouts – small holes dug into the earth off the main lines that offered respite and a small modicum of comfort from the muck, fleas, rats and general filth of life during war.
Besides masks developed to keep gas out of a soldier’s lungs, another special device was created to keep it from seeping into the holes: dugout blankets.
A good description of one comes from an account written by a soldier and passed on through Jean Onufrak at the National Archives, where the device was put into use:
“Soldiers took many precautions during a gas attack,” the officer recalled. “The most well known countermeasure was to place a gas mask on at once when alerted of a gas attack by audio signals, called klaxons, or by the call in the trenches of ‘gas, gas.’ Soldiers worked to protect the dugouts (roofed shelters within trenches), by dropping ‘gas blankets’ (blankets or tarps infused with anti-gas chemicals), in front of entrances and by using gunnysacks to fan the gas away, and fire to burn it out. Also, chloride or lime was sprinkled in the shell holes where the gas had landed and at the entrances of the dugouts.”
More information on them, and specifically treatment of those who were gassed, can be found in “The History of the Medical Aspects of Chemical Warfare” by Shirley D. Tuorinsky, United States Department of the Army, Office of the Surgeon General, Borden Institute.
There were separate rooms for emergency treatment of chemical casualties. Tuorinsky wrote:
“The doors to the dugouts were generally three feet wide and were protected by two tight-fitting blanket curtains placed at least eight feet apart. The curtains, soaked with alkaline, blocerin or sometimes hexamethylenamine solution, were adjusted so they would fall into place upon engaging the release. The first curtain was intended to be shut before the second was opened. It was hoped that the curtains would sufficiently gas-proof the dugout. A hand-pumped fire extinguisher filled with a sodium thiosulfate solution was used to neutralize chlorine (gas).
“However, gas-proofing with two blankets made it difficult to rapidly exit a dugout, so early U.S. manuals advised against gas-proofing from line dugouts. This advice was generally unheeded because the advantage of having a chemical-free environment in which to sleep and occasionally remove protective masks outweighed the risks.”
“At the battalion aid station, chemical casualties were stripped of contaminated clothing, bathed and re-clothed. Normally there was one battalion aid station for each battalion, located near the communication trench to the rear in a support trench from 240-500 yards from the front, utilizing any shelter available. For the most part aid stations were small, dimly lit and poorly ventilated. Medical personnel on duty in the aid stations were continually exposed to off-gassing from the chemical casualties.”
So here we have a photograph, courtesy of the Nashua Historical Society, published in this newspaper on November, 12, 1919, which accompanied a story about “the largest parade in city’s history.” The truck is festooned with bunting, banner and a mock fortification championing Nashua Manufacturing Co.’s efforts to supply troops with a simple tool to keep out the insidious gas.
An interesting side note: Amadee Deschenes, for which Deschenes Oval (Park) in Railroad Square was named, himself died after a gas attack.
Deschenes was awarded the Croix De Guerre following his actions in the Battle of Ixvray in France. Weeks later in another fight, according to a Telegraph story published on June 16, 1926 he “…was caught with others in a deadly gas attack and before they could protect themselves he had breathed enough of the suffocating and ulcerating fumes to send him to the hospital. The usual lung complications set in and he died four days later on Oct. 1, 1918 in the base hospital near St. Miheil…”
A Nashua native, “healthy and vigorous” at the time of his enlistment, Deschenes, who once worked at the Indian Head Cotton Mill, is buried in France.
Don Himsel can be reached at 594-6590 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, follow Himsel on Twitter (@Telegraph_DonH).