The insidious new chemical weaponry of modern warfare claimed the life of Private Alexander Duncan, who was among an estimated 16,500 Australian troops exposed to poison gas attacks on the Western Front.
Almost 100 years on, the word “gassed” which appears after Alexander’s name on the Canungra memorial has lost its potency, its meaning lost on generations who have never known the devastating effects of poison gas.
Most commonly used were chlorine, phosgene or mustard gas, whose effects were immediate and horrifying, ranging from irritation of the eyes and nose to acute lung irritation, deep chemical burns to the skin, paralysis and death.
Alexander’s was one of the worst cases of what was termed “gas shell poisoning”. He endured weeks of torture, beginning on April 17, 1918 when he was wounded in action, before passing away on May 3.
A 24-year-old sawyer, Alexander enlisted on January 8, 1916, the same day as his brother, Milton Duncan, 22. The brothers were sons of the pioneering Duncan family which had played a leading role in the establishment of Canungra’s timber industry and for whom the township’s Duncan Street was named.
With the 8th reinforcements of the 31st Battalion, Alexander left Brisbane on the Boorara on August 8 and arrived at Plymouth on October 13, 1916.
There was further training in England before he left for France on the Golden Eagle from Folkestone on December 17, arriving to the worst winter the country had experienced in decades.
Alexander joined the 31st Battalion in the field on December 26. Less than a month later, exposure to the wet and freezing conditions and the morass of mud had taken their toll and he was in hospital with trench feet.
The condition was so severe that Alexander was invalided back to England on January 26, 1917. He was not discharged from hospital until June 6 and it was late July before he returned to France and the front.
At the end of August, Alexander was attached to the 8th Brigade Machine Gun Company as a carrier. He was part of a six-man team, which included two to carry the equipment and two to carry the ammunition, operating the water-cooled Vickers machine gun to provide support to their infantry comrades.
Alexander’s first major action of the war was the Battle of Polygon Wood, in the Ypres sector in Belgium, which cost 5770 Australian casualties.
On April 4, 1918, he became part of the newly formed 5th Machine Gun Battalion. Thirteen days later he was gassed in France.
Dangerously ill, Alexander was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley, after being evacuated to England from France.
He had suffered horrific burns to his skin and lungs and struggled to breathe. It was more than two weeks after he was gassed before Alexander finally succumbed to the wounds he had received in action, passing away at 10.30am on May 3.
Back home in Canungra, Alexander’s mother, Elizabeth Duncan, received a cablegram dated May 3 advising that he had died that day from gas poisoning and that, if there were no advice from her to the contrary, a funeral would take place at Netley on Monday, May 6.
A burial report describes the funeral held at 2.30pm that day, when Alexander Duncan, 26, was laid to rest in a coffin of “good elm with brass furnishings”.
He had been accorded a military funeral – the coffin draped with the Union Jack was carried by six bearers to the hospital chapel and later placed on a gun carriage. The cortege had moved to the graveside and the bugler had played the Last Post.
Alexander’s mother was advised that he had been buried in consecrated ground, the grave to be “immediately turfed and temporary cross erected”.
All of Alexander’s personal possessions – including a ring, watch strap, wallet, pipe and testament – which were to be returned to his mother were lost with the sinking of the steamer Barunga, torpedoed by a German submarine in July 1918, after leaving England for Australia.
According to an account published in the Hobart Mercury newspaper, there were no casualties among the 700 Australian service personnel, including four nurses and 400 incapacitated servicemen, who were picked up by destroyers and taken to a Channel port.
“The Australians displayed the utmost coolness, sang patriotic songs and arranged impromptu races in the lifeboats,” read the account.
Some 1.3 million casualties of the Great War were attributed to poison gas. In 1925, seven years after Alexander Duncan‘s death, a treaty prohibiting the use of “asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases” in war was signed in Geneva.