Private John Pascoe was just one of some 16,500 Australian soldiers who fell victim to the insidious chemical weaponry of modern warfare on the Western Front, suffering lasting effects of a German poison gas attack.
John, serving with the 31st Battalion in the Somme in 1918, was wounded in action during a poison gas shelling in the early weeks of the German Spring Offensive.
The battalion’s war diary for 1918 tells how, in the Corbie sector near Bouzencourt , north of Hamel in France, the men came under a gas shell attack on the morning of April 24.
“Gas shells fell in Vaux-sur-Somme and drifted across Battalion sector,” it states simply.
This one sentence in a detailed account of the day’s events when “enemy artillery was fairly active” barely hints at the terrible suffering of the men like John who were severely gassed that morning.
The effects of the three main gases used by the Germans – chlorine, phosgene and mustard – were immediate and devastating, ranging from acute lung irritation, to breathlessness, irritation to the eyes and nasal passages, deep chemical burns to the skin and even paralysis and death.
Survivors of mustard gas attacks often suffered long-term health problems, with damage to the upper and lower airways which, rather than improving, actually worsened over time.
Hospitalised in France and then England, John, 43, never recovered sufficiently from the gas attack to return to the front line. Although he returned to France on July 10, 1918, he did not rejoin his battalion and was returned to England suffering debility.
From England, John was returned to Australia where he was discharged as medically unfit in November, a doctor noting he was “prematurely old”.
John, a harness maker, was already 41 when he had enlisted on January 21, 1916.
Born in London, John was one of many immigrants working in the Canungra district when he enlisted and named his brother, Fred Pascoe, then living at Indooroopilly, as his next of kin.
John left Sydney on the HMAT Ceramic on April 14, 1916 with the 6th reinforcements of the 31st Battalion, bound for the Middle East.
He arrived at Port Said on May 16 and on June 20 left Alexandria on the Huntsend for France and the Western Front.
After landing in Marseilles on June 30, the men travelled to northern France.
From the 5th Division Base at Etaples, John was taken on strength of the 31st Battalion on August 26. The 31st had lost half its number – 572 casualties – in the disaster that was the Battle of Fromelles in July, the battalion’s first and last major action of 1916.
In coming months, as the men endured wet and freezing conditions of France’s worst winter in decades, John was admitted to hospital on December 3, suffering bronchitis, rejoining his unit from hospital nine days later.
In early 1917, the 31st Battalion was involved in the follow-up operations as the German Army withdrew to the Hindenburg Line, having been spared the worst of the heavy fighting during the Second Battle of Bullecourt.
John had leave to England in August 1917, returning in the weeks before the battalion played a major role in the Battle of Polygon Wood in Belgium on September 26.
Less than two weeks later, John was admitted to hospital and was evacuated by ambulance train to France, where he was diagnosed with pleurisy on October 10, 1917.
John left France on the hospital ship Newhaven on October 18 and was admitted to the Connaught Hospital in Aldershot the following day.
It was January 2, 1918, before John returned to France via Southampton, rejoining his unit on February 14.
According to an Australian War Memorial history of the 31st Battalion, its men had a “relatively quiet time” during the German Spring Offensive, which was launched on March 21.
Wounded in action during the gas shell attack on April 24, John was evacuated to England on the hospital ship Aberdonian on April 29. His injuries were listed as severe when he was admitted to the Bath War Hospital the next day.
John recovered sufficiently to be released on furlough and reported to the Command Depot at Hurdcott on April 28.
He marched out to the Training Brigade at Longbridge Deverill on June 17 and eight days later, John, a 42-year-old bachelor, married Pattie Passco, a widow, 38. Pattie’s husband, Samuel Passco, had been killed at Flanders in November 1916 while serving with Britain’s Border Regiment.
John left England from Folkestone on July 10 but at the base depot in France on July 18 was diagnosed with debility and returned to England a week later.
Classed as an invalid, John boarded the HT Medic for return to Australia on August 24, 1918. After arriving in Sydney on October 9, he was discharged as medically unfit in Brisbane on November 13, two days after the Armistice.
John passed away in hospital in Brisbane on March 10, 1928. According to his death certificate, he had suffered a diaphragmatic hernia, toxaemia and cardiac failure at 52 years old.
Despite having wed Pattie Passco almost 10 years earlier, John’s death certificate stated he was not married when he passed away.