Corporal Elmer Bowman & The First Gas Regiment

Published: 18 December 2023

By Michael R. Santoro
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site

Santoro 4

Thank you to the Doughboy Foundation for the opportunity to share the stories of men and women whose stories have otherwise become lost to time & obscurity.

My name is Michael R. Santoro, I’m a 24-year-old historic researcher, preservationist, and World War I Antiquarian. I’ve always been a collector and have been collecting World War I militaria for close to seven years. I finished both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University at Buffalo, New York, in Environmental Design & Architecture/Historic Preservation respectively. But my personal hobbies became my passions, and through developing my research skillset, I found a connection between my career and passion in historic and military research.

Starting in November 2020, I made TikTok videos about specific artifacts in my collection. In the Spring of 2021, after gaining a small following, I was approached by an acquaintance and later close friend, Eric Hutchison, who propositioned me to spend the following summer in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, helping him prepare for the opening of his private World War I museum. What I can only describe as the best summer of my entire life consisted of designing trench-themed exhibits with original militaria from both our collections.

During my time at the museum, I was able to further develop my research skills, identifying canteens and uniforms to soldiers based on worn-out initials and unit markings. This would mark a shift in my career as a researcher. Since that day I’ve grown substantially as a researcher, learning more about the history of the world and myself with each passing day. I now run my own historic research business, Santoro Military Researchers, providing quality, quick, and affordable military research.

The helmet shown above, gracefully covered by century-old burlap, belonged to Elmer W. Bowman, Company D, 30th U.S. Engineers. I’m going to use this helmet’s story to talk about an American regiment made up of engineers, pharmacists, & chemists made proficient in chemical warfare. The Thirtieth Engineer Regiment (Gas and Flame) was formed by an order on August 15th, 1917, calling for the formation of an offensive gas regiment. (Addison, James Thayer, Story of the First Gas Regiment, p.1-2). This was part of the larger Gas Service, although the 1st Gas & Flame would be the only American chemical unit to see combat during World War I.

During their time stateside, the 30th Engineers would become known as the Hell Fire Battalion, and its soldiers the Hell Fire Boys. This name came from their purpose, launching liquid fire and gas at deeply settled German positions. (Addison, James Thayer, Story of the First Gas Regiment, 1919, p 10) A 15 November 1917 story in the Baltimore Evening Star stated:

If His Satanic Majesty happened to drop around at the American University training camp to-day, he would see the “Hell Fire Battalion” at work and might blush with envy. On the War Department records the battalion is known as the “Gas and Flame Battalion of the Thirtieth Regiment Engineers.” Throughout the Army they are known as the “Hell Fire Boys.”

In 1917, Elmer William Bowman was working as a recently graduated pharmacist. According to his 1934 Pennsylvania World War I Veterans Service and Compensation File, Bowman enlisted in the 30th Engineers at Camp American University in Washington, D.C. on December 11th, 1917. He was assigned to Company D, which left for France on February 26th, 1918.

The first two companies of the regiment, A and B, left for France on December 24th, 1917, with no equipment or chemical training. They arrived and trained with the British Special Chemical Brigade. They became proficient with British Stokes mortars and the newest iteration of the famous Livens projectors, which electrically fired dozens of gas, flame, and smoke shells in a short burst. (Addison, James Thayer. The Story of the First Gas Regiment, 1919, p.24.) Bowman’s company would arrive two months later and train with the same brigade. He would see his first combat in the Chateau Thierry Sector on June 25th, 1918.

In their earliest combat, the gas companies primarily used smoke shells to allow our men to lay barbed wire and bridge streams under the cover of smoke, putting them out of sight of the Germans. During the St. Mihiel Offensive in September 1918, these companies utilized smoke and thermite shells in overcoming machine gun nests. The moral effect of their liquid fire proved to be very great. (Addison, James Thayer. The Story of the First Gas Regiment, 1919, p.124.)

For their service during the final year of the war, the 1st Gas Regiment received campaign credits for Flanders, Lys, Lorraine, Aisne-Marne, St. Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne. Their insignia before the war was the Engineer’s castle, changed during the last months of the war to the dragon’s head over two crossed shells.


This British-made helmet was worn by Sergeant Elmer William Bowman during the war. Bowman likely covered it with a burlap sack during or before the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. During this offensive, the companies were scattered and attached to other units, so writing D on each side of the sack was likely done to keep the men together during the long trips on overly crowded roads toward the front. It was only through 105 years of familial care and preservation that the fragile burlap cover remains on this helmet. The liner and chinstrap are both fully retained, with two tags identifying the helmet to Bowman.

The practice of helmet covers began as early as 1916, primarily being practiced by the British & Commonwealth troops, primarily officers. There are very few known examples of American Burlap-covered Brodie helmets, with this being a rare exception.

Thank you again to the Doughboy Foundation for the chance to share Bowman’s story.

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