Poison gas was probably the most feared of all weapons during the First World War. Poison gas was indiscriminate and could be used on the trenches even when no attack was going on. Whereas the machine gun killed more soldiers overall during the war, death was frequently instant or not drawn out and soldiers could find some shelter in bomb/shell craters from gunfire. A poison gas attack meant soldiers having to put on crude gas masks and if these were unsuccessful, an attack could leave a victim in agony for days and weeks before he finally succumbed to his injuries.
It is generally assumed that gas was first used by the Germans in the First World War. This is not accurate. The first recorded gas attack was by the French. In August 1914, the French used tear gas grenades containing xylyl bromide on the Germans. This was more an irritant rather than a gas that would kill. It was used by the French to stop the seemingly unstoppable German army advancing throughout Belgium and north-eastern France. In one sense, it was an act of desperation as opposed to a premeditated act that all but went against the ‘rules’ of war. However, while the French were the first to use a gas against an enemy, the Germans had been giving a great deal of thought to the use of poison gas as a way of inflicting a major defeat on an enemy.
In October 1914, the Germans attacked Neuve Chapelle. Here they fired gas shells at the French that contained a chemical that caused violent sneezing fits. Once again, the gas was not designed to kill rather than to incapacitate an enemy so that they were incapable of defending their positions.
This took place against a background of a war in the west that was still mobile. Once trench warfare had literally dug in, all sides involved in the conflict looked for any way possible to bring movement back into their campaigns. One of the more obvious was to develop a weapon that was so appalling that it would destroy not only an enemy frontline but also the will to maintain troops on that frontline. Poison gas might even provoke a mass mutiny along a frontline thus causing it to collapse. In other words, poison gas was the answer for the war’s lack of mobility.
Poison gas (chlorine) was used for the first time at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. At around 17.00 hours on the 22nd April, French sentries in Ypres noticed a yellow-green cloud moving towards them – a gas delivered from pressurised cylinders dug into the German front line between Steenstraat and Langemarck. They thought that it was a smokescreen to disguise the movement forwards of German troops. As such, all troops in the area were ordered to the firing line of their trench – right in the path of the chlorine. Its impact was immediate and devastating. The French and their Algerian comrades fled in terror. Their understandable reaction created an opportunity for the Germans to advance unhindered into the strategically important Ypres salient. But even the Germans were unprepared and surprised by the impact of chlorine and they failed to follow up the success of the chlorine attack.
What did occur at Ypres was a deliberate use of a poison gas. Now, the gloves were off and other nations with the ability to manufacture poison gas could use it and blame it on the Germans as they had been the first to use it.
The first of the Allied nations to respond to the Ypres gas attack was Britain in September 1915. The newly formed Special Gas Companies attacked German lines at Loos. In the Ypres attack, the German had delivered their chlorine by using pressurised cylinders. For the attack at Loos, the British also used gas cylinders. When the wind was in a favourable direction, chlorine gas was released from the British front line so that it could drift over to the German front line. This was then to be followed by an infantry attack. However, along parts of the British front line, the wind changed direction and the chlorine was blown back onto the British causing over 2,000 casualties with seven fatalities. The Special Gas Companies were not allowed to call their new weapon gas – it was referred to as an “accessory”.
However, the risk of the wind blowing gas back onto you also affected the Germans and French in some of their gas attacks during late 1915.
The development in the use of poison gases led to both phosgene and mustard gas being used. Phosgene was especially potent as its impact was frequently felt only 48 hours after it had been inhaled and by then it had already bedded itself in the respiratory organs of the body and little could be done to eradicate it. Also it was much less apparent that someone had inhaled phosgene as it did not cause as much violent coughing. By the time that phosgene had got into a person’s bodily system, it was too late. Mustard gas was first used by the Germans against the Russians at Riga in September 1917. This gas caused both internal and external blisters on the victim within hours of being exposed to it. Such damage to the lungs and other internal organs were very painful and occasionally fatal. Many who did survive were blinded by the gas.
By the time the war ended, the main user of poison gas was Germany, followed by France and then Britain. Though poison gas was a terrifying weapon, its actual impact, rather like the tank, is open to debate. The number of fatalities was relatively few – even if the terror impact did not diminish for the duration of the war.
The British army (including the British Empire) had 188,000 gas casualties but only 8,100 fatalities amongst them. It is believed that the nation that suffered the most fatalities was Russia (over 50,000 men) while France had 8,000 fatalities. In total there were about 1,250,000 gas casualties in the war but only 91,000 fatalities (less than 10%) with over 50% of these fatalities being Russian. However, these figures do not take into account the number of men who died from poison gas related injuries years after the end of the war; nor do they take into account the number of men who survived but were so badly incapacitated by poison gas that they could hold down no job once they had been released by the army.
Armies quickly produced gas masks that gave protection as long as sufficient warning was given of a gas attack. Soldiers also used make-shift gas masks if they were caught in the open without a gas mask during a gas attack – cloth soaked in their own urine and placed over the mouth was said to give protection against a chlorine attack. By the end of the war, relatively sophisticated gas masks were available to soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front.
Source of narrative: http://incredibleimages4u.blogspot.c…-war-1915.html
Germany was the first to make large-scale use of gas as a weapon when on 31 January 1915, 18,000 artillery shells containing liquid xylyl bromide tear gas were fired on Russian positions on the Rawka River, west of Warsaw during the Battle of Bolimov. However, instead of vaporizing, the chemical froze and failed to have the desired effect. The first killing agent employed by the German military was chlorine. German chemical companies BASF, Hoechst and Bayer (which formed the IG Farben conglomerate in 1925) had been producing chlorine as a by-product of their dye manufacturing. In cooperation with Fritz Haber of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin, they began developing methods of discharging chlorine gas against enemy trenches. According to the fieldpost letter of Major Karl von Zingler, the first chlorine gas attack of German military took place before 2 January 1915: “In other war theaters it does not go better and it has been said that our Chlorine is very effective. 140 English officers have been killed. This is a horrible weapon…”.
By 22 April 1915, the German Army had 168 tons of chlorine deployed in 5,730 cylinders opposite Langemark-Poelkapelle, north of Ypres. At 17:00, in a slight easterly breeze, the gas was released, forming a gray-green cloud that drifted across positions held by French Colonial troops from Martinique who broke ranks, abandoning their trenches and creating an 8,000-yard (7 km) gap in the Allied line. However, the German infantry were also wary of the gas and, lacking reinforcements, failed to exploit the break before the 1st Canadian Division and assorted French troops reformed the line in scattered, hastily prepared positions 1,000 to 3,000 yards apart. The Entente governments quickly claimed the attack was a flagrant violation of international law, but Germany argued that the Hague treaty had only banned chemical shells, rather than the use of gas projectors. It is a lethal compound which attacks the lungs and acts as a lachrymator (tear gas). It was first employed by Russia against the Germans August 1916.In what became the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans used gas on three more occasions; on 24 April against the 1st Canadian Division, on 2 May near Mouse Trap Farm and on 5 May against the British at Hill 60. The British Official History stated that at Hill 60, 90 men died from gas poisoning in the trenches or before they could be got to a dressing station; of the 207 brought to the nearest dressing stations, 46 died almost immediately and 12 after long suffering. Chlorine is a powerful irritant that can inflict damage to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. At high concentrations and prolonged exposure it can cause death by asphyxiation.
Germany used chemical weapons on the eastern front in an attack at Rawka, south of Warsaw. The Russian army took 9,000 casualties, with more than 1,000 fatalities. In response, the artillery branch of the Russian army organized a commission to study the delivery of poison gas in shells.
The first use of gas by the British was at the Battle of Loos, 25 September 1915, but the attempt was a disaster. Chlorine, codenamed Red Star, was the agent to be used (140 tons arrayed in 5,100 cylinders), and the attack was dependent on a favourable wind. However, on this occasion the wind proved fickle, and the gas either lingered in no man’s land or, in places, blew back on the British trenches. This debacle was compounded when the gas could not be released from all the British canisters because the wrong turning keys were sent with them. Subsequent retaliatory German shelling hit some of those unused full cylinders, releasing more gas among the British troops.
1. Heller, Charles E. “Chemical Warfare in World War I.
2. Legg, J.; Parker, G. (2002).
3. Staff (2005). “Fritz Haber”. Chemical Heritage Foundation.
4. Abelshauser, Werner (2003).
5. Aksulu, N. Melek (May 2006).
6. Tucker, Jonathan B. (2006). War of Nerves:
7. Staff (29 July 2004). “On the Western Front, Ypres 1915.
8. Lefebure, Victor; Wilson, Henry (2004). The Riddle of the Rhine.
9. Edmonds and Wynne (1927): p. 289.
10. Romano, James A.; Lukey, Brian J.; Salem, Harry (2007).
11. Kojevnikov, A. (June 2002).
12. “Gas”, Weaponry (First World War).
Tear Gas, 1914. The early military uses of chemicals were as a tear-inducing irritant (lachrymatory), rather than fatal or disabling poisons. During the first World War, the French army were the first to employ gas, using 26 mm grenades filled with tear gas (ethyl bromoacetate) in August 1914. The small quantities of tear gas delivered, roughly 19 cm³ per cartridge, were not even detected by the Germans. The stocks were rapidly consumed and by November a new order was placed by the French military. As bromine was scarce among the Entente allies, the active ingredient was changed to chloroacetone.
In October 1914, German troops fired fragmentation shells filled with a chemical irritant against British positions at Neuve Chapelle, though the concentration achieved was so small that it was barely noticed until they could not defend themselves. None of the combatants considered the use of tear gas to be in conflict with the Hague Treaty of 1899, which prohibited the launching of projectiles containing asphyxiating or poisonous gas.
Phosgene: Following on the heels of chlorine gas came the use of phosgene. Phosgene as a weapon was more potent than chlorine in that while the latter was potentially deadly it caused the victim to violently cough and choke. Phosgene caused much less coughing with the result that more of it was inhaled; it was consequently adopted by both German and Allied armies. Phosgene often had a delayed effect; apparently healthy soldiers were taken down with phosgene gas poisoning up to 48 hours after inhalation. The so-called “white star” mixture of phosgene and chlorine was commonly used on the Somme: the chlorine content supplied the necessary vapour with which to carry the phosgene.
Mustard Gas: Remaining consistently ahead in terms of gas warfare development, Germany unveiled an enhanced form of gas weaponry against the Russians at Riga in September 1917: mustard gas (or Yperite) contained in artillery shells. Mustard gas, an almost odourless chemical, was distinguished by the serious blisters it caused both internally and externally, brought on several hours after exposure. Protection against mustard gas proved more difficult than against either chlorine or phosgene gas. The use of mustard gas – sometimes referred to as Yperite – also proved to have mixed benefits. While inflicting serious injury upon the enemy the chemical remained potent in soil for weeks after release: making capture of infected trenches a dangerous undertaking.
Chlorpicrin Gas: Chlorpicrin Gas, “vomiting gas” This gas penetrated most gas masks, causing those wearing one to tear it off and vomit. Although this gas was not very deadly, it exposed the soldier to more harmful gas after removing his mask. It is a lethal compound which attacks the lungs and acts as a lachrymator (tear gas). It was first employed by Russia against the Germans August 1916.